Izzy Kalman: How to prevent the tragedy of bullycide

Published: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 9, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.

Hardly a week goes by without news reports of another young person taking his or her own life because of the misery of being bullied by other kids. The latest incident of “bullycide” took place in my own hometown of Staten Island, NY. A lovely, sensitive and artistic 15-year old girl, Amanda Diane Cummings, died on Monday, January 2, from injuries incurred jumping in front of a bus six days earlier while carrying a suicide note. Our hearts grieve for these children and their families. Unfortunately, these incidents seem to be on the rise.

As with each new case of bullycide, this one is being met with public outrage and demand for tougher anti-bullying laws and more anti-bullying programs. We seem to forget that the phenomenon of bullying is continuing unabated despite the dozen years of intensifying anti-bullying warfare ignited by the Columbine shooting. There is hardly a school in the modern world that hasn’t made anti-bullying lessons and activities a regular part of their students’ education. Yet bullying continues.

Recently, Dr. Eric Caine, one of our nation’s leading suicide researchers, wrote an article explaining that anti-bullying laws will not prevent suicides. Nevertheless, with each new bullycide, we intensify our demands for tougher anti-bullying laws.

Why are we failing our children? Why are so many of them becoming so desperate that they feel the only way to end their misery is to end life itself?

The reason is that most anti-bullying efforts are lacking the single most effective element for ending bullying: teaching kids how not to be victims. When kids acquire this wisdom, no one can bully them, and any thoughts of suicide evaporate. They do not need to rely on anyone else to protect them from bullies because they can do it on their own.

Immunizing kids with wisdom is the quickest, most effective and inexpensive way to tackle the problem of bullying. However, there are reasons why most bullying prevention programs are either weak in this area, completely lacking, or even counterproductive.

The main reason is that we believe that teaching victims how to handle bullying on their own is equivalent to “blaming the victim.” “Why should the victim have to change?” we think; after all, the problem is the bullies’ fault. However, that is like denying antibiotics to sick people because it would be “blaming patients for their illness.” Thus, in order not to “blame victims,” we are implementing time consuming policies that require everyone but the victims of bullying to change. Students are being asked to intervene on behalf of victims against bullies. Parents are being urged to stop raising children who are bullies. Educators are being required by law to do double duty as police officers: patrolling school grounds, protecting children from each other, and investigating, interrogating, judging and punishing bullies. However, rather than empowering victims, all this activity disempowers them by giving them the message that they are incapable of solving their problems on their own. And when they discover that all of the society’s efforts to make other kids stop bullying them aren’t working, they become even more depressed and hopeless.

A second reason for the failure to teach kids how to handle bullying on their own is that most of the bullying prevention programs do not have a particularly effective way of teaching this skill. The most common approach is to instruct kids to first tell the bullies to stop. If that doesn’t work, they should walk away. And if walking away doesn’t work, they should tell the school authorities. While this approach sometimes works, it often doesn’t. The reason kids become victims of repeated bullying is that they get upset when they are picked on. So when you tell your bullies to stop, they know they are upsetting you, so they continue. If you walk away, they also figure they must be upsetting you. And if you tell on them, not only are they certain they upset you, they now hate you for getting them in trouble and they want revenge, so they will do something even worse to you.

The truth is that it is essentially effortless to stop being bullied. However, it requires understanding the dynamics of bullying and how to defuse it, the details of which are beyond the scope of this article.

Schools are educational institutions whose purpose is to prepare children to cope with the challenges of life, not to protect them from those challenges. Bullying goes on throughout life, with the most frequent and serious bullying of all going on right within the family. Just as kids go to school to learn the 3 ‘R’s, they deserve to be taught the wisdom for dealing with bullying.

Unless we can rid ourselves of the red herring that “we can’t blame victims,” we will continue to grieve with tragic regularity over kids who were never taught how to handle hostility.

Izzy Kalman is a school psychologist and director of Bullies2Buddies, a program designed to reduce bullying and aggression. For more information, please visit www.Bullies2Buddies.com.

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