“Sometimes,” my child said to me, “it is easier to think of the other person as a jerk.” He had been excited about a summer day camp that promised kayaking and archery, but after a day and a half the toll of dealing with bullies was too much. His head was hurting all the time and he was angry and confused. As an extremely thoughtful, sensitive child the bullying raised questions for him about what his place in the world was, how to balance his desire not to see others in pain with his need to protect himself, and whether to trust his own interpretation of events or not. It really would have been easier if he could just see the other child as a jerk, but that wasn’t in the cards for him.
It is simpler on a child if he or she can simply label the other person a jerk, and know that the bullying is the result of the other person’s problems, and not one’s own. However, a sensitive gifted child may have trouble doing this. He may be able to empathize with the person bullying him and feel trapped between wanting to take action that will stop the bullying, and compassion towards the child who might end up being punished. The tension between compassion and wanting assistance gets so much worse if the child does not trust the adults involved to be fair and effective in helping, and a gifted child may have a very strong sense of justice. For my son it was a problem that the only recourse the camp counselors seemed to use for misbehaviour was to yell or scold children, and as someone who hates having that happen to him he didn’t want it to happen to others.
My son knows about cognitive biases and that kids have a tendency to protect themselves by remembering only the other person’s part in the problem and not their own, so he went back mentally and questioned what he should have done differently. There can be immense pain doing that, because it can lead to the question “am I at fault? Did I cause this? Do I deserve this?” A gifted child is likely to see the tension between victim-blaming, and trying to learn from one’s experience. Add to this a tendency of perfectionism, and difficulty at forgiving oneself for little errors, and one has a dangerous mix. Add to this the other kids being able to lie easier, and my son beginning to doubt himself, and the mix gets even more dangerous.
A gifted child might find his or herself spending an unnecessary amount of time and energy questioning whether the other person’s complaints about him or her are in fact real. This is particularly hard when there can be a grain of truth in the bully’s complaints. Gifted and twice-exceptional children are not always able to act normal or fit in, so a gifted child might already know that he or she is different. Bullying that suggests to a child that it is wrong for a child to be different might be hard for the child to brush off because it builds upon the truth that the child already knows: that he or she is in some ways different.
As a parent I struggle to teach my children to behave in socially acceptable ways. In some ways the children at camp were trying to do the same. The kindest was trying to encourage my child to act in a way they find socially acceptable… not what we find socially acceptable in our household. And while a parent can wrap the message in loving assurance that one is already acceptable and that the skills and behaviours are about navigating specific contexts, the other children’s message was more black-and-white. They told him quite clearly that he was socially unacceptable the way he was.
To what extend do children really need to conform? It was suggested to me that this experience of bullying could be a good one for my child, encouraging my child to learn the necessary conformity skills that people believe are necessary for a adulthood. I disagree. We don’t want him to learn the conformity survival skills that bullying teaches kids. The things that make my child different are a blessing. The world will be better off if he can survive to adulthood with his unique perspective on things, his concern for justice and his love for others intact. And, as one of my sons says, “it is never an okay thing for a child to feel tortured, ever!”
Gifted kids are likely to question the stupid things that people tell children when the children are bullied. I remember from my childhood the stupid things people told me. I was told that I was picked on because my family was wealthy, because I was smart, and because I was well-behaved. People act as though children are expected to be okay with bullying as long as they are in some way superior to the person bullying them. As one of my children told me, nothing is an excuse for being a jerk.
Sometimes children are told the other is bullying them because that other person has a low self-esteem. Maybe this can help some children from believing that the cause of the bullying lies with them, but it also risks the child feeling like they are somehow being held responsible for solving the other person’s problems. I remember in my childhood being told that quite frequently, and feeling the expectation that I owed it to these other kids to try to help boost their self esteem.
I remember taking dice into school to try to teach my classmates a dice game, because people told me that the bullying happened because the other kids were bored. I remember praying that somehow God could stop the bullying. My religious beliefs were that somehow God would help me find a way to stop the bullying, and as long as it continued it meant I hadn’t found that perfect thing God wanted me to find. I remember being told that it would be wrong for me to homeschool as a teenager because the bullies needed me to be a good example to them. I was told that bullies would always find someone to bully, so when I saw kids bullying other kids I would insert myself into the situation to be bullied instead, and when I started homeschooling, I worried about the kids who would be bullied instead of me. No child should have to carry those types of worries.
If your child is bullied, please take whatever time is necessary to hear how your child understands the bullying. What is your child’s perception of things? Is there a way you can help your child understand things in a way that might be healthier for your child?