Dealing with employees who miss deadlines or whose work is below standard is relatively easy and straightforward. Dealing with persistently negative employees who don’t make big mistakes or openly violate organizational policy is tougher for many supervisors.
But it’s important that you deal swiftly and firmly because negative employees create suspicion, tension, cliques and hostility, and undermine leadership.
Most insidious are negative employees who come to work on time each day and are good workers technically, so traditional performance evaluations will grade them adequate or even better. They use negativity for bullying to get control.
Sweet and placating supervisors excuse Sally’s behavior because each incident is too minor to make a big deal about, because “that’s just way she is,” or because they hope that if they give Sally what she wants, she’ll repay their kindness with a positive attitude and support. But Sally is never satisfied. She’s just a bully.
Inexperienced supervisors don’t know how to intervene effectively or are afraid that Sally will accuse them of harassment. They feel isolated and helpless even though they’re supervisors.
A nine-year-old, third grade student from Colorado Springs was recently suspended for fighting back against another student who had bullied him repeatedly The target had complained to school authorities, but they had not protected him.
Both boys were suspended for fighting. The school defended its actions: "If a student is involved in a physical altercation on school property, they are automatically suspended. District 11 schools employ many anti-bullying teaching techniques … and none of these methods include violence or retaliation," the school said in a statement to KDVR.
Of course, they'll suspend you because teachers and principals who don't protect kids are do-nothing jerks and jerks do jerky things and they don’t wan to risk making a wise judgment about who the bully is. When you get suspended, act contrite. Say you're sorry, promise you won't fight again. When no one is looking, wink at the bully to let him know that you'll beat him up again, if necessary.
If you follow this plan, you'll get at least four wonderful things:
While you're on suspension, I'll take you to Disney World for a big celebration. After all, winners of Super Bowls get to go; why not winners on the playground?
I also tell them that there are some caveats to my advice:
If the bully is much bigger than you or if there is a gang of kids, we'll devise a different plan
When you're old enough (maybe high school) that kids are carrying weapons, we'll devise a different plan.
But the take-home message is always to give the responsible authorities a chance, but if they don't do their jobs, solve the problem yourself. Don't be a victim waiting forever for other people to protect you. Use your own power. Say “That’s enough!” Say “No!” Stopping bullies is more important than never using violence.
The principal and teachers at Sheila’s school were proud of their efforts to stop bullies. They had a team, including a psychologist, to deal fairly with students accused of bullying.
They were certain that:
Students became bullies because they’d been bullied at home.
Bullies had low self-esteem and weren’t aware of other ways of making friends.
Bullying was in retaliation for bad treatment and that if provocation decreased, so would bullying.
If other students stopped hurting the feelings of bullies, bullying would eventually stop.
Since bullying was not the fault of one person, negotiation and mediation, would eventually stop bullying.
The best way to stop bullying was through forgiveness, sympathy, compassion, understanding, education and compromise.
These educators were not going to let those poor, damaged kids who’d turned to bullying be harassed, taunted or abused, verbally or emotionally, or through unjust accusations.
Sheila’s mother met with the teacher, principal and school psychologist. They assured her that there was no evidence for Sheila’s accusations. Then they asked many questions about Sheila’s home life and psychological state. Maybe Sheila was going through something difficult at home. Or maybe she was simply jealous and suffering from some teenage turmoil because she didn’t fit in.
They suggested that Sheila try to make friends with the popular girls – be nice to them, ask them what upset them and try to change that, give them friendship offerings, open her heart to them or turn the other cheek if she was misunderstanding what they said to her. Maybe Sheila was simply too sensitive to the way high school girls naturally were.
They told accused clique of girls that Sheila had complained about them and encouraged them to be nice to her, despite her complaint.
Having been forewarned and directed at Sheila, but having no consequences to make them stop bullying, the accused girls escalated their attacks and got sneakier. Sheila was subjected to daily barrages of hostility, venom and meanness. When nothing happened to the clique, they got bolder and eventually beat Sheila up in the bathroom.
Unfortunately for them, a teacher happened to be in one of the stalls and heard the whole scene.
The school officials now initiated their program to stop bullies.
They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to talk with the parents of the clique girls.
They encouraged Sheila’s parents not to go to the media or to a lawyer.
They assured Sheila’s parents that the quieter the issue was kept, the more likely there would be a rapid resolution to the situation.
The principal and therapist had Sheila meet with the girls to mediate the situation by themselves. They told the girls that they thought the students could solve the hostility on their own and that Sheila was willing to compromise with them.
At that meeting, the girls pinched Sheila, punched her, pulled her hair and threatened her with worse after school. Then they told the principal and therapist that they’d apologized and promised not to do anything if Sheila would treat them nicer, but that Sheila had called them names, insulted them and refused to compromise.
Many people believe that forgiveness – complete, unconditional and true – is necessary for spiritual development and for stopping bullies.
These people struggle so they can see all people as completely spiritual and good, they strive to love them unconditionally, and they aspire to rise above earthly concerns and values. That makes them feel very spiritual and virtuous.
However, much more often, I see the trap that “ineffective forgiveness” leads people into.
We don’t stop thinking about the incidents and we generate the same repeating cycle of strong emotions.
We don’t take precautions so the bully repeatedly attacks us.
We don’t learn how to avoid the same traps or how to stop bullying by toxic, selfish, narcissistic bullies’ sneaky manipulations, control, back-stabbing, or overt violence or threats of violence.
Ineffective forgiveness means that we hope the other person won’t be mean or nasty next time. We hope that our believing this bit of wishful thinking helps bullies become better. And to show that we’ve forgiven, we must put ourselves back into the same position in hopes bullies won’t take advantage of our good nature and kindness.
What do we try to gain by replaying incidents of bullying and abuse?
