For a severely bullied teen, it is absolutely crucial that you help them understand that eventually it will get better. There is light at the end of the tunnel. What they are experiencing is temporary, and they’re not trapped in an endless cycle of social torment from which there is no escape. Those who start losing faith that their situation will ever improve can end up drowning their sorrows in substances, developing learned helplessness or depressive disorders, or considering suicide as a way out. Even for kids who aren’t yet at the end of their rope, helping them see this situation as temporary is crucial for offering comfort and giving them the ability to cope with what is going on.
The “It Gets Better” campaign recently sprung up in response to the sudden awareness of bullying suicides as a way to try and reassure gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender youth that their life will improve. It’s a message important to all bullied children, not just those who are harassed for a sexual identity that is stigmatized. Yet simply telling a bullied child that things will improve is not enough – they need to understand how and why things will change for the better, otherwise these efforts remain little more than a shallow promise, and can seem like an empty campaign slogan to teens.
Does it get better?
It sounds reassuring to tell kids it gets getter. But does it? A few years back a rock group’s song ‘High School Never Ends’ sprung to the top of the charts by lamenting how the pathetic foolishness that takes place in high school continues right on through adult life. It became popular for a reason. A large number of disenfranchised young adults have come to realize that the same herd mentality, the same destructive gossip and pathetic popularity games, the same group discrimination and blind hostility – all this goes on in adult life just like it does in high school. It takes all of about 5 minutes on the planet to realize this, and teens, who have been here much longer than 5 minutes, surely recognize it too.
So we can say it gets better until we’re blue in the face, adolescents aren’t always so sure. After all, many of the same adults who tell them it gets better were the same ones teaching them that words shouldn’t hurt in grade school. They’re naturally skeptical of adult reassurances, which they know from experience are often given out to kids as an anti-panic measure to reassure them that everything is OK when they know it is not. In talking with bullied teenagers, it becomes clear that it takes more than promises to sell them on this idea.
One bullycide victim wrote to his psychiatrist about how if the person doing the taunting is “more popular than you . . . you’re supposed to sit there and take it. . . . People will listen to them and never listen to you. And it’s not just like that in high school but in all aspects of life, even among adults.” (Heller, 2011, p. 87) Jamie Hubley, another 15-year-old bullycide victim who had become involved in the ‘It Gets Better’ movement himself wrote in what would be his last blog post: “I don’t want to wait three more years, this hurts too much.” He added, “How do you even know it will get getter?” (Week, 10-28-2011) Obviously, kids need more than words and empty reassurances. They need to understand how and why things will change, or they’ll remain skeptical that they ever will.
Convincing Bullied Teens That It Gets Better
Start off by acknowledging that hatred and prejudice are facts of life in our current world that aren’t going away anytime soon. You should honestly recognize that some things DON’T change. Teens aren’t stupid or clueless. They can turn on the news or watch TV and see unlimited examples of adults bullying each other. They can observe innumerous examples of prejudice in the world around them. They can even see presidential candidates or government leaders fueling and encouraging prejudices of different types. Pretending that this suddenly changes after high school is a lie, and kids will be quick to recognize it as such.
So admit that there are a large number of stupid, bigoted, reactionary people in the world. Admit that even in adulthood, most people come upon their beliefs by blindly following the herd as opposed to thinking for themselves. We CAN work to change this harsh reality, but it won’t happen quickly. It will take generations of raising children with the belief that animosity and singling other groups of people out is NEVER OK in order to make real progress, and this is something that isn’t happening now.
What DOES change in adulthood is your ability to relate to such hateful or bigoted people in ways that are far less painful. So teach children that . . .
It gets better because mean people become easier to ignore.
It’s hard to escape the bullies of junior high or high school. You’re all trapped in the same prison (I mean school) together, and so if someone is determined to make your life miserable, there’s little means to escape it. THIS CHANGES IN ADULTHOOD. Yes, there are still jerks out there, but they don’t enjoy the same captive audience. You’re not forced to hang out in the same places they do or attend the same events. Those who bully in the workplace can be fired, so they have to keep their hostility in check. They can’t follow you around, that would be stalking and they’d be arrested. They can’t lay a finger on you, that would be assault and they’d be arrested. These things are illegal now, of course, but many things which are tolerated by authorities because “kids will be kids” are not tolerated in adulthood, as perverse as this may seem. So bullies eventually lose their bully pulpit. Yes, people in the world still sometimes behave like narcissistic sociopaths. But it becomes so much easier to ignore them or to cringe at their lunacy from a distance.
