There are many statistics on childhood bullying that are readily available:

According to the most recent studies from American SPCC

  • Been Bullied
    28% of U.S. students in grades 6–12 experienced bullying.
    20% of U.S. students in grades 9–12 experienced bullying.10
  • Bullied Others
    Approximately 30% of young people admit to bullying others in surveys.
  • Seen Bullying
    70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools.
    70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying two or more times in the last month and 41% witness bullying once a week or more.

Clearly, bullying is a problem for school age children – but with all these statistics there are almost none that address:

When bullies “grow up”

I am a heavy man.  I was an overweight child. Having been this way almost my entire life, I have had my fair share of up-close exposure to bullies.  If you name it I can probably say that I have been called it… Fatty, fatso, fat-ass, lard-ass, blimp, wide-load, etc.  I’ve heard them all and then some.  

One rather creative term that I specifically remember was “chibbles and tits”.  No morning bus ride was complete without a serenade from the back of the bus of “chibbles and tits” set to the theme from the kibbles and bits dog food commercials.  I recall feeling as if the whole bus was a part of the chorus with me powerless to stop them.  

Those words, and many others, were like a punch in the gut every single day.  Most mornings I would arrive at school trying desperately to hide the tears welling up in my eyes so as to not give my tormentors the satisfaction of knowing they had hurt me.  The terrible truth is those words did hurt me.  I soon began to believe what they were telling me: I was a worthless fat pile of garbage – deserving of every name they bestowed upon me.  I couldn’t hold back the flood of tears indefinitely.  Most nights I cried myself to sleep; wishing for dreams where I possessed the power to fight back…

My childhood was filled to the brim with many moments similar to that.  Thankfully, although the weight has remained, the memories and their effects have faded.  I was fortunate to have a support system of two parents and extended family and friends who helped me develop the strength of character I needed to not allow the taunting to cause any long term effects.  The real solution, I found, was kindness.  “Kill ’em with kindness” my father used to say to me. The support of my family and friends granted me the ability to rise above the taunting and accept who I was.

The flip side of the coin

Unfortunately, whereas I was able to rise above my negative body image, my older sister Kim was not so lucky.  She dealt with many of the issues I did as well,  and I can only assume that my parents provided my sister with the same advice they did to me.   Sadly, for whatever reason, the taunting she received (complete with her own personal commercial inspired slur of “double bubble”) had a much more deleterious effect on her.  What’s even sadder is the fact that her suffering went unnoticed for years.  

By the time she reached high school, Kim seemed to be the model of the adolescent body image success story.  In a short period of time she blossomed from the stereotypical awkward, overweight band geek, to a stunning, athletic beauty who seemed to have everything going for her.  In what seemed like an instant, my big sister became everything that I wasn’t.  She was gorgeous, popular and had a social circle whose circumference seemed astronomical to my twelve year old, chubby and nerdy self.  

From the outside looking in, she appeared as though she had it all. But, looks can be – and more often than not are – deceiving. It turns out that the image she saw in every mirror was a much darker reflection than anyone in my family could have comprehended. Unbeknownst to us, Kim had been suffering from bulimia, a terrible fact that she had successfully hidden for years.  For most of this time, we were none the wiser of her binging and subsequent purges.  It wasn’t until I sneaked into her room one day and found her “stash” that her secret was uncovered.

With her secret out, the time for healing was at hand; but true healing only happens when those suffering the injury are willing to help themselves.  Sadly, my sister was not in the right place to see it that way and she naturally rebelled against my mother’s (and to a lesser extent my father’s) attempts to get her treatment.  She half-heartedly attempted to deal with the bulimia only as a means by which to placate them.

Although it appeared she was on the road to recovery, she was simply discovering other ways to hide her pain.  Feeling a sense of disapproval from my parents, my sister started reckless choices as she sought out affirmation and acceptance.  In response to my parents’ disapproval, Kim desperately sought out someone who would enable her…

“You’re going out with WHO?” were the first words uttered from my mouth when my sister told me she was going out on a date with a guy I had known since grade school.  Unbeknownst to her, he was part of a group of people who had bullied me when I was younger.  I was crushed.  The only saving grace I had was the knowledge that, sooner or later, his true colors would eventually come out.

