Do bullies lack empathy? Or is it something else?

Last weekend my daughter had 8 girls over for a slumber party to celebrate her 9th birthday. Slumber is certainly relative as there was little of that. More like an over-amped herd of elephants running through the house.

By keeping the list at just 8, she had to be selective on who she invited. During the deliberations, she talked about how she wanted the friends she could just be herself around. The ones who didn’t create the drama – the mean “popular” girls. Except for one. Her mother (who we really like) mentioned she was including “G” on her birthday invite and said how “Sally” really thought G was always kind and a good friend. Yet beginning in first grade treated her extremely poorly – and became one of the mean girls after being a good friend in kindergarten.

It was tough to watch the bullying start in first grade – we didn’t recall the level of meanness when we were there. Are kids meaner today because of the immersion in technology and media? Because life happens faster and more complex? Or are we just selective in our memories?

First grade was brutal with G coming home nearly every day from school in tears. In second grade, we requested that she not be placed with a couple of the girls – including Sally – who caused the most grief. She wasn’t and had a great year.

This year it seemed Sally was nicer. So G invited her to her party. But then she ignored G. Only talked about where she was going next. It was very me focused (not that kids aren’t often me-focused) And told another girl that she could no longer play their game because she’d left the room. We intervened, not tolerating disrespect of any kind. One on one, Sally is kind to G. In a group, not so much.

So why do the “mean” girls – like Sally – have so much pull? Is it the allure of being in the ‘it’ club? Wanting something that doesn’t come easily? I wonder if that’s the pull bullies have over the kids they bully. When they’re sometimes nice, they’re given the benefit of the possibility that maybe they’ll be a friend. Maybe. It keeps kids like G off guard – wondering where they stand, trying hard to make sense of it all.

Bullying can be subtle. As a parent, you might not always recognize it. Observing the dynamics of just one girl out of the eight creating drama introduced a level of tension that otherwise wouldn’t be there. I think G regretted then inviting Sally.

And what causes a child to become a bully? You can’t make a generalization that it’s just their upbringing. Sally has two delightful parents. Parents that expect her to respect other adults – which she does more than some of the others. We’ve often talked about why Sally bullies. Where does she get it? Her mom once told us that she doesn’t have empathy – can be really mean to her dad at times.

And there’s another bully who has a good home – her mom did admit that she spoiled her too much – but where does she get it? She often treats her mom just as bad as other adults and kids. But her mom always invites G to her daughter’s events. But G didn’t want to invite Elena. Said she’d just cause problems. Again, why? Is it a lack of empathy? Always getting what she wants? We can only speculate.

As a dad with a daughter, I can only speak to bullying among girls. I don’t exactly know what the experience is for the boys. Other than those my daughter says are mean. But they seem to be more overt – more physically mean than mental. Bullying among young girls is incredibly mental – games that rip and shred others’ emotions like bungee cord.

All I can surmise is that you can’t generalize. Bullies come from good homes and bad. And span all socio-economic classes. In order to help our kids as parents we need to look at each situation individually. See it through both our kids’ eyes as well as our own. And be willing to acknowledge if it’s our kid doing the bullying – to not brush it under the rug.

Patrick Prothe

The holidays: Real danger or urban legend?

First, let me say that this is not the blog post I was intending to write! I was going to write about the increase in suicides around this time of year and what we can do to help lower those numbers. Before going full throttle, I wanted to do some research. Statistics are helpful, a lot of the time.

Interestingly, the research seems to say that I was about to support an urban legend. Several sources reported that while seasonal anxiety disorder may flare up during the Winter months, suicides nationally and internationally actually drop during the holiday season. One article I found even said that this myth was born after worldwide audiences saw the Jimmy Stewart suicide attempt in the movie It’s a Wonderful Life.

In the small sphere of my personal existence, I know of 1 person (a friend of a friend) who took their own life during this time of year. I would hesitate to say that the idea that holidays are hard for people just dates back to a movie, however. Maybe we are asking the wrong questions.

In the research I did, it seemed like experts on mental health agree that suicides increase during the Spring, when the holidays are over. Why might this be? Maybe during the holidays we are more aware of how we act, who we talk to, what we do. Maybe we give a dollar or a sandwich to a homeless person whom we might completely ignore in April. Maybe we look after a quiet friend around the holidays but don’t talk to him or her much for the rest of the year. Maybe we build peoples’ expectations a lot during the holidays, and a wounded person finds the post-holiday letdown unbearable.