It gets better because many of the people bullying you now will grow out of it.
There are some people who will stay mean and vindictive forever. But a larger number will grow out of these behaviors, because much of the bullying that goes on in school originates from insecure people trying to establish who they are or where they fit in. Teens eventually find themselves, they grow out of their insecurities, they mature, and their beliefs change.
It is insecure people who feel a need to waste their time and energy concerning themselves with what they see as deficiencies in others. Secure people worry about their own lives and their own deeds. As more of your peers become more secure in their identity, many will grow out of this need to bully. When they do, many will come to be ashamed of the things they are doing now. It gets better because many of your tormentors will eventually see the light. So although they may be laughing now, these same experiences will become THEIR OWN shame and embarrassment in the long run, not yours.
It gets better because if you’re patient, good ultimately produces better results than evil.
Hostility, backstabbing, betrayal, lying, elevating yourself by putting others down, focusing life around clothing or dwelling on superficial differences that are only skin deep – none of these are things that serve one’s interests well in the long run. Empathy, compassion, love, loyalty, acceptance of others – these are qualities that ultimately win out over time, even though it may seem as though these traits don’t matter much in the moment at hand. The worst-dressed compassionate person will always earn more true friends than the best-dressed snob.
If you keep putting faith in those best qualities about yourself, the same things that others might use to target you now can earn you both friendship and respect in the long run, whereas the traits your bullies exhibit, though it may earn them fake respect or shallow friends, will ultimately alienate them from others as life goes on. Good can triumph, but you must be patient and persistent.
It gets better because growth, knowledge, and maturity will make it much easier to take the hostility that comes your way.
Bullies become much easier to disregard – and their words or actions much easier to put into context – as you grow and mature. When you’re an adolescent who is just starting out with your adult life, not quite sure exactly where you stand in the world, it’s much harder to ignore someone’s hostility. Their words and actions cut right to your soul, since there is little in the way of experience to defend against it. You don’t have as much experience with love, with friendship, with success, with prosperity, or with any of those other things that can act as a counterweight to someone’s hurtful words. The things that can insulate you against bullying are things that only come with time.
Knowledge and experience build your defenses. With time and experience, you’ll come to better see hostile people for what they are, and become less affected by their misdeeds. I can tell you all day that bullies are often insecure people or that their antics will work against them, but the comfort only comes when you have the knowledge and experience to realize this is true, and not just some feel good catch-phrase we tell our kids. I can also try to give you tips on how to refute their aggression, but it takes practice and experience to gain control over our emotions and develop a thicker skin.
With better experience and personal growth – especially knowledge that comes through learning about human behavior and psychology – you learn to see through such people like a clear glass window, and interpret their deeds in much different light. Experiencing unprovoked hostility still hurts, just not nearly as much. The hurt it causes you is more like a paper cut rather than the dagger it feels like now.
It gets better because the things which make someone popular (or unpopular) in high school are not the same things that decide success in adult life.
In fact, it’s usually precisely the opposite: the traits that can make kids feel like outcasts in high school will tend to serve them well in adult life. Alexandra Robbins, author of The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth, says, “Many of the differences that cause a student to be excluded in school are the identical traits or real-world skills that others will value, love, respect, or find compelling about that person in adulthood and outside the school setting.” (Paul, 2011, p. 43) With time, some of the very same things which bullies tend to target – things such as sensitivity, empathy, creativity, a conflict-averse personality, strong morals, going against the grain, etc. – will become your greatest strengths and most cherished attributes.
It gets better because it becomes easier to surround yourself with positive people.
Many people are clammed up in junior high or high school, afraid to come out of their shell or display who they truly are. As people grow and mature, as they settle down into their core inner person, you’re likely to find that you have much more in common with others than you ever would have imagined. Many more people than you might think share your interests and beliefs, and eventually you’ll find that you’re not such a freak after all. There are others out there who love you for who you are, and they’re searching for you just like you are for them. Sometimes it just takes a little time to find them.
“There is nothing wrong with you just because you haven’t yet met people who share your interests or outlook on life,” says Alexandra Robbins. “Unless you are doing something unhealthy or destructive, take pride in your beliefs, passions, and values. Know that you will eventually meet people who appreciate you for being you.” (Paul, 2011, p. 43)