When Benni Cinkle was 13, she appeared in a YouTube music video that went viral, receiving over 200 million views. At first, Benni was ridiculed by millions around the world for her awkward dancing, often referred to as “That girl in pink that can’t dance.” They called her names and told her she should kill herself.
A few of the printable names she was called were “lame, terrible, awkward, horrible, stupid, freak, loser, awful, worthless, annoying, fat and ugly, dumb.” Other comments included, “She should probably look into suicide,” “Please just die” and “I’ll bet she wants to kill herself now.”
Did she let the jerks drag her down? Did she lose her self-esteem and get depressed? Did she commit suicide?
Instead of reacting defensively, Benni didn’t take it personally. She kept her spirits up. She met their criticism with humor, honesty and understanding. She was open and didn’t hide. Soon, anonymous cyber bullies became fans and Benni's online reputation as an approachable, down-to-earth teen began to grow. In the months following her unexpected popularity, Benni received tens of thousands of requests for advice from teens around the world.
Realizing she had been gifted with a platform that offered international reach, Benni decided to use her 15 minutes of fame for something positive. So she:
Started “That Girl in Pink Foundation” as a non-profit organization dedicated to the prevention of teen suicide. TGIP focuses on any issue that may directly or indirectly lead to teen suicide, including: Teen Depression, Bullying, Cyber-Bullying, Teen Self-Mutilation, Teen Gay/Lesbian Support, Child Violence, Sexual Abuse, Teen Dating Violence, Eating Disorders and Teen Pregnancy.
Authored “That Girl in Pink’s Internet Survival Guide,” offering teens strategies for handling life online.
Organized a flashmob dance to raise donations for American Red Cross Japan Earthquake Relief.
Organized a walk for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation that included hundreds of kids from 14 countries walking with her, virtually.
Recorded her single, “Can You See Me Now,” and donated profits to TWLOHA and GLSEN.
Visited schools across the U.S. delivering her “Don’t Just Stand There” anti-bullying presentation.
Nobody wants their children to be bullied. We all want responsible school officials to stop bullying at their schools. We all want other parents to teach their children not to be bullies. We all want other kids to be witnesses and defenders when necessary.
We all want the road smoothed for our children.
Of course we must do what we can to prepare the road with good enough laws and with clear requirements to hold school principals and district administrators accountable.
But since no amount of effort or number of laws against bullying in any of its forms – verbal, mental, emotional, physical, cyberbullying – will ever stop mean kids or their protective parents from bullying their targets, what can we do for our children?
Good parenting also requires us to prepare our children for the roads they’ll encounter.
Report to school officials but that’s only the second task.
For example, Tom came home complaining that some other kids called him names, mocked his clothes, belittled his taste in music and even put down the way his parents looked and dressed. His parents blew up and went to school the next day to have it out with the principal. Since they ranted and raved and wanted the kids beaten in public or at least thrown out of school, they got no where.
Then they focused all their energy on the road – they wrote angry letters to the media, organized other parents and tried to get the principal fired.
There will be jerks who target you, but that doesn’t make you a victim. Victims give in and give up. Victims feel isolated and helpless. Victims get depressed and commit suicide.
You’re okay; don’t take it personally. There’s nothing wrong with you. They don’t know you. Test them – are they nice or are they jerks? If they’re jerks, their opinion doesn’t tell you about you; it tells you about them. Don’t ever let jerks control your feelings or emotions.
Stand up; speak up. Use your talent and learn new skills. Come back at them verbally. Use humor; especially sarcastic humor. Speak your piece. Fight back if necessary.
Get your allies to act. Tell your parents; tell your favorite, trustworthy teachers. Get help. Test your friends. Are they real friends or are they just acquaintances or “friendlies” who hang out? If they don’t care enough to get involved, they’re not friends.
Parents, be smart in how you prepare and fix the road.
