My Childhood as a Bullying Victim
(And ways to help your child.)
I was always the odd one. In Lebanon—a country where an only child meant somebody who only has siblings of the opposite gender rather than somebody who has no siblings—being an only child was unusual. My first memory of my weirdness was in first grade when a classmate and her teenage sister approached me during recess.
“Is it true,” the sister asked, “that you have no brothers and sisters?”
I nodded my head in agreement.
“Seriously, none?” the sister asked in disbelief.
By that time, a crowd of students had formed.
“Oh, the poor thing. She’s all alone,” said the teen.
Embarrassed and sorry for myself, I mumbled something to the crowd of gawking children. Didn’t they have enough reasons to gawk—my super-short haircut from the barber, the wool pants my mom put me in for warmth at a time when school girls never wore pants, and the heavy, stiff lace-up half boots to correct my flat feet.
“Oh, please,” the teenager said to the crowd in a pleading voice, “be nice to her. She’s lonely.”
At that point, I had reached the bottom of the distress pit. I was the freak, the ape in the cage, the purple elephant.
From my mom, I demanded siblings.
“We tried hard, but couldn’t,” she said.
“Well, your dad. He eats too much meat.”
“Don’t feed him meat.”
“Also, God didn’t will. Someday, He may will, and we’ll have more children.”
Once she blamed God, the discussion was over. I could not argue with God. I could only plead, anticipate and dream.
Variations of the other sibling scenario recurred frequently. The “other siblings” pleas did nothing but intensify the taunting, teasing, tormenting and excluding.
Although nothing changed on the sibling front, as the years passed, I grew out my hair, I ditched the boots, and pants invaded girls’ wardrobes. I thought, perhaps, maybe, I would be less of a freak. Huh, illusions.
Wham, just like that, I returned to freak-land when a rapidly worsening scoliosis curve put me in a back brace at age twelve. The Milwaukee brace was a metal and plastic contraption, resembling a medieval torture device. It went from the top of my neck to the bottom of my hips. I wore it 23 hours a day, seven days a week for four years. Physically, it was comfortable enough, but psychologically it was an excruciating double-whammy.
Doctors disagreed on whether the brace would improve the curve or only stabilize it, and whether I would remain pain-free or not as I aged. These disagreements filled me with unease.
My clothing changed to accommodate my braced, hulky self. I only wore shapeless, baggy dresses. The cruelties worsened. My schoolmates called me fat, ugly, misproportioned, and other hurtful names. Without the brace, I looked good. My long hair covered my imbalanced shoulder blades, making my scoliosis imperceptible. The kids, however, always saw me in the brace. My explanations couldn’t change their perceptions.
Another set of taunts transpired following the ice cream cone incident. Unable to bend my head, I didn’t notice the melted ice cream dripping onto my clothes. Big blotches of brown covered my blue dress. They called me clumsy, dirty and messy. It took me years to eat ice cream again.
Fury seethed within my being, and the desire for revenge filled my heart. But how? I had only one or two friends—all outcasts. We were too outnumbered to be effective. Perhaps, I thought, when my bracing sentence was over, if I came to school looking pretty like a cover girl, everybody would scramble to be my friend. Weren’t these women always the center of attention, adored by millions and chased by photographers? Compared to the cover girls, my normal weight seemed excessive. I dieted and starved myself, developing an eating disorder in the process. As I waited to get back at my schoolmates, I hid behind a façade of aloofness, appearing unscathed. On the inside, I was crumbling.
At age 16, I was finally done with the brace. I burned through a small fortune of my parents’ money on an enormous wardrobe. Slender like a model, I paraded into school wearing a different outfit every day. The kids reacted to the new me with more rejection and walls of dreadful silence every time I approached one lively group or another. By that age, they had outgrown taunting. Instead, they used subtler and more lethal tactics. All the scheming, starving and spending had failed. Broken and devastated, I wished I could sell my soul to the devil in exchange for inclusion. Sometimes, I imagined him handsome and elegant. Other times, he was red with horns and multiple tails. I pictured him catching me alone on the balcony late at night. We would strike a deal. I am too ashamed to mention what I was willing to do in exchange for fitting in. Of course, the devil never came, and I remained locked up in my isolation.
I am not the only one to suffer from what we now refer to as bullying. Bullying is a common problem in schools. With the advent of the Internet, bullying has moved to new places that were out of the bully’s reach during my days.
Now, when I look back at those long-ago days, I am struck by how young and clueless we were, although we did not realize it. We were just children in need of guidance. Based on the research I did for my anti-bullying novel, The Revenge of Zachariah Kermit Higgins, dealing with bullying requires an entire community (i.e., school) approach. The strategy should target the victims, bullies and bystanders.
The victim’s parents need to have a discussion with the school and teachers to determine their policies and approach to bullying with the goal of coming up with a specific plan to handle the bullying. Parents should be assertive, but open-minded and nonjudgmental. They should be ready to talk and listen and to give the school an opportunity to examine and evaluate the situation. Potentially, the school can provide the parents with additional information about the story.
Parents of bullying victims should never try to confront the bullies to protect their children. Instead, it is more productive to work with their children. Victims tend to have poor social skills. That was true for me. Being an only child, I was mostly around adults. Children were a foreign, mysterious species. I had no idea how to interact with them. Although my social skills improved with time, they lagged behind those of my peers by years.
The process of building social skills includes discussing, talking, negotiating, cooperating and expressing emotions with words. For instance, coaching victims through a social situation by asking questions, seeking answers and developing plans on how to handle the situation at hand can be beneficial. My mother could have discussed with me the pros and cons of being an only child instead of shifting the blame around. This would have lessened the anguish I felt about the topic and allowed me to communicate with the kids without any psychological barriers. Role-playing is another useful strategy. My mother and I could have done some role-playing to help me deal with a variety of social situations. Every time, we could have made a plan, evaluated and revised it as needed. Coming up with my options would have boosted my confidence in being able to handle different social scenarios.
Parents need to realize that bullies usually have emotional, social, behavioral and mental problems. Kids, except for a few psychopaths, engage in bullying behavior as a socially unskilled way to get the respect and acceptance of their peers. They, too, need coaching to help them engage in problem-solving behaviors and connect emotions with words, so that they can verbalize their feelings instead of behaving aggressively. When parents give their children the perspective of the bully, the empathy their children develop will enable them to know that the problem is not in them, but in somebody else.
Bystanders should walk away, depriving the bullies of the attention they are seeking. This will diminish the appeal of bullying.
As for cyberbullying, victims can unfriend the bully, block their messages, or, in extreme cases, leave the social media site. Other children (the equivalent to bystanders) should not encourage the bully by forwarding or reacting to the offensive message.
Adults can do much to help both bullies and victims by educating themselves about strategies to prevent, identify and stop bullying. Sufficient social skills are crucial in bullying management. Second, any behavior that comes from a place of anger is doomed.
Abir Sami Wood (A.S. Wood) is a Tulsa writer and author of The Revenge of Zachariah Kermit Higgins, a middle years novel about a bullied boy who hatches a plan to get revenge on his bullies through social media. Wood used her own experience and extensive research about the complexities of bullying to write the novel. Cover illustration: Mike Wimmer.