Bullying 101

Kids are cruel. That's a known fact. Kids who take cruelty to the extreme become bullies. The reality is that bullying is and will continue to be a part of every child's life. Even in institutions with an active anti-bullying program, kids go underground and carry on in any way they choose. You know, like when we were in school.

We as children’s writers want our stories to reflect the lives of young people. We can speak to kids' lives by including a bully in our story and showing how our characters react to her. 

What is Bullying?

The regrettable dynamics of bullying comes in the form of the viscous "bullying triangle" of the bully, the victim, and the bystander.  

Bullying takes on many guises. Its main intent is to hurt someone and is relentless in its delivery. Once a bully zeroes in on a target that he deems small, helpless and/or weak, he preys on his victim over and over by calling him names, recruiting cronies to gang up, and in the worst cases, the bullies can become physically violent. 

Often bullies are bigger kids who pick on kids who they think won’t stand up for themselves, and kids with few friends. But that’s not always the case. A short kid could be a bully as a means of defense against his size, and even a kid who has been bullied can turn into a bully to gain favor from his previous aggressor. As Kaitlyn Blais put it in Bullying Under Attack: True Stories Written by Teen Victims, Bullies and Bystanders, edited by Stephanie H. Meyer, John Meyer, Emily Sperber, and Heather Alexander, “Every kid wants to be ‘cool, popular, and in.’ The problem is that you can’t be ‘in’ unless someone is ‘out.’” Kaitlyn stood up for a victim who turned on her and victimized her. She wrote that she learned from that experience that “there needed to be only one black sheep.” 

Inside a Bully’s Head

First and foremost, a bully hates himself. He is hurting inside. Why? His home life may be unhappy. He may imagine that he has an embarrassing flaw and feels self-conscious about it. So he picks a victim who appears weaker than him and lashes out. If he gets away with it, he feels a sense of power and as his behavior continues, he becomes hooked. Eventually, as confessed bully Michael Ortiz wrote in Bullying Under Attack, Michael lost control and any ability he might have had to tell right from wrong. The hate he inflicted on others replaced the hatred he felt for himself.
Target  Practice
The victim is led to believe that more harm will come to her if she seeks help, and anyway, she doesn't want to be a tattletale. Lacking the proper skills to defend herself, she takes it and takes it until her life spins out of control and she descends into self-pity and worse. In dire cases, the victim may resort to harming herself by retreating into her own lonely world, and worse--cutting and even suicide. If a child is fortunate enough to rise above her unhappy situation, she is often left with long-lasting scars. 
Enter an Audience and the Triangle is Complete
Bystanders witness the bullying--the presence of bystanders actually encourages the bullying. The bully loves to show off his skills, especially if he is egged on. And even if the bystanders remain silent, the bully believes that they are lending him support.

Bystanders might:
  • Look the other way
  • Avoid any people or place where bullying might take place
  • Are afraid or embarrassed to speak up
  • Feel helpless themselves
  • Don't think they should interfere

    When Bravery Wins Out
    Enter the rare person who is willing to stand up for the victim, dubbed the upstander, in the excellent chapter "Understanding Bystanders," in Bullying: Prevention and Intervention--Protecting Children and Teens from Physical, Emotional, and Online Bullying, by Cindy Miller, LCSW and Cynthia Lowen.
    If You’ve Never Been a Part of a Bullying Triangle
    The closest I have come to a bullying situation was breaking up fights as a classroom teacher. Other than that, I have never became involved so I can’t speak from experience. But I have been hurt by girls who I considered my best friends. Granted, the scars couldn’t be as deep as the scars from a bullying situation, but there are scars. For two years I stewed over one friend’s hateful behavior toward me until I forced myself to stop and I finally got over it. The good news? I have a "well of darkness" to draw on in the portrayal of bullies and villains in my stories. I’m thankful for these experiences, for as writers, we draw on every scrap of personal experience and emotion we can.
    Please leave a comment if you’ve experienced bullying and let us know how it has affected you and your writing.
    Illustration: Courtesy of www.constantcontact.com
    Next month: What it Takes to Overcome Bullying   
    Linda Wilson, a former elementary teacher and ICL graduate, has published over 100 articles for adults and children, and six short stories for children. Recently, she completed Joyce Sweeney's online fiction courses, picture book course and mystery and suspense course. She has currently finished her first book, a mystery/ghost story for 7-11 year-olds, and is in the process of publishing it and moving on to new writing projects. Follow Linda on Facebook.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson said...

What would we do without authors like Linda--especially children's authors--who help assure that next generations will have the compassion and knowledge to help still future generations!

Karen Cioffi said...

Linda, what helpful information for children's authors. This is a problem that needs attention. I get clients who want to tell their story from when they were children and others who want to tell about their children's experience with bullies. Thanks for sharing this.

Linda Wilson said...

Thank you, Carolyn and Karen. My goal is to make my bully funny yet drive the point home that the main character isn't going to take it. It's amazing to me from my readings that it seems so few people will speak up. I agree, we need to show strong characters who aren't cowed by bullies.

Anne Duguid Knol said...

Dear Linda,
Thought provoking as always. I am looking forward to your next article.
I recently heard from a past schoolfriend of the terrible traumas suffered by a child bullied by our group. To my shame I could not immediately remember the girl concerned but later remembered my mother frog marching me to her home to apologize. Thoughtless actions have appalling consequences.

Linda Wilson said...

Yes, that's so true. Thank you for writing, Anne.

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