So what can we do to help people who find the holidays hard, and more to the point, how can we prevent someone from feeling really lonely and lost after the holidays are over? What could we in the Social Media realm do to address these issues?

I’d love your input here, and we’ll also continue the conversation tomorrow night in our #SMSafety Chat at 9 PM EST on Twitter.


Is “bullying” the best word?

My friend @solete sent me a really interesting post a couple of days ago. It was basically noting that teenagers do not really use the word “bullying” so all of this talk about anti-bullying and bullying-prevention seems completely irrelevant.

I’ve been thinking along similar lines of late. Do adults call it bullying when they are emotionally or physically abused by someone? Is the case of Tyler Clementi really an example of being bullied? In cases like that, it seems like the word “bullying” doesn’t go nearly far enough.

How do you define “bully” or “bullying?” If you use the word, where is the line between “drama,” “picking on”, and “bullying?” Should cyber-safety efforts use something other than “anti-bullying” to gain traction?

Let me know what you think in the comments section, and thank you!

Sometimes Holidays Are Hard

Here in the US, we are getting ready for Thanksgiving festivities. It is a time to sit back and be grateful for all of life’s miracles. It’s time to sit back and enjoy your family, your home, and an incredible abundance of food. It’s time for getting ready for Hannukah and Christmas and Kwanzaa and New Years.

Not everyone finds the holidays to be full of excitement and wonder, though. Holidays can be reminders of people we miss or people that haven’t yet met in our lives. Holidays can make us feel like we are behind the times. Holidays can make us look back and not feel happy about what we see. Holidays can be hard times.

If the holidays are hard for you, don’t throw your sadness over your shoulders and hide. Reach out. Talk to us. Sometimes just being able to verbalize a pain is enough to defeat it.

The holidays can be hard, but they don’t have to knock you down, and you don’t have to deal with them alone.

Image by Felipe Horst.

Bullying: From a Kid’s Perspective

In the simplest terms, bullying hurts.  A lot.  So much, sometimes, people even commit suicide.  That’s seriously messed up.  Why do people put others down?  They do it so that they feel better about themselves.  They’re so insecure; they need a human punching bag.

Everyone’s been a Bully Before

Let’s face it.  We’ve all bullied someone at least once.  A good portion of people, however, are generally nice human beings.  Thank God for that.  Unfortunately, some people bully others on a daily basis.  That’s not good.  Whether it’s socking a guy in the face and constantly beating the poor kid up, calling someone fat and ugly or just sitting in silence while someone bullies a guy, it’s all bullying.

On the Other Hand, We’ve all been Bullied

We’ve all been bullied.  No questions asked.  People can’t remember who their 5th grade teacher was, but they can spot that one person who bullied them for years in a crowd of 1,000.  You remember their voice, their facial expression, where you were, everything.  Just as if it happened 20 minutes ago.  It’s that bad.

Bullying Destroys Friendships

I remember last year when I was in 4th grade, my class had serious gossiping issues.  It was crazy.  It was Friday, March 13th, 2010. I was wearing jeans and a purple cardigan.  I suggested we play telephone, and I had the idea of changing the sentence completely. When we were done, I had told some of my friends what I had done.  Well, “Snickers” came up in my face and just screamed a bunch of stuff at me.  I ran home crying and sniffling.  I told my mom what had happened, then my dad got home early, I told him, then my best friend “Skittles” called.  I told her what had happened.  See, Snickers, Skittles and I had all been the biggest buds in my class.  Snickers and I had been having some crazy friendship issues.  Skittles invited me over, (it turns out that we had a sleepover) and we declared the next morning Friendship Day.  The same thing happened again, only we were in class at our desks. I don’t remember the exact date, but was I wearing green khaki cargo pants and a dog t-shirt.  Snickers said something to me and I held back tears.  My other 2 friends, “Butterfinger” and “M&M” tried to help me pull it together.  M&M was pretending to take notes.  I just smiled at them and told them to shut it.  They smiled back and offered some reassuring words.  Skittles had also seen me in the bathroom trying to get a grip.  She asked what was going on, too.  I said I’d tell her later and that was that.  Skittles and Snickers also had some rough spots not too long after me.  All 3 of us managed to mend our friendship, but it definitely wonít be the same ever again.

The Bottom Line

Try to be positive to others.  Remember, bullying can destroy a friendship!  Also remember that if you pick on people enough, you’re gonna end up friendless, not to mention the fact that you’ll feel awful and regret everything you said/did.  So, go world peace and no more bullying!!

By Kitkat Sweet, an amazing ten-year-old who wants to help us put an end to bullying. Thank you, KitKat!

