Kate was my best friend in third grade. We both had wild imaginations and loved to spend recess pretending to be fanciful creatures. Other kids didn’t seem to like to play “our” way or weren’t very good at pretending, so we stuck to ourselves and thought everything was fine—until we were called into the guidance counselor’s office and told we were a clique and making other kids feel bad for excluding them.
By definition, we were bullies, but what I remember most is feeling ashamed. I wasn’t ashamed about not including classmates–at that age I did not understand that as an issue. I thought my imaginary play was bad and wrong, and the message I received was to simply stop pretending during recess.
Fast forward a few decades, and now my child is having his own negative experience in school. He showed a lot of warning signs: frequent headaches, trips to the nurse for stomach aches, poor grades, and trying to avoid school. He would not tell me directly what was going on, but I spent a lot of time asking questions about his day to piece it together: He was feeling excluded and bullied by a classmate.
I don’t hesitate to be an advocate for my children at their school. Finding out my child was bullied made me angry and upset. I wanted to go to the school and have that child disciplined immediately, preferably in a way that kept him away from my son for the rest of the school year! Fortunately, I took time to calm down and think about how to handle the situation, and I remembered that horrible day in the guidance counselor’s office in third grade when I was accused of being a bully.
Bullying is a topic of national conversation and concern. The Centers for Disease Control has declared it a public health issue, and we know it causes severe and lasting damage to a child’s emotional health if not addressed. We also know that bullying is bad for kids, whether they are victims or perpetrators, and that both groups of kids need mental health supports. Bullying is not just a school problem; it can happen anywhere people gather, and a complex mix of social and environmental issues contribute to the problem.
On October 20th, the Kentucky Youth Bullying Prevention Task Force released its final report. It contains findings and makes recommendations for our state decision-makers to consider. We must remember that bullying is not just an individual problem; it is a community issue that deserves widespread prevention and intervention initiatives. And addressing bullying is not just about protecting victims; it is also about teaching kids safe and healthy ways to interact and engage with each other—not through punishment, but through guidance.
Guidance is what I wish I had gotten in the counselor’s office all those years ago. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I was a socially awkward child who had trouble making friends. I recognize this quality in my own child, so we have talked about ways to tell his bully he would like to play and how he felt being left out. We also discussed whom he could talk to at school if he needed help. He didn’t end up playing in the other child’s group, but he did find ways to make other friends and now feels included. I can only hope his bully received guidance, too. Teaching kids pro-social skills benefits children on both sides of the bullying equation.
October is Bullying Prevention Awareness Month. For more information on bullying and tips on how to discuss it with kids, visit: