When Bullying Is Real


{Content Warning: Use of a homophobic slur.}

Alright. Middle school began last week for my two sixth graders, which always makes a mama’s heart flutter, and here’s how it’s going: MOSTLY WONDERFUL.

My kids are feeling confident.

They’re finding their groove.

They appear to have other sixth grade humans to sit with at lunch, so the Very Worst, Most Awful Part of the Day seems handled.

Mostly wonderful, see?  

Mostly wonderful except the part where a kid called my kid a faggot in gym class.

That bit was decidedly unwonderful.

My kid replied. “I don’t appreciate you calling me a faggot.”

To which the kid responded, “Shut up, faggot,” as one might unfortunately expect. I guess not everyone got the memo to Be Best.

After the kid told my kid to shut up, my kid found a time to let the teacher know. The teacher says he’s got it, and my kid feels overall OK about it. Overall supported. Overall unconcerned, which is saying something for this one since he’s Sometimes Anxious like his mommy. Sometimes on Edge. Sometimes Afraid. This kid of mine humans hard, in other words. It’s like watching middle school me all over again. So many feelings. So much tender uncertainty. So every time he says, “I’m good,” or “I’ve got this,” I exhale in relief. Whoosh. He’s good. Whoosh. He’s got this. I mean, I know he’s got it, but I remain proactively distressed until he knows he’s got it, you know?

We were standing at the bathroom sink together the night after the Event, trying to clear a path through the detritus to our toothbrushes, and I could see a bit of his self-assurance slip. Just a touch. Just in the barely watery eyes and biting the inside of his cheek.

“Mom,” he asked, “how come kids bully me, though?”


How come kids bully him?

He had a tough time a couple years ago, in elementary school. Sensitivity and a longing to be liked coupled with tiny humans trying out different ways to treat each other makes for a tough combo, and his feelings took a beating.

How come kids bully me? I think a lot of us want the answer to this one. I think a lot of us feel like the targets. I think a lot of us wonder if we’re ill-formed or lacking or repellent in some secret fashion we can’t see. 

I felt like I should’ve known he was wondering. I felt like I should’ve anticipated the question and addressed it before he had to ask. But I was surprised by the simple and the obvious. I look at him and see a super hero. I look at him and see resilience. I look at him and see talent and smarts and compassion and exhilarating individualism. I look at him and hope to be more like him when I grow up. So I forgot he might be thinking what the rest of us think… what’s wrong with me?

“OH!” I said. “Oh, sweetheart.”

I abandoned the toothbrush search, and I turned to his face, because this isn’t the kind of conversation to have in the mirror. 

“Listen. Listen very carefully. This has nothing to do with you. Nothing. Zero. Zilch. I know it seems like it does. I know it feels like it does. I’m not telling you not to be upset; I sure would be. But I need you to hear this loud and clear… the child who calls another child the f-word is like a feral, wounded animal. The child who lashes out with cruelty — whose opening conversational gambit is to cause emotional harm — that child is consumed by extreme anger and more than likely an enormous amount of pain and a desperate need for power and control, which probably means he doesn’t have those things otherwise in life, right?  I mean, can you imagine, baby? Can you even conceive of ever calling anyone the f-word?” 

His eyes were huge. “No,” he replied. “I would never.” 

Which is true. He would never. 

“Right. But do you think that kid has a mama who gives him snuggles? Do you think he knows what it feels like to be treated as smart and savvy and kind? Do you think the adults in his life have been gentle and championed him well? Do you think they say they’re sorry when they screw up? Do you think they’ve taught him that mistakes are normal, and that we’re all deeply worthy of infinite love, and that there are ways to be strong other than hurting others?” 

It was like a light dawned. An “ah ha” moment for sure. I could physically see him understand. And understanding was followed by relief. 

“It’s not me!” he said. And he was right. It’s not. 

We went over what the reality for that kid must be. We developed compassion for people who hurt us and talked about how HARD it is to look up from our own pain long enough to recognize that. We remembered we still have to protect ourselves from harm; we don’t pet feral animals and expect them not to bite. We don’t cuddle up to them because they’re definitely not our new best friends. Nope. We get ourselves to safety, and then we call in the no-kill animal shelter. The one with the expertise to handle an animal that’s lashing out coupled with the compassion to see its underlying terror. The one with the ability to hold it firmly without causing additional damage to it or anyone else. 

