In this first of a two-part series, Michelle Anthony talks about her daughter Kylie being bullied. In Part 2, Kylie provides her perspective, how she felt and what she learned. Learn more in Michelle's recently published book Little Girls Can be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades.
Michelle Anthony has spent upwards of a decade working hands-on with children and parents around girl-related issues through her professional work, and as a mother to young girls. As a result of her own daughter becoming involved in a series of “Mean Girl” interactions in first grade, Michelle's interest in this topic was personalized. Michelle is a columnist and feature writer for Scholastic Parent and Child Magazine, and is a certified teacher and has spent many years in the classroom. She holds a B.A. in Education from Brown University, an M.A. in Child Studies and Teacher’s Certificate from Tufts University, and a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from the University of California at Berkeley.
2:30 PM. The party just ended. Almost despite myself, I feel my heart racing. After all, Kylie’s in fifth grade and has been to plenty of birthday celebrations. But this is not a regular party, at least not for my daughter. This party is for Sherrie (names are changed), Kylie’s former best friend who—a little over 2 years ago—tormented her for almost 2 years. And Kylie being at this party was a chance for two dreams to be realized at once: hers and mine.
I remember I had been surprised when I opened the invitation and saw Sherrie’s name. I double checked that the envelope had been addressed to Kylie, and had not been sent home by mistake. And while I made it clear to Kylie that she didn’t need to attend, she surprised me by saying she wanted to. My face went blank and she put her hand on mine and smiled, “Really, mom, it’s ok. Things are very different now.”
I looked over at her, and I saw it for the first time: how much she had grown. Such a different look than she had in first grade, when her struggles with Sherrie began. The issues went on for months before anyone knew about them.
Sherrie was Kylie’s closest friend, and—at first—her strongest ally. But a destructive power dynamic soon developed. It was amazing the hold Sherrie had over her—the power she had to take something wonderful and make it dark and fearsome to Kylie. Kylie was an avid believer in fairies, and (in the beginning) the 2 would laughingly imagine they were visited by fanciful fairies in the backyard. But when things changed, Sherrie took Kylie’s passion for fairies and used it to terrify her—telling her about fairies that were evil and would harm her.
Kylie tried to speak to her teacher about her struggles midyear and was met with disbelief (“She’s such a nice girl; you must be misreading her intent”). When she persisted, she was told to “thicken her skin,” which left her feeling more confused and alone. It was only when I happened upon a scribbled note of loneliness that Kylie opened up and shared her isolation.
The day she finally broke the silence on her experience was the day that changed both of us. Since then, my daughter and I have been on a journey of discovery, together. To help her find her voice, and a path away from that sad, silent place.
Along this path, I also stumbled upon the power of a new dream: to give other girls and other parents the means to understand these experiences before they take their devastating toll. Through our many interactions with teachers, parents, counselors, principals, and elementary-aged girls, my co-author and I uncovered an unspoken epidemic affecting countless young girls, leaving them feeling similarly isolated and alone. And having more than one daughter has allowed me to understand—from both a personal and professional place—how many nice girls not only struggle with the mean things that happen, but also with how to find kind and appropriate ways to have influence and feel powerful.
Sitting outside Sherrie’s party, I realize what a winding trail it’s been, and yet, this is the moment I didn’t even realize is the one we’ve both been waiting for. As Kylie clamors into the car, our eyes meet, and a silent smile passes between us. This time the silence is from a common language that needs no words to be expressed. At that party, in that moment, I witness Kylie confidently bound across a chasm. A chasm that only 2 years before sent her plummeting, alone and afraid, with no safety net to catch her fall.
I often hear of adolescent-age girls bullying, but not of grade school girls. However, as I spoke to Michelle, I realized that my own daughter was bullied — by a best friend — in her early grade school years. We stereotype bullying as “big kid mercilessly beating small kid to a pulp”, either physically or verbally. But Michelle and Kylie's experience indicates that bullying can be much more subtle.
Have you or your children had a similar experience?
As you coped with this challenge, what did you learn about advocating for yourself? Your children? About teaching them to stand up for themselves?
When we say what we want out loud, that want gains power. Interestingly, however, when we express our fears out loud, they tend to lose their hold. Is there something about which you need to break the silence?