Building A Bridge, part 1

By Forming a Circle

A Restorative Way Through Bullying

Dr. William A. Bledsoe Phd

When my wife and I moved to Colorado in 1998, we wanted to find an elementary school for our daughter Tayler that would balance academic learning with a safe social climate. We both experienced bullying in middle school, and we believed that we found a better place when we saw how Tayler thrived in fifth grade. Then one day when she was in sixth, she seemed quiet, sullen and withdrawn on our way home from school, completely out of character for her.

“Honey, what’s wrong? Did something happen today?”

She said, “a boy pushed me off the monkey-bars. He kept chasing me and pushing me.”

My heart jumped out of my chest. Adrenaline shot through my veins. I immediately returned to my own adolescence when school bullying was considered unavoidable. “Boys will be boys,” and “we all have to go through it” were what everyone said when I was in school. These words not only fail to remedy a deeply felt wrong, they also harm children by failing to validate the real trauma we experience when being bullied.

“Did you tell the teacher?” I asked Tayler.

“No, I just went inside.”

I wanted to rage headlong over to the administrator’s office to demand action. I realized quickly that my daughter’s pain awakened own childhood experiences. I needed healing. I needed to find a way to help restore safety – both for my daughter and for others who experience bullying. This started a deep personal and professional journey.

What was your experience?

When I conduct workshops on school bullying, I begin by asking parents to remember what it was like.

Take a moment and think back to when you were in elementary, middle or high school. Were you ever bullied? If so, how did it make you feel? How often did it happen? How did your parents respond? How did your teachers respond? Maybe one of your parents was the bully.

When I was growing up in the late 60s and 70s, school bullying was generally considered unavoidable, and “a part of growing up.” The message to boys was “toughen up.” The message to girls was “girls can be mean.” No one ever asked me “how does this make you feel, or what are you telling yourself about this?”

In the last seventeen years, educators, public health officials and sociologists have revealed the prevalence, reasons for, and destructive consequences of school bullying. One thing is clear – bullying is not normal. It’s not just “kids being kids.” Bullying is a type of child abuse committed by one’s peers. 

While as a nation we’ve begun to pay more attention to bullying, in part because of its correlation with school shootings, a range of recent studies tells us that bullying remains a very serious problem in our schools. A 2011 study revealed that roughly 1 in 3 students in grades 6-12 have been victims of bullying.  A supplemental study released in 2016 by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that more than one in five students reported being bullied. Of those, 33% reported being bullied at least once or twice a month during the school year.  Doing the math, using the 2010 census there were roughly 55.4 million students enrolled in both public and private k-12 schools. This means that approximately 18 million k-12 students are victims of some type of bullying every year.

What exactly is “Bullying”?

Sociologists and psychologists commonly define bullying as repeated aggressive behavior intended to harm a defenceless person. Scholars use the terms “direct” (meaning direct physical aggression) and “indirect” (e.g. verbal abuse, exclusion or rejection from social groups, cyberbullying, etc.). 

Increasingly, courts are defining bullying in legal terms as a prosecutable offense. Exact legal definitions vary respective of jurisdictions. I define bullying as the repeated use of threat, violence, or social exclusion in order to intimidate, belittle, demean and dominate another human being for the purpose of the bully’s self-interest and/or self-gratification. Simply put, bullying is relational abuse. It is repeated, persistent and aggressive behavior intended to cause fear, distress, or harm to another person’s body, emotions, self-esteem or reputation. We have to call it what it is.

“Sticks and stones – but words will never hurt me?”

How well do you remember what happened? Studies say that the more severe and repetitive the bullying is, the more concrete it becomes in our memory, and the more destructive its influence can continue to have on us as adults. 

Why is this?

In short, it has to do with how relational trauma impacts the brain. As neuroscience continues to reveal the interconnection of brain, mind, and body, the more we’re confronted with how traumatic childhood experiences like bullying can have a profound impact on brain development, psychological health, and emotional regulation. Left unresolved, these experiences can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Though the bullying “happened long ago,” when we get triggered our nervous system reacts as if it is happening again. This is what I experienced when my daughter was bullied.    

Psychologists point to the potentially darkest consequence – homicide and suicide. While some experts hesitate to claim that bullying directly causes homicide and/or suicide, they overwhelmingly agree that the depression, anxiety, isolation and hopelessness caused by bullying can, and does lead to suicide.

In a review conducted by the Yale School of Medicine (2008) of 37 studies from 13 countries, “Almost all of the studies found connections between being bullied and suicidal thoughts among children. Five reported that bullying victims were two to nine times more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other children were.” 

Considering that suicide remains the leading cause of death for children under the age of 14, when kids are bullied, they are even more vulnerable to taking their own life. According to The American Association of Suicidology (2018), suicide rates for 10-14 year-olds have grown more than 50% in the last three decades.  One wonders exactly how much cyberbullying has contributed to this rise.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, the rage fueled by being repeatedly tormented and socially humiliated can lead to revenge-motivated violence. Though no clear link has been made between bullying and school shootings, the Wall Street Journal (May, 29 2018) reported that in 17 out of 33 school-shooting cases since 1990, the accused shooter was found to have been bullied.  Perhaps more telling, according the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2014), in one study 86% of students interviewed said being bullied causes victims to turn to lethal violence in the schools. Research shows us that bullies identified by age 8 are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by age 24 and five times more likely than non-bullies to end up with serious criminal records by age 30.   

The challenges facing teachers and schools

When I was a kid, teachers either looked the other way or just resigned that bullying was inevitable. After the Columbine massacre this changed. K-12 schools adopted bully-proofing programs. While a constructive step, most of these programs were primarily focused on building awareness within the school. Posters are pretty but not practical. Parents may or may not have been included. These programs lacked (still lack) a structured process to address a bullying incident. This was the case at the school my daughter attended in the late 90’s. 

