Does Bullying Change a Kid’s Personality? (And How Can We Use It as a Life Lesson for Our Kids?)

Posted November 10, 2008 by

As a parent blogger for EP, I’ve mostly drawn upon my memories of parenting my 15 year old son for material. But a recent post by “Mandy” under the blog about “Bullying and Sportsmanship” made me recall a truly seminal series of events in my childhood. It concerns bullying, group dynamics, school politics and how these things can make our children miserable, but how they can also make them into the kind of adults I think we need more of in this society.

In first grade I self-selected early as the kind of girl we all know…teacher’s pet, straight-A, queen of nothing and president of everything, an over-achiever. ‘Nuff said? In second grade we had not one, not two, but three different teachers. The first died suddenly (tough on second-graders who all sort of fall in love with the teacher), the second could only accept a brief stint as a substitute before getting married and moving away, the third became terribly ill. Since cursive writing was the crux of learning in second grade back then, we all ended up with horrible handwriting going into third grade, due to the lack of consistent teaching.

I landed in the third-grade classroom of Mrs. D.  She seemed, to us, VERY old. Looking back on my second-grade group picture, I realize that even today at my age of nearly 48, I would consider her old — well past what we would consider retirement age now. And I could tell from the get-go, somehow, that she just didn’t like me much. I have met retired teachers from that area who remember Mrs. D. well, and I have learned that she was highly involved with a very strict church that has to this day a reputation for being harshly judgmental. My family was not a church-going one, and in the mid-’60s in small-town Texas, this alone was remarkable. Maybe her antipathy toward me was the result of an idea that my parents weren’t doing their best by me in terms of religious training. Who knows? But I just knew, in the way nine-year-olds can, that Mrs. D. HATED me. I have often remembered one day when I chose Louisa May Alcott’s book Little Women from the bookmobile and Mrs. D. pooh-poohed my selection, telling me it was far beyond my abilities. I kept it, read it, and loved it and re-read it many times, and I don’t think I did it out of the need to “show her.” (I ended up majoring in literature.)

Alphabetically, I was seated in front of Amy W. Amy had just moved into the school; her mother was a fourth-grade teacher who had decided to exercise her right to have her daughter go to school where she taught rather than to the school in their neighborhood. Amy was an early prototype of the “mean girl” we all hear about more frequently nowadays. But Mrs. D. wasn’t much better. Mrs. D. would call me to the front of the class, have me hold up my notebook, and point out to everyone in the class my dreadful handwriting; then she’d have me remove the page and pin it to the bulletin board. She would mock the clothes my mother home-sewed for me, and of which I was terribly proud. Amy would sit behind me and poke me with pencils, write on my collars with ballpoint pens, and even — finally — use a pair of school scissors to cut my hair, all without this teacher saying a word. I felt powerless because I knew Amy’s mom was a fourth-grade teacher and figured that Mrs. D. would take Amy’s side in any dispute. These were the days when students — even good ones — knew that a teacher’s word was respected, and a teacher was always given the benefit of a doubt in any dispute with a student. (My, how times have changed!)

My best friend at the time was, oddly I guess, a boy named Tracey and we enjoyed each other’s company tremendously. But no sooner had third grade begun — with Amy soon the head of a circle of acolytes who copied her every fashion and mannerism — than Tracey become the target of the most insidious kind of childish torment I have seen to this date. Amy formed the “Hate Tracey Club” and every girl was in it but me. When I approached Amy to ask why she would pick on Tracey this way, Amy told me, “Because we have to hate SOMEBODY.” She couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to join, and continued her recruitment efforts relentlessly. The point of the group was not just to hate Tracey, but to demonstrate this hatred in all the ways third-graders can figure out how to do this. Third-graders are remarkably inventive in this regard.
It was when Amy cut my hair that my mother got involved. Soon enough there was an after-school meeting scheduled with the teacher and I sat at home expecting the sky to open up and swallow someone — me, my mother, Mrs. D., Amy, Amy’s mother, Tracey, who knows who else. When my mother finally arrived home I anxiously asked what had happened at the meeting. My mother was nonchalant and flippantly mentioned that our school pictures would be returned in a few days. I was mystified and frustrated and felt somehow let down. I wanted to hear that SOMEONE had been punished, and punished HARD!