I’m all for fixing the road. Just be smart about it. The summer is the best time to prepare the road. Work with principals, teachers and parents to develop clear and strong policies and programs. Hit the ground running when school stats in fall. Get the kids involved so they become witnesses and defenders. Make it a whole community effort.
Prepare yourself so that when there’s an incident, like happened with Tom, you know what to do and can do it without being overwhelmed by your emotions. Have a checklist. Is it a one-time argument or on-going harassment, bullying and abuse? What are the power dynamics? What evidence can you get? Does it happen to other kids? Can you get witnesses?
Prepare the friends and their families.
None of Tom’s friends defended him. They wouldn’t even be witnesses until we talked with them and their parents. Then they saw the power of choice and of standing together.
Parenting: Prepare the road or the child?
Don’t make it an either-or choice. Prepare both. Prepare your children to teach your grandchildren. Do you doubt they’ll also have to learn to stop bullies?
We don’t need more research and statistics to know that domestic violence is a travesty and must be stopped. For example, watch the graphic five minute video about the effects of that brutality and the work of one safe house helping women and children. Domestic violence is obvious – you can see the results of physical battering.
On the other hand, even though domestic bullying and mental and emotional abuse are more wide spread than overt beating they’re often hidden from view. Since harassment, bullying and abuse often fly below the bullying-radar of the targets and the public, I want to focus on it here. Targets who accept the bullies’ promises or threats or on-going torture often don’t recognize how bad it is; how demoralizing and defeating it is; how their souls are being eroded over time.
Of course, some men are bullied by women, but notice the patterns of the bullied women who have written these (edited) comments:
“Out of the blue, he started taking control over me (commanding me), which I am not liking. He is not letting me meet my friends or go out with them on weekends. He doesn’t let me wear dresses, saying his parents don’t like it. I am not allowed to do anything; no friends, no meeting people, no phones, nothing. These things were never an issue previously. I tried to work out things during last five months by listening to him and not meeting or talking to my friends. He just keep saying ‘Listen to me and things will work out; otherwise pack your bags and leave.’ He doesn’t let me go out anywhere without him. He doesn’t want to sort it out by talking. Whenever I try, he says, ‘I am not here to listen to you. You have to do whatever I say. I don’t want to hear a ‘No’. Now, I am always depressed and sad and smoke a lot more. I lost my smile. I lost myself in this relation. Shall I give up or keep compromising without any expectations in this relationship?”
“I have been in a four year relationship, and have a two year-old daughter with him. I have been feeling depressed lately and having second thoughts about us being together. He controls me. I can’t go any where without asking him first. Sometimes I feel like a little kid asking for permission, even if it’s to go to the store. My friends ask me to go out for a girls’ night and he gets mad if I mention it, so I stopped asking and him and just tell my friends I’m doing something that night so I can’t go. Now, they don’t even ask me anymore. When his friends are here he acts like he’s so cool and even yells at me in front of them. It’s extremely embarrassing. I feel alone. I tried leaving in the past and he won’t let me take the baby. So I stay because I don’t want to fight and I’m not leaving my child. What do I do? How do I make it an easy break up? How do we get out?”
“At first my husband was the sweetest man I ever met. He complimented me and had such great manners. Then slowly but surely he began changing into the worst thing I could ever imagine. The sick thing is I know I don't deserve it, but I can't leave. It's like he has some strange control over me. He constantly puts me down about my intelligence, appearance and my mothering abilities, which hurts the most. It’s such an everyday obstacle that I find myself questioning why I stay. It's gotten so bad I'm beginning to believe the things he says to me about how I'm useless and no one will ever want me but him. Every bad thing that happens, he takes out on me. Every single thing is my fault. I want to leave but I still find myself staying, feeling bad for him and his feelings. He can't even compliment at all without letting me know that I'm ugly and lucky he even loves me. I'm just so sad anymore. I don't even recognize myself. I'm not allowed to speak to my family or friends. I just don't know what to do anymore. I'm so lost.”
