“You are SOOOOO weird!”
For Dr.Jackie Humans, hearing these words hurled at her young daughter at the school bus stop would change the direction and focus of her life—transforming her from a stay-at-home mom to published author, bullying prevention program leader and anti-bullying advocate.
Humans’ daughter Nikki has Asperger Syndrome and, by the time she reached school age, she was no stranger to the harsh words, intimidation and judgments of her peers. “Things that were easy and natural for others kids weren’t for her,” Dr. Humans explained. “She was bullied a lot. Bullies gravitate towards kids that have disabilities or that are different in some way. There was a big disconnect between her and her peers, and she suffered a lot with that.”
“I was bullied as a child and, as humans, we tend to remember these things,” Dr. Humans continued. “I began doing research and realized that all the existing books for kids that are being bullied basically said three things. One, bullying is wrong. Two, it’s not your fault and three, go tell an adult who will solve it for you. I agree with the first two without question, and I do agree that kids should tell an adult. But, I want to empower kids to have a toolbox of options at their disposal for when they are being bullied.”
As a result of her first-hand experience with bullying in the schools, Dr. Humans wrote 15 Ways to ZAP a Bully! To give parents and children a new perspective on the bullying dynamic. Her inspiration came largely from her daughter, who became very good at deflecting bullying over time. “It occurred to her that the bullies were never going to accept her, so she decided to have fun beating them,” Dr. Humans recalls. “She learned to discombobulate the bullies and throw them for a loop.”
The Face of Bullying Today
Bullying has become a serious issue in modern society, whether the name-calling, peer pressure or physical intimidation occurs in schools, in neighborhoods or online. Bullying can have a lasting psychological impact, often causing a decrease in school performance, long-lasting social anxiety, low self-esteem, depression and even suicide.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that nearly 50 percent of all children are bullied at some point, with 10 percent of students today being bullied on a regular basis. Eighteen percent of teens say that they have dealt with rumors or gossip being spread about them, and four percent have their personal belongings destroyed by bullies. Despite it’s prevalence in schools across the nation and the devastating psychological effects it can leave in its wake, only about one-third of victims ever report the bullying.
Cyberbullying is also alarmingly common among adolescents and teens—and is often more difficult for parents to detect since it leaves virtually no physical evidence and few witnesses. According to the i-SAFE Foundation, 42 percent of kids have been bullied while online, and one in four have had it happen more than once. An amazing 35 percent have been threatened online and 58 percent report that someone has said mean or hurtful things to them online, by email, or text message. Similar to face-to-face bulling, nearly 60 percent of kids experiencing cyberbullying do not report it to their parents, teachers or other adult.
In Oklahoma’s public schools, the picture is just as bleak. During the 2009-10 public school year, the Oklahoma State Department of Education reported 15,967 incidents of bullying, with 648 resulting in physical injury.
Magic Sentences & Verbal Judo
Part of Dr. Humans’ inspiration to write her book came after speaking about bullying prevention to a local PTA group. The parents in attendance asked her for “a magic sentence to say when their child is being bullied” and were desperately seeking bullying prevention methods to teach their children.
The magic words that Dr. Humans developed came in the form of 15 sophisticated techniques, many involving humor or snappy comebacks, that provide children with options that help them to feel more confident. “As I continued with my research, I decided that a book was needed to show kids how to feel empowered to fight back against bullies effectively,” Dr. Humans said. “My daughter got so good at deflecting bullies with what we called ‘verbal judo’ that I actually started feeling sorry for the bullies.”
The Bully Game
According to Dr. Humans, the biggest problem for families struggling with bullying is that most kids and adults don’t look at the “bully game” and break it down to what it really is. Her experience is that the bully game is relatively simple and breaking free simply requires a change of perspective.
• Step 1. The bully picks target
• Step 2. The bully acts mean
• Step 3. The victim gets upset
• Step 4. The bully feels pleasure
• Step 5. The cycle continues
“Steps one, two and four are completely beyond our control. The only thing we can do is change step three,” Dr. Humans explained. “If the victim lets her feelings get hurt, they are playing the bully’s game.”
Humans says her anti-bullying techniques are easy to adopt once the perspective is changed to give victims the upper hand, realizing that the bully is dependent on his or her reaction to gain satisfaction. “I encourage kids to say to themselves ‘This kid wants me to play the bully game. That’s fun for him, but not for me. If we are going to play, then we are going to play by my rules,’” she continues. “It changes the whole dynamic and the child is no longer a powerless victim. If they are able to successfully treat the bully like they are no longer important, it leaves them nowhere to go and the cycle ends.”
“These bully-zapping techniques are designed to give kids a sense of self confidence,” Humans explains. “It teaches them that they are a strong person and they can defend themselves.”
