In the second part of this series, we'll be focusing on something pretty much everyone is familiar with -- bullying. Although previously touted by many as a standard part of growing up or a 'rite of passage', bullying is far from normal or acceptable.
Bullying can be simply put as unwanted negative attention from peers -- particularly if there is a power imbalance between the kids involved (like a much older child ‘picking’ on a younger child, or a group of kids picking on an individual). This unwanted negative attention can be in the form of physical aggression, spoken or written words, and even social stigmatization and alienation (such as, “Jeryn has cooties and can’t sit with us!” or spreading rumors).
According to the CDC, kids who are involved in bullying are the highest risk for suicide, suicide attempts, and suicidal ideation (thinking of taking your own life). This doesn’t just apply to kids who are victims of bullying; it goes for all parties involved -- both the bully and the bullied.
You may be thinking, “my child would never bully someone else” or “my child isn’t being bullied” -- think again. Oftentimes the shame and emotional distress that comes from bullying make it difficult for kids to share with parents. As a youth minister, I’ve spoken to many kids who were bullied and found the courage to tell a teacher or parent, only for no actionable change to happen. I’ve also encountered children and teens who lead double lives -- that is, around their parents they appear to be compliant and harmless, but when they are around peers, they behave in ways their parents would never believe. And often, it’s the parents who are the strictest and feel most ‘in control’ of their children that are none the wiser to their child’s harmful and disruptive behaviors.
Kids often self-insulate when it comes to bullying and social stress going on at school and extra-curricular activities. It doesn’t help that many families encourage their kids to fight back, or tell them they just need to “toughen up” and get “thicker skin”. (Spoiler alert: bullying doesn’t “build character” -- it’s actually way more harmful than even researchers previously thought). This can cause shame for kids who feel like they’re not ‘tough enough’ to withstand the social and emotional pressure that comes from bullying. They may be afraid to confide in parents, siblings, or other caregivers for fear of criticisms like: “you just need to try harder to make friends,” “you should’ve hit him/her back,” “I wouldn’t have let him/her talk to me like that!” For many children, it can seem like the easiest (or safest) thing is to just keep their struggles to themselves, rather than risk shame, embarrassment, or further ridicule and criticism.
Cyberbullying, which is bullying that involves the use of technology (text, email, social media, etc.), has become an everyday reality for many youths. With the constant bombardment of messages and images in social media, movies, and TV, the critical voices can be overwhelming. As the Surgeon General stated in his briefing, kids today are being told in so many ways, “you’re not good enough.” Add to that pressure and negative attention from peers, it would be too much for any adult to take -- let alone a child whose brain and body aren’t fully developed yet.
Statistics show that at least 20% of youth ages 12-17 have been bullied at some point. Bullying doesn't discriminate; anyone can bully someone, and anyone can be bullied. It is vital to inform kids about bullying and cultivate an atmosphere of respect for all children. It's a whole community initiative.
Here’s where we get Grinchy.
Moreso than the 2018 Grinch, the 2000 Grinch paints a painful picture of the kind of harassment and bullying our Grinchy friend was subjected to. Constant harassment, ridicule, name-calling, and other students (particularly Mayor Agustus Maywho) being extremely critical of the adolescent green-man. “You’re 8 years old and you have a beard!” stands out in my memory -- an event that prompted the tiny Grinch to go home and shave his face, causing him minor injury, and even further negative attention when he debuted the look at school the next day.
This parallels with so many young people who find themselves attempting unnecessary and even dangerous acts (or ‘trends’) to try to “fit in” or enhance themselves. Do you remember a few years ago when many teens were trying the ‘Kylie Jenner Lip Challenge’? Using suction to make their lips look temporarily larger caused injury to some and embarrassment to many. Oftentimes, what teens and adolescents are trying to accomplish is not even possible -- trying to live up to Instagram filters, influencers, models with surgical implants, and celebrities that appear to be wealthy and happy but may not be either.
The adult Grinch withstands bullying from groups of kids coming to his house to prank him and Mayor Maywho's backhanded remarks directed toward him in public. The social isolation and general attitude of repulsion toward The Grinch is enough to make anyone want to stay at home and, as he says, “wallow in self-loathing”. You could easily write off The Grinch’s own behavior as the reason people don’t like him, but through flashback scenes, we see that it was they who bullied him first.
Kids who have been bullied can experience anxiety, humiliation, a dislike for school (or the place where the bullying is occurring), dissatisfaction with life, and of course, suicidal ideation or attempts. The Grinch displayed all of these symptoms and more, a clear picture of a young person (and adult) deeply affected by bullying. Children tend to put the blame on themselves when facing difficulty. Just as children of divorce may blame themselves for their parents parting ways, or internalize failing a test as “I’m just not smart enough”, kids often deeply internalize bullying as their fault -- “if I were prettier they wouldn’t pick on me,” “if I had more money they would like me,” “if I was good at sports or dressed cooler they would leave me alone.”