“My husband and I have been together for eleven years with four children. We go through the cycle of an abusive relationship. Every time we argue, I get called a ‘bitch,’ which I have asked him many times to not do. We kiss and make up. Then everything's fine and dandy again. He doesn't like to talk about our fights and says he will not name-call me again. But every opportunity he gets, he's right at it again. I guess I keep hoping he'll change, but I know he never will. I don't feel any love from this guy. He has fooled around on me and even went as far as marrying someone else while we were married. Just recently he took my wedding ring away and threatened to pawn it. He also promised my kids that he'll take them on a vacation. He doesn’t even work, so I ended up having to get funds just to take the kids on the vacation. Today, we fought again and he said sorry and he'll start today on not calling me a bitch. Then ten minutes later it happened again. I feel so stuck. I feel as my only way out is suicide. But I don't want to give him that satisfaction. All I did today was cry. And I don't even have anyone to talk to because everyone is sick of hearing me cry over him.”
He commands, bosses and embarrasses her in public. She submits because she wants to avoid bigger fights. She hopes that since she gave in this time, he’ll be nicer next time. But he’s relentless in arguing, bullying and abusing; he never stops. If he doesn’t beat her, the threat is there.
When she’s nice and logical – discussing, asking, compromising, begging, arguing, appeasing – she may get peace because he’s gotten his way, but it’s only momentary. Her good behavior doesn’t buy his in return. He never reciprocates by letting her have her way next time. Eventually, she submits completely and asks permission to do anything. He’s in complete control. When he’s mean, angry or out of control, it’s her fault because she isn’t perfect. It’s as if, “Since he’s angry, you must have done something wrong.”
Step by step, she’s isolated – cut off from friends, family and sources of her own income. She loses her old self; she loses her confidence and self-esteem; she becomes depressed, heart-broken and ready to give up.
It’s even worse if there are children she thinks she’ll have to support if she leaves. Eventually, she begins to think like a victim – she can’t see how to get safe house help, legal help or the police on her side.
These targets keep hoping they’ll find some magic wand to change him; he’ll become a loving, caring, nice and reasonable person. But that’s not going to happen.
Or they think that the most important value is making a marriage last even though it’s a marriage of torture. Or that what matters is whether he loves her or not, when what really matters is how he loves her.
Those abusive, bullying control-freaks always interpret their target’s kindness, reasonableness and compromise as weakness and an invitation to take more from them, to control more of their lives, to eat them alive.
Ultimately, these women get the worst that they’re willing to put up with. And eventually, the price they pay is slow erosion of their souls.
Jane’s sister, Betty, seemed to have been born with a vicious tongue. She attacked everyone relentlessly. Holidays with the extended family were a misery for Jane and her family. Nobody, not even their mother, stopped Betty. Everyone was afraid to complain directly to Betty. If they did, Betty would turn on them even more spitefully before.
According to Betty, nobody’s children were good enough – they were all ugly, stupid, ignorant, mean or bad. They were too fat or too skinny; they ate too much or too little; they ate too fast or too slow. They dreamed too big for their non-existent talents.
Betty laughed joyfully when she pounced on someone’s mistakes, no matter how trivial or irrelevant. Their choices were always wrong, their clothes and manners were wrong. Betty always knew better and rubbed everyone’s nose in it.
Some of Betty’s reasons excuses and justifications for why she was so hostile were:
“Those are my feelings. It’s my honest opinion. You wouldn’t want me to repress how I feel, would you?”
“You're too sensitive.”
“I’m doing it for their own good. You’re too soft on them. They’ll never get better if you don’t correct them.”
“I had to take it when I was a kid. It’ll make them stronger and tougher.”
“They have to learn to take it. They’ll get it like that in the real-world.”
Of course, everyone can have a bad day and be grumpy. But with Betty, it was everyday and it was relentless, hostile and mean-spirited.
Bullies want us to try to argue with their reasons, excuses and justifications. The more we argue, the more we’re engaged without their ever changing. If we make a good point, they’ll change the subject and give another excuse or cite a different time when they were right. They’ll never admit that they need to change; that’s how we know they’re bullies.
