Navigating Bullying With Your Children
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What would you do if your child was being bullied? Jonathan McKee talks about his own bullied past and coaches parents on what to do if they suspect their child is being harassed.
Navigating Bullying With Your Children
Jonathan: Most of the studies out there show that the difference between a kid, who spirals out of control and that bullying just pushes them over that tipping point, and the kid who actually survives it, is just one friend.
Ann: Welcome to FamilyLife Today, where we want to help you pursue the relationships that matter most. I’m Ann Wilson.
Dave: And I’m Dave Wilson, and you can find us at FamilyLifeToday.com or on our FamilyLife® app.
Ann: This is FamilyLife Today!
Dave: I don’t even know this about you—41 years of marriage—I don’t even know if you were ever bullied at school.
Ann: I don’t think I was bullied, but I did see bullying. It outraged me if I would see that. I think I’ve shared this story here before. I think I was 12 years old, and there was a girl that was known as a bully, who was 15 years old; she would beat up all the younger kids. I was with one of my friends, who tended to get bullied a little bit, and the girl saw my friend, started calling her names and pushed her down on the ground.
I’m thinking, “I’m strong. I’m a gymnast. I’m doing all these things to make you stronger as a gymnast”; so I said, “Yes, you want to go?! I’ll go with you.” This girl punched me in the face, and I went down so hard. I felt so much fear; I was/I didn’t even know what to say.
Now, as a mature adult—I hope I am—I’m realizing, “This girl must have been so hurting,”—the girl that was bullying—“What had happened to her?” I’m thinking, “Man, I wish I had dealt with it different, and I wish I would have had some tools.” I think we, as parents, want tools to help our kids—to know if they’re being bullied or maybe our kid is a bully—like: “What do we do?”
Dave: We live in a world where there’s more attention drawn to bullying. There was never any talk, when we were kids and even in high school, about it; but now—
Ann: —but there were bullies.
Dave: —there were bullies—and there are cyber bullies. It’s a real deal that a lot of our own kids are dealing with.
We’ve got Jonathan McKee in the studio today, who’s written a couple of books/two books—I didn’t even know one, a fictional book called Bystanders—and the other one, The Bullying Breakthrough. These have been so helpful, for parents especially, to help us understand how to navigate this world with our kids.
Ann: Jonathan, welcome back to FamilyLife Today.
Jonathan: It’s good to be here.
Dave: I remember when we talked about this before, Jonathan, you talked about your experience being bullied as a kid. Talk about that a little bit.
Jonathan: That’s the book that, if you flip over the back cover, the picture explains it all. I have a picture of my fourth grade/my fourth grade school picture. You can’t really even see me. All you see is these two shiny teeth; and they immediately go, “Man, it must have been a rough fourth grade; huh?” I’m like, “Man, it was a rough five years; because when the baby teeth went out, the big teeth came in.”
Dave: They gave you a name; right?
Jonathan: There was tons of them. I mean, name it; from “Bugs Bunny” to—
Ann: —just because of your teeth! Aww.
Jonathan: —“Can opener.” Yes; I would—true story—I would be at the grocery store with my mom; and little kids would be like [child’s voice], “Mommy, what’s wrong with his teeth?” “Shhh; don’t stare, honey. He probably sucked on his pacifier too long,” or whatever. I mean, so/I just—there was not a day that went by that I didn’t hear comments about my teeth—it’s just one of those things that started.
And then I was also just very—
Ann: That’s so sad.
Jonathan: —a peculiar kid. I’m very ADD—put all kinds of initials there, from ADD to all, probably ADHD—they were constantly telling my parents that I should be on this medication and this medication. It was a rough, especially middle school, for me.
But yes, it was very real for me; and it was very real for my son. I thought it was an issue to talk about because it’s becoming a pressing issue, for especially young people today, because one of the things I had going for me is—at least, when that bell rang at 2:30, I could go home somewhere safe—now, when the bell rings at 2:30, young people enter a whole new world, where the bullies are sitting there waiting for them; and it continues all night long.
Dave: What do you remember, going home as a middle school boy? How did you get through? Did it continue in high school, and how did you navigate it?