Replaying is a motivational strategy. We’re trying to develop enough fear or pain, suffering or sorrow, isolation or depression, anger or rage so that we’ll finally take steps to protect ourselves. We’re trying to develop enough energy to act effectively.
Therefore, once we know that we’ll protect ourselves, we can stop the rehashing the incidents, stop regenerating the strong emotion in order to keep us suspicious and alert. Then we can forgive effectively.
What are the goals of effective forgiveness and what do we usually require to get there?
The goal of effective forgiveness is simply to stop thinking about the other person so they occupy no space in our mental or emotional worlds.
In order to relax our vigilance, either we have to know that the perpetrator won’t try bullying us again or that we’ll protect ourselves, naturally, automatically and easily, if they ever try again. Because we’ll stop them automatically, we don’t need to replay and re-analyze all the terrible incidents to keep us on guard and full of energy.
Usually, we test a bully’s sincerity by requiring public apologies and amends. If they won’t do these, we correctly don’t trust them. Even if they do these, we still can choose to get them out of our space.
What if no apologies or amends are possible?
I saw a program about the Amish in America, in which a portion was devoted to a young man who invaded an Amish school, sent all the boys out and started shooting all the girls. He killed five and seriously wounded more. Then he killed himself.
What can we say? There are no apologies or amends that would make that okay.
I’m saying that in such cases, the task of the Amish families is not to forget, but somehow to move on with the children who are alive and with each other. Whatever they can think and do to reduce this horror to a size that makes it only a part of life, to a size that still allows them to find joy, for the children to grow up and love and have their own children, whatever allows them to do that is effective. If they use the work “forgiveness,” that’s fine.
How can we forgive ourselves?
Follow the same approach. Beating ourselves relentlessly; negative self-talk, self-bullying, self-doubt, self-questioning, perfectionism, blame, shame, guilt and self-flagellation are simply ways of continuing to remind ourselves to do better. But that’s a hard way to keep the reminder in mind. The price is pretty high – loss of confidence and self-esteem, loss of will and determination. When we change our way of being in the world, so we know we won’t act that way again, we won’t need the self-bullying. Or when we make ourselves into people who are so filled with the best of us that we won’t act that way next time, we won’t need the self-bullying to motivate us to stay on track.
The goal of effective forgiveness is always about behavior:
We don’t waste our time and energy obsessing on the bullies.
No specific process is required or is the best, as long as we get to the goal. Whatever our explanations, psychological rationalizations, excuses or justifications are for bullies’ behavior or whatever make us feel good about forgiving them, the only criterion that really matters is that we get to the goals of effective forgiveness – we don’t waste our time and energy obsessing on the bullies and we protect ourselves.
Notice that I haven’t gone into abstract discussions about the existence of evil, or whether bullies are sinners or whether this world of pain and suffering, of joy and beauty is real or whether it’s a delusion to see through. Those considerations might be important to some people, but they’re irrelevant to learning how to stop bullies and to protect ourselves from their attacks.
One of the typical tactics of sly, sneaky, stealthy, manipulative bullies is to work in the dark; to not be seen to be bullies. Then, when a light is shined on their abusive behavior, they claim that they were just having fun; that they were just kidding around; that they didn’t know their target was offended, hurt or minded their attacks.
This tactic is used at home by bullying, toxic spouses, parents or children, and by bullies and their cliques in schools and at work.
In order to stop these bullies you must protest; you must say “No!”
Often, people decide to ignore the bullying. These targets (on their way to becoming victims):
But what if the bullying doesn’t stop? Usually, determined, relentless bullies are only encouraged by lack of resistance. They see a non-resisting target as holding up a “victim” sign and they escalate. They can’t understand the moral impetus behind such kindness. They’re bullies. They interpret our lack of push-back as fear and weakness, no matter how we interpret it. They’re encouraged to organize cliques to demean, mock, attack and hurt us more.
Other people assume that if we’re not protesting, we must know we’re in the wrong; we must deserve the treatment we’re getting. Our society saw that phenomenon when women didn’t cry “rape!”
But, if we protest, won’t the bullying get worse?
Maybe or maybe not. Remember, what happened we tried the test of not protesting? When we didn’t protest, the harassment, abuse and bullying got worse. So we might as well learn to protest effectively; the first step of which is creating records and documentation.
For some techniques to overcome worry, fear and hesitation, see the case studies in “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” and “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up,” available fastest from this web site.
If we protest, will the bullies stop?
Although there’s a guarantee that relentless bullies will escalate if we don’t protest, there’s no guarantee that simply protesting will stop them. Protesting is only the first step in responding effectively. We may need to go up to higher steps to stop a particular bully.
Everyone has moments that matter: moments when our life can go in either direction; moments when we can choose the strength to soar to heaven or the weakness to fall into hell. You know, those moments in which everything gets absolutely quiet and the air seems to pulse and throb with the power and weight of a choice that will change our life. What will we do? Which path will we choose? What will our life become?
All bullies, all targets and all witnesses have those moments when the rest of their lives hang in the balance. Will they stop bullying? Will they stop being victims of bullies or of their own self-bullying? Will they give up in defeat and despair or will they forge ahead, no matter the consequences?
These are the moments when, if we have the “Will,” we can will ourselves into wonderful futures.
Charles M. Blow reminded me of the moments of truth that I’ve seen in the lives of all the bullies and also all the targets I’ve known. He wrote a wonderful, deep, heart-felt column in the New York Times, “The Bleakness of the Bullied.”
He describes his own experience when he was eight, the subject of “relentless teasing and bullying from all directions – classmates as well as extended family.” In a pit of despair, he contemplated suicide, only to be heartened when a song, often sung by his mother, leapt to his mind, “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”
He knew he had “to be brave and patient, that this was not to be my last night.”
