BL: Blame, shame and guilt pop up as a sort of cork. Keeps the truth around being bullied bottled up. The kids feel so ashamed that they are somehow low enough on some arbitrary pecking order that they're getting skewered. What's up with that?
JB: I think one of the big problems here is that adults are giving these kids well-meaning but very misguided advice. I always advise parents and teachers that the worst thing you can say to a bullied child is to ignore the bullies and walk away. It's a cliché and doesn't work. I encourage students to defend their dignity because it's a skill they will use their entire lives. I tell them that "standing up for yourself in the moment abuse occurs is your God-given human right; seeking vengeance later on is the mistake."
BL: Do you see a connection between parents who were bullied having bullied kids? The cycle repeats?
JB: It's not so much that the cycle repeats. The problem is that adult survivor parents tend to have so many unresolved issues relevant to their own school experience that they often can't separate their past from their child's present. As a result, they tend to either overreact if their child gets bullied (it could be just an isolated incident and not necessarily indicate a pattern) or not recognize a real problem when it's staring them in face because the denial kicks in.
BL: What are the warning signs that bullying is occurring?
JB: Change in appetite, dramatic makeover attempts, lethargy and depression, excessive distractedness, inexplicable fits of rage, sudden increase or decrease in grades, diminished personal hygiene, cutting and dark moods. Many bullied kids write angry poetry or use other forms of creative outlets such as drawing, painting, etc., to express their pain.
BL: What is the way in to creating a remedy?
JB: Traditional punishment doesn't work. It only makes an angrier kid angrier. Then, when that angry kid needs to release all that extra angst, he's not going to do it in the direction of his friends or the cool crowd, because that's too much of a social risk. Instead, he's going to unleash it on the outcast, who's the most socially expendable person at school. Then, when the outcast finally snaps, everyone scratches their heads, wondering, "What happened?"
We need to supplement traditional punishment with more compassionate forms of discipline that expose bullies to the joy of being kind and that don't just reinforce the consequences of being cruel. Compassion can't be commanded or elicited through punishment. It must be inspired through example and opportunity.
Brad Lamm is a board-registered interventionist. He is the author of How to Change Someone You Love. His group offers free training and support groups at BradLamm.com.
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