Was I A Bully?

Hi My Name is Danny, and I was a Bully – I think…

I never really thought of myself like that when I was a kid, but have come to realize it when I recently “friended” a classmate I had in high school. Anyway, I didn’t consider myself as a stereotypical bully – I was also bullied when I was young. I just took it upon myself to fight back. I guess the branding of bully came about because I then grew taller and bigger than those who bullied me.

I got into a lot of fistfights when I was bigger. Often these were against older people. I guess I toughened up when my uncle taught me how to play basketball. The game got me the confidence and the physical strength to get past my asthma (not the kind that where you had to carry one of those inhalers – I just got hospitalized a lot.)

The movies nowadays don’t really portray bullying accurately. For me being bullied and being a bully was a process between kids. I think school is a reflection of the society we are in. As adults, there are always those who wield more power than other people. I was a little bit in the middle when I was a kid. I was taller but wore thick eyeglasses. I liked playing basketball games but I also liked staying in front of my PC for very long hours.

Am I a nerd, a jock, or a bully? – I don’t know. I just preferred to be me.

Bullying starts with name calling. Big kid calls small kid a name, small kid calls big kid a name. Big kid gets physical, small kid withers. I was called a nerd yet I was also elected the class president several times. I liked staying in the library, yet I also liked staying in the basketball courts.

Before you go analyzing my childhood, let me just say that I had a great dad. In fact, he was personally summoned by the President of our country, the late Madame President Aquino, the mommy of our President now. Did my dad get violent with me? Well, just the belt. I guess that was acceptable during the 80s. It didn’t cause me sleepless nights, I just knew that I was out of line.

Probably the worst case that I’ve ever experienced was inside a billiard hall. I was 15. My friends and I went to the club house and an older kid from our school kept following us. At first we didn’t mind, he didn’t seem like he wanted to hurt us or something, but when we got to the pool tables, he started hitting my friend’s head lightly. Like a slap in the back of head. At first it seemed like a little physical joke. He did it one time and it was light humored, he did it another time and we stopped playing. He did it a third time – this time harder.

This guy was as big as me, but definitely older. I told him to stop and he picked up two billiard balls from our game. I grabbed the sturdiest looking billiard stick. For a minute or two we just stared at each other.

He told me, that he was going to break my eyeglasses using the balls. I had to calculate, the formula was how fast could he throw the balls and how fast I could poke him with a stick. I knew that the billiard balls were harder and could probably hit me faster. Anyway, the equation was lopsided since there were three of us younger kids and only one of him.

Anyway, I think he also calculated, because he stopped. It was 1 bully with some billiard balls and some younger guys with a stick.

So, it wasn’t really black and white. Since then, I’ve made it a point to protect my smaller friends. When they were bullied I was the one who stood in front of them and most of the bullies backed out.

So was I a bully? You tell me…

by Danny Garcia

You have a decision to make

One of the big topics that came out of our chat last night was whether we should train kids from an early age to fight back when they are bullied. Fighting back can be words. Fighting back can be punches.

Does fighting back empower us, or does it merely take us down to the level of the people who are making us feel bad? Is it feeding the fire by telling them “Yes, you are having an impact on me.”

When I was a kid, I very seldom fought back for myself. However, if I saw that a friend of mine was being bullied, I would turn green and become The Incredible Hulk. Well, not really, but I would step in and try to intervene. Did that make things worse for my friend because I was “feeding the trolls?” Did it help?

Where do you fall in this spectrum of decisions? Do you fight back? Do you just walk away? Why do you choose the way that you do?


Image by Maria Li.

Bullying will never go away. So how can we minimize the impacts?

The harsh reality is that bullying will never go away. As long as there have been people, there have been bullies. They just have more potent, far reaching tools with which to wield their power. Therefore we need to manage it. To contain it. Make it unattractive.

My third-grade daughter has seen bullies since at least first grade. There’s a group of mean girls that gave her grief starting then, and while second grade was a nice reprieve (they set their sites on others) she’s seen some of that this year. It’s starts out subtle, and continues when they get a reaction. As a parent, it’s painful to see – and since she has a great group of NICE friends, not too tough to manage thus far. Especially since they’ve not yet started using social media.

So how can we parents manage the bullies? More important, how can we teach our kids how to fend for themselves? I don’t pretend to have the answers but let’s think out loud here.

