I knew that before I could help my daughter, I needed God to help me.
Something was wrong. I could tell by my daughter Katy's first step out the school door. She hung her head, slipped into the car, and buckled her seat belt without being told.
"How was your day, honey?" I asked cautiously.
Fifth grade's no picnic for any child, especially one who sticks out in class. And Katy has a rare neurological disorder that's impaired her hearing and speech. Katy's school days are seldom fine—and this day seemed less "fine" than most.
I started the car, the engine's rumble matching the churning inside me. As we left the parking lot in silence, Katy studied her backpack buckle.
I breathed a quick prayer, then asked, "Katy, what happened?"
Her words, like her tears, started spilling over. "Mitch stood behind me. He made fun of me. He talked funny. Like me."
"Katy, I'm sorry," I said.
But Katy wasn't finished. "Then Melissa and Brianna laughed. They all laughed at me."
I squeezed the steering wheel and told Katy how much I loved her, including the way she talked. Then we made an unscheduled stop for ice cream.
It's tough in the school trenches. And if a student has a disability, as Katy does, it's that much harder. But even average school-age children may find themselves targets of a bully.
Linda's second-grade daughter gets teased for being overweight. Her fourth-grade son is ridiculed for wearing thick glasses. Another seventh grader refuses to participate in sports because he's not a natural athlete. He can't stand the verbal abuse when he strikes out. And a friend's daughter, Nicole, struggles with assignments. She's been labeled slow or even stupid by several of her classmates. They think Nicole doesn't hear their whispers.
What can we do when a bully targets our kids? Here are a few ground rules.
As Katy and I ate our mint chocolate chip ice cream after school, I felt like screaming, if not at Mitch and his parents, then at God. Couldn't God shield Katy from bullies at school? But I knew that before I could help Katy, I needed God to help me. So I prayed about my attitude, then asked God to comfort me. Only then could I take a deep breath and ask him to give me the words to help Katy. Then Katy and I prayed together for wisdom to handle her bully.
Prayer's the first step in dealing with a bully. And since bullies are seldom handled quickly, persistent prayer may be necessary. When Janice started a neighborhood Bible club one summer, her daughter, Melinda, began to lose her neighborhood friends as a result. The other girls stopped inviting Melinda to overnights and birthday parties, and when they started up a softball game, they told Melinda she couldn't play.
Janice and Melinda prayed about the problem, but nothing seemed to change. Even though Melinda tried telling the girls that being left out made her feel sad, things were never the same.
Still, Janice says, "Prayer was our solution. We couldn't see any change in those girls, but Melinda and I grew closer to the Lord and to each other."
Get the Facts
After I prayed for myself and Katy at the ice cream parlor, I wanted to know exactly what had happened, so I asked her specific questions: "What were you doing before Mitch started teasing you? What did you say? Where were you? What exactly did the other child or children say and do? Who else was present? Has it happened to you before? To other kids?"
By the time Katy and I finished our ice cream, I was fairly certain I had the facts straight. Still, I wanted to know for sure, so the next day I drove Katy and two of her classmates to youth group. I carefully guided our conversation to various kids in their class, and when I got to Mitch, both classmates said, "Mitch teases all of us, but he's meanest to Katy."
My fact-gathering mission confirmed Katy's story. But that's not always the case. Evie was ready to pull her son out of first grade when he came home crying, "Everybody in my class made fun of me and called me Fatty!" But after Evie asked specific questions, the real story took shape: Only one boy had made the comment.
Evie still had to help her son handle his emotional pain. But she was better equipped once she had a clearer picture of the problem.
How can you get more facts about the situation? My husband and I've discovered a window to our children's world opens when their friends play on our turf. As I drive my older daughter and her friends to volleyball practice, I learn more in fifteen minutes of eavesdropping than in fifteen hours of grilling!
If the problem's a new one, try talking to your child's teacher or the person on recess duty. Remember, there's at least two sides to a story, even if our child's version is the one we're most interested in.