Jonathan: It was/I mean, it was very tough times. One thing it was—honestly, God is so good—I had two loving parents, who really cared about me. I actually was plugged in at my church; and at my church, I actually had some really good friends. That really helped; because most of the studies out there show that the difference between a kid, that spirals out of control and that bullying just pushes them over that tipping point, and the kid who actually survives it, is just one friend/one close confidant that they can talk to. That makes a world of difference.
That’s one of the things, when I talk with young people in school assemblies, I always tell them that stat: “You can make the difference in another kid’s life. You can make a world of difference, because one friend makes a difference.”
Ann: I think every parent is hoping that they can have an impact on their kids with bullying. But did you tell your parents? Did they know what was going on internally?
Jonathan: No; because when I even wrote the book, my mom read it, and she’s like, “I just didn’t/I….” And she heard me kind of, because I would do school assemblies and talk about this a little bit; but she was like, “I just had no idea.”
It wasn’t her fault. I didn’t come home and be like: “Yes, like today, here’s the food they threw at me,” and “Here’s the whatever…”
I know with my son—we would talk with him a lot—but we found a lot of those stories, years later, because we had no idea that, in high school, he was still literally getting food thrown at him during lunch and stuff like that. We had no idea.
Dave: He just never said.
Ann: Do you think there’s any way we can pull that out of our kids?
Jonathan: The question I’m always asked by parents is: “What can we do?!”
Jonathan: “What can we do?!”
Jonathan: I think the mistake we make, as parents, is we want to solve it. The best thing that we can do, as a parent, is not solve the situation. In fact, most of us don’t know what to do, so the best thing to do is to admit we don’t know what to do. If our kid, by chance, tells us about it, say, “Man, I don’t know what to do. I don’t know the answer, but I just want you to know that I’m here for you through this. Tell me more about this.”
As they talk, listen/empathize: “Man, it sounds like it must have been tough when those kids were doing that. I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. I’m so glad you told me. Talk to me more about this.” Those are the things we want to say. That’s why I spent time writing in the book/was: “Here’s some of these things we can say like that.”
Our kids, more than anything else, want someone who understands. Whenever I talk to young people about this, here’s what they always tell me: “My parents have no idea. They don’t have a clue; they wouldn’t understand; they would freak out.” That’s what I always hear. The best thing that they could have is someone, who didn’t freak out, but someone who listened and empathized, and said: “Hey, no matter what, I’m here through this,” and “You know that nothing you do ever can stop me from loving you.”
Dave: Yes, I’m guessing that’s why having one true friend makes such a big difference; because they feel like: “Somebody hears,” “Somebody understands,” “Somebody empathizes.” When it’s the parent—that’s why it’s so valuable—because the child is feeling like, “My mom and dad get it.”
Jonathan: Yes, and another piece of advice I would give to a parent is: “I think it would be good to try to see if they could get involved in some community somewhere.” It’s a tricky subject; I spend a lot of time talking about in the book. Because we took our kid to youth group’ because we thought, “I personally had had a really good experience at youth group. That was a place where I was accepted.” But we took my son to youth group, and he literally was bullied at youth group. He just felt like he had nobody he could talk to.
I wish that I would have just been there more to just listen; because I think, “No, I know for a fact, if he would have told me, I would have freaked out. I would have freaked out.” It’s the worst thing we can do as parents.
Dave: Freak out looking like what? What do you mean?
Jonathan: Well, there’s two ways we could freak out. One is: our kids are going to do things that violate our rules and whatever. One way is we freak out, like [yelling], “Not in my house!”—you know, that kind of freak out [not related to bullying].
But there’s also the freak out in this bullying situation of: “What?! They—I’m going to/I’m going to call the principal right now!”
And what’s does a kid say right now? “Dad, don’t!”
Ann: “I’ll never tell you again.”
I got suspended and in trouble with teachers all the time; so if I ever went to a teacher and said this, the teacher—I—the very kids that were teasing me, the teacher loved. Me—I was a thorn in that teacher’s hiney—I mean, it was like/the teacher was almost like, “Well, you deserved it! Sit down, you trouble maker!” because I was.
Those of us, who were bullied, very often become antisocial. Why? We don’t have social circles, because nobody likes us. It becomes this downward spiral, where all of a sudden, we don’t have as many friends; we don’t know how to talk with friends; and then when people do talk, we think they’re talking about me, so we lash out and we say stupid things.