In about 2005, schools began to shift from a punitive discipline paradigm to “restorative discipline.” Restorative discipline focuses on the repair of harm from an act of misconduct, rather than applying punishment to the student offender. Again, this was a constructive development in student behavioral management. Unfortunately, in the rush to embrace restorative discipline, teachers are bringing the bully and the student victim into a face-to-face restorative conference encounter. Parents typically aren’t included. This is a dangerous practice.

At a recent state-wide restorative justice symposium, I attended a presentation on using the restorative method to address bullying. I cringed when the presenter explained how his school “brought bullies and victims together to talk about what happened, shake hands and move forward.” I asked him “don’t you realize you’re revictimizing the victim? All it takes is one cynical glance from the bully to retraumatize the victim.” I was surprised by how many in the audience vehemently agreed. 

When I help schools build restorative discipline programs I explain that bullying and harassment incidents are not merely conflicts. They are serious violations that can traumatize students. The correct restorative response is to hold the student offender accountable for the damage to the victim and explore the reasons why he/she did it. This is accomplished by an “accountability conference” without the victim present. Teachers, counselors, and administrators need to help the bullying student recognize the destructive consequences of his or her behavior – not only to the victim, but the entire school community. The outcome of this conference is an “accountability agreement” stipulating concrete steps the offending student must complete to repair the harm – which might include counseling for both the bully and the parents.

Second, the victim needs to feel the experience of being surrounded and cared about by empathic adults. This is the purpose of a “support circle.” The victim needs to feel secure that what the bully did is being taken seriously by the adults, the school, and won’t be tolerated. It’s only in this realization that a child (or parents) will feel protected and not alone. The feeling of isolation is a crippling component of any relational trauma. It’s up to the adults to embrace the victim and directly engage the bully. This is how the restorative approach is supposed to work.

What can parents do?

Simply put, pay attention. Notice the signs and engage. If your child appears to be preoccupied, withdrawn, sad, or doesn’t want to go to school, ask them if something’s happening at school. Ask them if someone’s being mean to them. Ask them if there’s someone they want to avoid. Get them to open up. The more consistent you are in noticing and asking how their relationships are going, the more comfortable they can become in sharing.

Second, empathize. Think back to when you were bullied. How did it feel? Fear and anxiety, isolation, preoccupation, lethargy, angry outbursts are all symptoms. Bullying is traumatic and can take our nervous system hostage. In children, unresolved experiences of bullying lead to negative core beliefs, feelings of helplessness, and diminished self-esteem. The victim assumes that what happened was because of who he/she is. As parents, our children need us to embrace their experience. As my trauma-training partner says “they’re looking for us to hold the trauma with them.” It’s up to us to disconfirm any false beliefs and tell the truth. You might share your own experience and how you came to realize that bullying doesn’t happen because of who we are. It happens because the offending student hasn’t learned about respect, consideration of others, or being kind.

Third, speak up. Students who are bullied commonly don’t want their parents to report it. They’re afraid of further humiliation and retaliation. Talk about this fear with them. Explain that their fear is understandable, but that this behavior hurts everyone and needs to stop. You can use this moment to teach your child about stepping up and setting a boundary. Trust me on this – even though your child might protest, they will look back on how you responded with gratitude. We all need to be championed. It teaches us how to be courageous.

Fourth, hold the school accountable. Ask them to tell you specifically how they will respond. What is that process? Insist that they keep you posted on the steps they are taking. Don’t ever confront the offender or his/her parents on your own. Bullying incidents should be handled in an organized, structured, and official way. This is how restorative discipline works. Our work as parents is with our own children in building resilience in them.    

My daughter and me

When my daughter was bullied, everything in me wanted to confront the parents directly. I didn’t because I realized my reaction was driven by my own childhood history of bullying. Instead, she and I used this moment to become closer. I asked her to tell me exactly what happened, how it made her feel and what she thought about what had happened. I let her do the talking. I asked her what she needed to feel safe. I didn’t put words in her mouth. When she asked me if I had ever experienced something like this, I shared my own experience. I told her how it made me feel, what I wished someone would have done, and what I learned about myself.

Years later when she was a senior in high school, she auditioned for a popular singing talent show. She made it all through the ranks to the televised show in Los Angeles. After she sang her song, one of the judges – notorious for his degrading criticism – told her “I hate that song and your performance was angry.” She stood tall, smiled and replied “It’s too bad you don’t like the song because it’s a classic. And that’s not anger, its passion.” When she came off stage she chuckled to me and said “Well, that was interesting.”

I’ve thought about this moment often, especially within the context of bullying. I now realize that the best strategy for keeping our children from having to experience the trauma of bullying is to connect with them in the deepest way possible. To listen, embrace, empathize and discuss their experience is our best home remedy. Requiring our schools to treat it for the trauma it is gives us our best collective chance at developing socially responsible communities. 

For adults, if you were a victim of severe childhood bullying you are:

  • 4.3 x  more likely to have an anxiety disorder
  • 14.5 x  more likely to develop panic disorder
  • 4.8 x  more likely to experience depression
  • 18.5 x  more likely to have had suicidal thoughts
  • 2 x  less likely to hold down a job

NOTE: This is a first article in a three part series by Dr. William Bledsoe about working with Restorative Practices when resolving conflict.  MORE HERE:

BUILDING A BRIDGE, part 2: When a Child Seems Unreachable

BUILDING A BRIDGE, part 3: While Navigating Family Conflict