Among the tips for younger kids, Humans suggests two bully-zapping techniques to help them gain the upper hand in the bully game:
• Spy on the bully. Watch to see what other kids the bully picks on and align with them. “Bullies hate being outnumbered,” Humans explains. “Finding another target to hang out with is an easy technique and doesn’t take a lot of courage, so it is easy for young kids to do.”
• Silently repeat a feel good sentence. “Ignoring a bully can be hard,” Humans says, but silently repeating something that makes the child feel good inside can help keep them from acting upset and feeding the cycle. Humans suggests: “I may not be perfect but nothing’s worse than being a bully!” For older children and teens, two bully-zapping techniques that Humans recommends are:
• Make the bully look silly. When the bully makes fun of an obvious physical characteristic (height, weight, birthmark, etc.), the child can make them look silly by saying something like “Wow! Who told you?” and feigning shock and disbelief. “For older kids, a snappy comeback can be very effective. It’s not just what you say, but how you say it,” Humans says. “Make sure that your words and body language are saying the same thing.” When standing up to a bully, appearances are everything. “The truth is that the exact words don’t matter nearly as much as the way your child is delivering them.”
• Call the bully the wrong name. Teens can show the bully how unimportant they are by pretending to not know their name, or by calling them the wrong name when responding to them.
Humans offers more advice for parents struggling with bullying.
1. Think twice before telling your child to just outright ignore the bully and do nothing to change it. “With that approach, you have to be prepared for it to get worse before it gets better,” Humans cautions. “The bully will try to be meaner to get that same reaction. Instead, teach them tools to break the cycle.”
2. Brainstorm with their children and practice coming up with their own “zappers” to say in a bullying situation. Practicing at home equips kids with snappy comebacks to use when faced with the situation at school. “When kids come up with their own ideas for deflating bullies, they’re not only more likely to remember them, they’re more likely to implement them, too,” Humans says. The best zappers are safe to use in a school setting, aren’t terribly hurtful, and are easy to recall.
3. Cast the bully as someone that your child should feel sorry for to help them realize that the bully is the one who has a major problem, not them. This realization helps kids to stop responding out of anger, frustration or sadness—the kind of reaction bullies thrive on—and helps the child to view the bullying in a dispassionate, intellectual way. “Reaching this stage of the game is literally half the battle,” Humans says. She does note that any type of physical abuse, however, is in a different league and should immediately be turned over to adults.
Lastly, teach your child the 5 W’s of reporting bullying: who, what, when, where, and most importantly, witnesses. “When schools can corroborate a student’s claims of being bullied by independently and discreetly interviewing bystanders who saw what happened, it’s no longer a question of expecting the school to take your child’s word against the bully’s,” Humans explains. “By teaching children how to deal with a bully, we’re protecting them for a lifetime.”
For more information about Dr Humans, visit JackieHumans.com. 15 Ways to ZAP a Bully! Can be found at your favorite bookseller.
For five steps to help you coach your child against bullying, visit metrofamilymagazine.com/bully-coaching.
A Look at Bullying Today with Local Expert, Dr. Paul Tobin
MFM: Is bullying more prevalent today?
PT: It has always been part of our culture. Modern technology makes people less accountable. Bullying today can occur without faceto- face interaction.
The face of bullying has changed—it’s not just the stereotypical big, mad boy anymore. There is an increase in girl bullies, especially in group “mean girl” type of situations.
MFM: What types of kids end up being the target of cyberbullying?
PT: There is no accountability with online bullying. It occurs through social network connections, often stemming from jealousy or meanness. Often, kids are targeted just because the opportunity is there. But some are targeted by bullies who know them. Perhaps they are jealous of the target’s social status or simply see them as a more vulnerable young person.
MFM: How can we help our child if they are being bullied in school or online?
PT: First, through early detection and through educational programs in the schools that will help our kids understand that suffering in silence is never okay. Second, we can help them to recognize their personal power and be assertive.
Teach kids that fighting back is not the best solution; adults can help. Talk about it and rehearse what can be said to a bully to counteract the attack. Sometimes just talking will help you to find the best solution.
MFM: What are some signs that parents need to be aware of that indicate their child is being bullied?
PT: Look for any significant change or withdrawal from normal behavior. A reduction in academic performance is a sign, as are fear, anxiety or other stress-related symptoms. The key is to look for a change in normal behavior and social engagement, or an unwillingness to participate in school or social situations.
MFM: What can parents do?
PT: Don’t hesitate to involve school administration and use school resources. Monitor your child’s social network pages and look for any behavior that could be considered cyberbullying. If necessary, inform the police about what you find—federal laws protect us from cyberbullies.
Bullying is a serious issue and it is important to teach your child to take accountable action and to let them know that they have the support of the adult in their life.
An Oklahoma licensed health services psychologist in Edmond, Dr. Paul Tobin provides both mental health services and organizational consulting services. For more information, visit counselingandconsultations.com.
Brooke Barnett is the Assistant Editor of MetroFamily Magazine and hopes to always help both of her young children find their inner superhero.