I remember being bullied quite a bit in my youth. I was a bit of a nerd (before it was cool to be nerdy). And, I was a pretty quirky (full of energy and loving things no one else was loving yet - before being a hipster was cool). if you think about the way kids were picked on in my day, I was a walking target for bullies.
The first bullying incident I can remember was in second grade. I couldn't tell you what caused the altercation, but I remember the girl being much bigger than me and me being scared out of my mind that I'd get the crap beaten out of me. I left that incident with a deep scar on my left elbow from her trying to grab me as I ran for my life (the scar is still there by the way).
The next few bullying events were in middle school and high school. In middle school the bullying came from a group of girls who thought that I was threat to them because I refused to adhere to their name-calling; they feared that my lack of fear would undermine their cruel hierarchy. I remember them circling me at lunch one day, spewing vile comments and daring me to cry. I didn't budge or cry, resolving that being morally superior and not lowering myself to their level would do the trick. And, it did; well, sort of. After that incident I was branded a coward for letting them talk to me like that by both my peers and the relatives that eventually found out that I didn't fight back.
In high school, before cell phones were a universal thing, I was bullied for that nerdy, quirky-ness I told you about earlier. The same sort of verbal and emotional bullying occurred, this time from upperclassmen who thought shaming me for wearing the same uniform as they had to a bit differently than everyone else. At the time, my style of a rolled up, plaid, pleated skirt with knee-high boots wasn't a fashion trend yet! That bullying went on for a year -- we rode the same school bus -- until they graduated. And, I maintained my moral superiority of not stooping to their level and was once again branded a wuss -- by both peers and relatives again -- for not standing up to them.
The interesting thing about my bullying experiences -- and you may be able to relate -- was that what I thought was moral superiority was really fear and anxiety. Even if you used other tactics to manage bullying, we're not usually aware of the deeper feelings that are being manifested in our actions. A part of me knew that, but I held on to the fact that not letting them get under my skin was a better protective factor than trying to fight back. Some of my peers, and most of my relatives, were highly reactive people who inadvertently bullied me into feeling like I needed to protect myself my staying quiet and being a bit of a coward. They couldn't see that by not understanding my need to retreat they were making it harder for me to find my voice and stand up for myself! Essentially, I learned by the time I was out of high school to keep my head down and just let my self-righteousness do all the fighting for me.
But, enough about me and my youthful cowardly ways! Let's talk about why my bullying experiences -- and probably your bullying experiences too -- are mostly ignored or dismissed by others. And, what better way to do it than to parallel our mundane lives with the suspension of disbelief of the movies!! (Yes, I'm a movie geek and therapist who spend most of my movie watching experience trying to assess characters!)
How Bullying Creates World Destroying Villains
While everyone was talking about the all-female cast of the new Ghostbusters reboot and lamenting about whether it paid proper respect to the original film, I found myself focusing on the movie's central villain. In most of the reviews for the movie, the villain isn't given much thought - even being described by one reviewer as "the most unsatisfying bad guy in my film memory" with "no complexity" and is "just a beta-male dork for feminists to bully." So, it's safe to say that we still don't rate bullying and it's effects as a real enough reason for someone to grow up having a chip on their shoulder.
It can be hard to relate to the idea that bullying could produce a villain hell bent on destroying the world by unleashing vicious ghosts on the inhabitants of New York City (which is the bad guy's mission in the film) -- and I'll be honest that's definitely some huge suspension of disbelief there. But, if we look at this villain as a metaphor for how humans internalize our traumatic experiences and how those internalized feelings can manifest themselves in maladaptive behaviors, the suspension of disbelief isn't too far off. **And, if we really want to get deep, you could even say that if we peeled back the layers on some of the most notoriously atrocious crimes in our society you may find a thick layer of oppressive bullying resentment buried in the perpetrator's psyche -- but that's a soapbox issue for another article!**
We currently live in a world that still dispels bullying as something that you can 'get over'! And, we still teach kids that they need to learn to fight back to show a bully that you're not going to take their crap! However, what we fail to realize is how deep bullying wounds can go; we forget that traumas can become so internalized that we forget the main source of the trauma; and, we disregard the effects that severe persistent bullying can have on your children (and on us as adults too!) I'll always assert that when it comes to raising healthy kids (now, this is my soapbox issue), teaching them more about their own internal struggle and how it affects them is a healthy alternative to teaching them to put up their fists and fight!