(To this day, I have not asked what went on between my mother and Mrs. D. Nothing at school seemed to change significantly, except that perhaps Mrs. D. seemed to ease up just a bit on me. Maybe this blog  will prompt me to ask!  I’m fascinated by how my mom handled this. She didn’t run interference, I suspect, largely because I was not forthcoming about the depth of my misery. Back then we were not taught that our parents’ function was to champion us and our causes at all times, we were helped when we ASKED for help, maybe, and not before. The understanding was that teachers’ and parents’ words would not be questioned unless there was some overwhelming evidence against them. Our parents didn’t run around ANTICIPATING our needs or thinking much about what was bothering us — they shrugged their shoulders and said, “Toni’s in a phase.” Sometimes I wonder if maybe that’s a healthier way to be.)

I have since had an occasion to run interference for my child at school; in his case it was with a teacher who had gone too far in enforcing her “zero tolerance” policy and had caused my son and me real anguish (that story is another post). There were no other students involved. But I do realize that in the 1960s, teaching was one of the few professions open to a bright woman and that perhaps my third-grade teacher was angry, frustrated, hostile, manipulative; I wouldn’t blame a woman of that period for feeling that way, but I don’t think it excuses my experience. I have also thought that perhaps she was mentally ill or on the early side of dementia.

By the way, it would of course turn about that I landed in Amy’s mother’s fourth-grade classroom, and I dreaded the first day of school. My mother — again, in a sign of the times — didn’t see any need to run interference and I didn’t request it. I just spent the summer, between reading Nancy Drew books and looking out the window, agonizing over what would happen. But Mrs. W. was the antithesis of Mrs. D. and I had a great and supportive experience. She plied me with books and extra writing assignments and generally made me her pet. Her daughter was, for obvious reasons, placed in another class. All the while I was wondering why such a mean girl as Amy could have such a sweet mother.

It is not hard for me to understand why I am fascinated by the Charles Manson murders (they occurred at about this time, with a pathologically attractive person ordering people to do mean things to other people for no apparent reason whatsoever) and by the Jonestown tragedy (which occurred 30 years ago, during my senior year of high school) where a pathologically attractive person orders people to do mean things to their children and then themselves.

My family moved away from the neighborhood at the end of fourth grade. I heard that Amy went on to become a cheerleader at a large local suburban high school and then at a nearby public university. A few years ago I picked up a newspaper from the area and saw a photo of the blossoming trees at a local park, being tended by my long-ago school friend, Tracey. The caption mentioned that Tracey worked maintaining the park all by himself.

Perhaps in part due to these experiences, I have grown up to become a person who is concerned deeply — in ways that consume my time, money and efforts — with issues like social justice, crime, fairness, intolerance for religious difference, group dynamics, education, and equal opportunity. As my mother says, I am often the person saying something on the order of, “That’s just not RIGHT!” Go figure.

So my question is, how can we use these experiences our children have — both positive and negative — as a way of helping that child discover just who they are and what they believe as individuals? And do these kinds of experiences make us the people we are? (For example, was my childhood friend Tracey always a loner, or did his bullying experience make him into one?)

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  1. D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor Report

    To ” ChrisEnn”: We appreciate you taking the time to share your story and concerns with us. Many parents are similarly concerned with bullying and what long term effect it may have on their child. I can hear how much you want to help your daughter deal with bullying effectively. It’s hard to predict what may happen or how children may interact with your daughter because of her personality. We would suggest continue working with your daughter on developing problem-solving skills to help if she does end up being bullied. There are many articles on the website that specifically address how to help your child if she is being bullied. You may find these articles helpful as you continue to help your daughter develop these problem solving skills: Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied, The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them and Girl Fighting and Your Child. I hope this information is helpful for you. We wish you and your daughter the best. Take care.

