We've all heard it before...
"Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but words will never hurt me."
We have all probably said it before, but the truth is more false words could never be uttered. The truth is we say this to ourselves in the hopes of making it true, but words can hurt. Now, don't get me wrong, I also think as a society we have become too sensitive; we get offended easily; our collective backbones have been weakened. The secondary effect of this is when truly bad things do happen, they get diminished. If everything is deemed offensive and hurtful, then it loses all meaning.
Let me give you an example of how words hurt. Lies! There is nothing more damaging to a relationship than the discovery that one person has been lying. In many cases the relationship dies with that discovery. Why? If words don't hurt then it shouldn't matter. The reality is words do hurt and they do matter. When you lie to someone you love, you remove the possibility of trust. Without trust there is no going forward in any true sense of the word. The relationship fizzles. Though I do have personal experience with this, this is not the main point today.
Let's talk about what words mean. In our language some words that in the past were innocuous were used with venom and hatred and they took on that connotation. In effect the meaning of the word for everyone was changed. Another problem we have is overuse. When a word is used to describe every situation, it becomes less clear what it means. It becomes inconsequential. We have many words that fit this but the one I want to focus on is Bully.
Bullying is a problem, it exists. It is dangerous to the victim and it is a serious thing. It has, however, become watered down. We hear this word all the time. We hear kids coming home saying they were bullied, when in reality it was one kid being mean one time. I know my kids have done this, I'm sure yours have too. When it is tossed around like water, when someone is actually bullied it tends to get diminished and ignored. How do I know this? I watched it first hand with my oldest daughter. I haven't talked about this but to a few people in my inner circle, but the effects of the situation still linger. I will tell you what happened, but let me be clear the difference. For girls, I think it is common place for them to have frenemies. Chalk it up to hormones and rising emotions. Things suddenly become more hurtful. Unlike boys who get angry in the moment and after a time forget about it, girls stew on it. Until they get their chance to hurt back. I remember this from my growing up years and technology has amplified this no doubt. It's universal. Talk to any mom of girls and they will say they are best friends with so and so for a week, then something mean happens, then they are crying and upset at how mean these girls are and then the next week they are planning what they are going to do together over the weekend. It's ridiculously exhausting as the parent, but it is fairly normal.
This year we had a different and much darker experience. you see my oldest was beginning her 8th grade year. She had not been allowed to use social media and she didn't have a phone. We have had lots of talks about the online world. So my daughter is aware you pick a user name that does not give out any personal information, she doesn't talk about where she lives or goes to school, and she understands that the person on the other end who claims to be 12 might be a 30 year old weirdo. She also knows the best position to take is to not befriend anyone online that you don't know in real life. So, when she asked if she could get Skype so she could chat with friends from school, we said yes. We figured if we didn't let her she would be completely cut off socially. We gained some new students at our school and my daughter befriended them all. Her new Skype friend was one of the new girls from school. So not someone we knew well but didn't feel like a total stranger. This girl added others to the conversation. When I questioned about these other people, this "friend", we'll call her Brittany, told me they were her friends from her other school. The first month of this friendship seemed fine. By month 2, however, it had taken a mean turn. The honeymoon was over. At first it seemed like the typical frenemy situation. Then I drove both Brittany and my daughter to a school dance. My daughter wore high heels, which she struggled to walk in, and darker make-up than necessary. But when she left our house she felt beautiful. We picked up Brittany and as I drove, she began putting my daughter down. Mocking her shoes, her dress, her make-up and the way she moves. She even criticized me as her mom for letting her out of the house looking like that. I didn't even make it to the freeway and I was ready to kick her out of my car. My blood was boiling. I said she needed to learn to have nice words come out of her mouth. My daughter got embarrassed and pleaded with me to drop it, so, I did.
By the time we got to the dance, my daughter who was normally so comfortable in her own skin, who danced by herself at every other dance, was begging forgiveness to everyone she saw for how ugly she was. She was certain that all those ugly words were true.
After I dropped Brittany off at home, I told my daughter that I can not control who she hangs out with at school, but this girl was not coming to our house and not riding in our car again. Over the next few months, the put downs continued. It got worse because my daughters good friend since 1st grade began doing the same thing. It became a powerful game to them. They both clearly got something from tearing my daughter down. February 12 was the day that changed everything. Brittany stepped up the game. On a thread in Skype, which included the 2 strangers we had been told were Brittany's friends, she wrote my daughter a letter. The gist of it was "you are the worst person to have ever existed on Earth, and the world would be better off without you in it." It was long and dark and horrible and hard to read. The wailing that came from daughters broken heart was unbearable as her mom. You see this wasn't isolated. She had abused my daughter mentally for months, she had weakened her to the point of desperation and then delivered the killing blow. You better believe I brought this to the school, but truthfully it didn't seem there was much that could be done. We were also informed that these strangers to us we strangers to Brittany as well. She had lied to us. She claims they made her send that letter to our girl. Brittany only hit copy and paste.
She still had to face her assailant every day. The girl would stare at her in class. She sent text messages to other kids about how all she did was "give her a dose of reality." To this day Brittany doesn't think she did anything wrong. I know because she told me as much. This girl stole my daughters power, the true definition of bullying. Truthfully, I didn't realize how deeply this had impacted her until my daughter confessed she struggled walking away from the relationship because she was terrified of Brittany. What happened was not minor, it was not innocuous. It did damage far beneath the surface. You see for forever I have been told and have thought that my daughters smile could light up a room. I barely get to see it now. We used to say that for her a stranger was just a friend she hadn't met yet. Now, she is afraid of new social situations, to the point of panic attacks. Her innocence was stolen. She battles, image issues, depression and anxiety. She told me she wonders every day if what that letter said was true. She is starting to get stronger. Through counseling and the help of a peer friend she has found the courage to walk away from her abuser. I am thankful for that and I hope she never looks back. To be honest we think of abuse as coming from a dating relationship...it never occurred to me to worry about her friendships. I figured if the friendship was bad she would walk away. They won't always walk away and sometimes feel like they don't ahve a choice but to stay.
So what is my point. Parents it starts with us. We need to use words that build our kids up at home. My guess is Brittany gave to my daughter the things she heard at home. We also need to teach out children that what they say matters, and that there are consequences to what we say. We also need to recognize the signs of abuse before the situation escalates. In the end, words can change you, but you can also change your words.