By Phyllis L. Fagell June 20
Whenever Jessie hung out with her best friends Chloe and Meg, they gossiped about another seventh-grader named Kate. Jessie didn’t know Kate, but Chloe and Meg said she was clingy, told boring stories and smelled like acne wash.
When Jessie asked questions about this mystery girl, her friends giggled and exchanged knowing glances. This went on for weeks until a boy in her class told Jessie the truth: Kate was their code name for her.
Jessie looked to other friends for support, but they started dropping away. Chloe and Meg had all the social capital, and no one wanted to risk alienating them. Jessie cried every night. Her mother, my neighbor Naomi, called me for advice. “You’re a school counselor,” she said. “What should I do? She’s in so much pain.”
Naomi’s own experience with bullying intensified her anguish. In eighth grade, kids forged her signature on love letters and left them in a popular athlete’s locker. They tugged on her arm hair and called her “monkey.” Naomi suffered from depression after she was mistreated, and she wanted Jessie to have a better outcome.
Bullying strips kids of their dignity and leaves scars. Some children bounce back, while others struggle to rebound. There is no one-size-fits-all intervention, but here are nine ways parents can build a child’s resilience.
Change the narrative
Help kids understand that they are the main character of their story and that bullying is just one small part of it. Matt Langdon, a bullying expert and president of the Hero Construction Company, urges adults to use the hero’s journey model to put things in perspective.
“The hero starts knowing the rules of the place, is taken to a different world with new rules, then goes on a journey and changes,” he says.
He recommends using books such as the “Harry Potter” series to underscore that heroes learn, and emerge, from their struggles. Parents also can watch the latest superhero movie or young adult romance adventure with their kids and note any parallels or lessons.
“There’s a lot of focus on toughening up bullying targets, and it’s just so wrongheaded,” Langdon says.
Reframe weaknesses as hidden strengths
“I was bullied for so many things,” says Dave Rendall, author of “The Freak Factor.” “I was grotesquely skinny and called Twiggy after the model. No 13-year-old boy wants to have his body compared to that. But that’s why I can do Ironman triathlons. I was also told I talk too much, and I became a speaker.”
To disarm bullies, Rendall says, convince kids that their so-called weaknesses are strengths. “At what point does that nerdy kid become an inventor? When does the kid who dresses weird get praised because he’s a fashion designer?”
Parents can explain that being different will always draw attention, especially in middle school. Rendall suggests having kids list the things they dislike about themselves, then talk about the upside of each trait. And remind kids that when they stop trying to be something they’re not, they’re likely to attract a different kind of friend.
Parents also can foster resilience by modeling nonconformity, says parenting expert Annie Fox, author of the “Middle School Confidential” series, and by telling kids that “different doesn’t mean broken.”
Targets of bullying can also benefit from helping others in a similar position, says Michele Borba, author of “UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World.” Kids who have suffered often have higher levels of empathy.
She recalls a teen who emigrated from Haiti a few years ago. “No one would eat with him,” Borba says. “After he made the football team and gained acceptance, he mobilized other kids, including his entire football team, to sit with students who were eating alone.”
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Similarly, 16-year-old Natalie Hampton created the “Sit With Us” app to help kids find people to eat lunch with. After being ostracized the year before, she wanted to help others in the same situation.
“When kids find a way to make a difference, their confidence goes up,” Borba says.
Pick a mantra or song
Ruminating on pain can magnify it. “Eventually, you start agreeing with the kids who say you’re useless,” says Rosalind Wiseman, author of “Owning Up” and co-founder of Cultures of Dignity. She suggests mantras and music to help kids combat such intrusive thoughts.
“It’s powerful,” she says. “When something bad is happening, that mantra or song can pop into their head. I say, ‘Try it until it’s a habit.’ ” The mantra can be any statement that affirms their right to exist in the world, such as “I deserve better,” but Wiseman tells parents to let kids choose it to give them a sense of ownership.
Create their own King Arthur’s Round Table
To combat isolation, Langdon says, children can create a group of real and pretend advisers, akin to King Arthur’s Round Table.
“People can play the role of sidekick, mentor or cheerleader,” he says. He encourages children to include fictional, famous and historical figures, along with friends and family. “They can choose people they clearly identify with, whether it’s Harry Potter, Martin Luther King Jr. or Harriet Tubman.”
Children can then mentally consult their advisory board about how to handle difficult situations.
Encourage a like-minded social network
Parents can steer kids toward activities where they’re likely to make friends, whether it’s a youth group, robotics club or volleyball team.
“Seek out sports where the kid has the highest chance of success, or art classes, or debate club,” Rendall says. “Look for that match, and talk to your kid about what he likes, what he’s good at and when he’s happiest.”
To build resilience, Borba says, “kids desperately need one true, loyal buddy,” so they see that they have what it takes to be a desired friend.
Choose your words carefully
Children need to feel that the adults in their life believe them and believe in them. Acknowledge that they have been wounded, but Wiseman cautions against interviewing for pain. “Don’t start off asking, ‘Were the kids mean to you at school today?’ If they say yes, they have to deal with your emotional response, but if they say no, they may have lost their opportunity to talk.”
Instead of focusing on the negative, instill hope. Borba suggests reading stories or watching uplifting videos about bullied children who are making a difference in the world. “Kids are comforted when they realize it isn’t just them,” she says.
Parents also can point out kids’ strengths and help them hone social skills. Brainstorm comeback lines, help them reflect on their actions and demonstrate how to use humor strategically. Show kids how to use eye contact, strong posture and firm language to establish boundaries.
Look for problematic patterns and people
Adults can help kids identify areas of vulnerability. “It could be a class with a teacher who doesn’t have control,” Wiseman says. Children may need to avoid certain hot spots, such as the back of the bus or the blacktop.
Sometimes, friends are doing the bullying, which can be especially hurtful. Parents need to allow their children time to realize that they’re sacrificing themselves, and initiate conversations about what constitutes a good friend.
Know when to shift gears
When there are safety concerns or a child is spiraling downward, parents may need to consider moving them to a new setting or seeking therapy.
“A girl from Texas wrote me a few years ago,” Fox says. “During swim class, someone stole her bra from her locker. She’s large-breasted and had to go to her next class without it.” Kids videotaped her walking through the halls, and she was humiliated. Her father set up a meeting with the school, his daughter and the parents of the girls who stole the bra.
When the girl shared how terrible it felt to be shamed, the other mothers laughed. “The principal said, ‘We can’t ensure your daughter’s safety,’ and he blew it off.” The girl switched to another school, where she thrived. Fox notes, “Adults need to show they’ve got your back.”
Borba underscores this point. “Your child needs to feel safe and cared about so he can be who he is and do what he’s supposed to do, which is learn.” If it gets too bad, she adds, parents must advocate for their child. “Don’t ever promise your kid you won’t tell.”
That said, Wiseman urges parents to give schools time so they don’t discipline the wrong child and reinforce the power of the perpetrator. “Parents tend to move really fast,” she says. “But if you’re in a self-righteous temper tantrum kind of place, the only thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to make the situation worse.”
Naomi enrolled Jessie in a creative-writing class, where she made friends. For one assignment, she wrote about a tormented heroine who dusts herself off and helps other hurting kids. In both her real and imaginary worlds, Jessie changed her narrative. She began to understand that bullying was just one chapter of her story, a lesson that resonated for Naomi, too.
Phyllis L. Fagell is the school counselor at Sheridan School in the District and a therapist at the Chrysalis Group in Bethesda.