By Israel “Izzy” Kalman, MS, NCSP
There are countless things for which a person can be bullied, and by bullying, we mean being picked on repeatedly by the same people. However, if you belong to one of seven categories, you are more likely to be bullied than others: people with a disability; members of a religious minority; members of a racial minority; members of the LGBTQ community; foster children, past or present; adopted children; and first-generation immigrants. What should you do if you are in one of these categories? Is it inevitable that you become a victim of bullying?
Not at all! Some people have told me, “I was the only minority kid in my school and I was miserable. Everyone hated me!” I’ve heard from others, “I was the only minority kid in my school and everyone wanted to be my friend.” It all boils down to your attitude. People will like you, not because of your background – something over which you may have no control – but because of your character, over which you do.
First, it is important to realize that the trait you are being bullied about – your minority status – is not the same as why you are bullied. The kids may be noticing your difference and making fun of it whenever they can. But the reason why they bully you (and remember, this means picking on you repeatedly) is because you get upset when they bully you. No one will continue bothering you if they’re not able to upset you.
It’s also important to realize that most bullying is verbal – insults – and even most physical fights begin with anger over insults. So, if you know how to handle insults, physical fights will rarely happen. This guide will focus on verbal attacks, so they won’t become repetitive.
First, you will need to avoid some of the common advice about bullying.
One common instruction is that you must inform the school authorities when you are bullied. This will only make the situation better if the adults actually know how to get kids to stop picking on you, and many of them don’t. If they reprimand or punish kids for picking on you, they will almost certainly make your situation worse. The kids will be furious with you, will want to get back at you by doing something even worse, and will gossip to their friends that you are a snitch. Everyone will like and respect you more if you can handle nastiness on your own, than if you need go to the school authorities for help. You should only tell the authorities: 1. if you want them to teach you how to handle the problem by yourself; 2. when a true crime, like theft or physical injury, has been committed or is about to be committed; and 3. if you suspect another student is suffering and needs help.
A second common instruction is about how terribly harmful words are – especially insults about the group we belong to. We are often told that people heal from broken bones but insults can scar us forever. If you believe this, then you will get extremely upset when someone insults you, and then they will insult you even more! The problem will escalate.
Think about it: Would you rather have me insult your group or break your bones? Of course, you would rather take the insult! The broken bones are certain to cause you pain and make your life difficult. But it is totally up to you if the insults hurt you.
What you should do…
It would be really great if no one noticed the differences between people and treated us all the same. But that is not how life is. Don’t you notice if someone looks, talks or acts differently from most of the people around you? Well, they notice what’s different about you, too. And some of them are bound to criticize or make fun of your difference. So it pays to know how to handle it.
Here are a few general ideas to help you:
- One is to see the situation in terms of winning and losing. It will help you respond with your brain instead of your emotions, which are likely to trip you up.
- Everyone likes to win. That’s why winning feels good and losing feels bad. When kids pick on you, they want to defeat you. If you get upset, you lose. If you don’t get upset, they lose. So, don’t give kids the power to upset you.
- A second is to treat people like friends even when they treat you like an enemy. It is difficult for people to be against you for long if you are always friendly towards them.
- A third is to avoid defending yourself and your group. It is natural to want to argue that they are wrong about what they are saying, in the hope of convincing them to change their mind. But that does the opposite. We lose by defending ourselves – because the attacker is in the stronger position and the defender is in the weaker one – so they will continue to attack in order to get us to defend ourselves. Plus, when we defend ourselves, we are treating the person like an enemy, so they will continue putting us down.
- And a forth is to appreciate what they are saying to you. Tell yourself that the reason they are insulting or criticizing you, even if it’s not true, is that they are trying to help you become a better person. So why be upset with them for trying to help you? If you are grateful, you’ll be happy, and they won’t have the pleasure of upsetting you, so they’ll stop trying.
Here are some simple responses to people who put you down for belonging to a minority group. The responses let them know that others think the same way about your group, so you don’t consider them to be unusual or evil. And rather than defending yourself, which puts you in the weaker position, you make them defend themselves, so you win:
- So many people think that way about us.
- Have you had bad experiences with members of my group?
- Some of us give our entire group a bad name.
- Yes, some of us are like that.
- Do you really believe that about us?
- Why would you say that about us?
Maybe one day we will have a world in which no one is prejudiced. But until that magical future comes to be, it’s best to learn how to handle prejudice on our own, by treating people like friends.
It’s the responsibility of adults to show kids that words don’t have to hurt them. Give them the tools to understand what it takes to to control their emotions and to not get upset when other kids say and do mean things. For more information on building the social and emotional skills kids need to handle bullying, check out the Be Strong Resilience Program.
Israel “Izzy” Kalman, MS, Nationally Certified School Psychologist, is an internationally recognized expert on bullying prevention and is lead author of the Be Strong Resilience Program.