Brent La Prince Edwards, senior pastor at the historic St. James African Methodist Episcopal Church in Asheville, is no stranger to bullying. Growing up in Charleston, S.C., says Edwards, he attended school on “the rough side of town.” When he was 9, a gang of kids dragged him down two flights of stairs by his feet. “That had a long-lasting impression on me,” he recalls.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that the child who was bullied would become a man dedicated to preventing such abuse. Published last December, Edwards’ new book, You Can’t Bully Me Anymore, tackles bullying among elementary-age children. Written in rhyming verse, the book follows four characters who are bullied. “The goal is to reach everyone,” Edwards explains.
Nationwide, between a quarter and a third of U.S. students have been bullied at school, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and most bullying happens in middle school. Edwards’ book aims to head off the problem by targeting a younger audience, using simple illustrations by the author and appropriate language to address the topic of bullying while building healthy self-esteem.
“The resources out there are for middle school and high school, but there is not enough written for elementary school children,” Edwards maintains. Another thing that sets his book apart is the fact that it addresses both the children being bullied and those doing the bullying. “There are many books on bullying, but very few say anything to the offender,” he points out. “This book is written to the bullied and to the offender who, themselves, also have some kind of hurt in their lives that they pass on to others.”
We need to talk
And while the author stresses that his book in no way justifies bullying, it does offer hope to both sides of the equation, including information on how bullies can get help. It also provides statistics on the problem and information on how it can be stopped.
Edwards says he was inspired to write the book after his church co-hosted a bullying forum with the Buncombe County and Asheville City schools last year. “We discovered there is not enough conversation about bullying,” he says.
In 2014, the U.S. Department of Education and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention teamed up to produce the first uniform federal definition of bullying. The core elements include: unwanted aggressive behavior, an observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition or a high likelihood of repetition of problem behaviors. Bullying can be direct or indirect, physical or verbal. It can also include things like efforts to harm the child’s reputation or damage to property, such as the target’s backpack or home.
What did I do wrong?
Jillian Kelly is a licensed clinical social worker, registered play therapist and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapist. Kelly, who owns Asheville Child Therapy, says that when children are young, “It is a very natural time to be exploring power and control and to experience rejecting and being rejected.”
From ages 3-6, she says, parents can view this struggle as developmentally appropriate. Bullying, on the other hand, “starts to come into play as children get older.”
Although there’s no specific age when it kicks in, Kelly says she starts to see it show up in her office in the upper elementary school years.
Bullying, she notes, can cause depression and anxiety and can affect a child’s ability to learn. Extensive research on neurobiology and brain development, she says, has shown that when children don’t feel safe in any of their primary social relationships, they’re not able to turn on their prefrontal cortex, where their logical and reasoning powers reside. In extreme cases, bullying can increase the risk of suicide.
In addition, continues Kelly, bullying creates internal feelings of what did I do wrong? “Children are seeking understanding and learning how to manage in this complex world. They develop their own inner narrative about why they are being bullied,” she explains. “A child will say, ‘I’m being bullied because I wear my hair a certain way or because my family is this ethnicity or I bring this food to school,’ but it is nothing the child has done. Bullies have their own reasons for bullying, and most of the time the bullies themselves are being bullied,” notes Kelly.
Start a conversation
Therapeutic books like You Can’t Bully Me Anymore, she says, help create a safe distance from powerful topics that can be hard for kids to talk about. Kelly advises parents to read with their children and to pay close attention to their child’s reactions to books that address tough topics such as bullying.
“Are they rigid? Are they loose and relaxed? Are they showing signs of fear? We may not get things from our kids verbally, but the books are helpful tools for parents, teachers and therapists to assess what is going on with our kids.”
For his part, Edwards believes the best way to begin combating bullying is to have a conversation about it. “That’s the first step,” he says. Edwards also urges parents to get directly involved in the school system, attend PTA or PTO meetings and make an effort to find out what’s happening with their kids at school.
Taking children seriously, stresses Edwards, is also extremely important.
“I’ve seen in my life and work that, often, when children are crying out for help, they aren’t taken seriously. Adults might say, ‘You’re having a moment’ or ‘This is just what children go through,’ but children interpret things so differently than they did 10 or 20 years ago. We need to make sure we are having this conversation with our children. It starts in the home and moves into the school system. That’s one of the goals of this book — to serve as a conversation starter.”