That day took almost twenty years to arrive.  Her now boyfriend eventually convinced her she needed to get away from her family and they moved out to Arizona in the summer of 1993, and they married shortly after.   I am ashamed to admit that I had very little contact with my sister during her marriage.  I made a couple of visits out to see her, but they were few and far between. Her now husband had succeeded in separating her from her family and I was complicit in it.  We gave the bully all of the control he wanted.

Bullies love control

The very act of bullying someone is a means by which to exert control.  My sister, with her diminished self esteem and the ramifications of bulimia, proved to be an easy mark. Throughout their marriage he would constantly berate and belittle her, reminding her of how his support (i.e. control) was the only reason she had a roof over her head.  

He was clearly a master manipulator; a fact lost on my sister.  She only realized it when he had opened several lines of credit in her name without permission.  When my sister confronted him he did what he always did: He belittled her and told her it was her fault. Taking his cue from a Saturday morning cartoon villain, he blamed Kim for her meddling, explaining had she not looked into it, he would have paid it all off and she would have been none the wiser.  When she asked how he did it without her approval, he went on to remind her that he had control of everything, and her willful ignorance was tantamount to permission.

Although my sister has now been divorced from him for five years, in some ways his control over her has actually worsened.  Although physically separated, their children remain a permanent connection that he continues to manipulate to gain control.  She is bombarded with insulting texts thinly disguised as inquiries into the children’s welfare as well as her own.  He continues to belittle and berate her with every opportunity he can.  The bully can’t let go.

I ain’t heavy, I’m her brother…

Last week I finally decided I’d had enough.  I  reached out to my former brother-in-law to implore him stop harassing my sister. His response: “Hey, Rich, go [have sex with] yourself”. “You’re a pathetic human being”. “Still using big words to justify your [expletive] arrogant way”. “You fat [expletive]”. In the wake of this pathetically predictable response, I answered with, “Classy to the last.” and figured that was it.  It served as an instant reminder why I never engaged with him.  Then my phone continued to chime.

He continued to text me.  A stream of insults followed.  Every single one of them a reference to my weight.  It transported me back to my school days.  With all due respect to my nine year old self, did he really think those words would effect me now?  Losing my only son hurt me more than any words he could hurl at me possibly could.  The fact he couldn’t recognize that reminded me the he didn’t grow up at all.  The texts continued for days – just random insults and taunts.  I simply blocked his number and moved on.

Unfortunately, my sister cannot do the same.  The fact that they share custody of their children ensures their continued communication.  I experienced, in a microcosm, what my sister lives with on a daily basis, and I simply flipped a switch and shut him off.  Imagine what twenty five years of hearing these things over and over without the ability to turn it off does to you?

For years I felt powerless in my ability to help her, and when I tried to take a more proactive role, his response to me reminded me of the futility of taking on a bully.  I grew despondent, wishing there was more I could do for my sister and the countless other women who find themselves in similar situations.  And then I realized the “solution” is right here.  You are reading it.

Cultivate Kindness

Don’t let people tell you that bullies never win. Bullies can, and do “win”.  For many, bullying is an effective way of gaining, and maintaining control.  If it weren’t a successful strategy, it simply wouldn’t persist.  So, if this is the case, then how do we stop a bully?  Clearly, ignoring them is not the surefire remedy we wish it to be, as my failure with my sister’s tormentor proves.  The answer is surprisingly simple, and it’s one that stares me in the face every day: “Cultivate Kindness”.  

Bullies desire control above all else.  So, how do you take that control away?  

Simple: You take control. We must stop being bystanders and start being activists.  Activism isn’t storming the castle and  the throwing of stones.  Activism is taking control of the narrative and rewriting it.  