It happens all the time; I see this all the time with bullied kids. I did it; my son did it. Sadly, what happens is it makes us difficult to be around. Sometimes our parents/they don’t know what to do with us. When they freak out, they go, “I’m going to solve this,” and it’s the last thing we want them to do.
There are some positive things you could do. The best thing you can do is empathize and be there for you kid. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t call the principal—you can—but you should not be freaking out as you do this. You should talk and say, “Hey, is there something we can do? What can we do to resolve this?”
Ann: Talk about signs of a kid being bullied, because a lot of parents don’t know their kids are being bullied at school or even cyber bullying online. Are there any signs that we can look for to even know or even questions that we could ask?
Jonathan: Yes, very often, you’ll notice changes in attitudes and behavior. Sometimes there’ll be loss of appetite, not wanting to eat and that kind of stuff. You’ve also got to keep your eye open for—like with young guys, for instance—sometimes they come back, and you’ll honestly see a ripped shirt, or dirt on their back pack, or torn books. “Oh, how’d you get the torn books?” “Oh, I dropped it.”
Sometimes you start to notice—it’s not like if you see one of these things—but when you start to notice, “I saw a change in attitude.” We saw, as my son started getting bullied, we literally saw his whole demeanor change. We saw where he used to be a very confident young man, and all of a sudden, he’s just kind of like, “No, I’m stupid; I’ll probably mess it up,”—just under-confident in himself and everything. We’ve got to watch/keep our eyes on that.
In the days of social media, one thing we can do is—if you’re giving your young kids social media accounts—I think it’s good to have the passwords on those accounts, and look at those accounts, and see what people are saying, and see the comments people are making. We can spot some of those comments.
Again, not freak out if we see those; but come as someone who’s compassionate and empathetic, and be able to talk about: “How did that make you feel? I saw this,”—not freaking out like, “What?!”—but to be able to talk to them about that. Those are some of the things you can look for.
Ann: I’m sitting here—you know, as a parent, you’re always trying to solve—I do that; I’m always trying to protect.
Jonathan: Oh, absolutely.
Ann: I sit there and think, “Oh, should we switch schools? Should we homeschool?” Is there ever a time that we should make that big of a switch?
Jonathan: Yes, absolutely. I’m actually a firm believer in that. I’m not a firm believer in coming down and swooping our kid up, and trying to solve all their problems, and pulling them out of it; because often it will usually follow them from place to place. But there are some arenas that are more difficult to navigate than others.
My son was in a very rough school. He was a very creative mind, and he was a gifted student, and all of this. We actually found this school that you had to be on a list to get in. It was a lot of other nerdy kids like him; he loved it when he switched his school. He ended up having some problems at that school; he had some kids that picked on him and that kind of stuff. But he loved it, and he actually thrived at this new school.
Sometimes, as parents, we really should look at those situations and pay attention to those kinds of things; because there are some simple things like that we can do.
Dave: Let me ask you this: “Do you feel like, when you were being bullied or watching your son, what’s the person, being bullied, feel about God?—like, ‘God where are You? Why aren’t You taking this out of my life?’ Is there any of that kind of struggle that you experienced or you watched your son experience?”
Jonathan: I know for me/for myself, I wasn’t crying out to God at the time. I wish I would have; because as an adult, I think of the times where I hit the ground on my face and was like, “God!” and cried out to Him; and He was so there and took me through those tough times. I wish I would have done that as a kid. I wish someone would have helped me understand that a little better; because I think, if I would have known who God was and how much He wanted to walk through that with me, it would have really helped me.
But we’ve got to realize, kids today/they just really aren’t plugged into Scripture. They aren’t really—their relationship with God usually isn’t the first thing on their mind—it’s more the fact that they’re being absolutely mocked on social media. For them, that’s the issue right there; it has nothing to do with God: “No matter what God does, I’ve still got people calling me names on social media,” or “…not liking my stuff, and they’re liking somebody else.” Those are the very real issues in their life. It is tough; it’s one of those tough things as a parent.
I guess the advice I would probably give a parent there would be: “Sometimes, we try to block out all of the bad stuff. This is one of those opportunities where, instead of focusing on blocking out the bad, here’s where we should really focus on absolutely saturating them with good: really helping them feel loved in the home, really helping them see some of the areas where they have worth.”
