Joco Diversions

Taming a bully, in childhood or as an adult, is possible

Kids who bully others are often harboring intense pain of their own. We shouldn’t wish the worst for them.
Kids who bully others are often harboring intense pain of their own. We shouldn’t wish the worst for them. File illustration

I’m being bullied. A man is harassing me on social media, insulting me and doubting my kids will turn out OK, calling me and my friends names, all the while bragging about his riches. Particularly if conversations are political.

Friends I’ve made in my adult years are justifiably outraged. They send me instructions on how to unfriend or block him, how to hide my posts from him, and other tricks that I’m fully aware of. In fact, I’ve unfriended him twice, yet he came back. And twice, I’ve sucked it up and thought, “OK, I’ll be his friend,” referring to true friendship.

Those I grew up with are mostly just silent. Nobody is surprised to see him spew snide remarks; he’s been doing it since he was a kid. Their sting wore off long ago, when I was a kid, his jabs don’t faze me.

Plus, I’m fascinated by his behavior, and how little has changed. How he still resorts to his mean streak as his first (and only) line of both defense and offense. And how if we take the conversation into the private, one-on-one channels of social media, where I ask him to please be nice to my friends, he softens. He respectfully expresses why he lashed out and verbalizes his point of view.

We regress back to the neighborhood kids who were once forced to socialize out of pure boredom, when our moms told us to play outside and gave us matching geographical limits.

There were five or six of us. I was the only girl, and we spent a lot of time arguing and constantly readjusting our roughly specified truce. And occasionally, we recognized that our truce was actually friendship.

Our recent interactions have made me think about the plight of the bully. A child who lacks self-control and who has trouble managing that anger gets a red warning label slapped on them: now they’re a bully. Adults warn their kids to stay away from the bully, and they’re excluded.

Pretty soon, everyone’s delighted to see the bully fall, suffering the natural consequences of their own behavior. All those poor behavior choices get turned back on them. Name calling (try to tell me “bully” isn’t a derogatory label), instructions to hit back, social exclusion, and even enjoying watching someone suffer consequences all become the “right” thing for the other kids to do.

I’m thankful that my parents instructed us to be compassionate and kind. They knew we might get kicked in the shins on occasion, and didn’t get mad if we happened to kick back, but they let us know that he was a kid like us who deserved a chance. Then another one. And a whole bunch more after that.

The words he hurls at me and my friends are no different from the gravel he used to hurl at me from across the street. And the rules haven’t really changed either. “I’ll talk to you if you stop throwing rocks at me,” becomes “I’ll let you stay on my social media if you try to use nice words.”

And you know what? Sometimes he tries.

Emily Parnell lives in Overland Park and can be reached at