I always tell kids, “hurt people hurt people.” It’s important for kids to understand that bullying or being bullied is not okay and it’s not their fault. Moreover, kids need to know that bullying can cause long-term harm to all the people involved (including bystanders/witnesses). Empathy is also required because, as most adults know, the way a person treats you is usually an indication of how they feel about themselves, not you. This is evident in The Grinch’s callous behavior toward the Whos; they were mean to him, so he was being mean back...but that doesn’t make either of their behaviors okay.
It’s hard for kids to learn emotional restraint, especially when some parents or sources tell kids “don’t start the fight, but you should finish it.” Encouraging violence and more aggression doesn’t help. Cultivating an attitude of empathy, teaching your child resilience skills, and creating a safe environment for them to process their feelings is a better pathway for curbing the effects of bullying, either their own or the actions of other kids.
It is also vital to teach your child to externalize conflict; that is, they need to know that when negative things happen to them -- whether it’s bullying or life circumstances -- it’s not something wrong with who they are. For example, if your child fails a test because they didn’t study for it, it’s not because they’re unintelligent. The child might say, “I’m just not good at school,” or “I’m stupid.” To which you could respond, “You are very smart! You just received a low grade on your test because you didn’t prepare for it. Now, what can we do to prevent that from happening again?”
By pulling the conflict outside of them and reframing the situation, you’re teaching your child how to think healthily about themselves. By empathizing and making yourself a partner in their success, then asking them to ‘help’ you come up with a solution, you are allowing them to feel in control of their own person, and showing them that you are in their corner. These elements are crucial to helping your child build resiliency (the ability to healthily overcome adverse/challenging life events) and an internal locus of control (the belief that we are in control and can influence the direction of our own lives through our choices and actions, rather than things just 'happening' to us).
The Grinch obviously feels settled and stuck in this isolated life he has made. He’s afraid to make friends with the Whos because he’s been burnt before -- he doesn’t want to face more ridicule, shame, and hatred. In The Grinch’s case, he faces shame on both sides; from being a bully, and from being bullied. Regretfully, I must admit that I have been both the bully and the bullied. When I was in middle school I was very mean and salacious toward certain classmates, but at the time, I justified it as all in good fun. My friend group and I would hack into other kids’ Myspace pages (do you remember Myspace?!), spread rumors about each other, make mean prank calls, and more. But when the negative attention was turned on me, I faced double shame and isolation because I was not only experiencing the pain of being bullied, but I was then forced to face the guilt of making others feel the way I felt.
This is one reason we see Grinchy so hesitant to join the festivities at Cindy Lou Who's house at the end of both films. He must’ve been thinking, “will they really accept me? Is it safe? How can they forgive me after everything I’ve done?” There’s a recovery for both sides of bullying. Kids need to know that respect is a two-way street; The Golden Rule, “treat others how you want to be treated” is sometimes a very difficult one for kids to follow -- especially when you are being directly or indirectly confronted, embarrassed, etc. That’s why they need moral modeling from the adults around them, and a safe place to unload all those negative feelings that come with adolescence and teendom. Whether your child (or student) is the bully, the bullied, or both, they need to know you are a safe place to download what they feel, and that they can look to you as a positive model for how to process those emotions without trampling on someone else (or themselves).
After watching the film(s) with the kids in your life, use these questions and points to faciliate conversation with them.
Questions to ask:
Points to make for kids:
- Bullying can look like many different things. It can be words, hitting, or saying/posting mean/antagonizing things on social media; but it can also be excluding someone, starting rumors, or other kinds of aggressive, negative attention.
- Even if you’re “just joking”, it can still be bullying. Embarrassing someone for laughs, hurting someone physically or emotionally can cause them harm, even if they don’t let their hurt show. It is never okay to hurt someone on purpose, even if it’s "for fun".
- Bullying affects everyone involved. Even if you aren’t being bullied or bullying someone else, just being around bullying can have a big effect on the way you feel (your mental health). Bullying doesn’t “build character”, and it’s not just about “having thick skin”.
- If you’ve ever been or are being bullied, please know that it is not your fault. There’s nothing about you that deserves to be picked on. You are wanted and loved and your life has worth. You are beautiful and fabulous and deserve to be treated with respect!
- What people portray online or even in person is not always truthful. Don't compare yourself to others or try to live up to something that's probably not even real! You are enough, just as you are.
- The way someone treats you shows you how they feel about themselves. This doesn’t make what the person did okay, but it does allow us to understand that everyone is going through something, and their behavior is a reflection of them, not you.
- Sometimes grown-ups can be dismissive of what you’re struggling with, but usually, they don’t mean to be. So even when it’s hard, speak up and be kind. Confide in some grown-ups you can trust, and keep drawing attention to the issues.
- You are not alone. Resist the urge to isolate yourself and hide away from the world. Whether you have been the bully or the bullied, you aren’t by yourself. Know that there are many people going through the same thing as you and there’s no shame in asking for help.
If you or someone you know is being bullied, you can take steps to get help now.
Abnormal Psychology, 11th Edition, Comer & Comer