Heart to Heart with Adele: Bullying


Dear Adele,

Our middle school daughter has recently become somewhat non communicative and sullen. She seems to avoid opportunities to attend activities she used to like and has told us a few adolescents in her class have been mean to her, excluding her at lunch and spreading lies and gossip about her both at school and on social media. We are concerned and do not know how to handle this. Any suggestions?

Sincerely, Perturbed


Dear Perturbed,

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, life unfolds as it should, with no human interventions. The laws of nature take hold and apply to all. The wilds of the African grasslands has its own set of rules for its inhabitants with no exceptions or accommodations. The young must learn how to survive from their parents, or perish whilst succumbing to the life truth of their existence: Survival of the fittest!

The antelope graze in herds of their own kind, for in large numbers together they have the greatest chance of alerting each other to a predator and escaping nefarious jaws by nimbly leaping or outrunning them. The Cape buffalo stand in herds of their own kind, with the young and infirm encircled by the strong, who face outwards keeping a watchful eye and ready ear primed for the slightest sign of danger. A powerful, agile leopard abandons her fresh kill with her cub, and wisely runs and hides in the bush, when a cackle of spotted hyenas attack, to rob her of a hard earned breakfast, because she knows their power to take her and her baby down when they travel in packs. A satisfied oversized majestic  lioness, dripping in fresh red blood from the flesh of her morning prey, strolls casually back to her pride across a Safari road, having accomplished what she must, to ensure her own survival and that of her young, much to the distaste of squeamish elite tourists who are relishing their Safari excursion.

The world our children must learn about while growing up under the wing and protection of their parents has much in common with the reality of life in Kruger National Park, though most of us might not think much about the similarities. Adult humans are charged with teaching their children how to get along in the world in which they must live. They need to give their young the skills and knowledge that are required to survive almost any situation they might face without parental protection. Understanding group behaviour, the importance of socializing children to know and love themselves, and helping them find acceptance and a place to belong in their world, is a salient task for parents. Our human young need to become self confident, find groups where they fit in and are able to contribute their talents, and grow into well socialized competent adults who can survive that very tough trek through life in a human experience.

That is fraught with problems along the way. Your daughter is experiencing a few of them which sound like bullying and some level of anxiety and depression associated with that experience.

So what is it you might ask? Well,‘Bullying’ is unwanted verbal or physical aggression, involves an imbalance of power, is repeated, occurs over a given time period and has as its goal the exclusion of the victim from the group. It is more common than you might think in groups everywhere, for people of all ages. In childhood, it can lead to significant dysfunction including delinquent behaviours, substance abuse, academic declines, absenteeism, loneliness and even suicide to name but a few. Credible research suggests that 28% of children in grades 6 through 12 have experienced bullying, 10 per cent to 14 per cent for longer than 6 months.Teachers typically underestimate its prevalence and see only about 4% of bullying incidents. Parents are aware only about 50 per cent of the time and victims report it to adults about 33% of the time.

I will tell you a story about a bright and beautiful women I will refer to as Cindy, and alter details to protect her identity. I knew her quite well and followed her life from her toddler days. Learn from it what you can. She is the epitome of what the research documents.

Cindy was an unplanned, unwanted child born to an older, dysfunctional and depressed mother, incapable of being a solid competent emotionally supportive parent. Cindy bore the brunt of her mother’s dysfunction and carried the scars of her childhood well into her teenage years.

Cindy was denied normal preschool involvement with other children so lacked opportunities to develop social skills common to others in her age group in the neighbourhood. She was not allowed to have friends over to play or granted permission to play at the homes of others very often.  She was not allowed to learn or play any sports so lacked skills to play outdoors actively with others her age as she got older. She was regularly dressed in old fashioned, ill fitting clothes, often second hand, that set her apart from peers. Her hair was cut very short when the fashion was long or pigtailed. Her glasses were heavy black rimmed masculine ones when the fashion was pastel cat’s eye frames for girls. Her teeth were stained and grew in crooked requiring braces in adolescence. Her diet was poor, so she became overweight. She lived with some anxiety issues and was so innately sensitive she cried easily at the slightest adverse situation. She lived in a home where feelings were never discussed and children’s ideas about things rarely entertained. She had low self esteem and although plenty bright, with lots of potential, she was bullied in her neighbourhood from early childhood and became an easy mark for bullying when she started kindergarten at a Catholic elementary school right here in Ottawa.

Cindy told me in recounting her story as an adult that she cried every single day of her 9 years in elementary school. She was promoted successfully each year with the same group of meanspirited, cruel and hateful  boys and girls who targeted and tormented her relentlessly, ripping apart and destroying any possibility of her developing a healthy sense of her own value and worth. It caused her incredible emotional suffering and pain, which she can summon up to this day! She wonders how she survived it. She also wonders if any of her teachers or either of her parents ever even knew!

Her life trajectory took a detour just before high school, when her father was relocated in his job. That was the change Cindy needed to put the wind in her sails and get her recharged  and charted forward to a happy, healthy and successful life of which she can be proud.These were the factors that took her from a 12 year old depressed outcast to a well liked, beautiful, superstar in her teen years and then on to become an honour role college graduate, a happily married woman with two children, a successful worker in the mental health field, a valued church member and a recognized contributing member of her community.

