How to Deal with Bullies: Tips for Grown-Ups and Kids

How to Deal with Bullies with Bad Art Friend - SavvyMom
A group of high school students in a cafeteria.

It’s incredible to me how affected I’ve been after reading “Who Is the Bad Art Friend?” The article in New York Times Magazine by Robert Kolker tells a fascinating tale of two writers. Dawn Dorland pitched the story of her dealings with Sonya Larson, a fellow writer whom Dorland (once) considered a friend.

If you aren’t familiar with the saga, go get caught up. Right now. I’ll wait.

Upon my first read I was immediately Team Dawn. Then I got caught up in the commentary. In a nutshell, Dawn is a writer, described as “extra,” who voluntarily donated a kidney and shared her story via a private Facebook group. She found it odd that a certain Facebook friend, fellow writer Sonya Larson, did not interact or engage with her stories and reached out to see if she’d like to leave the group. To which Sonya replied that she did, in fact, find Dawn’s story remarkable.

Turns out Sonya found it so remarkable that she wrote a story revolving around a kidney donation. But it also turns out that this was not a story about incredible generosity and kindness, but about a woman with a “white saviour” complex who was donating a kidney for the accolades the act would bring her. Not exactly a flattering portrayal of what Dawn believed was a selfless act. Dawn was tipped off via a Facebook comment, and sought to read Sonya’s story, but Sonya evaded Dawn’s inquiries to the point where Dawn eventually investigated on her own.

Once Dawn located different versions of Sonya’s story online, she discovered that Sonya had lifted chunks of a letter Dawn had posted to her private Facebook group. This letter detailed how Dawn’s history of childhood trauma inspired her to make this donation, to give someone a second chance at life. As with all of her letters, she signed it, “Kindly, Dawn.” Sonya’s story was called, “The Kindest.” Basically, Dawn was epically trolled.

I think the reason I’ve been so affected by the story is because, throughout most of my life, I’ve been a Dawn. And one of the things that was hardest for me to overcome was understanding my role in how I was treated. To me, that always smacked of blaming the victim. However, knowing that your behaviour is the only behaviour you can control, understanding the part you play in one-sided friendships or even in being outright bullied can ultimately bring a semblance of acceptance to an otherwise incredibly painful and unfair situation.

This aspect of acknowledging your role in the bullying behaviour is something I’ve tried to instill in my kids, who — like almost every one of us — have been the recipient of unkind words and actions. While I don’t particularly want my kids to be Dawns, as a parent, my goal is to ensure they don’t become Sonyas.

Friends Are Supposed to Make You Feel Good

As with any relationship, really, a friendship is supposed to make you feel good. And also as with any relationship, there will be ups and downs and even conflict. But if the downs outnumber the ups or the conflict is too intense or too frequent, there is nothing wrong with changing the nature of the relationship from friends to acquaintances or even just polite classmates or teammates. And treat everyone with courtesy and politeness, because that also makes you feel good, even if the person you are treating with courtesy and politeness does not reciprocate. That is their choice. Which brings me to…

Friendship Is a Choice

Not everyone will want to be your friend. And if it’s someone you want to be friends with, that hurts. You may never know why someone doesn’t want to be your friend. Maybe you did or said something; maybe you didn’t. Maybe you remind them of someone they don’t like. Either way, they don’t have to be your friend but they should treat you with the aforementioned courtesy. But they might not.

Similarly, there may be people who simply rub you the wrong way and you don’t want to be friends with them. You don’t have to. But you should treat them with the courtesy and politeness you’d like to receive from friends and strangers alike.

But here’s what not to do. Don’t pretend to be their friend and then gossip or bitch about them behind their backs. Or use a big event in their life as fodder for a story to “take them down.”

Confronting Bullies is Often Pointless (But Standing Up for Yourself Can Change Things)

One piece of advice for how to deal with bullies that is incredibly divisive is to stand up for yourself. Sometimes this is effective. Sometimes this can backfire spectacularly. And the last thing anyone wants is for their kid who was bullied to become a bully. After years of being gaslit and lied to, eventually Dawn went scorched earth on Sonya, with evidence provided thanks to Sonya’s lawsuit. This is crucial and kind of delicious. Sonya was egged on by her “friends” in her gossipy group chat to forge ahead with her story and eventually sued Dawn for defamation. It’s because of this the texts and emails were released with all of the receipts. Someone was defaming someone here, but it wasn’t Dawn defaming Sonya.

Standing up to and exposing a bully like that is every bullied person’s revenge fantasy. The karma police sure take their sweet time. But in these situations, the bully is likely to double down, either in their outward cruelty or in their duplicity — pretending to be nice and that everything is fine and then going even harder behind your back.

In the case of physical bullying, standing up for yourself could mean a beatdown. But it also could mean the end of things. One thing I’ve learned in fighter training is that if you have to go down, go down swinging. Both of my kids from an early age have been taught and told to defend themselves. And they have had to from time to time. Infuriatingly, they got in more trouble (at school) for physically defending themselves but the issues did stop.

It’s Ok to Move On

If you’re wondering how to deal with bullies, I know that “moving on” is easier said than done.

As a kid, I cried easily. People liked to get that reaction out of me so they’d try to make me cry. Time and again I was told, “just ignore it and they’ll stop.” And eventually they will. But when you don’t give them the reaction they are expecting, they don’t just stop. They try harder and harder until you crack. And once you crack, any progress you felt you’d made is completely down the drain.

It can be unbearable. I hated the idea of me having to be the one to leave since I felt that meant they won. Why did I have to leave? But I changed schools mid-way through Grade 6 and that was a turning point. At my new school, nobody knew I was the kid who cried at the drop of a hat, so nobody dropped hats to see what I’d do. It was a refreshing break and provided me the opportunity to start over. Which I actually did.

Don’t Ever Put in Writing Something You Wouldn’t Shout Out Loud

There are many, many reasons I’m glad social media wasn’t invented when I was coming of age. And by embracing this kind of communication at an older age, and having been the recipient of nasty notes and/or “Burn Book” entries over the years, I learned fairly early on that if it’s in writing, it has staying power. And nothing on the internet is private. Read that again.

In workplaces, we know when the phone rings to sum up a particularly contentious email trail, the reason is the person doing the calling does not want whatever they say to come back on them. Sometimes you want that paper trail, and sometimes you don’t. “Private” Facebook chats are truly anything but, despite any group “rules” that say screenshots or any outside sharing is not allowed. Same goes for Instagram stories or Snapchats that are supposed to “disappear.” Nothing on the internet is private. Read that again.

I’ve often lamented that bullying seems to be becoming a worse and worse problem, which is weird with all the awareness we have now. But Sonya’s group chat reveals that bullying is alive and well in adults, so of course it’s alive and well with kids. If we’re wondering how to deal with bullies at school, first we need to deal with their parents. It’s nothing short of shocking to me how many are defending Sonya and her group chat cronies and justifying their words and actions by saying Dawn started it. Are you kidding me? Even if Dawn was as narcissistic as they claim her to be, ignore and move on.

Ignore and move on.

It’s what we expect the bullied to to so it seems fitting that’s what the bullies should do as well.  And when/if a line gets crossed? Get those receipts.


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