In January, Massachusetts high school freshman Phoebe Prince committed suicide after months of abusive bullying online and in the school halls. Now, her tormentors face criminal charges. Interventionist Brad Lamm knows that bullying cuts two ways-inflicting harm on those who are hurt and on those who inflict the pain. He speaks with author and speaker Jodee Blanco about what parents need to know to help their children escape school unscathed.
When I met New York Times best-selling author Jodee Blanco back in April 2008, I had already read her books on bullying-Please Stop Laughing at Me… and Please Stop Laughing at Us…-and was a believer in her message. So much, in fact, that I drove 262 miles in the dark to catch her in action at Mayfield Intermediate School in Manassas, Virginia.
She took the stage that day for the first of three sessions. The first was with the entire student body, the second with teachers and school administrators and the third, later that day, with parents and students. She blew me away. You could hear a pin drop-truly.
Her story of being bullied as a kid resonated with the student body in powerful ways, and she opened up the topic in real and life-changing ways. I was a witness to real change unfolding. When I read the latest headlines surrounding nine high school students in Massachusetts being charged with criminal counts following the bullying-induced suicide of freshman Phoebe Prince, I knew it was high time to try to make some sense out of this terrorizing cycle of abuse that is all too common in our kids’ lives.
Brad Lamm: Jodee, when you see another headline of bullying ending in tragedy, where does your mind go?
Jodee Blanco: Back to my own school years. No matter how desperately I tried to connect with my classmates, it was as if there was an invisible force field between us, one that I could never seem to penetrate. My classmates were ruthless-they bullied and humiliated me as if it was a sport, and I became the spectator in my own life. Day after day, I was spitballed on the bus, terrorized in the hallways, mocked and teased during gym, snickered at in class and the butt of every joke. And what hurt most wasn’t the acceptance that my peers withheld from me, but all the love and friendship I had to give that no one wanted. After a while, it backed up into my system like a toxin and poisoned my spirit. It would take years before I would heal.
When I see stories in the headlines about the young people today who don’t survive, like Phoebe Prince, it hurts my heart, especially when the primary bystanders in these situations aren’t just students, but adults.
BL: What’s the difference between bullying and kidding around?
JB: If it’s hurting someone’s feelings or damaging their self-esteem, it’s bullying. That’s why I encourage victims to speak up so there’s absolutely no confusion.
BL: When I watched you captivate a room full of hundreds of middle school students in 2008 during your “It’s Not Just Joking Around” seminar, I was struck by the pain the kids expressed and the willingness to talk turkey and find a solution. What are kids being bullied about today?
JB: Kids are being bullied today for the same reason they’ve always been, and that I was too-simply for being “different.” What’s important for people to understand, something I always emphasize in all my presentations, is that bullying just isn’t the mean things you do, it’s all the nice things you never do-letting someone eat alone at lunch or ignoring them as if they’re invisible. It doesn’t take an overt act of cruelty to diminish someone’s spirit.
Simply never making the effort to include them in anything can be just as hurtful. I call it “aggressive exclusion,” and it can be the worst type of bullying because it doesn’t make the victim say to himself there must be something wrong with you, it makes him say to himself, there must be something wrong with me. He or she is likely to carry that self-doubt throughout life. This is what I mean when I tell kids that it’s not just joking around???bullying damages you for life.
BL: Have the way one is bullied changed much from when we were kids?
JB: No, the only difference is that the tools to achieve it are far more sophisticated and cut a wider, much deeper swath. For example, 30 years ago, if someone wanted to spread a vicious rumor about somebody, they might write it on a piece of notebook paper and pass it around math class, where it would be read by the 30 students in that classroom and then discarded. Today, that same rumor could be tweeted, posted on a blog or social network like Facebook, be sent via an email blast to the entire school, transformed into a video message and then uploaded on YouTube, texted to dozens of cell phones simultaneously or relayed via instant messaging to countless friends online.
Another challenge is the anonymity afforded by the Internet. Students can hide behind usernames and aliases with little, and often, no repercussions.
BL: Recently, on Facebook, a woman I went to junior high contacted me and told me how something I’d written in her yearbook in 1980 had wounded her deeply…that she still felt pain around it. Hurts die hard.
JB: Yes. Think about how many people are terrified to attend their high school reunions. I sat in my car in the parking lot of the banquet hall dry heaving into a bag. Thank God I found the courage to walk through those big glass doors. It changed my life, but that night, I realized more than ever just how profoundly school bullying can impact one’s adulthood-to this day, I still struggle with a fear of being excluded.
I’ve always known that I couldn’t be the only one, that there had to be others out there just like me. I call us “adult survivors of peer abuse.”
Since I first began this journey, thousands of adult survivors have reached out to me, and every day there are more. We are held together by a bond that only someone who knows what it’s like to be that lonely, isolated student can understand.
BL: You speak with kids and adults. First, your daytime seminar is an all-school assembly where you get real with your own story of bullying and then have breakout sessions so kids can speak their truth and find relief. Are kids open to changing on this level?
JB: Not only are they open to changing, they are changing. Typically, after my student presentation, about 10 percent of the audience will approach me wanting one-on-one time. Half of them are victims seeking intervention. The other half are what I refer to as “elite tormentors,” members of the cool crowd who never realized their behavior was cruel until they heard my story and are asking for advice on how to make amends.
That’s when I know I’ve really struck a chord. It isn’t just during the breakout sessions that I witness this change of heart. Often, the cafeteria workers at schools will come up to me and say that they saw several kids from the “popular table” invite a fellow classmate to sit with them at lunch whom they never would have given the time of day to before.
I also receive emails from kids saying the same thing. For me, that’s the ultimate reward. As a nation, we have to look at the possibility for change in our schools in terms of one child at a time. Inspire one student to be more compassionate toward his classmates, educate teachers on how to encourage a domino effect, enlighten parents on how to reinforce it in the home, and slowly but surely there is hope for change. I wouldn’t spend my life on the road working with these kids if there wasn’t!
BL: Then after school, in the early evening, you hold another town hall–style meeting for the parents. I met some folks who were carrying around old hurts from bullying that were just as real today as they were 30 years ago. How do you see those old hurts coming to light? What’s the remedy to that pain?
JB: You’re talking about “the adult survivor of peer abuse.” I recommend several remedies. Find a good therapist with experience in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and who doesn’t take school bullying lightly, one who affords it the same respect as any other form of chronic childhood abuse. Also, if you’re in couples counseling, make sure your counselor knows about the school bullying in your past and that you deal with it during your sessions.
On a school reunion note, I’ve always believed that you have to face your fears or they’ll hold you hostage. I won’t tell you what happened at my reunion because I don’t want to spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t read my book. What I will say is that life can be full of wonderful surprises, and if you attend your reunion, you’ll likely discover that these people, who once had such a hold over you, no longer wield that same power. There’s also the possibility you’ll have fun! If you’re really uncomfortable, ask a close friend or family member to accompany you for moral support.
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.
Read more: The Tragedy of Bullying.