Fighting Bullying From Within, by Joan Stein Jenkins, Esq.


We’ve all heard a lot about bullying. There are TED talks, news segments, even government websites devoted exclusively to what all children, and increasingly all parents, know may be a reality of today: pervasive bullying.

Bullying is as old as time. And bullying can occur to any of us throughout our lives, from the bullying in the classroom to harassment on the job. It has always been there, and it always will be.  There is nothing new about one kid beating up another kid.  New however are the ways in which bullying can be used on the Internet and cell phones to broadcast far and wide and inflict prolonged pain.  

Of course not all unpleasantness or disagreements add up to bullying, but the following behaviors suggest bullying: speaking ill of our social or economic status; demeaning our physical appearance or conditions; making fun of our mental or emotional state; looking down on us for our beliefs or nationality or race or sexual orientation; ridiculing us by persistently throwing our mistakes in our face; attacking us with physical force.

Normally when we talk about bullying, we focus on how to address it, and how to punish it. School districts develop monitoring plans. Parents seek to ban the latest anonymous chat app. Prosecutors struggle to bring charges against online bullies. I suggest that these efforts are a good start but have only limited results.

I have worked with young people during their most difficult moments and I have come to believe that in order to address bullying, we must look at those who bully.  It is helpful to realize that bullying can indicate an emptiness, a worthlessness, or sense of victimhood or fear inside a young person. It’s a total inability to express those emotions, and to deal with doubt and anger or a sense of entitlement in a healthy way.

People who bully—notice, I try not to say bullies, because we’re still talking about kids here—people who bully can’t figure out how to fix those feelings, so they turn to hurting others. They find that getting other people to suffer temporarily relieves their pain. It shows them they have power—the power to hurt—and this makes them feel a sense of worth. But we all know, of course, that it will never fix their core problems, the problems inside, and so they will never ultimately feel better through bullying. And failing to feel better, they might bully again and again.

Honestly, I have come to believe that changing bad behavior requires individual hard work and insight that  no single class or curriculum alone can accomplish. Bullying behavior changes when a youth goes through a process of getting in touch with those dark hidden emotions, and addressing them head on.  It often involves addressing issues with parents or community or societal unkindnesses. It can involve accepting conditions in their lives they find challenging. And it almost always requires a strong mentor who can open new worlds for children who never realized that the strongest among us can be humble and gentle and only show their muscles when they really have to.

So now that we’ve addressed what bullying is, who bullies are, why they do what they do, and what is necessary to change their behavior, I want to focus on problems that kids are facing with bullying right now.  You may have someone who bullies you. You may see someone being bullied. You may even have a friend who picks on others.  How can we stop bullying? Well, if you’ve followed my logic so far, you know that getting a child who is acting like a bully to stopping bullying is really hard. But bullying is a two-way street. Bullies feel power when they hurt you—and you can win when they can’t hurt you.

The way that we win is when we know ourselves and have confidence in our self-worth and learn from our mistakes. We win when we remember our mistakes do not define us. Remember, you all face a huge amount of pressure and have competition today. And you also have great opportunity, to learn, to create, to make contributions to the world. And being kind and inclusive can be as epic as climbing mountains.  With each accomplishment, large and small, your confidence should grow.

But I am here to tell you: this is a lifelong pursuit. You will always find moments of doubt, and you will never be impervious to the nasty words of others. No one wants to be hurt.  So when you face bullying—because we all inevitably face bullying—what is your response going to be?

I know what I do: I look at myself and I consider what matters to me.  I ask myself: what can I laugh about, what makes me angry, what makes me weak, what makes me strong, what will I stand up for? I ask myself: what makes me be at my best, and what more can I strive to improve?  When I am at my best, bullying is just noise. 

This is what I call resilience.

And I think that resilience can protect us and prevent other people’s mean spirits from taking over our joy. Remember, bullying behavior is not your problem, it is the bully’s problem and only bullies can solve that deficiency inside them. It is important to remember a bully’s opinion can never be your truth. It is crucial to know that what will really hurt you is not the bullying.  What really does damage is whether you keep that anger and hurt in your heart, because that is what’s really hard to fix.  Stand up for yourself. You have more strength than you can imagine.

And when you need more help: use the school administration and the police when it’s necessary—don’t let anyone get away with putting bad things about you on the internet. Don't let anyone get away with physical violence. Don’t ask for sexy texts; you may be deeply compromising someone when you do. And, don’t let anyone convince you to send a sexy picture—I promise you, you’ll regret it. There ARE times when it’s necessary to turn to the authorities, and when that happens, I encourage you to find that adult who is willing to stand up for you and help.  But unless you’re at that point, I want you to turn to yourself. When you hear hurtful words, think about everything that you are, and be proud of what you have done and plan to do.  You have the strength to do more than just beat bullying, you can make bullying insignificant.

Joan stein Jenkins, Esq., has been City Prosecutor for the city of Manhattan Beach since 1998, and is also an advisor to the South Bay Families Connected project. Previously, she was City Prosecutor for the city of Torrance and a deputy city prosecutor for the city of Los Angeles as a trial attorney. A graduate of Indiana University and Duke University Law School she has trained as a master mediator and as a trainer of trainers. Joan started and wrote the curriculum for the first peer resolution program in Manhattan Beach schools. She also started Manhattan Beach's unique juvenile diversion program which helps rehabilitate young offenders--it is the first program in the region that prioritizes rehabilitating  young people in a restorative justice model.  Joan has taught mediation in the US and India.