If we see that they’re really gifted in something that might be obscure and different—and all their friends are football players—but they really like horses or drawing, get them in a drawing class/get them involved somehow where they can go and volunteer with horses, bare minimum, or something like that. Sometimes, if they find that outlet, where they can use their gifts—and see, “Look, I’m being used to do something,”—finding opportunities to serve and make a difference. Something as simple as serving in a homeless shelter, and seeing people respond, because you’re making a difference in their life that makes you feel good about something.
I’d say, as parents, we can do that. It’s through, sometimes, pouring truth and good experiences in their life that they’ll have those good experiences—and they’ll relate to the issue—you don’t even have to address the issues that they’re going through. But you’re giving them positive experiences, and you’re giving them truth so that they recognize those lies as false. That’s one of the best things we can do.
Because, no, I think—to circle back to your question—I don’t think it’s their go-to reaction for a lot of kids today to be like, “What does God think about this? What does He think of me?” But when we’re teaching them—what God thinks of them; “Who is God?” and “Who am I?”—most of the issues that kids are dealing with in life fall right between those two questions.
Dave: Here’s one other angle. You mentioned the bystander—the person that’s watching—either a friend or maybe another parent. What do we do? If I’m watching one of my friend’s sons or daughters get bullied—maybe I’m their friend; maybe I’m just a dad/a fellow dad—do I step in?
Jonathan: Yes, absolutely. That’s the big question I asked in my fictional book, Bystanders. The majority of kids out there—there’s usually a couple of bullied kids/a couple of bullies—but the majority of kids are bystanders. That question is: “What do we do?” I like to equip kids to know that: “You can make a difference; you can literally save someone’s life.”
The sad fact is, if we’re a bystander, and we allow the bullying to go on, very often, we ourselves become the bully.
Dave: I’ve shared this here before, so I won’t go into the details. Our oldest son was friends with a kid, who got bullied at school. I was there one lunch period, playing outside the school. A kid was bullying this friend of my son’s. I stood up to the kid and basically threw him off the playground, and took him to the teacher, and said, “Hey, this kid shouldn’t be out here.”
Dave: I didn’t do it in bad [way]—but at first, I gave him a warning like three times—but he kept bullying the kid; so I finally took him up to the teacher and said, “He needs to go in; he can’t play with us anymore.”
The teacher looked at me and literally went, “Why are you doing this?”
The kid says [sassy voice], “Yes, Mr. Wilson, why are you doing this?”
Then the teacher looked at him, like, “Oh, I see why; he’s a bully.”
A week later, I’m at a parent/teacher conference. I’m standing there, talking to this teacher; and this mom comes up and taps me on the shoulder, and goes, “Are you Dave Wilson?” I go, “Yes.” She starts tearing up; she goes, “My son’s Timmy; thank you for standing up for him on the playground last week.
Dave: So Tim went home, obviously, and told: “Mr. Wilson stood up.” Just standing there, watching her face, I could feel her whole life. Little Tim—actually, he is a really big kid—had just been bullied his whole life. One guy, some stranger dad, stood up. It just hit me: “Man, that’s what we can do in so many different areas of our life.”
Ann: It’s funny, Dave—because I remember that—but you also spoke life to this young boy, who was being bullied.
Ann: You said great things to him, as a man and as a pastor. I think that that is what probably really hit him, too; like, “This man, who is really influential, said these incredible things about me.”
Jonathan: Mentors are huge. Sometimes you can find that in that community/in that church—even if they’re having a rough time with their peers, sometimes that youth pastor or that youth volunteer really—and we, as parents/sometimes, we think, “Shouldn’t I be the one they come to?” It’s great to have another mentor/a coach.
Dave: It is interesting—I’m standing there on the playground; I’m listening and watching bullying happen right in front of me—I can sort of, as a bystander, step in.
But as we know today, bullying happens in the dark—cyber bullying—it’s happening on our child’s phone and devices, and we don’t even know about it. It’s a real deal. You’ve obviously looked into this/studied this. Talk to us about cyber bullying.
Ann: How do we prevent it?
Jonathan: No, that’s a great question. You know, my answer is going to be the same answer I gave when we talked in earlier shows just about: “What do we do in this world of social media, right now, as parents?” There’s actually some realistic guard rails and boundaries we can have that will really help our kids avoid some of this cyber bullying.
