Ask An Expert: How Do We Break The Bullying Cycle?

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Rachel Simmons is the NYT’s best-selling author of “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls.” She’s currently working with Secret Deodorant’s “Mean Stinks” Faceboook community to address the growing need for young women to gain the strength and support to take a stand against bullying. Since its launch in February, the community has grown to over 170,000 strong.

Yesterday, we featured the first part of our interview with Simmons, where she gave our readers some expert insight on why girls bully, and some of the motivations behind their actions. In this second part, she’s going to address some ways that the cycle of bullying can be broken, and how to encourage this behavior to change. 

ModernMom: Is being mean inherent in all girls? It seems that way with 74% of young women admitting to an act of bullying in the past year.

Rachel Simmons: I don’t think meanness is inherent in all girls, I think meanness is inherent in all people. We’re human beings, we are all capable of aggression, we would not have survived as a species if we weren’t aggressive. So, I think it’s really easy to blame girls for being mean because we have a culture that, in many ways, has turned female aggression into an entertainment industry. If you watch reality television you see drama on display all the time as a way to entertain people, so it’s easy to say “Oh, girls and women are so mean.” I think the fact is, we live in a society that has grown harder and meaner in many ways and now is the time for us to really look hard at how we act and how we raise or kids and how we teach our kids, as a society. It begins with us as the adults.

For so long when girls were mean to each other we said, “Oh yeah, that’s just girls being girls.” We didn’t call it bullying, we didn’t call it aggression, we didn’t take it seriously. It’s great to take it seriously and have a language to deal with it, but we just can’t go too far and assume that it’s only girls who have the problem.

MM: How can we make an effort to be nicer? No one wants to be a bully.

RS: There are so many ways that we can all be kinder and I couldn’t be more thrilled to be partnering with Secret Deodorant on the Mean Stinks program because it’s really created, for the first time, a social media platform where girls can find tools and tips from me, they can apologize to each other through video and text, they can use “good graffiti” on each others’ Facebook walls.

We can’t just expect girls to be nice, we’ve got to give them the avenues and I think Mean Stinks is giving girls the platform and the help to change their behavior, to change the way they think about their friendships and their relationships, and it’s really thrilling. We’re always talking about cyber bullying and the problem of how girls are mean to each other online. We finally now have an opportunity to really use social media in a positive way and to create a presence that hundreds of thousands of girls can react to and connect with.

MM: What should we tell children to do if they see someone else being bullied?

RS: I think a great tactic for parents is to talk about justice and helping others, not only in the context of bullying but in the context of history, and in the events that unfold around us all the time. Anytime you see a news story about a person being helped or rescued, anytime you as a parent decide to give money or food to someone who’s in need, that’s an opportunity to talk with your child about what it means to stand up for someone who is weaker, for whatever reason, than you.

I think it’s least effective to sit down your kid and get a really intense, serious look on your face and give them really uncomfortable eye contact and say this is what I want you to do when you see bullying happen. What you really want your child to know is that his or her whole family takes seriously the privileges that they’ve been given and doesn’t just live in the world for themselves but always worries and thinks about the welfare of other people, whether they be your peers in school, or someone who is homeless on the street, or someone who is in another country who doesn’t have food or water.

The second part is that it’s important to talk about what your child should do when she sees bullying as part of a larger conversation. First of all be sure to take seriously that it’s hard to stick up for someone being bullied because it can be social suicide for your child if they interfere. I think it’s important to encourage kids to tell an adult when they see something happening and get support. Or, they can do things like change the subject, try to make a joke, try to deflect attention away from the target. They can ask the target if they want to go and have lunch or walk away with that person.

As hard as it may be to say this, when we don’t speak up in the face of bullying, we do ultimately endorse whatever is happening. And it is important to both recognize how hard it is to do that for your child and to empathize with how hard that is, but also to let them know that silence unfortunately does support whatever is going on.

MM: How should parents handle a situation where their child is being bullied?

RS: I’ve been coaching parents for many years now and one thing I found is that because the parent is so anguished about that is happening to their child, the first thing they want to do is start solving the problem, and that’s understandable. The creature you love most in the world is being hurt. But here’s what girls tell me they want: they want empathy. They want, first and foremost, for their parent to acknowledge how painful this is, how sad this is, and to say “I’m sorry, I love you,” and to give them a hug, to really relate and see their child in their moment of pain.

After that, I think it’s important to ask your child what they want to do. Because, yes, this is hard for you, but your child can also gain a powerful sense of ownership over what’s happening to them if they take charge of their own solutions. They may already feel out of control because something is happening to them that they can’t prevent. If you step in and continue to remove that control from them and try to fix it all, they never really get to feel any sense of authority in their experience.

Let them come up with one or two strategies and then ask “what do you think might happen if you tried those things?” The point is not that you’re going to necessarily choose those strategies but that you’re helping develop some important coping skills, thinking about how they can deal with the problem.

The second issue is: what do you do with the school? When you’re ready to pick up the phone and call somebody at the school here are a couple words of advice:

  • Do not make that phone call if you are not calm, because if you get angry or aggressive at anyone at the school, they will immediately peg you as a crazy or difficult parent. And once you get labeled that way you don’t really get the same treatment as other parents. You have to play politics; you have to keep your cool no matter how upset you are. So be careful about when you pick up the phone.

 

  • Start at the lowest level first. So begin with the classroom teacher or the school counselor. Do not immediately call the principal or the school board or superintendent. That is not looked kindly upon. It is very important to remember that your relationships with the people at your child’s school are very important and how you communicate is just as important as what you say.

 

  • Be prepared to hear that your child may have had some contribution to situation and do not assume that your child is completely innocent. It is often the case, particularly with girls, that the conflict is more complex, that it runs deep, and that there may be more than one side of the story. So if you can be prepared for that on the front end it will make your experience much easier once you pick up the phone.

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