Some days, I lived in fear. Our family rented a cottage in a community in upstate New York every summer when I was growing up, and there was a girl there who bullied me. It got to be really bad when I was around 10 years old. I never knew why she’d start up with me but then, she’d be on the attack. Sometimes, it would just be words: “Four eyes!” (I wore glasses.) “Stupid!” “Loser!” Sometimes, she’d push or hit me. Once, she ripped some sod off a grassy area, placed it on my shoulders and said “That’s the only kind of fur you’ll ever wear!” Which actually didn’t make any sense whatsoever but at the time, I bawled.
It wasn’t always this way; other times, we would play together. But when she had it in for me, I’d walk around anxious, terrified of bumping into her. I can still viscerally recall the anxiety that would grip my chest. I dreaded going to day camp with her. I dreaded her coming upon me in the playground. I felt like prey being hunted.
I’d wail to my mom. My innocent, sweet, good-natured mom of the turn-the-other-cheek mentality. “Ignore her!” she’d say, not exactly something I could do when this girl was grabbing my ponytail and yanking my head back. Once, Mom did talk with the girl’s mother, but that only made bully girl call me a tattletale.
And then came the day when this girl jumped on me and pummeled me. I’d had it. I pinned her down and then I sat on her. Literally: I was bigger than she was. I said something to the effect of, “You need to leave me alone already.” After that, she more or less backed off. Later that year, my sister and I begged our parents to move to another community and the following summer, they did.
Unfortunately, bullying wasn’t on adults’ radars when I was a kid. In the past years, though, anti-bullying messaging has become a core part of school curriculums. Parents talk about it. Kids are aware of it. I’ve discussed it with my 9-year-old. There is a girl she knows who is rather commandeering. She’s not quite a bully, though she has been known to occasionally say mean things.
I tell my daughter things I wish my mom had told me about mean girls and bullies:
That some girls act mean because they don’t feel good about themselves, and that hurting other girls makes them feel powerful.
That some girls have parents who are mean to them, and that’s why they are mean to other people — because that’s the way they know how to behave.
That nobody should let someone be mean to them or bully them, and that there is no excuse for either.
That mean girls and bullies like it when other kids get upset because it shows them that their words are working, so she should try to not react and stay calm.
That if someone is mean or bullies her, she should stare them in the eye and clearly and firmly say, “You can’t treat me that way. Stop.” And then say it again, if necessary. And again.
If it’s hard to say that, walk away and find a safe place.
That she should always feel comfortable telling me or Daddy if someone is making her feel bullied or threatened, because telling someone you trust will help you feel less alone. And if we are not around and something is happening, she should tell a trusted adult like a teacher, another kid’s parents, or a coach.
I’ve told Sabrina how badly I felt when I was being bullied, and how strong I felt when I stood up to the bully and told her to back off. (I left out the part about sitting on the kid — it’s best not to give her ideas.) As someone who was bullied, I am determined to never, ever let her feel gripped by that terror I felt — and still can feel, in my heart, when I remember.
“No bullies are allowed at school!” she’s told me. She feels safe and secure. And that makes me feel very secure.
For more information on addressing and preventing bullying in your school and community, please visit PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.More On