I’ll spin it like this—parents come to me all the time and, when they ask me about how to deal with this situation their daughter’s in or their son’s in, here’s how it usually comes out—“My 11-year-old son is being bullied on social media all night long.” Then she’ll ask, “What do I do?” Right there, I say, “Do you really want to know? There’s actually some very practical things you can do.” She’ll be like, “Yes, anything.”
I’ll say, “Well, you just mentioned three things. You said, ‘My 11-year-old son is being bullied on social media all night long.’ How’s your son on social media all night long?” “Well, it’s his phone. He has it in his bedroom; he insists. He has his smartphone right there by his bedside; he uses it as his alarm clock.” I go, “Well, do your son a favor. Go to Walmart®, spend ten bucks, buy an alarm clock.”
Dave: “They go: ‘dingy, dingy, dingy.’”
Jonathan: Yes, it does. [Laughter]
I say: “This brings up three issues when it comes to: ‘Should I give my kid a smartphone?’ First of all, ‘What age?’ Most experts say, ‘Wait until high school.’ You’re 11-year-old shouldn’t have a smartphone; that’s the first thing you can do.
“Second thing is your 11-year-old is on social media. Your 11-year-old had to lie about their age to even get on social media, because they’re not supposed to be on social media until age 13. For sure, wait on social media and do the research—you’ll see it; it’s in my books, like, ‘Parenting Generation Screen’—the research is out there: ‘Watch the amount of social media time that your kids’ spending on.’
“Thirdly, you said, ‘…all night long in their bedroom.’ If there’s one thing that experts agree on, it’s no phone in the bedroom. If anybody asks me, ‘Jonathan, if you could only give your kid one rule?’ it would be ‘No devices in the bedroom at night,’ because your kids don’t need to be losing sleep and being insulted; or worse yet, ‘How come I don’t have as many likes and followers as everybody else?’ All night long they don’t need that. Those three things would help keep bullying to a minimum.”
Then, yes, there’s all kinds of other stuff; but right there—boom, boom, boom—those are some practical things we can do, as parents, is not just give them these devices and throw them in this. It’s like we’re dressing them in the wrong color, and dropping them off in a neighborhood of a gang of the opposite color, and going, “Good luck! I’m here.” Just you’re throwing them out there to the wolves, and you can’t do that. We can help; there’s practical things we could do to help our kids.
Bob: It’s not like bullying is a new phenomenon. We probably all experienced some kind of bullying when we were in middle school or in the early days of high school. I think what’s happened in our day is that it’s all being amplified. Our kids are experiencing at a level today that is different than the level we experienced when we were their age. That’s why it’s so important for moms and dads to know how to respond, to have a strategy in place, and to know how we can help our kids as they go through their teen years.
What Dave and Ann have talked with Jonathan about today—what he’s included in his book, The Bullying Breakthrough—is real practical help for parents of teenagers. We’ve got Jonathan’s book available in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can find it online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order a copy. Again, the title of the book is The Bullying Breakthrough: Real Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, Bystanders, and Bullies. Again, you can order the book from us online today at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to get your copy.
Now, this weekend, we’ve got hundreds of couples joining us in Hartford, Connecticut; in Louisville, Kentucky; in San Diego, actually in Del Mar; and in Parsippany, New Jersey: Weekend to Remember® marriage getaway is happening this weekend.
Next weekend, we’re in Little Rock; and Cleveland; and Del Ray Beach, Florida; and Pittsburg. These getaways are continuing throughout the fall. If you’ve never been to a getaway, why don’t you go to FamilyLifeToday.com and get more information about when a getaway is coming to a city near where you live and plan to join us? And then pray with us that the couples, who are attending this weekend, will have a truly transformative, marriage-changing experience as they come to a Weekend to Remember marriage getaway. Again, there’s more information about the getaway on our website at FamilyLifeToday.com.
We hope you have a great weekend. I hope you and your family are able to worship together, one way or another, with your local church this weekend. I hope you can join us on Monday. We’re going to talk about all of the data/all of the research that shows young people—people in their 20s and 30s—walking away from Christianity/from religion. David Kinnaman and Mark Matlock say there is a silver lining to that cloud. We’ll explore that silver lining when we join them on Monday. I hope you can be with us for that.
On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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