    Reply
  2. ChrisEnn Report

    I am concerned for my daughter about the upcoming years for school. She just started 3rd grade and I have noticed that when anyone picks on her she will cry and run away and this worries me a lot. I have told her many times if someone picks on her to come to me and I will deal with it because thats what parents do for their children. But what I am worried about is her non-assertive personality and it makes me wonder whether she will be a target for bullying in the coming years. I tell her to tell the ones picking on her to back off and to walk away if they are being overly mean. I dont want her to be violent in her mannerisms so I try to figure out ways to get her to stand up for herself without a “fight fire with fire” mentality as that is the type of person I am when it comes to these type of situations but I dont want her to be that way as for many years during school I was often picked or bullied to see if they could get a rise out of me and it always worked, I have spent most of my life fighting bullies and standing up for others and in the process became a “bully” to the bullies and I don’t want that for my child. I want her to stand up for herself but I cant seem to get her to understand what I am trying to get her to do. She’s a good kid and very sensative and not overly prone to temper tantrums (though she does have them like any normal child). I have talked to her friends and to their parents about their kids picking on her but while it worked for a while it would eventually start up again and I would have to start all over again and its a continued cycle. I want her to have friends but I want her to feel safe with them and to stand up for herself if needs to. I just dont know what else to do or what else to say, so I was wondering if you had any advice for me and my daughter and other parents who may be in my shoes.

    Thanks,
    Christina

    Reply
  3. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    Mary H: Good luck with your chat with this other boy’s parents, and please let us know how it goes. Also, remember that it is the school’s job to keep your son and the other kids safe. If you’re not making headway with your son’s teachers or the principal, the next step is to talk to the superintendent.

    I would also *highly* recommend getting your son into Karate or martial arts of some kind. When my son was being bullied by a much larger, aggressive boy last year, we started him in a great Karate school, and it has made all the difference. (Be sure to find a school that doesn’t promote violence or aggression, but rather, self defense.) Not only is my son learning how to block physical attacks, he’s also found a way to be more assertive and is able to stand up for himself verbally. I truly believe the skills he’s learning there will last a lifetime. Good luck to you and your family!

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  4. Mary H Report

    My 12 year old son started a new school after Christmas, and unfortunately was targeted by an influential bully right away, and it hasn’t stopped. My son, being raised before in a small Christian school, where fighting wasn’t tolerated, really doesn’t want to fight this bully, but that’s what my husband is advising. I suggest he chooses some other friend and sticks close to the adult on duty, unfortunately there’s only one person on a huge playground. We are going over to talk to his parents, and hopefully put an end to this! We just heard that he bullies other kids at church, on the bus, etc… and you just have to wonder, what is making this kid feel so bad about himself?? Hope our chat works!

    Reply
  5. Carole Banks, LCSW Report

    KC: It is not uncommon for girls to be verbally aggressive toward each other and for friendships and alliances to change quickly at this age. While I think it is good to talk about feelings in this instance, we also need to teach our kids that our feelings alone should not determine our actions. Just because we feel like doing something does not mean we should. And by the same token, just because something is true, does not mean we should say it. I like this saying from Rose Franzblau, “Honesty without compassion and understanding is not honesty, but subtle hostility.” So what we teach our children is that even if you don’t feel like being polite or kind, you are still expected to behave with kindness and to be polite to each other. Tell your daughter when she behaves impolitely, she must apologize for this behavior.

    Reply
  6. KC Report

    I have a daughter in the third grade. Today I got a call from another parent from the class who said my daughter told her daughter that none of the girls in the 3rd grade liked her. I am friends with this mother and apologized for the unkind words and said I would dig to find out more. When I questioned my daughter, she replied that it was true, that she did say it, and that another girl in the class told her to say it. When I tried the “how would you feel” route, my daughter became immediately insolent, rude, and mean back to me, saying things like, “I don’t care – we all hate her. No, I wouldn’t feel bad if no one liked me!” I am so shocked at this whole situation and I don’t know what to do to correct it! Please help!

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  7. Loo Ney Report

    If your kid is being bulled, my only advice is jump in pretty soon. Don’t wait too long. Unless there is an adult who is supervising properly, don’t expect the kids to work it out. Kids are horribly afraid of intimidating bullies who think nothing of shoving you physically out of a game, calling you names, etc. etc.