Cindy was removed from the terror of her tormentors by moving away from them. She restarted in a larger, public high school  where there were all kinds of children who appeared differently, thought differently, worshipped differently, and had a full array of different interests and talents. Here she joined some extracurricular activities that interested her and found other boys and girls with those same interests. Those children formed her new social group. They all hung out together finding a place to fit in, gain acceptance among true friends, and develop talents to contribute. Cindy showed exceptional musical ability, practiced her chosen band instrument diligently and became celebrated in the high school musical community. God bless our teachers who take these extra curricular activities on, for they have saved and helped many a child, who without them, might never have made it to successful adulthood.

Cindy started to walk to school, take bike rides after school and skate at the rink with a school friend in the winter. She listened eagerly to her teacher in Health and Nutrition class and began making her lunches without so many carbohydrates or junk food. Cindy opted for a girls Phys Ed class on her timetable and learned how to hold a softball bat and run around a field playing basic soccer, from a patient understanding teacher. With some babysitting money Cindy bought her own clothes and began dressing  in jeans and cool tee shirts, often purchased at the likes of Value Village, appearing at 15 like most of the teens at her school. She wore braces for a while, saved up for contact lenses and grew her hair into a gorgeous head a reddish brown tresses which she washed and brushed into a stylish popular look. Cindy got a bit of therapy talk time with a school counsellor, borrowed a few self help books  and learned how to manage her anxiety and a tendency to cry easily when upset.

Within a year or two Cindy became the winner every child deserves to be. Her parents changed her environment so she could start over and find out who she really was and where she belonged. Her dedicated teachers taught her information she needed about nutrition and health, counselled her through her emotional valleys, helped her come to see her strengths through extra curricular activities, and brought her into the average range of abilities in an accepting supportive physical activity class. Her new friends spent time with her and offered her companionship, support and a place to belong. Her parents provided for her physical needs, bought her a bike and skates, and ensured she had orthodontic work and contact lenses.

Cindy herself was proactive in learning how to manage her weight, and manage her emotional health. She learned how to fit in to her world with a change in her appearance and dress. She learned to take charge of her own problems by seeking help and applying what she learned. She made the effort to find a group where she liked the members and they liked her. She made a bigger concerted effort to become good at something she was interested in and for which she had a propensity. She pushed herself to learn basic social and physical skills others took for granted, by signing up for a girl’s Phys Ed class. There she learned enough so she could fit in with normal expected behaviour, and be just somewhat average in playing a simple game of soccer with her classmates, without it causing her hair to light on fire just thinking about it!

It did not take long, dear reader, for Cindy to change from an unwanted, unattractive dying caterpillar into one of the most beautiful butterflies in her new high school! Take from Cindy’s story what you choose but the recipe she cooked up is a solid one like Martha Stewart’s recipe for American Apple Pie!

This column does not offer me the platform to discuss in depth the many things you might want to know about bullying. I did see many times it in my teaching career and despite many kind adults’ attempts to eliminate it, I fear posters on the wall telling children to be kind, additional mental health workers in schools and lessons about inclusion and anti bullying talks, are not likely to solve a significant bullying problem for a victimized child already experiencing this dreadful social problem. Reporting it is a poor strategy as well, because according to research, whether it is reported by the victim or by his or her parent, further negative fallout for the child  is often the result. One cannot expect bystanders to help either as research finds, unbelievably, that bystanders tend to secede to what they perceive as peer pressure, to actually support bullying behaviour or even engage in it themselves, for fear of becoming a victim of bullying as well.

The following strategies are worthy of your consideration: open, honest regular supportive communication with your child; increased efforts to build strong self esteem and assertive confident behaviours in front of bullies; avoidance of traits about a child’s appearance or expression of beliefs that make him or her different from most of the others in the group; involvement in activities and groups where a child can shine, helping him or her find acceptance and be surrounded by a group of his or her own; and a fresh start in a new environment where the child can function and grow with no negative social status or bullying history, is the best summary of suggestions I found in the literature I reviewed.

Top notch professional counselling on this subject for you and your family may be helpful and is available free and/ or on a prorated basis according to income, at local community centres or social service agencies such as the Jewish Family Services of Ottawa, to name but one excellent source with which I am familiar.

If you need to get a feel for what a bullied child might be experiencing take a few hours and watch the 2004 movie entitled ‘Mean Girls’ written and starred in by Tina Fey. In this film, billed as a teen comedy, you can witness from a distance, how power and influence in a high school group is achieved, maintained and supported by mean girls who torment the weak, the new, the different and those not belonging to a smaller group which offers them acceptance and protection. Take note of the cruel and vicious behaviours of the Queen Bee and her attendants. Think about the wild animals in the Kruger National Park and I suspect it will be clear to you what to do with this parenting challenge.

I wish you every success. Your daughter’s future, and possibly her life, is counting on it!

Sincerely, Adele

I'm looking forward to your questions! Email me at maryadeleblair@gmail.com and please put Heart to Heart in the subject line. Note that all columns will remain anonymous.