The theme of bullying has come across my path several times over the past week. A few days ago, on NPR, an author promoted her book on new research regarding cyber-bullying. On Facebook, several you-tube videos on bullying popped up, painfully describing the stories of victims and their resiliency. Last night, PBS aired a special on the rise of violence in our teenage culture which I could not bear to watch. Each and every time, I feel disturbingly aware of our wicked abilities. As a mother, my concern for the welfare of my children grows.
I am no stranger to bullying. As a child in a private elementary school, I graduated 8th grade among 13 other students, but very much alone. As a high school senior, during what should have been my care-free celebratory year, a rumor spread about me that resulted in almost complete alienation by 200+ students, for many months. I greeted “friends” in the dreaded hallway, only to have them turn their backs on me or snicker as I walked past them. Simultaneously, my home life became more complicated and difficult.
How did I survive those times? How does anyone rise above the deep pain of rejection during such vulnerable developmental years?
When I think back to what kept me strong, I tie it back to one very close and loyal friend. A friend who stood by my side in the hallways of school with her head held high, who consistently offered me praise and reassurance. She and I had real, authentic connection. We often measure our popularity or social success by the number of friends we have. More important than quantity is quality. I had many “friends” before that rumor spread but only one proved true. The strongest one.
Victims of bullies can suffer depression, anxiety, low-self esteem and even suicide. As an adult, I had to strengthen “the young girl within” on a daily basis. With a lot of hard work and the support of a few therapists, I found my voice in all relationships and full self-acceptance. I learned how to manage my anxious symptoms (which I am relieved to say are pretty much gone). I removed toxic people from my life. I worked hard to believe in me and developed many wonderful, healthy and loving relationships.
During this past week, I’ve asked myself, “How do I support my children to maintain strength, courage and resiliency if they become targets of bullies? What do they need to see from me so that they may develop healthy selves and positive relationships as adults”?
I lead by example. I try to model healthy self-expression and boundary setting with my friends, family and spouse. I try to demonstrate respect throughout conflict, kind communication, apology and responsibility when I act in a way that does not respect an other. These feel most important when I am in conflict or power struggles with my children.
I want my children to have a clear understanding of what a healthy relationship looks like and more importantly, what it feels like, whether it’s with friends, other family, my spouse or me. I also want to help my children nurture friendships that appear supportive of them. Even if they only connect with one good friend, I know that one good friend can make all the difference in the world.
Would I love to protect them fully from the dark side of socialization? Absolutely, and yet, I know I that I do not have that power. My power lies within my ability to offer them a home environment that supports them fully (tantrums and all), demonstrate what healthy relationships look like with friends and family and shower them with big doses of unconditional love. The last one is definitely the easiest.