Every target of bullying I’ve ever coached had a similar moment in their childhood or in our work together: A moment when they faced the bleakness of a future of continuing to be a victim or, alternatively, the brightness of standing up and fighting back in some way. In that moment, they each responded to that choice with a great surge of Will, power and energy. They fanned the spark in their heart into a fierce flame that warmed, strengthened and sustained them.
Once their Will took over their actions, despite a little anxiety, the rest was straightforward.
They would keep that flame alive by daring to protect and defend themselves; by taking the risk of creating a brilliant and wonderful future for themselves, no matter the opinions of their oppressors or the cost to the old, destructive patterns they had been mired in or the people they were related to.
Their action plans were different depending on their circumstances but they had the same Will and they learned the same skills.
I’ve seen the same moment of truth with bullies.
One former bully told me of a moment when he was about nine and was the biggest, toughest angriest kid in his class. He had thought he was simply doing what he had to do to make his place in the world. Then, a principal hauled him into his office, sat him down and told him, in so many words, that he was a bully and he had to stop or he’d be thrown out of school. He was too vicious, nasty and brutal to be allowed to continue harassing and tormenting the kids he was victimizing.
The boy was stunned. He’d never thought of himself as a bully, as vicious and nasty. And he certainly didn’t want to be thrown out of school. In that moment his heart broke open and he vowed never to be a bully again, even if he was the biggest kid in the room.
Why was that bully seeing me? He wanted to learn skills to negotiate his adult life without reverting to bullying in order to get his way. He didn’t want to be a bullying spouse, co-worker or boss. He didn’t want to be a bullying parent.
I learned by personal and professional experience that unconditional love doesn’t stop real-world bullies. But others learned the same lesson over 2,500 years ago.
Of course, we all have those bad days when everything seems to go wrong and we’re so grumpy that we take it out on the dog or anyone we meet. But with people like us, a yelp of pain, a kind word, a straightforward appeal, an expression of empathy or sympathy will bring us to our senses. We’ll be genuinely contrite, make amends and not repeat the behavior again. But, of course, we’re not relentless, real-world bullies. We just had a bad day.
In fact, they take our love and kindness as signs of weakness and an invitation to increase their bullying. Here are two ancient examples:
In “The Analects,” 14-34, Confucius says: “Requite injury with uprightness. Requite kindness with kindness.”
The “Mahabharata” says, “If you are gentle, [bullies] will think you are afraid. They will never be able to understand the motives that prompt you to be gentle. They will think you are weak and unwilling to resist them.”
In other words: If you turn the other cheek to bullies, expect that bullies will misinterpret your moral high ground for weakness and be encouraged to taunt, harass, abuse and attack you more. If you’re willing to have your cheek slapped, then turn the other cheek. Or if you think that another part of your anatomy is meant by the saying, be prepared to have your cheek bitted by a jackal.
But don’t believe me or the ancient wisdom. What’s your experience?
Suppose you classify into two groups:
Those who responded to your kindness and love with kind and loving behavior.
Suppose you label the first group “people who act nice to me when we act nice to each other” and suppose you ignore the reasons, excuses and justifications of people in the second group and simply label them as “bullies” or “predators.” Would that give you a better idea about how to respond effectively and successfully to their behavior?
And what’s your take on history? Suppose you did the same classification to famous historical figures. Suppose you though if, for instance, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, General Custer, Cortez, Pizarro, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the Inquisition and thousands more would have had their lust for power satisfied, and stopped their brutality and conquest if they were faced with kindness, appeasement, begging, bribery or love?
Oh, I forgot to mention all of the martyrs of every religion, race, color, creed, ethnic group or gender. And how about those wildebeests crossing that crocodile infested river? Or a limping zebra being watched by lions and hyenas?
So what can you do?
Don’t be anxious, afraid, discouraged, depressed or suicidal. Don’t be angry at the way the world is.
With expert coaching and consulting, we can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying. We can overcome childhood rules that aren’t appropriate to our desire to thrive in the real-world.
We can become strong and skilled enough to resist being targeted by bullies and to stop bullies in their tracks. We can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation.
Many types of family bullying are obvious, whether it’s physical or verbal harassment, nastiness or abuse, and targets or witnesses usually jump in to stop it. The typical perpetrators are mothers and fathers bullying each other or the kids, sibling bullies, bullying step-parents or kids sneakily bullying a step-parent in order to drive a wedge between a biological parent and their new partner.
But many people allow extended family members to abuse their children or their spouses, especially at the holidays, because they’re afraid that protest will split the family into warring factions that will never be healed. They’re afraid they’ll be blamed for destroying family unity or they accept a social code that proclaims some image of “family” as the most important value.
Except in a few, rare situations, that’s a big mistake.
A rare exception might be an aged, senile and demented, or a dying family member whose behavior is tolerated temporarily while the children are protected from the abuse.
But a more typical example of what shouldn’t be tolerated was a grandpa who had a vicious tongue, especially when he drank. He angrily told the grandchildren they were weak, selfish and dumb. He ripped them down for every fault – too smart, too stupid; too fat, too skinny; too short, too tall; too pretty, too ugly; too demanding, too shy. He also focused on fatal character flaws; born lazy, born failure, born evil, born unwanted.
For good measure, he verbally assaulted his own children and their spouses – except for the favorite ones. He even did this around the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables when the parents and their spouses were present. He was always righteous and right.
I assume you’ve asked him to stop or given him dirty looks, but that only seemed to encourage him to attack you and your children more. Or he apologized, but didn’t stop for even minute. When you arrived late and tried to leave early, he attacked your family even more. He blamed you for disrupting the family. The rest of the adults also said that it’s your fault you aren’t kind and family oriented enough to put up with him.
