Bullying and Personal Power: Ideas for Parents and Teachers

By Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D

Sharing the quiet neighborhood in which I grew up was a girl I’ll call Marcie. Marcie wasn’t a particularly nice girl, but that didn’t stop me or any of the other kids in the neighborhood from trying to be her friend. She toyed sadistically and expertly with our wishes to be part of her “in” group. 

One summer she made each of us pinkie swear that we believed her story about there being the decapitated Frankenstein heads underneath the sewer lids on our street. I didn’t believe in Frankenstein, but I was afraid to not believe in Marcie. I spent one whole year engrossed in the terrible, tantalizing fantasy of lifting off those lids and finding heads in varying states of decay.

That same summer, Marcie turned 10-years-old. She planned a birthday party at her home, and invited every kid in the neighborhood. On the morning of her party, I called Marcie to explain that I still needed my mom to go out and get some wrapping paper, and that instead of bringing her present with me when I came to the party, I'd bring it over right afterward. With overplayed indignation, Marcie seized the opportunity to punish me for my oversight, and told me not to come at all. For three hours that afternoon I watched the birthday games of tag and dodgeball from the lawn across from hers. I was crushed, but still wanted nothing more than to be her best friend.

Marcie was a bully, but not everyone who knew her would have agreed. She said all the right things at the right time, and smiled on all the right occasions. Her parents and teachers never heard her say or do anything mean. And most of the kids who were afraid of her wouldn’t have been able to tell you exactly what she did that was so mean—she just was. She was that kind of bully.

When kids shout out insults or laugh conspicuously at others or post rumors on Facebook, we often can connect the person to the act, and the act to the victim’s pain or distress. Kids like Marcie, however, wield their power inconspicuously, and it’s harder to connect the person to the offensive behavior, and the behavior to the victim’s distress. As a result, this kind of bullying is tough to identify and even harder to stop.

Let’s take a closer look at what Marcie was doing to get my neighbors and me to oblige her every request: Before she had even finished grade school, Marcie had learned that she could effectively dominate and manipulate us kids by withholding something she had convinced us we wanted—her attention and, better yet, her approval. She didn’t call us names, or physically threaten us. But her effect on the neighborhood was divisive and so, inadvertently, we did her dirty work for her, calling each other names and fighting among ourselves. By exploiting our anxiety about being singled out or left out, this clever but tragic young girl leveraged her keen sense of interpersonal dynamics and human nature into a form of social control.

Children will need our help in identifying and deflecting or avoiding this form of aggression as much as they’ve needed our help in responding to conventional forms of bullying. From a young age, they need us to talk with them—not once or twice, but many times—about personal power in social relationships; its uses and misuses, how it shows up in the cafeteria and at birthday parties and (for older kids) on dates, people’s desires for it, the advantages and disadvantages of holding it, and how people—and especially kids—imbue and divest others of it. Leaving this stone unturned in our kids’ education leaves them vulnerable to one of the more insidiously dangerous displays of power—the kind you’re not aware exists.

Ideas for Parents

You can help your own children understand these kinds of personal power by discussing together--and unpacking--different social incidents in which these dynamics commonly play out. For instance, revisit with your child or teenager the time when she felt she had to go to so-and-so’s party even though she didn’t want to go. What did she worry would happen if she declined the invitation? What about the time he kept trying to impress the boy on his soccer team—the one he couldn’t stand to listen to? Then listen to her or his answer--all of it--even if you think it’s “ridiculous.” Don’t say things like, “Oh, you’re making too big a deal over it....” or “Why do you care what someone like him thinks?” You’ll be defeating the whole purpose of asking your child in the first place. The idea is to talk about how we can be made to feel--or are vulnerable ourselves to feeling--things we can’t make sense of, but then go ahead and act on anyway.

These kinds of conversations don’t need to be planned in advance or last more than five or six minutes. They can happen while standing in line at the grocery store after you and your daughter watched a strained, sarcastic interaction between the two teenage sisters who just checked out in front of you. The best ones happen when you talk about your own, very real experiences struggling with some of these same feelings—for example, after realizing you took advantage of your son’s empathy about your bad day to get him to do an unreasonable amount of housework that evening. These are beautiful opportunities to show our children how easy it is to succumb to emotions and impulses you would rather not admit to having. It also helps to normalize these feelings so that kids don’t feel freakish admitting to them, and it humanizes us as parents. In addition, it gives us more openings for talking about how one learns (or doesn’t) to manage and control them.

And here’s the funny thing about these kinds of very intimate, revealing conversations—-no matter how much we stumble over our words or how awkwardly we tell our stories, our children will remain riveted by our candor in a way that happens only rarely in other, less personal settings. Kids find that measure of honesty and authenticity very compelling, and yet they are given too few opportunities by adults to experience them. These are our most powerful and affecting tools of influence; shame on us if we let our self-consciousness, or our anxiety about appearing discomposed or blemished, keep us from capitalizing on our own humanity as a means of inspiring that of others.

Ideas for Teachers

Here are some questions that middle and high school teachers can use to stimulate class discussions about a) different types of peer-to-peer exploitation that take place in social settings, b) what makes certain children more or less vulnerable to them, and c) what kids can do to recognize and resist them:

  • Exactly how does someone become popular? Can a person just say all by himself or herself that he or she is popular, or do other people have to agree?
  • Have you ever had two different feelings at the same time that didn’t seem to go together, i.e., wanting to impress someone who you didn’t like and didn’t want to be friends with?
  • How does a person know that he or she is popular? What are the signs?
  • What can popular kids do that kids who aren’t popular can’t do?
  • Is being popular the same as being well-liked? Why or why not?
  • Are there popular kids who do not have a lot of friends? What’s that about?
  • What does this have to do with leadership? Is there such a thing as good leadership or bad leadership? What do those terms mean to you?
  • What things have you done because you thought it might make someone like you?
  • What does the word manipulation mean? Have you ever been manipulated to do something by another kid your age? How did you feel afterward? Thinking back on it, was there any way you could have avoided it?
  • Have you ever tried to get other people to do something you knew they didn’t want to do? Can you identify what you were hoping to gain that was so important you’d manipulate someone to get it?

Janet Sasson Edgette, Psy.D. is a child, adolescent, and family psychologist practicing in the Philadelphia area and the author of The Last Boys Picked: Helping Boys Who Don't Play Sports Survive Bullies and Boyhood. Other books include Stop Negotiating with Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody or Depressed Adolescent and Adolescent Therapy That Works: Helping Kids Who Never Asked for Help in the First Place. Dr. Edgette speaks frequently at various professional conferences and has conducted workshops for mental health professionals, educators, and parents all around the United States and Canada, as well as in Mexico, Russia, Croatia, and Germany.  

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