Dealing with Bullies & Cliques
by Emily Gallup, MFT
I watched the events unfold like a scene from a movie: a large group of seventh-grade girls waited at the end of the hall, whispering and giggling softly. When a small brown-haired girl walked in through the door at the other end of the hallway they started shouting in unison, “Nerd! Nerd! Nerd!” The older kids, still in their classes, looked up from their desks at the lone girl as she froze, then started to cry. She turned and ran out the door she had just come in, shaking with humiliation and tears. That day marked the beginning of a very lonely year for the little girl. Kim had her thirteenth birthday party, and invited child in the class but one. The girl’s best friends silently stared back at her when she greeted them. She ate her lunch alone.
It took me several years to start placing myself back in my memories of those scenes. Getting shut out by the group of girls I thought were my friends was so painful that I remember walking home from school, day after day, sobbing. I remember wondering which of the chemicals under the bathroom sink would be the most lethal if ingested. I was stopped by the thought of my parents, and the pain I knew they would experience if I was gone. My parents were my salvation. If your child is suffering through a similar situation, you can be a lifeline, too.
I thought that what happened in my childhood was unique: that I’d had the misfortune of living in a town full of demon-possessed preteens. I’ve since learned that there are many fundamental similarities between my experience and the experiences of preteen girls in junior high schools everywhere. In the bestselling book, “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls,” Rachel Simmons argues that the overt bullying behavior often seen in boys is mirrored by the insidious social aggression of girls. Although it did not occur to me at the time to call what I experienced “bullying,” I think that is exactly what it was. The girls in my story were the same girls that I’d known since preschool: the girls who, over time, came to be known as the popular crowd. As we entered junior high school, that group of girls began to form an invisible wall around their circle. Part of their power, I learned, was gained through the ability to shut others out. I’d seen them take turns with other girls the year before: most notably Jennifer, the beautiful, blond-haired threat of a new girl. Jennifer was devastated to be dropped one day from her spot as the second most popular girl in school. Natalie, the ringleader of the group decided Jennifer was out, and that meant the lesser-status girls better shut her out, too. If any of those girls felt guilty watching Jennifer sob on the swings at recess, their own fear of being Natalie’s next victim kept them silent.
When it was my turn to be the target, my parents did their best to console me. At first, they told me it what was happening was temporary, and would pass. We were all surprised when weeks turned into months, with no sign of respite. As the year wore on, sadness was replaced by depression. I felt hopeless, and I was plagued by an uneasy sense of guilt that somehow what was happening must be my fault. The day Kim’s party invitations went out to every other child in the class, my mom was infuriated. “I’m calling that girl’s mother! How can she enable her child to be so cruel?” I begged Mom not to call. I was convinced that such a call would only make me more hated. I begged again for her to just stay out of things when she wanted to call my teacher, my principal, or anyone else for help. Concerned with exacerbating an already bad situation, my mom honored my request for silence.
In my practice as a marriage and family therapist, I am now able to help parents support their daughters through the same types of situations I endured. Drawing on my own experience, I still have conflicted feelings about my mother’s decision not to intervene. On one hand, it’s hard to imagine how any phone call my mom made could have made things much worse than they already were. On the other, violating my request for non-interference could have undermined my trust in my parents. I relied on my parents more heavily for their emotional support during my seventh grade year more that I have at any other time in my life. If they had made calls I begged them not to make, I might have felt even more betrayed and alone. Weighing the risks and benefits of both options, I now advise parents to try to gain their child’s support for parental intervention. Explain that your child’s teacher may be able to talk to the entire classroom about the effects of bullying in general without singling her out or embarrassing her. Let your daughter know that she is not alone in what she’s experiencing, and that her teacher will want to help. Say whatever you can to gain your child’s consent, but if she refuses to give it, respect her decision. Your daughter probably needs you as an ally even more than she needs you to be an advocate.
If my parents could have convinced me to allow them to intervene, I like to think that the adults in my world could have helped me. I don’t know if my seventh-grade teacher had any idea how I was being treated once I left the safety of her classroom. While teachers can’t force kids to be friends, they can refuse to tolerate cruelty. Most of the teachers I have worked with in the course of my professional life want to know when a child is being treated badly by his or her peers. Don’t assume that the teacher already knows what’s happening. The only respite many teachers get from their busy day is during lunch and recess. Teachers are less likely to know what’s going on during these unstructured times, and unfortunately, it’s during lunch and recess that a significant amount of bullying behavior occurs. Once teachers are aware of what’s happening, there are many ways they can intervene. These include class lessons on bullying behavior, choosing reading assignments that address empathy, and restructuring seating assignments to put your child near non-bullying peers.
Your daughter’s teacher is also likely to know which children are not participating in the bullying circle, and may be able to make recommendations about appropriate playmates. While your child may initially resist the idea of making new friends, doing so will ultimately have incredible healing power. It will be easier for your daughter to stop obsessing about the friends she used to have when she’s spending time with someone new. Encourage your child to be open-minded about pursuing friendships with kids that she didn’t used to think were “cool.” Help her develop new paradigms about what makes someone “popular,” and how to define a true friend. If your child attends a very small school, like I did, consider having her participate in extracurricular activities that involve children from other areas. Busyness really can help fight misery.
Another recommendation I make to parents is to consider seeking professional help. While I valued my own parents’ opinions, I was still very aware of the fact that they were my parents, and therefore unconditionally on my side. Having an outside person to talk to could have reduced my sense of isolation, and my lurking fear that I somehow deserved what was happening to me. I think it also would have helped me make better choices later in life. Haunted by my experience in the seventh grade, many of the decisions I made for years to come were in reaction to my fear of a reoccurrence. After my family moved to a new town toward the end of my seventh grade year, I deliberately set out to become friends with the most difficult, snooty girl I could find. I mistakenly thought that if I could win her over, and keep her as my friend, I would have somehow transcended my past. Instead, I ended up with a petulant, competitive best friend who reenacted some of the same problems I’d had with the girls in my former school. Another example of how my past shaped my future was when I decided, prior to starting high school, that I was going to be the valedictorian, the star of the high school play, and the homecoming queen. I thought that if I did everything perfectly, I would be above criticism and, therefore, that I would gain immunity from future ostracization. I spent many years exhausted and unfulfilled, striving to be someone I wasn’t meant to be.
An additional benefit of seeking professional help for a bullied child is that a good therapist can screen for signs of more serious problems. While getting ostracized is inevitably going to cause feelings of sadness, some children move past sadness into the realm of clinical depression. Signs of depression include a depressed mood, a marked loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, significant change in body weight or sleep patterns, fatigue, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, poor concentration, and suicidal thoughts. If your child is exhibiting these types of symptoms for two weeks or longer, I strongly recommend seeking professional help. A good therapist can help your child cope with the pain s/he is experiencing. It is also important to know that every episode of depression a person experiences increases the odds of having a subsequent depressive episode. By intervening early, you may help your daughter avoid future mental health problems.
Most importantly, try to maintain a balance between empathizing with the very real pain your child is experiencing and reminding him or her that this ugly chapter of life will eventually close. I am forever grateful to my mother for her endless hours of holding me while I cried. She never tried to minimize the pain I was experiencing, and she never blamed me, directly or indirectly, for the way I was being treated. The other gift Mom gave me was a question. I remember her asking me, “Do you think this will really matter ten years from now?” Imagining myself away at college, with new friends and a new start was immensely comforting to me. When the pain I experienced in seventh grade felt unbearable and unending, I grasped onto my mom’s belief that someday things would be better. Although I doubted her at the time, she was right. Things are better. Take comfort in knowing that things will eventually get better for your daughter, too.