What else can you do?
I think you have to step back and look at the big picture – a view of culture, society and what’s important in life. Only then can you decide what fights are important enough to fight and only then will you have the strength, courage and perseverance to act effectively.
Compare two views: one in which blood family is all important.
We are supposed to do anything for family and put up with anything from family because we need family in order to survive or because family is the greatest good. This view says that if you put anything above family, especially your individual conscience or needs, you’ll destroy the foundations of civilized life and expose yourself in times of need. In this view, we are supposed to sacrifice ourselves and our children to our biological family – by blood or by marriage.
We can see the benefits of this view. When you’re old and sick, who else will take care of you but kith and kin? In this view, the moral basis of civilization is the bond of blood and marriage. Violate that relationship, bring disunity into the family by standing up for your individual views and you jeopardize everything important and traditional.
In my experience, this view is usually linked to the view that men and inherited traditions should rule. Boys are supposed to torment girls because that teaches them how to become men. Girls are supposed to submit because that’s their appointed role – sanctioned by religion and culture. If men are vicious to women and children, if old people are vicious to the young, that’s tolerated.
Contrast this view with an alternative in which behavior is more important than blood.
Your individual conscience and rules of acceptable behavior are more important than traditions that enable brutality and pain generation after generation. What’s most important in this view is that you strive to create an environment with people who fill your heart with joy – a family of your heart and spirit.
If you choose the first view, you’ll never be able to stop bullying and abuse. Your children will see who has the power and who bears the pain. They’ll model the family dynamics they saw during the holidays. You’ve abdicated the very individual conscience and power that you need to protect yourself and your children. You’ll wallow in ineffective whining and complaining, hoping that someone else will solve your problem.
The best you can hope for outside the family, when your children face bullies who have practiced being bullies or being bullied at home, is that school authorities will do what’s right and protect your children from bullies. But how can you expect more courage from them than you have? Or why shouldn’t they accept the culture which tolerates bullying and abuse, just like you have?
Are you the biological child in the family or merely a spouse?
Is your spouse willing to be as strong as you?
Who’s the perpetrator – a grandparent, another adult or spouse, a cousin, a more distant relative?
Do you see the perpetrator every year or once a decade?
Do other adults acknowledge the abuse also?
Expert coaching and good books and CDs like “Bullies Below the Radar: How to Wise Up, Stand Up and Stay Up” and “How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” will help you make the necessary inner shifts and also develop a stepwise action plan that fits your family situation and newly developed comfort zone. For example, see the case studies of Kathy, Jake and Ralph.
Keep in mind that while you hope the perpetrator will change his or her behavior, your goal is really to have an island with people who make every occasion joyous. You must be prepared to go all the way to withdrawing from family events or to starting a fight that will split the family into two camps. But at least you’ll be in a camp in which you feel comfortable spending the holidays.
Be prepared to be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes when one person speaks up, many others join in and the combined weight of opinion forces an acceptable change. Sometimes if you say you’ll withdraw, you’ll be seen as the most difficult person in the room and the rest of the family will make the abuser change or ostracize him or her.
State laws and school policies are necessary, but they’re not enough to stop school bullies. The third necessary ingredient is the responsible people who are paid to make schools safe. If teachers, psychologists and counselors, assistant principals, principals, district administrators and school board members don’t create effective school programs and don’t enforce the laws and policies, perpetrators will be freed and their targets will be victimized.
According to the ABC News and investigative reporter Theresa Marchetta, Caitlin Smith was sexually assaulted in the final days of a summer program for incoming freshman at Englewood High School in a Denver, Colorado suburb. The evidence seemed clear-cut and, indeed, a court recently found the boy guilty of unlawful sexual contact with no consent.
The school had suspended him for the last three days of the summer program but what happened when school started in the fall?
The story is titled, “District Policies Fail Teen Victim: Guilty Attacker Remains in School.”
In order for Caitlin to be allowed to enter school, the vice principal had the Smiths sign a “No-Contact Notice” which reads, "You have been involved in an incident that may be criminal in nature," and suspects can not "harass, threaten, annoy, disturb, follow or have verbal/physical contact with any victim or witness in this incident.”
The perpetrator was immediately allowed back in school with Caitlin in the fall. He did not sign a No-Contact Notice and was still allowed back in school. This is despite a statement by Englewood Superintendent Sean McDaniel that, "I think that [the No-Contact Notice] would be a piece on the perpetrators side not on the victim’s side."
On Caitlin’s first day back in school, she was taken right back to the scene of the attack. "They guaranteed they wouldn’t take me down that hallway. I was freaking out, crying, upset. I didn’t want to go through, was closing my eyes,” she said. School authorities asked Caitlin’s mother to keep her daughter out of school. She reports that, "They're asking me to hold my daughter out of school and giving an education to a child [the bully] who shouldn't even be there."
To deal with such incidents, the Englewood School District has policies “which clearly states, multiple times, what happened to Caitlin was a ‘level one’ offense, ‘those which will result automatically in a request for expulsion to the superintendent.’”
When Marchetta asked Superintendent McDaniel, “Should a student be expelled or consider being expelled for having unwanted sexual contact with a student?" he replied, "Absolutely, no question. Sexual contact? I would expect an administrator to suspend with a recommendation for expulsion. Then, that would land in my office.” But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice and that now, over six months after the incident, he didn’t know what the principal was doing about the situation.
When Superintendent McDaniel was asked, “theoretically speaking, if it would ever be acceptable for a student accused of committing such an offense to remain in the population during the proceedings, he answered, ‘That’s a great question. No,’ [he added], ‘In that scenario to just to turn the kid loose back in to the student population with no requirements, parameters? No, I can not foresee a situation like that.’" But he then admitted that the perpetrator was allowed to remain in school without even signing the No-Contact Notice.