Prepare in Advance
"Pre-game coaching" may help your child know how to respond when he becomes the brunt of bullying. For example, Diane's son Rob was small for his age, but he successfully warded off bullies with a line he practiced in advance: "Won't your friends think you're really something for beating meup? Yes, sir. I'll bet you get a lot of credit for this kill."
Barbara and her husband bought weights for their son when Josh decided he had to stand up for himself in high school. As he worked out, he built up his muscles and his confidence. When an older boy threatened him and shoved him in the locker room, Josh pushed him back and said firmly, "That's the last time you'll put your hands on me." Josh wasn't bothered again.
Should we coach our children to retaliate? Christ was meek, but meek doesn't mean weak. Encouraging or discouraging a child to fight back demands prayerful reliance on the Holy Spirit. And sometimes it isn't an option.
Petite Elizabeth got teased by her classmates for being skinny. If she'd fought back, she might have gotten injured. Her wise mom convinced her most women would love to be called skinny, so Elizabeth started saying "Thank you" to her tormentors. Most—not all—gave up when Elizabeth was no longer upset by the nickname.
Many situations with bullies can't be solved by coaching from the sidelines. In those cases, we may need to consider more direct options.
Involve Other Adults
If the problem persists despite your best efforts at resolving it, it may be time to involve someone else—a parent, coach, or teacher.
Many parents believe teachers should get involved immediately because they're able to observe and protect our children when we aren't. Yet teacher involvement isn't an automatic solution. Most bullying goes on behind a teacher's back or after school. And some parents who involve teachers run the risk of escalating the bullying. One answer is to involve the bully's parents.
Cynthia's son Steve faced a bully day after day at recess. When Steve grew nervous and one day refused to go to school, Cynthia and her husband finally called the bully's parents, who readily admitted their son had bullied other children. The two families met together and worked at resolving the problem.
Unfortunately, calling the bully's parents doesn't always work. When Jill tried it, she met with denial and anger. They were offended that anyonewould think their son was a bully.
So what's a mother to do? We do what God leads us to do—then admit there's only so much we can do about the bullies of this world. Our job is to handle our own children.
While you may never be able to change other people's kids, when you help your child endure tough experiences, he or she changes by learning important lessons about compassion, forgiveness, and comfort in God, as well as effective survival skills.
My friend Meg regrets that she lost opportunities when her daughter Becky faced bullies. Meg's goal was to fix every problem so Becky wouldn't experience pain. If Becky got left out of an overnight, Meg called the other mom and arranged for Becky to be included. If Becky got in trouble in high school, Meg was there to defend her daughter and get the consequences lessened. Now that Becky is away at college, Meg can't fix every problem. And Becky, sheltered from problems and pain for so many years, hasn't developed problem-solving skills to handle even minor struggles.
God didn't put us in a pain-free world. Scripture says pain and perseverance are parts of a character-building formula: "We also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:3-5). If we can help our children handle bullies now, we'll equip them for a godly life later.
I wish I had a happy ending to the story of Mitch teasing Katy. We prayed. My husband and I told Katy we loved her and Jesus loved her. We couldn't find an explanation for Mitch's behavior, but we prayed for him. We talked to Katy's teacher, who already was aware of the problem. She had her class switch desks, and Katy ended up several seats away from Mitch. It slowed him down, but it didn't stop him.
My husband and I coached Katy on how she could handle the situation if it came up again. We rehearsed. Dad was Mitch. Katy's sister and I were the other girls. In practice, Katy responded cheerfully to the pretend teasing. She said, "Have a nice day, Mitch. You too, girls." Or, "Mitch, you want to come with me to speech therapy?"
Katy did fine … in practice. At school, she forgot her lines. The problem ended when the school year ended. This year, we hope she'll be a little better equipped.
Bully stories don't always have neat endings. Yet with Christ's help, no matter what other people's children do, our children can grow in character and in strength. And we can grow with them.
Dandi Daley Mackall is author of Kids Are Still Saying the Darndest Things (Prima), twenty-three other books for adults, and more than one hundred books for children. She and her family live in Ohio.
Copyright © 1996 by the author or Christianity Today/Today's Christian Woman magazine.
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