Yes? Yes.

We talked for a while that night, and then we snuggled, and we never brushed our teeth. Turns out some things are more important than good dental hygiene. I regret nothing. 

Sending you love, friends,




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17 responses to “When Bullying Is Real”

  1. I’ve written and deleted something about 20 times, so just going to go for it. I was a nice kid. I’m still a nice kid :). I found my place in college and have a ton of fantastic friends. So in elementary and junior high and high school I didn’t deserve to be made fun of daily, have my things ruined, have rumors and jokes go around about me, etc. because some other person “has something going on in their life”. It wasn’t about me, but to a kid….it’s really really hard to see that. I guess this is just to say I see the reason, but it shouldn’t be an excuse.
    Being a nice kid, or humaning hard (omg, I was an expert), isn’t a reason for someone else to be a jackass. Yes, it’s going to happen, and I’m so glad your little man is getting tools to deal with it. But the other side of the behavior also needs to be addressed. I’m glad it sounds like his school does that. And that he has a great parent advocate team too.
    I also understand, as an adult, the levels of motivation behind bullying behavior. But not all bullies have some huge life drama or bad home situation or whatnot. Honestly, the kids that were the bane of my existence (I would not go back to school for any amount of money. Ever.) for many years were the good kids, from good families, who just wanted to be cooler/coolest so used me to make their friends laugh. I don’t feel bad for their situations in any way. I still know it wasn’t about me, but……6th grade me was sad and lonely in a totally pathetic way (small school, no alternative friend options)
    Which is a long way to say, your guy already sounds SO much more secure in himself (through great parenting/support) than I was until college. He’s going to come into his own no problem, but I so wish he didn’t have to deal with the bad behavior around him. And sometimes I kind of wish you could punch the other kid, like they did in my dad’s day 🙂

    • exactly why I think it’s a feature — not a bug — that there’s so much bullying in school. It happens everywhere and it is so sad.

      And a reason my kids were pulled out of school. Why should they do that? if Everyone goes thru it — does it make it ok? No. If people don’t find their place til college — why do we have to go thru all that other stuff? it’s so sad. *hugs*

  2. I used to be “proactively distressed.” Some good therapy, and the all important “time” helped me leave the “distress” behind. Now I try to keep some of my Lovely Anxious Ones from practicing Proactive Distress! You are wise and wonderful – enjoy those snuggles. I haven’t snuggled my son in years – at 27, I do get a good hug or two, once in a while – but no snuggles.

  3. Beth, thank you for your words of wisdom. I will hold on to them and share with my kiddos as they are starting their school journeys.

  4. What a spot-on response! I teared up reading what you told your son, and that’s something that doesn’t happen to me very often. You’re right: it’s not about him.

  5. All the yes!

    I ran across this quote this morning: “Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering” (violence in this context including meanness and bullying). These situations can become (even more) confusing when you get partial insight into someone’s experience. You may say: “Wait! This kid HAS a mama who cuddles him at night!” That’s where empathy requires the humility to say, “I’m not sure what the suffering is, but it must be there. And it must be terrible if this is the result.”

  6. Beth, you are an amazing mother and your kids are phenomenal. Tucking this one away for future sixth grader discussions, but also holding tight to the lesson in this for NOW and the necessary work of creating a human that is more like your son and less like the feral animal. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.

  7. Feeling teary, too. So good that he will talk to you about this stuff and your response was great, especially that you taught him how to keep himself safe. I have one daughter who is unwilling to acknowledge the way she is treated by her “friends” and another one with hyper-sensitive radar to anyone who might be mean (pretty funny since she’s high-maintenance herself). I had a hard time fitting in at school and don’t we all want it to be a little bit easier for her children?

  8. <3 <3 <3

    I try to teach my boys this, too, after spending a lifetime trying to learn it myself. Alas, we're still hurt by the bite, before we figure out how to spot the feral before it spots us…

  9. This caused me to tear up a little too. As a former tiny human who was bullied by her own parents and still spends hours of my life wondering why. As a mother of tiny humans who struggle to understand other tiny humans who evidently have not been taught to Be Nice.

    Thanks for the reminder. It’s not about me. It never was.

  10. This gave me tears… Holding on to this to share with my little. I think he will understand it explained in this way, too. He’s just starting school, so we haven’t had to have a bullying conversation yet, but no doubt we will. Waving!

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