    My son was bullied all through Grade 3 and he was miserable about it and so was I and his dad. I kept trying to give him tools and ideas and things he could try but none of them worked at recess with no adults around to back him up. The supervisor was lazy, would say tell the bully to come see me, the bully wouldn’t and the supervisor did not follow up on it. Even his friends would come and help him and chant Bully at the bully but that didn’t work either. Just made the bully madder and get his friends invovled and more people are bullying.

    Bullying has to be nipped in the bud A.S.A.P.

    Reply
  8. Lisa B. Report

    Our 13 year old daughter was a victim of a bullying situation last year at this time (between Oct. & Christmas) – and it has changed her. Even tho the situation was over by the start of this year and she did a few sessions with a counselor, she is still withdrawn for the most part. We have to work to get her to participate in family activities. She answers our questions with one word answers and refuses to be drawn out. She seems unhappy & uncooperative at home, but her teachers say she is doing well in school and even participates in class (she’s an overachiever). Friends & family say this is typical of puberty and just a stage and to just get her thru it, but I’m worried because of her tendency to isolate herself from family and only a very small group of friends. Am at a loss as to what to do!

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  9. Jan in AZ Report

    I do not think bullying changes a child’s personality, but it can intensify the child’s tendencies. Children use whatever survival technique that seems to work for them. Some become bullies themselves, some learn to stay under the radar, some become pleasers, and some become fighters against injustice. ( My constant expression as a child was “How would you like it if . . .?”) Our job is to direct those tendencies into problem-solving, instead of problem-avoiding or problem-exacerbating.

    Most kids are very interested in making everything “fair.” We work very hard with our son to keep him from thinking that getting someone back is the only way to “fix it” when someone does something he perceives as unfair. Left to himself, he would try to right every wrong by doing another wrong to even up the score. One of the things that works for us in helping him to see other options is to tell him stories from our own childhood (as well as recent stories that are applicable), and tell him how it felt, what we did about it, what we should have done about it, and why. We tell these stories without any introduction (“Son, I see you have a problem. Let me tell you a story about how I . . . .blah blah blah.”) As soon as he sees it as a lesson, he tunes out. We just tell the story, as if it’s part of the conversation. No explanation, no “what would you have done?” or any other moral-of-the-story-type remarks to give away that it’s a story with a message. I do this a lot on car rides, because I can drop the subject, and drive in silence for a while, while he decides if he wants to pursue the subject. Even then, we keep the subject vague, because the minute I ask him if he has a problem with this subject, he clams up. I can practically hear the gears turning in his head while he mulls over how what I’ve just said applies to him, and I pretend to be busy with my driving to give him time to think.

    Another remark I make to my son when someone does something mean, and he wants to be mean back, is to say “Wow, that kid must be REALLY COOL!” When he gets confused, I say “Well, you are awfully excited to try to be just like him, so you must think he’s something really special.” I give a pause and ask “Who do you want to be, (my son’s name)? or (bully’s name)?” Then we can discuss options for him to realistically consider.

    Reply
  10. Kristine Report

    I think you are right about bullying, that it changes the person we become. I am 43, and was in the exact same predicament as you while in grammar school (except, in my case, it went right through to high school). I, too, became a person who always thinks and says “That just isn’t right!”. I believe my bullying experiences made me much more of a champion for human rights in general. I find that I am hyper-sensitive emotionally, and highly conscious of any situation with my three daughters that looks like they might be being bullied (or, in my youngest daughter’s case, being the bully herself!). I, too, had parents that didn’t really “champion” for me. In my case, I was taught that I had to “stand up and fight” against the bullies. I was always afraid to tell my parents what I was going through, for fear they would be disappointed in me for not fighting back. Considering that the bullies were generally twice my size and surrounded by their friends, fighting back usually was not an option. Because of these experiences, I find that I have made my girls aware of every nuance of bullying. I know that my experiences are the reason why I am so conscious of it with my kids. I have to say, though, that I would rather be the sensitive person that I am today, instead of the cold-hearted individuals that those bullies usually became. At least, in some twisted way, those past experiences made me into a better person today!

    Reply

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