So with this movie villain in mind, and with the purpose of helping you raise healthy children who have a realistically resilient attitude towards bullying, let's talk about the 5 reasons why we need to talk about the bad guy in the Ghostbusters film.
1. Bullying is real.
By definition, bullying is any act where one person uses superiority is used to intimidate another person, usually with the purpose of getting that person to do another's bidding. It's a slippery slope the idea of influence and persuasion, I know. Oftentimes we only realize bullying is real when there is physical aggression or we see visible signs of our child being under distress. But, Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, a psychotherapist who specializes in trauma, shares that "bullying is often dismissed as trivial by adults but it can have long-term effects on the child who is being victimized." The theme here is that while bullying can be physical, it is often more emotional and can go deep for our children - leaving residue for them to cope with as adults. When we scoff at bullying or dismiss it, we are telling our children that how they feel and what they experience isn't valid. This can distort a child's understanding of their emotions and cause them to not only internalize their bullying experiences and the feelings that come with it, but it can cause them to breed resentment towards the bully and/or those that resemble the bully's behaviors. And, not all children internalize their bullying, some will also externalize it - or you may know this phenomena as 'acting out'. I share all this to really hit home how important it is to view bullying as a real experience for your child (or an adult too) -- no matter how insignificant/significant your view the incident.
2. Bullying is trauma.
What's also very true about bullying other than it being a real experience, is that it is considered a traumatic experience by professionals in the mental health field. So much so that bullying is listed by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as an adverse childhood experience that can have a huge impact on your child's overall health and well-being. When you look at how detrimental bullying can be, it's hard to ignore it as just kids being kids. It's even more important that we address bullying more immediately as more and more research tells us that bullying has the same effect as sexual abuse or head trauma. Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, Clinical Professor at the UCLA School of Medicine and co-author of The Whole Brain Child, cited research that asserts that verbal abuse by peers increases negative symptoms in children and can produce significant changes in the brain. What's more is that if bullying isn't addressed the effects can lead to more victimization, as Lisa Savage, LCSW-C, mental health professional and founder of the Center for Child Development and Adult Center for Wellness and Counseling, explained. She further noted that "the resultant effects [of bullying] are psychological trauma... contributing to further traumatization." And, just to make the point clearer, educational psychologist,Dr. Michele Borba, breaks it down very plainly: "Whether a child is bullying others, witnessing bullying, or the target of bullying, the behavior wreaks havoc on children's emotional, moral, and cognitive development."
3. Bullying causes psychological damage.
Now you may be thinking that we just covered the idea of bullying being traumatic. And, you'd be right. But, to be clear psychological damage is caused by multiple traumas, not just a single instance of trauma -- so I thought it best to talk about it separately! Savage agrees and shares that "people who are at risk of being bullied have, more than likely, experienced victimization earlier on life." Past traumatic experiences can the kind of psychological damage to children that makes it difficult to set proper boundaries, assert when they feel uncomfortable, or even be able to recognize that they are being victimized. Savage lists a variety of past trauma that can cause psychological damage, including any form of abuse, neglect, or witnessed violence. She further shares that the damage manifest itself in the child's "self-esteem and [a] sense [that their] personal power simply doesn't exist." Reagan shares similar views, sharing that "bullying does not have to be physical to be extremely impactful on children." And, if you're still on the fence about the havoc ignoring and dismissing bullying experiences can have on children, Dr. Borba again has a straight-to-point response: bullying "can shatter young lives."