Parents and students need to know what to do after such an incident:
Don’t hide; make a fuss. Immediately go to the appropriate school authorities and the police. That’s like we encourage victims to report rape immediately.
Find and rally other students and parentswho have been harassed, bullied or abused – emotionally, sexually or physically. If any other kids excuse the perpetrator’s behavior and tell you that you’re being too harsh or if any other kids hassle, threaten or bully you, report them. Record evidence; that’s what cell phones are for. Travel with your friends.
If the authorities won’t act, immediately get a lawyer skilled in both the pertinent laws and in how to bring media pressure to bear. Plan an overall strategy and tactics.
Get an expert coach or therapist to keep your spirits up and to rally your strength and determination.
Don’t accept bullying; don’t take the blame. In most cases the girl is not a “slut” or “whore” that others will call you. It’s usually not your fault. You should know that if the school authorities won’t act, they’re the problem, not you. You don’t have to be perfect according to their standards in order for them to actively help you. Don’t indulge in self-bullying. Negative self-talk, blame, shame and guilt never help. They only increase anxiety, stress and depression, and destroy confidence and self-esteem. Don’t believe negative predictions; your life isn’t ruined and in 10 years you won’t want to be friends with your high school classmates – certainly not the hyenas who pile on.
As you can see, state laws and school policies are necessary to give principals and administrators the leverage to act safely without fear of law suits by bullying parents of school bullies. But the responsible authorities must be willing to act courageously, energetically, skillfully and effectively. When they don’t, laws and policies become scraps of paper, blowing in the wind of their excuses.
Since the principal and district administrator didn’t protect a target of such bullying and abuse, I predict that there have already been other incidents at Englewood High School and there will be in the future. Bullies are predators. They look for easy prey and they push the boundaries. Once one hyena gets away with boundary pushing – darting in, ripping off some flesh and darting back safely – the rest of the pack will pile on.
In addition to the perpetrator and his family, the principal and district administrator have a lot to answer for. I hope a public outcry focuses on them.
My last post focused on children, teenagers and adults facing moments of choice when they’re targets of or bystanders-witnesses to harassment, bullying and abuse. People who repeatedly turn away from that call to step up usually develop terrible long-term consequences including increased stress, insecurity, discouragement and depression; increased blame, shame, guilt and negative self-talk; and loss of self-confidence and self-esteem.
The valor of Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger focuses us on a different but just as critical a set of choices our kids and teens face as they grow up.
In a Wall Street Journal article, Jeffrey Zaslow, co-author, with Captain Sullenberger, of his book, "Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters," Captain Sullenberger faced a number of difficult situations when he was growing up. He responded to these moments with powerful choices that led him to be prepared to act effectively in the moment when both engines of his Airbus A320 on US Airways flight 1549 went out and he ditched the plane safely in the Hudson River.
His youthful choices led him to develop the character and skill he needed when a moment of truth was thrust upon him and lives were at stake. Some of the choices he made long before he captained that flight:
Act when someone is helpless in the face of danger. For example, when he was 13 he watched the news about Kitty Genovese, a New York woman who was stabbed to death while her neighbors ignored her screams and didn’t even act to call the police. Sullenberger decided then “that if I was ever in a situation where someone such as Kitty Genovese needed my help, I would choose to act. No one in danger would be abandoned. As they’d say in the Navy: ‘Not on my watch.’”
Work hard to protect people’s lives; don’t be a bystander. Sully says that after his “father killed himself in 1995, ‘His death had an effect on how I view the world. I am willing to work hard to protect people’s lives, not to be a bystander, in part because I couldn’t save my father.’”
Be prepared. Study how things can go wrong and plan ahead to overcome potential problems. In order to see what went wrong and to figure out what to do better, he examined many plane wrecks in person and read many transcripts of cockpit vice recorders taken just before crashes. The lessons he chose to learn: “Be vigilant and alert.” He saw that Charles Lindbergh’s “success was due almost entirely to preparation, not luck.”
Develop the right mindset. He says, "In so many areas of life, you need to be a long-term optimist but a short-term realist… You have to know what you know and don't know, and what your airplane can and can't do in every situation."
Compartmentalize. Focus on the immediate task; don’t be distracted by extraneous thoughts. “Sully says his family did not come into his head. ‘That was for the best. It was vital that I be focused; that I allow myself no distractions. My consciousness existed solely to control the flight path.’”
Captain Sullenberger is justly praised for what he did as an adult on the day he saved 155 lives. And I see a hero in the 13 year-old boy who started and continued to make wonderful choices in response to the difficult situations he faced; preparing himself for the moment when the duty to respond was thrust on him 40 years later.
An article by Hillary Stout in the New York Times, “For Some Parents, Shouting is the New Spanking,” focuses on the damage to children done by parents’ shouting and, therefore, the need for parents to control their tempers.
Although I agree that a steady diet of shouting and bullying isn’t a good way for well-meaning, devoted parents to act, the experts in the article miss the real source of the problem and, therefore, the real solution.
Those experts point out that the proper way to be a good parent is “never spank their children,” “friend our teenagers,” “spend hours teaching our elementary-school offspring how to understand their feelings,” “reminding, nagging, timeout, counting 1-2-3” and “have a good interaction based on reason.”
I disagree with their basic assumptions about good parenting and their solution that parents should control their tempers.
Of course, repeated sarcasm, criticism, beatings and abuse are bad parenting. I’m talking here to frustrated, well-meaning, devoted parents; not abusive bullies.
Good parenting sometimes involves spanking, has nothing to do with “friending,” is not focused on teaching children to merely understand their feelings and is not usually about good interactions based on reason. Reason is only a small part of being an effective parent, especially when the children are young.
