BULLIED: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear

In November 2010, first grader Katie Goldman became an unlikely Internet heroine, and a new face for the bullied. Her mother, a popular blogger, wrote a post describing the teasing Katie had faced over her Star Wars thermos (an item, she was told, that was meant for boys). That was, as her mother now writes, “the post that launched a thousand geeks.” The Twitter hashtag #MayTheForceBeWithKatie was trending within days, comments flooded Goldman’s blog and Facebook page, and Katie’s story appeared throughout media internationally.


Suddenly finding herself a voice for the anti-bullying movement, Katie’s mother, Carrie Goldman set about investigating what has become an epidemic. Her new book, Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear, is a smart, practical guide from a parent who’s seen the insidious effects of bullying firsthand, and a researcher who has consulted the top experts in the field. Most importantly, Goldman offers specific advice on how to help children respond to bullies.

In Bullied, Goldman recognizes the power of community, and part of her mission is to underscore the role that retailers, media members, and average citizens play in this story, with simple and powerful messages: Respect and empathy must be taught, people of all ages must take responsibilities for their online lives, and kindness can be enormously healing. In this excerpt from the book, Goldman explains what drives bullies to intimidate others, and explores how some schools are now intervening to stop the crisis in its tracks.

With practice, kids can measurably improve how they treat others.  Maria, a former child bully, was one such girl who worked hard at becoming a better friend.   She explained to me, “When I did bully someone, it was as a result of my temper, and it wasn't because I always intended to hurt them.  I always felt bad afterwards and would get a lot of guilt.  I didn't want to let my temper control my actions, so I made an effort at learning to control my temper.  As I grew older, I got better at it.  In the end, I guess it was not wanting to feel guilt that helped me to stop hurting others physically and psychologically.  I wasn't an evil child, I just needed to learn.” 

Maria believed that her anger was to blame for her bullying, but [parenting and schools expert] Barbara Coloroso would bring up another factor consider.  Coloroso told me, “Bullying is not about anger; it is about contempt.  Kids who feel contempt for others have three characteristics that allow them to engage in bullying without feeling empathy or shame:  1) They have a strong sense of entitlement; 2) They are intolerant of others’ differences; and 3) they feel a liberty to exclude people they view as inferior.”[i]  In Maria’s case, she probably did have a quick temper, but it was coupled with contempt for the people she victimized.  Bullies come in varying degrees, and Maria differed from more severe bullies in that she did feel shame after the aggressive acts.  Maria accessed the pangs of conscience and used them as a powerful motivator to create new habits. 

I recalled Coloroso’s statement that bullying is about contempt when I received an email from an Australian man named Ross, a former bully who wanted me to know that Katie’s story inspired him to write the following confession:[ii]

In my second year of high school, for reasons unknown, other than he was possibly different in some way, I took a real dislike to a student a year behind me. And I picked on him. I recall one day giving him such a hard time that he lost it and lashed out, hitting me once. So, full of righteous indignation, I went after him and gave him a pounding. A teacher appeared on the scene, breaking things up. Still full of myself, I angrily claimed the other had hit me. Other students however quickly told the real story, that I had been the instigator. I wasn't exactly one of the popular crowd anyway (anyone seeing the irony?). So I was in trouble, my then less-than stellar reputation among the teaching staff dropped that much lower, the victim went on his way and I left him alone after that.

I did not give him much thought for several years until my younger sister commented one day that this young fellow had attempted to kill himself, partly because everyone 'hated' him.

That revelation really floored me. I was one of those arsewipes who had helped drive this kid towards suicide, even though I had left him alone for several years. By then I was at a senior high school and hadn't even seen the kid for more than a year. But, my God, did I feel guilty.

The next year, that same student now appeared at the same senior high school. So I made a point of saying 'g'day' to him. The look of mixed relief and gratitude on his face made me feel even worse. Out of a sense of guilt, I kept saying hello any time I saw him around the school. It eventually ceased being a thing of guilt and instead became just a natural thing to do. Did we become friends? Not really. But I think he appreciated knowing there was at least one person around who was going to at least make some sort of effort. And my greeting was always answered with a big, toothy smile.

That was thirty years ago. I have no idea where that young man ended up or how he is doing. I hope he is doing alright. Chances are that he's actually doing better than me. But I like to think that I have never forgotten the lesson that he didn't ever realise he had taught me. I like to think I haven't picked on anyone since.

Ross, fueled by his own feelings of contempt and inferiority, picked on a boy who was different.  Unlike Maria, Ross did not feel guilty immediately after the acts of bullying.  Ross most likely felt a stronger sense of entitlement than Maria, and this protected him from his own conscience for a longer period of time.  Distance and maturity softened Ross and positioned him to experience true feelings of contrition upon learning of the boy’s suicide attempt.  This is where Ross diverges from lifelong bullies – he recognized the consequences of his actions, and his genuine remorse spurred him to make conscious improvements in the way he treats others.  Arthur, Maria and Ross are hopeful examples of how people can change.  Unfortunately, not all bullies are capable of feeling true remorse.  [As bestselling author and bullying expert Trudy] Ludwig said, “Some kids come into this world and are raised without an internal moral compass.  I tell those kids, ‘Even if you don’t think it is wrong to hurt someone else, you should treat them respectfully out of self-preservation – what if the kid you bullied comes in with a gun one day?’”[iii]  Columbine serves as chilling proof that Ludwig’s words have real merit to them.

In some cases, a child who acts like a bully needs intense help in all aspects of his or her life.  At Washington Elementary, which uses [a variety of behavioral support programs] to guide bullying prevention, there are several students in Tier 3 (the individualized intervention level) who are at extremely high risk for aggressive behavior.  For these students, Washington offers a Wrap Program.  Kate Ellison, the school’s principal, explained, “A wrap means that home, school and the community all “wrap” around the child to offer support.  I will go to a family’s house, as will our teachers and social workers, if that’s what it takes to get more connection between home and school.  There is value to connecting with families in their home space.” 

The family of the “wrapped” child drives the wrap and identifies the support systems that they want to include in the wrap.  For example, one boy’s family chose the involved parties to be: the child, the family, the YMCA, the school, the church, a social worker, a teacher, a behavioral specialist, and the principal.  “We met with the child and talked about his strengths and needs and how to meet those needs,” Ellison said, “and when we ask, the community of Evanston really steps up and participates.”  At Washington, the members of the wrap meet every six weeks to review data and to see how the goals are being met.  The school coordinated four wraps for its most at-risk students in the 2010-2011 school year, and all had positive results.  Ellison told me, “Wraps go on as long as we need them; it could last for a child’s entire academic career here at Washington.”[iv]

Orignally published in "Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher and Kid Needs to Know About Ending the Cycle of Fear" by Carrie Goldman. Reprinted courtesy of HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

[i] Author’s interview with Barbara Coloroso, February 13, 2011

[ii] Hamilton, R. (2010). I was a bully. Retrieved from http://wordsmiff.blogspot.com/2010/11/i-was-bully.html

[iii] Author’s interview with Trudy Ludwig, March 8, 2011

[iv] Author’s interview with Kate Ellison, May 20, 2011


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