Or, if we challenge them, their feelings will be so hurt that they’ll withdraw into a very loud silent treatment. And it’ll go on forever until we give up, admit we were cruel, promise never to attack them again and simply accept the abuse. That’s how we know they’re bullies.
What can Jane do? Remember, all tactics have to be designed to fit our specific situations, what we want to accomplish and the limits of our comfort zones.
Jane once asked Betty not to say anything to Jane’s children; Betty was hurting them and Jane had told them take it because Betty was their aunt. But Betty hadn’t changed. Finally, Jane decided that she wasn’t going to expose herself and her family to any more of Betty’s abuse. She’d end the unrelenting negativity, harassment, criticism, blame, shame and guilt-trips.
Once again, she asked Betty to stop talking the way she did and to find nice things to say. She asked Betty to be nicer, kinder and more polite to family than she would be to strangers. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty she wanted her to feel differently but if she couldn’t, she still wanted her to take charge of her tongue and to repress herself; being an abusive bully is worse than repressing herself. But Betty didn’t stop.
She told Betty that if the brutality continued, she wouldn’t come if Betty was present. That would cause a rift in the family and it would be Betty’s fault. Betty didn’t stop.
Jane told the family she’d decided that she’d never let bullies treat her and her family the way Betty did. She had to take charge of keeping them safe from people who polluted their emotional environment. She asked them to choose the behavior they’d support even if that meant they all told Betty to change or they’d stop inviting her. Jane reminded them of what Mr. Spock said, “Never sacrifice the many for the sake of the one.” But Betty didn’t stop.
Jane decided that behavior was more important than blood. More important than victimizing her children by subjecting them to their Aunt Betty’s viciousness, was setting a good example by protecting them from abuse. She didn’t want them to experience the anxiety, stress and discouragement that had accompanied visits with Betty. That meant they didn’t see Betty any more. That also meant they saw the rest of the family only on one-to-one occasions when Betty was not present.
Over the years, the same conversations were replayed after extended family gathering except in Jane’s house. There, Jane and her family had a wonderful time; free from criticism, bullying and abuse; free from the endless re-hashing of Betty’s latest attacks.
Once Jane had cleared the abuse out of her family’s life, they were able to find friends they loved being with.
With expert coaching and consulting, we can look at individual situations and plan tactics that are appropriate to us and to the situation. We can overcome the voices of our fears and self-bullying. We can overcome childhood rules to give in to or argue with bullies’ excuses, reasons and justifications. We can become strong and skilled enough to stop bullies in their tracks – even if those bullies are blood relatives.
“How to Stop Bullies in Their Tracks” has many examples of adults getting over their early training and then stopping bullies. For more personalized coaching call me at 877-8Bullies (877-828-5543).
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.
There’s a world of difference between being an active witness to bullying and abuse, and being merely a bystander.
A bystander has already decided to be an uninvolved spectator, to look the other way, to pretend ignorance if called upon.
A witness can make a tactical decision based on the circumstances – intervene now in some tactical way or speak up later.
At work, co-workers or bosses are bullies; at home, abusive parents will harass and bully one young child while lavishing goodies on the other; in addition, toxic parents will favor one adult child over another with love and inheritance on the line.
I’ll focus here on kids, but the larger implications should be obvious when you think about slavery or the Nazis or a hundred other public examples.
Often, at school and at home, mean kids will try to turn siblings or friends against each other.
For example, Charles’ friend, Brad, was relentlessly nasty to Charles’ sister Sarah. He made fun of her, called her stupid, dumb and ugly, and, even though Sarah was tall and skilled enough to play with the older boys, he’d cut her out of their games or he’d intentionally knock her down.
Charles looked on in dismay but never interfered. That was puzzling to Charles’ parents because, in one-to-one situations, Charles played well with Sarah and liked her. Yet Charles had become a bystander; he wouldn’t step up to what he knew was right.