Since we can’t eliminate bullies, I see two possible approaches:

  1. Help the bullied and non-bullies. This involves setting expectations for engaging online – what you share and who you share it with. Know as best you can who your friends are.
  2. Help the bullies. Yes, go right to the source. Show them a healthier way to engage online. I can’t imagine many bullies feel good about themselves. Insecurity breeds such behavior.

I’m currently reading Switch by the Heath brothers about how to facilitate change. It talks about approaching big change by focusing on the easiest, smallest solution. Things you can affect when you don’t have any power. The key analogy is the elephant and the rider. The elephant is your emotional side and the rider, your rational side. You can guess who usually wins and therefore why you need to find a way to appeal to both.

For your kids, set them up for success by instilling a sense of confidence and security knowing they’re valued, worthwhile people. Particularly, girls need a lot of support during their teenage years – even when they think their parents are stupid and don’t want them around – they DO WANT them around according to Michael Gerber in the Wonder of Girls. They’re not ready to be independent adults as much as they pretend they want to be. It’s during this time that he says many parents pull away thinking their kids are becoming self-sufficient and don’t need them as much. But they do. So no matter how hard it is as a parent, we gotta stay in the game. (Not that we don’t, but . . .)

Help kids develop a healthy network of friends – I’d like to believe that if there’s a strong network willing to support each other, they can overcome the negative effects of bullying and make it less attractive. Online or off.  I tend to believe that the more unattractive we make bullying by minimizing the impact, the less likely the bullies are to continue.

Help the bullies find more productive outlets. One of the examples cited in Switch was a kid who was an extreme trouble maker in school. Always disrupting class, he spent much time in the principal’s office and didn’t seem to have much hope of changing. One person, however, looked at the 20% of the time he succeeded. What was different. Turns out the teacher in the class he did better politely greeted him at the door each day. Treated him with a bit of respect whereas the others, avoided him more or less. What if we looked at the times when bullies were nice? What was different? And then try to extend what worked.

As a society, it seems we need to make bullying unattractive. This is a bigger nut to crack as unless you’re either experience bullying, have kids who are, or simply aware and care, you’re not going to focus your attention on it. Let’s face it, most of us have plenty of things clamoring for our attention. Particularly in tougher economic times. And I’d suggest it’s these times that breed more bullying. When people struggle with making ends meet they’ll look for an outlet for their frustrations.

So let’s get the ideas on the table. None are too simple. In fact, from what I’ve gleaned from Switch, it’s the simplest ideas that can be the most effective because they snowball. Let’s start small and see where this goes. Join #smsafety this evening at 9:00 EST.

– Patrick Prothe

You Are Loved

When the whole world seems grey, it’s hard to believe that there is a sun above the clouds.

If you are being bullied now, or if you have been bullied recently, know that they do not speak for the majority. You are loved. You have hope.

Let us know how we can help you.

You’re fine the way you are

When I was a kid, I got bullied all of the time. You see, I am a little person – not a dwarf, but I stand at about 4’5. I would walk down halls and kids would crouch down and point. I would be asked by teachers, custodians, and bus drivers if I was sure I was old enough to be in high school. When I was a sophomore in high school, I went to a restaurant and was offered a sippy cup.

When your differences are on the outside, out there for everyone to see, it can be really hard to keep your chin up. Even if no one said anything, I would feel different. I would know that I was not like everyone else. But people did say things. People did cruel things. And I would get really sad as a result.

One day, when I was feeling particularly down, my mom took out a ruler. She said, “Okay, let’s think about the height you wish you could get to, which is five feet. Now, what is the difference between where you are and that height?” She pointed to the space on the ruler. It was such a small difference. All of these people were making me feel miserable, and it was all over a difference that could be covered in the span of a wide-open hand. I can’t say it made the bullying easier to take, but it made me realize that the fault was not mine. The people who made fun of me had a much bigger problem to deal with. They were small on the inside.

If you are being bullied right now because of something on the outside – if you are too small or too tall for your liking, if you feel too thin or too overweight, if you have freckles or pimples or glasses or braces or anything else that people might be giving you a hard time about, I can tell you that eventually, all of those people, all of those unhappy times – they will come to make you laugh. I laugh at the people who offered me booster seats at restaurants. I laugh at the people who let their kids point at me. Because you know what? They are laughing at this carrier case I’m in, and that’s all. They have no idea of who I am, and therefore I know it can’t possibly be about me. They see me, or you, as a chance to make themselves feel better. They have to push someone down so that they can feel better. We can just be ourselves.

If you are being bullied, do not despair. You can get through it. You can be the victor. Just hang in there.

Image by Andrea De Stefani.