Children are exquisitely adept at knowing your true limitations and which buttons to push. It’s a survival skill for them. They know exactly how many times you’ll yell before you act. They distinguish between yelling and threatening that won’t be followed up, and the “Mom” or “Dad” look and voice that means you will act. And they perform a precise calculus based on how much they’ll get the next time versus a punishment and your guilt this time. They know when they can get unreasonable and stubborn, and win. They also know that if you blow up and yell now, they’ll win later.
What leads to repeated shouting is frustration. Those parents have so limited their allowed responses that they’re no longer effective – the kids know that they don’t have to do what the parents want and nothing serious will happen. Those parents have taught their children to be stubborn and unreasonable in order to win. See the case study of Paula as she stops being bullied by her daughter Stacy in "How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks."
Those parents’ lack of creativity and effectiveness increases their frustration until they blow up and shout. Then those parents feel guilty, apologize, give the kids more power and set in motion the next cycle of not getting listened to leading to more frustration and further shouting.
The solution is for parents to take charge and be parents – speak and act straight. Decide – as age, stage and specific kid appropriate – what decisions you make and when the child simply must obey, and what decisions the kid gets to make and within what limits. In your areas, it’s nice if the child understands your needs and reasons, but you’ll never convince a two or sixteen year-old by reasoning that your way is best and they should be happy not getting what they want.
Sometimes you must be firm about your sense of urgency, which is not matched by theirs. Sometimes, your needs and wishes must be taken into account. You’re not their slave or servant all the time. They don’t get what they want every time. More important than helping them understand their feelings is teaching them how to deal effectively when they’re feeling demanding or angry or frustrated or needy.
And some kids seem to want to be punished sometimes. Really, they do. And they feel much better afterward. When you’ve gone through the sequence of reminding and timeout without effect, a spank is sometimes the best thing to do.
Your frustration and shouting is a message to you that you’re not being effective. You need to do more than merely learn the latest technique; you need to change the limits you place on yourself. That will open up other ways to making them do what you need when you’re under pressure.
Good parenting means that you can say, “Here’s the way it is. I need to move fast and I insist that you do the same.” Or “You don’t vote on this decision and we’ll talk about it later.” Of course, you will talk about it later. Or “I’m not taking you there today. I need to unwind right now over a latte. I love you. Now go read and leave me alone for a while.” Of course, most of the time we devoted parents will take them to places they want to go.
Don’t reason more than once with a five year-old who doesn’t want to brush her teeth, “You’re making a bad decision,” as those experts suggest. Simply say, “In our family, we brush our teeth, so you will.”
It’s not, as those experts say, that “Yelling parents reflect a complete inability to express themselves in any meaningful, thoughtful, useful or constructive way.” It’s that yelling parents aren’t allowing themselves to express the right thought, which is that “I, the parent, am drawing the line here and you will do what I want. I have good reasons. I hope you understand now and I know you’ll understand later. But even if you don’t understand, you will do what I want now.”
In addition to what I learned professionally, we have six, now-grown children who taught me that well-meaning parents yell when they’re irritable, anxious, pressured, overwhelmed and frustrated because they don’t know how else to make things work for them
Toxic parents can make your life miserable, especially if you’re still trying to win their approval or if you think you must see them during the holidays.
Most people can call it quits with bullying lovers, end false friendships and divorce abusive spouses. But stopping bullying by toxic parents seems more difficult. And it’s even harder if there were one or two loving moments or you think you owe them for feeding you.
Too many therapists won’t show their shock and dismay at the abuse and will encourage adult children to keep interacting with toxic parents in the name of something called “family.” See, for example, the article by Dr. Richard Friedman in the New York Times.
I’ve seen adult children put up with continual criticism, hostility and anger; even being told by parents that they wish the child had never been born or would die. Some parents still remind their adult children that they’re never good enough and that they’ll be failures forever. Some parents make it clear that the other siblings are better in every way and more deserving of love. Often, the sarcasm, criticism, harassment and hostility are public, as if there’s a real intention to cause embarrassment and emotional pain.
Even worse for these abused adults is the thought that they’ll have to take care of those rotten parents when they get old and dementia makes them even worse.
Yet many adults accept the negativity, abuse and verbal torture. They endure the stress, discouragement, low self-esteem and depression that usually accompany repeated brutality. Some even internalize those hostile voices and beat themselves even when their parents aren’t present.
I think that a key sign of becoming an independent adult is deciding what criteria you’ll use for who you allow on your island. If you believe that family of birth is crucial because that’s the way you were raised or because you think that will get you a star in your crown in heaven or because you think family will be the only ones to take care of you when you need, then you’ve given up control of your island. You’ve decided to allow your island to be polluted by endless abuse and your spirit to be crushed if someone wants to.
On the other hand, suppose you decide to create an island that supports your emotional and spiritual life. Now you’re in charge of your life. Now you can demand good behavior before anyone gets on your island. Now you’ve created space to find the right people to populate your island. Now you’re a truly independent adult.
Now your tactics with your bullying parents are straightforward. You tell them, as sweetly and firmly as you can, how they must behave and what they may not do if they want to see or hear from you. You follow through with the natural consequences of leaving abusive situations, hanging up the phone, or not walking into the valley of punishment during the holidays. Your toxic parents have free will and choice.
Notice, I haven’t said anything about long-term, in depth psychoanalysis of toxic parents. That’s a secondary consideration. Since these bullies typically think they’re right and don’t need to change, they don’t examine themselves or they stay in therapy forever instead of changing. It’s not about whether they love you; it’s about how they love you.
I’ve seen many parents, when confronted by not seeing their children or grandchildren or when they know that their abused children are enjoying life without them, finally change how they treat their children.