How come he didn’t protect Sarah from Brad? Was Charles afraid that if he interfered he’d lose a friend or that Brad would beat him up? Did Charles secretly want his sister out of the way?
Without knowing the real answers to the “why” questions, the pain, shame, anxiety and stress of watching his sister tormented and the guilty laceration of his conscience finally drove Charles to choose which side he was on. He stood up for his sister and for high standards of conduct, but then he had to solve another problem; Brad was a head taller and 30 pounds heavier than he was.
In front of Sarah, Charles got in Brad’s face and told him to cut it out. If Brad wanted to be his friend and play with him, he had to be nice to Sarah…or else
Most of the Brad’s in the world would back down but this one didn’t. Angry words led to shoving and Brad grabbed Charles and threw him down. At this point Charles and Sarah’s advanced planning gave them a tactical advantage. Sarah, as tall and heavy as Charles, jumped on Brad’s back and the brother and sister piled on Brad and punched and kicked him.
As with most kid fights it was over fast. Brad got the message; he was facing a team. If he wanted to play with them he’d have to play with both of them. If he wanted to fight he’d have to fight both of them. No parents were involved and Brad chose to play with them and be nice to Sarah.
As much as the incident helped Sarah, Charles was the major beneficiary of his choice. His self-esteem soared. He had been courageous and mentally strong. And he learned that he and his sister could plan and stand firm together.
In a different situation, Ellen was popular and Allison, who was outgoing but had no friends, wanted Ellen all to herself. At school, Allison put-down and cut out anyone Ellen wanted to play with. If Ellen refused to follow Allison, Allison would get hysterical, cry and wail that Ellen was hurting her feelings. Ellen didn’t want to hurt Allison but she wanted to play with whoever she wanted to play with.
The situation came to a head during the summer. Allison wanted to play with Ellen every day. And on every play date, Allison would be nasty to Ellen’ younger sister. She’d mock Jill, order her to leave them alone and demand that Ellen get rid of her younger sister. They were best friends and there was no room for a little kid.
Ellen faced the same choice that Charles had; hurt her sister in order to collude with her friend or lose a friend and classmate.
Ellen didn’t agonize like Charles had. Ellen was very clear; colluding is not how a good person would act. However, her requests that Allison stop only brought on more hysterical anger and tantrums.
Ellen didn’t want to play with Allison any more but didn’t know how to accomplish this. When she told Allison, Allison threw another fit – hurt feelings and crying.
This situation required different tactics from Charles’ because Ellen was younger and arrangements for them to play during the summer and after school had to be made by their parents.
Ellen’ parents could have gone to Allison’s parents and told them what Allison was doing. However, they’d observed that Allison’s parents had never tried to stop her hysterics, blaming and finger-pointing at school. They’d always believed Allison’s accusations about other kids and added their blame. They demanded that teachers do what Allison wanted.
Ellen’ parents thought that raising the issue with Allison’s parents would only lead to negativity, accusations and an ugly confrontation, which would carry over to school.
They decided to use an indirect approach; they were simply always too busy for Ellen to play with Allison. The rest of the summer they made excuses to ensure there would be no play dates. When school started, they made sure there were no play dates after school, even if Jill wasn’t there. They didn’t want their daughter to be friends with such a stealthy, manipulative, nasty, control-freak like Allison.
In addition, they told Ellen’s teacher what Allison was doing and asked them to watch if Allison tried to control Ellen and cut out other kids.
Most important, Charles stopped being spectator and became an effective witness-participant. Ellen also would not remain a bystander. She made her feelings clear and her parents helped intervene. Both children learned important lessons in developing outstanding character and values.
Tactics are always dependent on the specifics of the situation. As parents wanting to help and guide your children and grandchildren, remember that there’s no one-right-way to act. The people involved get to choose where they want to start the process of standing up as witnesses and participants. You can get ideas and guidelines from books and CDs but on-going coaching, to prepare you for your “moments of truth,” is essential. You will need to adjust your plan in response to what happens at each step along the way.