Image from Adobe Stock
There are just as many theories about bullying as there are research articles about the long-term effects in children. And many of them are plausible. I've even written a previous blog post about the science behind bullying.And here's what I know to be true: being bullied doesn't have to be a life sentence. It doesn't have to result in suicide.
There's data that supports the strong correlation between bullying and suicide and"substantial evidence that indicates that any bullying involvement heightens the risks of suicidal ideation, suicidal behavior, and poor mental and physical health outcomes."I want to focus on the word "risk" because it's an important distinction and I want us to be cautious before we make the mental leap to causation. Bullying can increase the risk of suicide, but it doesn't cause it. And that fact alone is hopeful.
Stick and stones may break our bones, but words can and do hurt us
Image from Adobe Stock
I am in no way minimizing how devastating bullying is for a child. As a survivor myself, I remember all too well feeling like I had a target on my back. And there were many nights I would also comfort my twin sister who's life had become a living hell in 7th grade courtesy of two popular kids who assigned her the name"Gerber Baby" because she wasn't maturing as fast as the other girls in school. At the time, we were also very poor and had to share hand-me-downs from other kids in the neighborhood. One particular shirt we inherited had a rainbow-colored bow tie at the collar. The same two bullies assigned my sister yet another nick name after seeing her in it. Wanna take a wild guess what they named her? Rainbow Brite. Kids can be so creative, eh?
My sister was absolutely devastated. Although I was barely 4-feet tall and weighed less than 90 pounds I felt a fire growing inside of me. Seeing those tears in her eyes night after night over the course of a year awakened something inside of me. And even if I couldn't fight back against the adults in my life who were harming me, I knew I had to standup to the kids who were ruining my sister's mental health. And I had to do it while it was occurring and not after the fact when she came home sobbing.
As fate would have it, a few days later, I was sitting 3 feet away from her lunch table when one of the bullies started taunting her. I don't remember all of the words that flew out of my mouth that day. What I know is it shocked the entire school. From what I hear, I stormed towards the table and began screaming at them. I told them "today is the last day you will ever speak to my sister that way again and if you ever try it again, there will be hell to pay." The entire cafeteria went quiet from what I'm told. This tiny, mild-mannered, sweetheart of a girl had done something no one saw coming - she spoke up. And luckily for me and my sister the bullies backed down. It worked. They never bullied her again. Did my sister have mental and emotional scars from that experience? She absolutely did. But what gave my sister strength afterwards was knowing that someone could use their voice to fight back. My voice gave her the courage to find hers.
And of course this was before social media, before the internet, before bullying became anonymous. Cyberbullying has added a whole new level of complexity for children navigating an already complex world. But bullying in any form demands that a child has good teachers to help them develop a strong voice, sense of self, body/mind wisdom, and a belief that they are not alone in their challenges.
Helping kids find their voice
Image from Adobe Stock
Overall, the two takeaways from my story for big humans are that little humans need to find their voice and they need help learning how to use it (especially in situations where they are faced with harm and danger). Since parents are the container that help children hold their emotions they must model active naming of feelings, processing, and releasing of emotions. This also means helping their little ones learn how to manage their flight, flight, and freeze response.
So in the example above where my sister was being bullied and freezing during the incident, a trauma-informed parent or caregiver may have helped her unfreeze this response through simple somatic and breathing techniques. As we now know, being able to help a child shift between freeze, flight, and flight (when necessary) can go a long way. This is good news! The knowledge is available.
Knowing there's something we can do to help children feel empowered, body aware, and emotionally resourced, means one very important thing: they may be at much less risk of suicide when they're faced with overwhelming adversity.
How do I help my child who's been bullied?
This is the biggest question parents ask. Make sure your child feels safe. This is the #1 priority. After this, here are a few things you can do over time to help with the healing process:
Focus on increasing your child's sense of self worth and self efficacy. We're all born with innate gifts. Help your child cultivate this gift. Give it plenty of air and room to blossom.
Give them a safe place to express their feelings both with you and through creative outlets (journaling, vlogs, painting, drawing, photography, story telling..so many ways!)
Start a body-based mindfulness practice with them and if you're not sure how I'm here to help. Reach out to sign up for a session.
Get them out into nature. Sometimes emotional pain can feel so much bigger than us. Being in nature can help us release big feelings and remind us that we're connected to something bigger and more beautiful.
Allow your child the space to be angry and give them healthy ways to express this anger. This means letting your child be messy and not judging what many consider "negative emotions". If you can allow this anger to bubble up when it needs to without reacting your child may have less difficulty feeling and releasing it.
Give your child a way to transform their anger into something constructive. Is there a way they can use this anger to educate their community about bullying? Maybe your child has ideas about this?
Give your child tangible ways to defend themselves. I know we always tell kids violence isn't the answer, but neither is feeling powerless in dangerous situations. If you're comfortable with it, karate and other martial arts can often be a wonderful practice and they also have a mindfulness component.
Reward your child for all of the above with your time, emotional presence, and compassion.
Attend trauma-informed counseling with a child and family therapist who specializes in somatic experiencing and other body-based therapies.
Create a "comfort kit" with your child. Make a list of items with them that help bring them back to a sense of safety (favorite song, blanket, stuffed animal, item of clothing, drink, snack etc) You can have this kit ready to go for them so when tough feelings come up.
And finally. How do I know it's possible to overcome bullying? Because I did many, many times, thanks in part to all of the incredible tools I've gathered and a few loving adults along the way. And also because I found the things inside of me worth fighting for and a voice that fights for others.:)
For more resources:
Phone numbers for support:
Text HOME to 741741 (US only)
Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2022 Mar; 19(5): 2828.
Published online 2022 Feb 28. doi: 10.3390/ijerph19052828