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Shunning is bullying, and kids deserve protection. Our bullying solutions book,  Bullying – What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe, is used by many families, schools, and youth organizations for their anti-bullying activities.

My Own Story

“Betty” was the bane of my childhood. From the time I was seven until I was ten, I’d go to school dreading recess. All the girls would run to play the wonderful games that Betty would lead. With all my heart, I wished we could be friends.

If I tried to join in a game, Betty would call the other girls away from me, saying, “You don’t want to play with that little brat. You might get her cooties.” She and her friends would whisper words like ‘ugly’ about my dark, curly hair and olive skin, point at me, giggle, and turn their backs.

Asking my parents or teachers for help simply never occurred to me. Away from the cluster of girls, I’d sit alone by the locked door of the classroom and read a book, escaping into the world of my imagination and waiting for recess to be over. I suffered through recess each morning, lunchtime, and afternoon day after day after day for over three long years.

One day in the fifth grade, Betty and her followers trapped me in the bathroom. When I tried to slip past them to get out the door, Betty shoved me backwards, knocking me down. Pushed beyond endurance after years of being left out and made fun of, I got up silently and kicked her hard in the shins.

As I left the bathroom, Betty started crying and screamed, “You’ll get in trouble for this. I’m telling on you.”

Betty and the other girls went running to the teacher, claiming that I had kicked Betty and that she hadn’t done anything at all. To her eternal credit, my teacher believed me over the word of the other girls. From my adult perspective, I can imagine that she must have observed the playground situation, even though the policy at that time in my school was to not interfere.

Over fifty years later, I can still remember being a terrified, shy ten-year-old who never got into trouble at school, feeling sick to my stomach when the teacher asked to speak with me alone. To this day, I can remember the kindness in her voice. “Speaking unofficially, Irene,” my teacher said, “Good for you! Officially, please do your best not to let this happen again.”

After that, to my astonishment, Betty started trying to get me into her group. At first, I thought I was in heaven.  Having her acting so nice to me felt so wonderful.

Suddenly, I realized that Betty was starting to pick on another girl, whose family did not have much money. As this girl stood there alone, looking sad, Martha and her followers laughed at her clothes. Betty nudged my arm to get me to join in.

I wanted so badly to be part of their group, but a dawning sense of justice told me that I simply couldn’t do to this other girl what had been done to me. Gathering all the courage I had, I walked away from the group I had longed for years to belong to and went to talk to the girl they were harassing.

After that, Betty and I stayed away from each other. Some of the girls in her group eventually ended up becoming my friends.

Relational Bullying

Much of Betty’s behavior was a form of what is now called “relational aggression” or “relational bullying.” This term refers to the use of social networks, either in the ‘real world’ or online, to be hurtful to someone by spreading gossip, encouraging exclusion, and using other covert forms of personal attack.

In his profound book, A Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, author M. Scott Peck, M.D., describes how unhealthy groups can create a sense of purpose and value for themselves by choosing another group or an individual to be a common enemy.

Shunning happens when a group builds its identity by keeping an individual out and attacking this person’s reputation, value, and other relationships. Sometimes, the group also taunts the excluded person. At other times, the group acts as if that person is not there. Usually, one person leads the shunning process, but others in the group actively participate or passively let it happen.

This behavior is not new. In some cultures, both now and in the past, the most devastating punishment anyone can receive is shunning. The experience of being banned from the community can be life threatening.

Too often, relational aggression between young people is not taken that seriously by adults. They will make suggestions that usually don’t work very well, such as, “Just ignore them and play with someone else.”

Increasing evidence shows that being shunned can be devastating for a child. Children can internalize the message from their peers that they are “losers” and act in self-destructive ways. Some children have become very depressed or even committed suicide. Some have become bitter and dealt with their hurt in very aggressive ways.

A child who is the target of relational aggression needs adult help. This behavior is hard to confront directly, and regular boundary-setting skills usually aren’t enough. Without support, a child may start to believe that everyone important in the world thinks he or she is worthless.

