Bullying: The hurt that keeps on giving

large__13915018662 (1)I was bullied in school.

Back then, I don’t think we called it bullying. In fact, I think most people in the 1960s and 70s tended to look at it as “Kids will be kids.” The underlying message to the victim was to either ignore it, suck it up, or grow a thicker skin. There were no anti-bullying programs in place, so to report being ‘picked on’ to a teacher would likely get you labeled as a tattler and create even further misery.

It was HIS voice, the mean ring- leader, and I knew he was talking to me because this humiliation was what he did to me when I least expected it.

Every generation seems to have a new crop of “mean kids”.  I remember them mostly as popular and loud with a ‘look at me’ attitude. They were always surrounded by a group of mini-mean kids who took their cue from their leader. When you saw them coming down the hall or into the cafeteria, you could just feel the air change.

Sticks and stones….

There was this one day when I was standing in the cafeteria line waiting to get my lunch.  Unbeknownst to me, a group of boys entered the cafeteria from the other side of the room. They were the popular boys; the football players, the blonde headed gods who made the girls giddy. But they were also the bully boys. As I made my way slowly along the food line, I suddenly heard a loud voice yell out, “Hey, fatso!” It was HIS voice, the mean ring-leader, and I knew he was yelling at me because this humiliation was what he did to me when I least expected it. My face began to burn red, and I silently wished I could simply disappear from the cafeteria , and the  entire earth as well. But I couldn’t disappear. I stood frozen with my head hanging low, looking down, hoping that the world would simply continue on as usual and allow me, the humiliated 8th grader, to become invisible.

The fact that I remember these events so vividly more than four decades later tells me that bullying can leave quite an impact on its target.

Everything felt like it was suddenly in slow motion. After what seemed to be forever, I turned around to face him and his gang. I think I turned around because I didn’t know what else to do. In my young, insecure 13 year old mind, it felt like every eye was on me, so I had to do something. And, the moment I turned he yelled again, “Yeah, I’m talking to you, fatso.” The weird thing is that I don’t remember being fat in school, so it was pure name-calling and meanness.

No where to hide

This same boy would also sneak up behind me in the hallway during passing period, pinch the skin on my waistline, and scream his favorite line, “Hey fatso!” while his gaggle of hanger-onners laughed and the entire student body looked at me as they passed in the crowded hall, or so it seemed. What made it all the worse was that he and his buddies were older, in a grade ahead of me, and in my mind that made his opinion of me that much more authoritative and powerful.

The mean boys were loud and scary, but the mean girls often were worse. Their tactics were more psychological. They would ignore, belittle and cut you totally out of the group. One girl in particular would use her popularity power to boss me and other girls around and, if we tried to stand up for ourselves, we would be completely ostracized and made fun of. So, we swallowed our pride and got pushed around, simply because we  wanted to be accepted.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is perhaps the biggest lie perpetuated by a childhood nursery rhyme.

The fact that I remember these events so vividly more than four decades later tells me that bullying can leave quite an impact on its target. There were days that I dreaded going to school. I was afraid of being humiliated and rejected, and although I had a few close friends and a family who loved me deeply and supported me, there was still that sense of aloneness every day as I walked onto that school yard. I knew at some point during that day, or maybe the next, or the next, I would have to face mean people who wanted to hurt me for no other reason except they could. And I wouldn’t have my mom or my dad or my teacher there when it happened.

Some of those stronger, meaner kids grow up to be adult bullies who we end up working with.

It’s hard for any child to make sense of why they are so hated for no reason.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month. The bullies of yesteryear, as bad as they were, had only limited means of spreading their poison. It was either in person, over the telephone or by passing notes in class. Today with the addition of the internet, social media sites, texting, and other instantaneous forms of communication, a bully can rip a hole in their target in a nanosecond. There are many local and national programs trying to get a grip on this epidemic. The fallout from bullying is disgusting:

  • Suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year.
  • For every suicide, there are at least 100 attempts. (Centers for Disease Control)
  • Bully victims are between 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. (Yale University)
  • A British study found that at least half of the suicides among young people are related to bullying.
  • Girls who are 10 to 14 years of age may be at higher risk for suicide.
  • Nearly 30 percent of students are either bullies or victims of bullying, and 160,000 kids stay home from school every day because of fear.  (ABC News)
Bullies in the Boardroom

Kids are not the only victims of bullying. Some of those stronger, meaner kids grow up to be adult bullies who we end up working with. While adult bullies usually don’t attack you physically, they do become quite adept at psychological and emotional manipulation and punishment.  I have worked with a few of them, and the fear they create in the workplace is real. After being bullied out of a job several years ago, I wrote a feature story on workplace bullies, which was my way of having the last word. Much of my research was gleaned from a very good anti-bullying website, Bullyonline.org. I don’t know what creates bullies, but I do know that its up to parents to make sure their children are raised to treat others with kindness. One last thought: Kids need to know that, as hard as it might be, it does get better and the bullies in their life will one day disappear. Here is a great video of an anti-bullying program. If you know anyone who is being bullied, its worth a look. photo credit: seaternity via photopin cc

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