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Column I’ve been the bullied and the bully – and here’s my advice to young people

When we teach children to ignore bullies, we teach them how to hide their anger from the people who are hurting them. In turn, their self-esteem can be eroded to the extent that asserting themselves is unimaginable, writes Clare Hartwieg.

Sticks and stones may break my bones

But words will never hurt me.

I CAN STILL remember sinking into my chair when my primary school teacher wrote that ridiculous rhyme on the blackboard. Every day I was living the reality of feeling hurt by words, but that was wrong. My well-meaning teacher gave me yet another reason to feel small and stupid, as if I needed one.

I was bullied throughout most of primary school, mostly by one girl. It was that insidious type of bullying that can go unnoticed by teachers for years. I can no longer remember much of it, but I do remember often lying in bed and trying to stay awake as long as I could on school nights, to delay having to wake up and face another day of humiliation.

There were weeks (and sometimes even months) when we had an odd kind of pseudo-friendship, but it never lasted. The wind would change and I would again become contemptible to her. Because she was quite a popular girl, some of my classmates would treat me in accordance with her whims.

I didn’t understand it then, and I don’t today. I don’t really think there’s any reason to try.

‘Just ignore it’

Kind and well-intentioned adults who had probably never been bullied said things like ‘Don’t rise to it’, ‘Ignore her and she’ll get bored’, and ‘Ask your teacher to sort it out’. I trusted adults so I did what they told me to do. But it didn’t work, it just added ‘tattle-tale’ to the list of verbal sticks and stones that were flung at me when teachers were out of earshot.

When I began secondary school, I was relieved that another girl was the class punching bag. Making fun of her was a team sport, and I desperately wanted to belong. I had been on the margins throughout most of primary school and I finally had a chance to free myself from that.

One day I made a cruel remark to her. I can no longer remember what it was. She turned around with hurt and anger in her eyes and snapped back at me. Again, I don’t remember her words anymore – but I do remember how disgusted I was with myself in that moment.

Her reaction reminded me of exactly how it felt to be bullied. That was enough to make sure I never said anything mean to her again, and we became friendly after that. But I know that even if that memory hadn’t been triggered, I would still have laid off her. She did something I never had the strength to do, and it was so obvious and simple: she stood up for herself.

When I was taught to ignore bullies, I learned how to hide my anger from the people who were hurting me. In other words, I learned how to be submissive.

Anger does not disappear when it is suppressed

I wish I could say that realising this as a teenager changed me, and I was able to develop the confidence I needed to defend my integrity each time someone tried to undermine it. But deeply ingrained lessons are not easily unlearned, and my self-esteem had been eroded to the extent that asserting myself was unimaginable.

I continued to be very awkward and self conscious for many years, even though I had been a confident and talkative child before I was bullied. But there were even worse ramifications. I pandered to a boyfriend who accused me of showing off when I expressed pride in something. Later, I allowed myself to be pushed around by a mean-spirited colleague. I could barely muster an objection when he thought it would be hilarious to try to trip me up while I was on crutches.

There were also negative consequences for my family. It is often said that a school bully is likely to be someone with a difficult home life, who feels the need to assert dominance over others in the way dominance has been asserted over them. But what about the child who, after a day of diligently ignoring bullies and keeping their rage veiled, goes home and takes it all out on family members? Because I was so powerless at school, I became a complete nightmare at home. Anger does not disappear when it is suppressed, it simply looks for a different outlet.

Through unwavering family support and genuine friendships, I have been able to overcome the terrible habits I learned during my childhood. I won’t pretend to be the most confident person in the world, but when someone is rude or aggressive towards me I always try to stand up for myself. Those are extremely proud moments. Sometimes I even feel the need to stand back and take stock of the fact that I became a reasonably well-functioning adult with healthy relationships, and not a miserable pushover.

Well-meaning advice can backfire

To say that children need to confront bullies is not to negate the role of parents, teachers and classmates in preventing children from ever becoming bullies and stopping bullying behaviour. Bullying is one of those things that can be reduced but not eradicated, so victims must not be expected to stand by, waiting for other people to sort it out. As my experience demonstrates, this only makes children inwardly angry, submissive and lacking in self worth.

Sadly, the advice that taught me how to become a doormat is still being peddled. Bully4U, the Government’s anti-bullying website for Irish schools, advises children to ‘Stay calm and don’t show that you are upset or angry – bullies love a reaction and to think they have control over your emotions’ (emphasis in original). The website advises children to avoid being alone on school corridors and to sit near the driver on the school bus. While urging children to cower away from bullies, this advice paradoxically also encourages them to ‘project confidence rather than fear’.

I have no doubt that this advice is motivated by a benevolent desire to help and protect children. The problem is that when victims don’t appear to care, bullies have no real sense of the pain caused by their words and actions so they see no reason to stop. Even worse, children who are discouraged from confronting bullies can eventually come to see themselves as little more than receptacles for other people’s anger and hostility.

My advice to young people

If I could reach out to a child who is being bullied, my advice would be different. I would say:

“Children can be horrible for all kinds of reasons, but you don’t have to try to understand any of them. Most bullies actually turn into really nice adults, including the girl who was horrible to me all those years ago. But that doesn’t mean you have to wait until you’re an adult before you can live your life without feeling scared and angry all the time.

You don’t have to avoid empty corridors or sit near the bus driver. You don’t have to believe that words will never hurt you, or stand there and say nothing while other children torment you. Most bullies just want to take their anger out on you, they aren’t looking for a reaction and they definitely don’t want to see you as a human being. So stand up for yourself and show them that you are a human being and, like all other human beings, you don’t like being treated like crap.”

Children who are being bullied don’t need silly rhymes that prevent them from framing their own experiences. They need to know that their pain and anger is valid, and they need to be supported to stand up to bullies. This does not have to mean lashing out or resorting to the bully’s own level of callousness, but rather confronting them in a measured and assertive way. Even though it will be difficult and isn’t guaranteed to make the bullying stop, the very act of trying will do more for a child’s self-worth than feigning indifference.

Being able to defend your integrity and let others know when their behaviour is out of line are essential skills for any self-respecting human being. They need to be taught during childhood.

Clare Hartwieg is a freelance journalist and a recent graduate of the University College Dublin Equality Studies. MSc. She blogs about a range of issues at You can follow her on Twitter @ClareHartwieg.

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