Of course, sometimes toxic parents don’t change. But that’s not the goal of standing up to them. The goal is having an island that’s not polluted by toxic people, but instead is a paradise for your heart and spirit.
As to the fears that you’ll go through life alone and unloved; that’s nonsense. People with wonderful islands attract other people who want to be with them, who make their hearts and spirits sing. And you’ll have more money because you won’t be wasting it on therapy. And you’ll be setting a wonderful example for your children.
Two teenagers, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera, committed suicide recently after being taunted and bullied repeatedly and relentlessly while officials at their schools did nothing.
Unrelenting harassment led a third, Eric Mohat, to commit suicide a few years ago. Again, school officials denied there was a bullying problem. Yet he was one of four bullied Mentor High School students who committed suicide that year.
All three were harassed as gay. None was.
These three boys are just the most publicized tip of an epidemic that’s sweeping our schools.
The Use of “Gay” as Part of the Harassment and Bullying
Kids will use whatever differences they can see or invent in order to gang up and attack a scapegoat. The teen bullies used whatever came to hand or mouth – their hatred of gays. In one sense it wasn’t about the truth of whether the targets were gay, which would be bad enough, it was about the truths that kids will use bullying tactics and these never learned better and these weren’t taught better. Let’s not waste time analyzing why they bullied; let’s simply acknowledge that these kids failed in their character and their duty to become better, and the responsible adults never stopped them.
The Bullies’ Parents
They failed in their own character and were derelict in their duties to stop their children’s behavior and to teach them better.
The Administrators, Principals and Teachers
The principals and school district administrators didn’t protect these boys, just like most principals don’t protect most targets of bullying and abuse. We need school anti-bullying laws to force principals to act and also to protect them from counter suits by bullying parents trying to protect their beloved little terrorists (like Lucius Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series). Of course, without specific laws, even well-meaning principals are caught in a bind. But that’s no excuse. When people are determined, they forge ahead. When they don’t want to act, they talk about all the difficulties.
In every school, the other kids knew and many watched the bullying firsthand. Some were probably drawn to participate in the bloodletting. That’s the path of least resistance. Few, if any, reported it to teachers or to their parents. None of their parents responded effectively. There was no public outcry before the suicides. Again, there’s a huge failure of character and courage.
At the same time, as these examples show, we also can’t and shouldn’t count on schools to protect our children from hurt feelings. We must help our children develop the inner grit and resilience to know how to protect themselves from verbal harassment as well as from physical abuse.
Act now at your own schools; before this epidemic spreads further.
The success of Mahatma Gandhi and non-violent protest or non-violent resistance is often cited as absolute proof that such non-violent methods can defeat oppression and stop bullies. That idea is often linked to the assertions that the world was a simpler place back when people came together face to face, a small group of committed people can change the world and there’s nothing we can’t accomplish.
As much as I almost always try non-violent techniques first, I disagree strongly. You’re better off thinking of non-violent protest as a method, a strategy or a tactic; not as a philosophy.
Let’s examine non-violent protest as if its truth as a philosophy can be tested against history.
Gandhi-ji was successful against the British and I wouldn’t argue that any other tactic he could have employed would have succeeded. But his success only proves that in that particular circumstance, lead by that unique individual spirit, the tactic of non-violent protest was successful in getting the British to leave India. Do you think that non-violent resistance would have been effective in India in 1857? Or that it would help the Indian people now against Pakistan (or vice versa) or against the Muslim terrorists who recent launched their attacks in Mumbai?
I remember Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. I was actually in Chicago when he led the march and rally. Do you think he would have succeeded in leading a march in Chicago in 1920 or New York in the 1830’s (read about the mass atrocities and killings during the riots there)? Do you think the movement would have succeeded integrating schools in the South without the Federal troops willing to shoot?
Gandhi and Dr. King were in the right places at the right times for the methods they chose. Would either have even gotten obituaries in the newspapers if they tried non-violent protest in Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China, Bosnia, Rwanda or Darfur, or against the Ayatollah or Sadam Hussein, just to name a few?
The wisdom and lessons of history are clear, whether we like them or not. They’re found in the great literature of the world, as well as in the facts we know:
The world was never a simpler place. Try living your life on a self-sufficient farm, especially when the locusts or drought or flood or fire comes. Or when a conquering horde comes over the hill to kill all the men and take the women and children into slavery. That was dealing with problems face to face. Remember in the Iliad what happened to mighty Hector’s wife and son. No unemployment insurance, retirement funds or welfare.
A small group of people can change the world. Usually that’s what has happened, whether they start a Renaissance or a dictatorship or they’re called the Founding Fathers or Mothers.
Although there are many things we’ve accomplished through science and technology in the physical, material world, there are many things we can’t accomplish in the organic, living world. We will never have world peace. We will never have a global society that encourages and makes possible everyone’s individual freedom. Power is a reality of human nature, not freedom (as much as we Americans value it). Protecting me and mine against you and yours, or people grabbing what they want is a reality of human nature.
In response to a question about peaceful, non-violent protest being effective when facing Chinese soldiers with machine guns, the Dali Lama said, about two years ago, that had we stood there and prayed and chanted and reasoned, they simply would have shot us all. Similarly, the Quakers in Pennsylvania were barred from holding office because their peaceful methods did not protect the colonists they served from Indian attacks.
History shows that, for the most part, those who succeed practicing non-violence live in caves, deserts, misty mountains or monasteries. Usually, they live on practically nothing or are supported and taken care of by people who brave the world in which violence is a probability. For example, Gandhi could live poor and politically active because, in part, he was supported by the efforts and money of one of the richest women in India.
To think that we can have sustainable world peace is to indulge in childhood, magical thinking – very 60’s and 70’s.