Minimizing the pain of this experience is a mistake. While adults can step in with younger children, older children usually benefit most by being supported in finding their own answers. All children benefit from having their adults listen to their feelings and help them practice skills that can address the problem.

Teach The Skills of Assertive Advocacy and Confidence

The more effectively that children and adults can speak up for themselves or others, the more likely they are to be successful in dealing with relationship problems. See our article, Assertive Advocacy, for ideas on teaching the differences between being passive, aggressive, and assertive. People are also more likely to be successful in getting others to listen if they can act confident no matter how they feel inside. See also, our article: Teaching Children the Skill of Confidence.

Some kids also need to learn how to relate in positive ways with their peers. Practice skills such as how to listen to others instead of interrupting, sound positive instead of negative, wait your turn, approach other kids with respect and confidence, speak up without putting others down, and stay in charge of what you say and do so that you act safely and respectfully towards others.

Teach How to Protect Feelings and Adjust Emotional Distance

When others are being unkind, children and adults can learn a variety of ways to protect their emotional safety. In Kidpower, we teach our students how to throw hurting words away into their personal Trash Cans and recycle them into affirmations. We also teach how to screen out hurtful comments, gestures, and grimaces while taking in useful information. For dealing with important people who go back and forth between being great to being rude, we teach how to Adjust Your Emotional Distance as a useful tool for enjoying the good in the relationship while protecting yourself from what is upsetting.

“Libby and I were best friends since we were little kids,” one Kidpower student, ten-year-old Marisa, mourned. “But now Libby acts so mean to me. She doesn’t want me to spend time with anybody except her, and she says that I am a bad friend when I do. Sometimes, Libby tries to get other girls to stay away from me and play only with her. I don’t want to lose Libby’s friendship because sometimes she can be very fun, but I don’t know what to do.”

“When a friend or someone else you care about acts like a bully, it can hurt a lot,” I said sympathetically. “People often wonder what they did wrong and feel betrayed.”

Marisa nodded her head sadly.

“This is hard to do at first, but you can learn to change your emotional distance from Libby, instead of keeping your heart completely open to her all the time,” I suggested. “That way, when your friend is acting in a way that is emotionally safe, you can be emotionally open. When she is acting in a way that is emotionally unsafe, you can protect your heart by being emotionally further away from her.”

I showed Marisa what I meant by using a physical example. First, I pretended to be Libby in a good mood. We stood close and gave each other a hug. Next, I started to be rude, saying, “Why didn’t you come over to my house yesterday after school?” I coached Marisa to step away from me each time I was rude, so that her physical distance matched her emotional distance.

Pretending to be Libby, I got progressively ruder, saying, “You are such a bad friend!” “I never liked you anyway!” “You are so stupid!” Marisa kept moving back, until she realized that she was ready to leave completely.

I acknowledged that Marisa might lose this friendship if Libby’s behavior continued, but that this was not something that Marisa could control. It would be sad if this happened, but it would not be her fault.

The “I’d Like to Join the Game” Practice

Another way that kids pick on other kids is by not letting them play games. The rule at many schools is that everybody gets a turn or that everybody gets a chance to play. But teachers usually tell kids who are getting left out to try to work it out themselves.

In one second-grade class, I asked the students what sorts of things kids said to stop other kids from joining a game. This led to quite a lively discussion with many examples. We then brainstormed answers for these reasons for exclusion.

Reason:           “You’re not good enough.”
Response:           “I’ll get better if I practice.”

Reason:           “You’re too good and nobody else gets a chance.”
Response:           “I just want to play. I’ll agree to rotate so that everybody will have a turn.”

Reason:           “Only people wearing yellow can play this game.”
Response:           “Since green is a mixture of yellow and blue, this green shirt actually has yellow in it.”

Reason:           “You cheat.”
Response:           “I didn’t mean to. Let’s make sure we agree on the rules ahead of time.”

Reason:           “There are too many here already.”
Response:           “There’s always room for one more.”