4. Bullying isn't just kid's stuff.
But, let's talk about the elephant in the room for a bit. I've heard it said a few times that bullying hasn't changed much from when you were young -- and we'll just assume that no matter how old you are that statement rings true. We often belief that because one facet of an issue can be explained away that must mean that the whole issue is solved. But, bullying is not that type of issue. Yes, kids tease and taunt each other. Yes, sometimes kids play and don't really mean what they say. No, we shouldn't stop children from figuring out social cues and sarcasm. However, let's go back to that bullying definition: when one person uses their superiority to intimidate someone else it is definitely bullying -- hands down, no argument. So, it's not just kids being kids. Reagan shares that in her work with client she has "witnessed several examples of adults who were verbally threatened by other children in multiple instances over their childhood years feeling the effects into their 40's and 50's before opening up about this in therapy." Now, does that sound like kid stuff to you? I didn't think so! She further shared with me that the adults she works with who disclose that they were bullied as children have feelings of "inadequacy, mistrust of the intentions of others and belief that they must "act tough" to avoid being hurt in relationships." And, guess when these people most likely experienced their bullying? In elementary school, according to Reagan. With that knowledge, we must get better at not only recognizing and addressing bullying instead of dismissing it as kid stuff, but we must also get better at teaching our children how to recognize it and seek support as well. Dr. Borba agrees, citing the common childhood retort of 'sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me' "is a huge myth that must be dispelled." And, I'd have to agree her as we all know how deep verbal abuse scars can go - and they hurt just as much as physical altercations. Dr. Siegel wraps up this sentiment sharing that "bullying is clearly a form of trauma that has long-lasting effects."
5. Bullying makes you absolutely horrible.
The final point we have to make, if the idea that we need to take bullying seriously hasn't already been drilled into your consciousness enough, is that being bullied makes you feel horrible! No matter if the bullying experience was a one-time occurrence or not, when someone intimidates, belittles, shames, and oppresses you it never feels good. We can sometimes dismiss how bad it makes our children feel in an effort to toughen them up. We may feel that they need to develop a tougher skin or be able to handle it better. And, giving our children the tools to really build resiliency around bullying is important. But, what's really important in overcoming and healing from any bullying experience is having someone we love understand the pain that we endured as a result of bullying. Dr. Borba explains that "bullying...induces fear and insecurity, which impacts students' concentration, academic achievement, and learning performance." This is such an important fact to remember when we become aware that our child is being bullied. Sometimes the effects are externalized in not-so-blatant ways that can impede your child's daily functioning. Savage agrees, stating that a child's self esteem can be greatly affected by bullying and they can begin to believe that their "sense of personal power simply doesn't exist." Furthermore, Reagan shares that the negative feelings that come from being bullied can interfere with every aspect of your child's life, including "friendships, intimate partner relationships and interactions with...peers." The overall consensus here: bullying can really mess up how we feel about ourselves and about our interactions with others.
How To Stop Creating Ghost-Releasing, World Destroying Villains
Are you feeling the immediate need for us -- as parents, as educators, as fellow humans, and as a society -- to really understand the lifelong effects of bullying? Are you ready to see bullying as a real threat -- not just a fictitious one that spawns outlandish villains? Are we finally ready to stop dismissing bullying as something that only happens to weak people who can't defend themselves?
The answer to all those questions should be yes. The bullying epidemic -- which has gotten increasingly more accessible thanks to social media and technology -- is not only about kids being kids.
It's more about teaching our children about emotional intelligence and how influential and powerful our words and actions are. It's about taking responsibility for our own words and actions as the adults in our children's lives so we can be effective models for empathy. But, mostly it's about recognizing that bullying, in any form, can be a real life-changing experience for children.
Dr. Borba champions teaching empathy to children so that they can truly understand how our actions affect others. She also believes that the adults in a child's life are the emotional guides for teaching and modeling empathy. She asserts, "This is the reason why adults must make an earnest effort to prevent bullying on school campuses." Prevention is not as difficult as it sounds, especially if we take into account the 5 discussion points above and get intentional about the space we provide for children to express themselves and seek support when needed.
In the end, we all have to begin to look at bullying from a perspective that encourages problem-solving and honest discussion. When I see villains like the one in Ghostbusters being dismissed as asinine or even non-believable it begs the question of whether we really understand that bullying is a real health issue. Without properly addressing childhood experiences of bullying we inadvertently produce adults who fear re-victimization, retaliate in emotionally traumatic ways, or hurt others because they are carrying so much psychological damage. No matter what you think about bullying the real interventions start with being honest that bullying exists, it can happen to you or your children, it's not relegated to weak people, and it can be addressed in a healthy way!
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