By William T. Mulcahy, LPC, NCC, CEAP, author of the Zach Rules series
It’s not easy to admit it, but when I was younger, I bullied another kid in my parochial grade school while out on the playground.
I remember that Bobby’s clothes were wrinkled and often too small. He was awkward playing sports and was in the lowest reading and math groups. I also remember that he came from a large family, and there were rumors that his father was an alcoholic, or perhaps something even worse. Looking back now as a therapist, it is clear that Bobby’s family system had some kind of dysfunction—perhaps trauma, poverty, or addiction—and perhaps Bobby had an undiagnosed learning disability. Whatever was going on back then, I thought I was better than him. After all, I was in higher math and reading groups, I was a good athlete and a popular kid, and my parents were willingly involved in my school. Writing these words makes me cringe with guilt and embarrassment, but as far as I saw, Bobby was an easy mark.
I was also a target of bullying in school. When I was a freshman in an all-male high school, every day in Spanish class an upperclassman would walk by and slap me on the back of the head. At first, I tried to develop ways to avoid him, but he always seemed to circumvent my actions. Next, I tried sticking up for myself by shouting obscenities or telling him to knock it off. This only made it worse. He continued his bullying behavior and even recruited some other upperclassmen. These kids would laugh when he slapped me or make lewd comments when I tried to verbally fight back. Sadly, like Bobby, I never told anyone what was going on, even when I got an F in the class and my parents wondered why I was struggling so much.
My most memorable experience as a bystander to bullying came later in high school. One summer, I volunteered at a camp for children who had cognitive disabilities. Many of these kids were marginalized and isolated, and they often bore the brunt of bullying behaviors. As someone who was there to support them, I saw up close how painful bullying could be. It was here that I began to learn to stand up for those who are bullied, going from a bystander to an upstander.
We Need One Another
One of the myths about bullying is that it is wrong or wimpy to tell an adult or a friend about what is happening. But in actuality, the most helpful strategy for kids who are targets of bullying is to seek support from an adult at school or from a friend. As I say to my clients about a lot of issues, “It’s just too big for one person to handle.”
We need to create cultures and environments where it is okay to confide in trustworthy adults and friends. But perhaps just as important, we need to show kids how to move beyond being a bystander to being an upstander: someone who stands up when they see bullying happening. It is these witnesses who often hold the most important power of all—the power to stop the bullying.
The most effective thing an upstander can do is support targets of bullying by helping or being kind. This includes listening to them, walking with them, spending time with them at school, giving them advice and hope, helping them get away, distracting someone who’s bullying them, and helping them tell adults. In general, show you care.
Looking back to when I was in grade school, I wish someone would have intervened on behalf of Bobby. Besides helping him, I know it would have helped me understand how hurtful I was being and that it was not okay to treat someone that way. An upstander would have taught me empathy and respect.
Looking back to when I was a freshman, I wish one of my friends would have stood up to that upperclassman by sitting next to me, walking with me to class, and helping me tell an adult. And I wish that adult would have said, “There is nothing wrong with you. You did the right thing. It’s not your fault.”
Looking back to when I was a junior working at camp, I feel a deep sense of gratitude for being a part of something that empowered me to learn to stand up for my fellow humans, no matter the situation.
A strategy to help kids remember how to be an upstander is the Stand-Up-to-Bullying STAR. STAR is a four-part process that gives kids a specific plan for being an upstander in a way that keeps everyone safe and helps them stay in charge of their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
- Speak up—talk to the person being bullied.
- Take off—get the person away from the bullying.
- Actively listen—let the person talk about what happened.
- Report—tell an adult what happened.
It is not always easy being an upstander. As someone once said, “Things that are worth it never are.” But that is why it is so important to teach and train kids to be a STAR, because if they do nothing, the bullying will continue.
Looking to the future, it is our job to help create a culture in which it is clear to everyone that bullying is not allowed. Teach your kids to be a STAR.
William Mulcahy is a licensed professional counselor and psychotherapist. He has served as a supervisor at Family Service of Waukesha and as a counselor at Stillwaters Cancer Support Center in Wisconsin, specializing in grief and cancer-related issues. He has also worked with children with special needs. Currently he works in private practice in Pewaukee, Wisconsin, and is the owner of Kids Cope Now, a program for providing books and tools to help kids in the hospital. Bill lives with his wife and family near Summit, Wisconsin.
Free Spirit books by William Mulcahy:
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.