Reason:           “You had to have watched the show on TV last night to play.”
Response:           “I’ll use my imagination. Just tell me what the rules are.”

In workshops, we give students the chance to practice being persistent in asking to be included and being an advocate for another student. We remind them that staying cheerful and assertive works much better than acting whiny or irritated.

Our instructor Marc asks Daniel and Roxanne, who are both eight years old and who have done this before, to help him demonstrate. He sets the stage by explaining, “Let’s imagine that I am a kid at your school. Roxanne and I are playing catch, and Daniel wants to play.”

As Marc and Roxanne pretend to toss a ball back and forth, Daniel approaches them. “I’d like to join the game,” he says cheerfully and confidently.

Marc pretends to be a bully and says in a nasty voice, “No way! You always spoil everything by dropping the ball.”

Daniel stays calm and says firmly, “I’ll get better if I practice. I really want to play.” (He imagines throwing Marc’s words into his personal trashcan.)

Marc says meanly, “I said that you’re not good enough. Go away.”

Daniel persists and says, “The rule at school is that everybody gets to play.”

Roxanne, who has been watching up until now, speaks up. “Give him a chance,” she tells Marc.

“But he drops the ball,” Marc complains. “And it takes him so long to get it.”

Both Daniel and Roxanne speak up together saying, “The rule at school is that everybody gets to play.”

Marc pretends to be angry and says,  “I won’t play if Daniel does.”

Roxanne says calmly, “I’m sad that you feel that way. I hope that you’ll change your mind.” She and Daniel start tossing their imaginary ball.

Marc then gives each student the chance to practice being both the kid who wants to play and the kid who speaks up. Each student chooses which form of exclusion he or she wants to practice dealing with.

The Meet-New-People Personal Safety Tactic

In the sixth grade of a small, private elementary school, the students were nervous about having to start at a new, much bigger school the following year. Each of these eleven-year-old children said that their biggest fear was of being alone.

We decided to turn this problem into a practice by having each student imagine being alone at the new school. The student approached a group of students who acted like they knew each other and said cheerfully and confidently, “Hello, I’m new here. What’s your name?”

Sometimes, the students in the group pretended to be friendly right away. Sometimes, they acted annoyed or ignored the person practicing. We coached each student to find someone who was sitting all alone to approach and introduce her or himself.

Ten Ways Adults Can Provide Support

  1. Listen with compassion.
  2. Help the child develop new relationships by getting involved with social groups away from school.
  3. Get the school to teach about relational aggression.
  4. Help all children to develop positive skills for social interactions. If a child’s anti-social behavior is why kids are avoiding him or her, practice how stay in charge of what you say and do, wait your turn, sound friendly instead of whiny, and be respectful with others. Have specific school rules about exclusion and a clear procedure that everyone knows to follow when it happens.
  5. Ask all students to make written contracts not to gossip, exclude, or badmouth others.
  6. Encourage children to write their experiences and feelings down. Journaling can help relieve pain and increase awareness. Documenting the problem in writing helps to define what is going on and can be a tool to get the attention of the adults in charge.
  7. Acknowledge the temptation to gossip, because people’s lives are interesting and because it is a way of sharing. Follow-up by explaining how gossiping about someone can become damaging when it hurts the reputation of this person.
  8. Teach young people how to act confident, be assertive, protect their feelings, adjust their emotional distance, meet new people, be persistent in asking to be included, and be persistent in getting help. Give them the chance to practice staying assertive and confident while being rejected, assessing when it is time to go away, and finding someone else to talk with.
  9. Educate young people about the importance of being an advocate instead of a witness. Give young people the chance to practice out loud the words to say in order to speak up respectfully and powerfully, as well as how to leave and get help.
  10. Stay aware that there might be more than one side to the story. Jumping in and taking sides is often not as useful as guiding young people to find their own solutions.

For more information about Kidpower’s resources for teaching these People Safety Skills and concepts, please visit our online Library (free community membership) and our RelationSafe™ Bookstore.

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Published: March 9, 2012   |   Last Updated: September 20, 2017

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.