You don’t stop a bully by raising your voice or your fists.  You stop a bully by preventing them from being one in the first place.  According to research, teaching children kindness and compassion for others stands as the single best way to stop bullying.  Cultivate Kindness: The ReesSpecht Life Foundation does just that.  We speak to children all over the country about the importance of kindness.   

As for the bullies that are already out there – the ones we can’t get through to?  What about the bullies who “grow up”?

The answer is still kindness.  We need to get over this misconception that kindness and compassion are weaknesses.  Make no mistake: they are strengths!  We need to promote kindness and bring the majority of us who believe in it, front and center.  The time has come for us to give a voice to the power of collective human kindness.  When a kind person sees a bully, it’s incumbent upon them to say it.  Let others know.  Remind the bullies that we have the numbers, not them.  Bullies count on, and take advantage of, our collective apathy.  True kindness is standing up and speaking out for what is moral and just in this world; and for each other.  As individuals we can be targets.  As a collective voice we can drown out those negative ones that seek to control us and our every move.  

My nine year old self dreamed of a time where I had the power to stop a bully.  It turns out I didn’t need to dream at all.  The power was always there…

You want to stop a bully? It turns out that my father’s advice all those years ago was exactly right: “Kill em’ with kindness”.   

For a more detailed version of this story, telling much more of Kim’s story click here

Please share your thoughts below:

RICH SPECHT is an author, public speaker and advocate for kindness.  Rich authored the award winning children’s book  A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness.  He and his wife, Samantha, are the co-founders of the ReesSpecht Life Foundation which they formed in the wake of the loss of their only son, Richard Edwin-Ehmer (Rees) Specht at 22 months old.  The acts of kindness that the family received after Rees’ passing inspired them to “pay forward” that kindness; which the foundation does in the form of scholarships for High School seniors who demonstrate a commitment to their community, compassion and respect, as well as the distribution of more than four hundred thousand ReesSpecht Life “pay it forward” cards.  An animated television series featuring the themes and characters from Rich’s books is in the works.  The book and television adaptations of A Little Rees Specht Cultivates Kindness represents the culmination of Rich’s goal to help make this world a little better, one Rees’ piece at a time.  Rich currently resides in Sound Beach, New York with his wife, Samantha, daughters, Abigail, Lorilei and Melina as well as his angel above, Rees.

6 thoughts on “What to do When Bullies “Grow Up”.

  1. I was bullied in Elementary School by two boys who made it a combined effort. Thinking about going to school everyday was traumatic and caused me much emotional turmoil. One day an older school mate saw me distraught and asked me what was going on. I told him I was being bullied for my lunch, money and all kinds of things. He said “I will take care of this.” After school he met with the cohorts and that was the last day I was bullied. I am glad I spoke up as it caused my remaining school years to be good.

  2. I too was bullied when I was a child. I was that kid who kept to himself and didn’t really open up to others. I remember many times where I sat alone in the lunch room sometimes getting food thrown at me. I came out of my shell when I got older and eventually the bullies just went away. You are right though. The bullies didn’t disappear, they simply chose a new target. This piece is a powerful reminder of something that I think to many of us forget and you are exactly right. We do have the numbers. Thank you for reminding me.

    • Dear Sam,
      Thank you so much for sharing that. I am sorry that you had a tough time with bullies too. I think there are many of us who can recount similar stories. It is so true – we need to make sure we ALL speak up for what is right. Our silence is our acceptance of the status quo. We need to remind people that kindness does indeed matter. <3

  3. I just read the longer version. Surely there is something that can be done through the legal system? This is like something out of a movie. People should be sharing this far and wide. The bullies think they have a free pass now with our current President. This was heart wrenching. Does your foundation do presentations for Middle School?

  4. This is such an important message… I feel for your sister and hope she finds peace. As for your former brother in-law, perhaps he will come around one day. This should be shared far and wide! Thank you so much for baring your soul – I know it could not have been easy.

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