Start with your personal world. Deal effectively and individually with the bullies you find, whether they be face to face or cyberbullies, bullies at work, home or school. Help make laws against those behaviors, but if you want society or the government to actively guarantee security, you will create Big Brother and you won’t like the consequences.
Think of non-violent protest and reasoning as initial tactics to employ. Sometimes they’ll be effective. Bullies will show you if non-violent protest enough to stop them. But if non-violent resistance doesn’t stop a bully, you have to be more clever and firm. History actually shows that usually the best way to prepare for peace is to be strong enough to wage war successfully, despite the seductively catchy bumper sticker to the contrary. Remember, no method succeeds everywhere and every when.
If you can’t be happy until the world is totally peaceful and all the problems are solved, you’ll have a lousy life. That would be a waste of your potential for wonder, awe and joy, as well as for effecting change … even knowing that change won’t last beyond your life span.
I notice that in all the cases cited (and in most others I know about) the adults did not do their jobs. They knew what was going on, but they allowed lawless individuals and gangs to control the school or the school bus. Whenever the legitimate authorities leave a vacuum, the most vicious and brutal people will try to take over. Remember the book by William Golding, "Lord of the Flies," where the children were on the island without adults to help set high standards.
I especially appreciate that the article didn’t end with descriptions of different bullying tactics or with psychoanalysis about why bullies do it. It ended where it should end: with an example of adults taking charge and stopping the bullying. And it’s not that hard for administrators who are dedicated to stopping bullying.
The administrators simply separated the freshman from the upper classmen, told upper classmen and freshmen what the acceptable standards of behavior were and what was not allowed, and assigned teachers to watch and work with groups of students. Then they acted swiftly and firmly if there was an incident.
Bullies have always existed and will always exist. We must prepare ourselves and our children to act skillfully and effectively. We can do that as a society (laws, culture) and as individuals.
In my coaching, consulting, books and CDs on how to stop bullies in their tracks at home, in school and at work, I always focus on stopping bullies before trying to help therapeutize them. Help the victims first. If the legitimate authorities won’t act, you as a parent must still protect your children, work to replace the failing principals or move to a school district where the authorities act courageously and firmly.
According to numerous reports, a teenager was bullied at West Middle School in metro Denver. The boy had pencils, markers and a calculator taken; he was called fat; he was called “gay” because he was involved in musical theater; because he was from musical theater, he was called a “Nazi.” Eventually, he tried fighting back against his tormentors. But he wasn’t big or strong enough and was beaten severely. He suffered a broken collar bone and head injury. The published picture of him is self-evident. Now that the case has become public, the community is in an uproar and the Cherry Creek School District has responded by expelling the bully. The bullied boy has reported that the bully threatened to beat him more when he returns. Three other students, who also threatened to beat up the victim, have been required to sign contracts that they won’t harass the boy. That’s nice of the school district to go that far.
Of course the legal wrangling will go on for a long time.
There’s so much to say about this example of hostility, abuse and brutality. I want to comment on only a few areas.
The adults failed. Whether they blame the legal system or say they didn’t know; they failed. Since the severe beating happened at the end of November, don’t you think that every student in school knew what was happening?
The parents of the bully and his collaborators failed. They are supposed to know their children’s character and to stop their children’s bullying.
The teachers failed. They are supposed to know who torments, abuses and bully’s another student and they are supposed to stop it. They allowed a hostile, abusive environment to continue. If the typical educational approaches don’t work rapidly, they are supposed to intervene in other ways.
The principal failed. The principal is supposed to set a tone of zero tolerance. The principal is supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullies. If the teachers don’t stop it, the principal is supposed to stop it and then get rid of those cowardly and/or ignorant teachers. The worst beating happened at the end of November and the principal did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.
The administrators in the school district failed. The administrators are supposed to be courageous enough to cut through the legal red tape and somehow stop bullying. If the principal doesn’t stop it, the school district administrators are supposed to step in and then get rid of that cowardly and/or ignorant principal. The worst beating happened at the end of November and the district administrators did nothing effective for three months until the story became public.
How can we hold up these teachers, principal and school district administrators as models for children? They have failed as models. Despite, or maybe because of, their colleges and universities, their degrees and certifications, their possible expertise in some course matter, they have shown themselves to be ignorant or cowardly or inept or all three. They have failed the public trust and are unfit to be teachers, principal or administrators.
They should not be allowed to hide behind a poor legal system. We all know that there are schools in the most violent locations in which courageous administrators, principals and teachers bullying. And they do it in the face of the same.
The 14 year-old boy who was bullied has shown himself to be courageous. He has succeeded. At first he did what we all try to do. We try accommodating in hopes that the bully will move on. We ask bullies to stop; we take the bullying; we try to understand what lousy home lives we think bullies must have; we try to rise above it. These tactics may stop many kids who are temporarily trying on bullying to see what it feels like, but those tactics don’t stop dedicated, relentless bullies. They are not effective for teaching children to stop bullies at school.
Eventually that boy fought. I say he succeeded because, even though he was severely beaten he did what was necessary to try to stop his tormentors. He lost the fight but he emerges as the one person who is not a coward in this affair. He can hold his head up high all his life. He can keep his self-esteem. He can judge the adults as cowards and failures. I hope he is resilient enough to bounce back and continues to resist to bullies the rest of his life. I hope that when he becomes an adult with more choices, he creates a personal life that is bully-free. Sometimes, a tormented teen can fight back and win – as in the case of the “Teen acquitted in punch.”
Of course, bullies will always exist . America is not unique, nor are we the worst people in the world. We are outraged and we will try to make better systems. And more important, we still must train , seek and hire people who can act effectively, no matter how poor the system is at any moment. And we must educate and prepare individuals to be as courageous as that 14 year-old boy.