Nine years ago, when Trudy Ludwig’s daughter was the target of emotional aggression at the hands of school bullies, Trudy didn’t just accept it as a rite of passage. This wasn’t “girls being girls.” It was bullying, and it was damaging. So Trudy worked with her young daughter to find workable solutions and to successfully overcome the bullies at school.
During the experience, one thing Trudy noticed was that there simply weren’t enough resources designed to help teach children about bullying and how to deal with it. So after the experience, she decided to fill the void and write several children’s books on the subject, including My Secret Bully, Just Kidding, Trouble Talk®, and the upcoming Confessions of a Former Bully. Trudy is now an anti-bullying advocate, working with schools and communities across the country to educate adults and children on how to work together to fight bullying. Visit Trudy’s website to learn more and to get valuable resources in educating the public on the dangers of bullying. Trudy spoke with us about her experience with bullying and shared what she’s learned through the years.
Healthline: What was your personal experience with bullying?
Trudy Ludwig: My daughter Allie is now 16. When she was 7—and in her first week of second grade—I got a call from a parent whose husband was walking by the schoolyard and saw something going down on the playground that didn’t look right. When I picked my daughter up from school that afternoon, the teacher pulled me aside and told me that some girls were being very mean to Allie.
HL: Was this the first time something like this had happened?
TL: There had been issues in her friendship group since kindergarten—gossiping and spreading rumors—that were hurtful for her. It just peaked during the first week of second grade.
HL: As a mother, how did you respond?
TL: I was really upset about this, and part of it was that her experience triggered my own childhood and young adult memories of friends who turned on me and were very hurtful. And when that happened, I knew I needed to figure out what I can do to help my child. So I went into research mode, trying to find out more information about what experts call "relational aggression."
HL: What did you learn in your initial research?
TL: I found out that for many years, most of the research on bullying was limited, focusing primarily on boys and physical aggression. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that researchers began studying aggression in girls. What they found was that girls are just as aggressive as boys, but they tend to use more relational aggression or emotional bullying within their friendship groups. This is not to say that this is a mean girls issue; boys relationally aggress as well.
HL: What do you mean by relational aggression?
TL: Relational aggression is the use of relationships to intentionally hurt and manipulate others. Here are some concrete examples:
- Intentionally excluding
- Giving the silent treatment
- Spreading rumors
- Texting or emailing hurtful messages
HL: Why do you think that, up until recently, these types of behaviors were considered normal?
TL: I think our society has, for many years, looked upon these antisocial behaviors as normal rites of passage—that girls are just catty and boys will be boys. There’s this mentality of “I went through it as a kid, and you’re going to go through it too, so toughen up.” But researchers have reported that kids actually find this type of bullying more harmful than physical aggression; children would rather be punched in the stomach than have their reputation destroyed on Facebook or MySpace or be the social pariahs on the playground.
HL: So how did your daughter respond to being bullied?
TL: At first it was devastating for Allie, because these were the kids she had hung out with since kindergarten, and they turned on her. For months, she cried herself to sleep. She got very anxious; she had stomachaches and headaches. She felt isolated and alone.
HL: Were you surprised this was a problem at such a young age?
TL: I was. When I started reading the research, I was blown away. Some studies showed that girls as young as 3 and 4 years old already understand the connection between social status and power. When a preschooler says, “If you don’t let me play with that toy, I won’t invite you to my birthday party,” that child is being relationally aggressive by putting conditions on a friendship, and that’s simply not okay. This type of behavior needs to be nipped in the bud.
HL: How did you deal with your daughter's situation?
TL: Allie and her school friends did everything together; they were on the same soccer team and went over to each other’s homes for birthday parties and sleepovers. When the relational aggression came to a head, I tried to extend her friendship base through after-school and weekend activities. By making friends outside of her original social group, my daughter felt like she had others to talk to when she had a bad day at school—friends who weren’t judging her and could accept all the goodness she had to offer and give it back in like kind.
HL: So she stuck with her school?
TL: Yes she did. I actually asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else, but she really liked her teacher and some other kids. But when the time came to go to middle school, Allie opted to go to an arts-and-performance public school, which was not her feeder middle school. There, she met an entirely new set of kids her age and has never regretted that decision. She has never looked back.
HL: You had another parent see your daughter being bullied. If there are no adult witnesses, is there a way to recognize if a child is being bullied?
TL: Look for any change in a child’s normal behavior. Is she more withdrawn or introverted than usual? Is he sleeping more or having drastic mood swings? Does the child suddenly stop receiving invitations for play dates? With physical bullying, parents may notice torn clothes or bruises. The child may be hungry from skipping lunch because someone may have taken his lunch money. If a child suddenly turns off the computer monitor when a parent enters the room or avoids the computer altogether, it may indicate signs of cyberbullying.
HL: If parents notices odd behaviors and suspect their child—or any child—is being bullied, what’s the next step?
TL: First and foremost, initiate dialogue with your child. Let him/her know that you care and that you’re there to help. Be a good listener and supporter. That’s the number one thing parents can do—really listen to their children and take their problems seriously. Gather as much information you can in a calm, objective manner. Find out when the bullying occurred, who was involved, and if there were any bystanders who witnessed the event. Then give your child options as to which grown-up at school (e.g., the teacher, the school counselor, the principal) he or she wants to report this information so that steps can be taken to get the issue addressed.
Also, use these incidents as teachable moments to help your child understand what to look for in a friend. A lot of kids don’t know what makes a good friend. One of my biggest concerns is that kids—particularly girls—who gravitate towards abusive friendships will gravitate towards abusive romantic partners later in life.
HL: How did this experience shape your daughter’s life?
TL: My daughter has learned so much from this experience. She now knows what to look for in a good friend and how to be a better friend herself. She has also become an advocate for other kids by publicly speaking about her experience and helping others who have been bullied. For example, when my daughter was 15, we were on a TV show together, and Allie shared her bullying experience. She summed up how far she had come in a simple statement: “What happened to me was a defining moment in my life, but it doesn’t define who I am.”