(Most of us have experienced bullying at some point in our lives, whether the experience was our own or our children’s, as bullied or bully. Yet for all this collective experience we have, bullying is still a difficult subject, confusing and uncomfortable. Even as adults, the subject of bullying often brings up more questions than answers. Reading Rainbow was lucky enough to talk to Trudy Ludwig, author of books such as Confessions of a Former Bully, My Secret Bully, and more. Trudy is an award-winning author, as well as a sought-after public speaker and presenter. Ms. Ludwig was kind enough to give us some of her time for an interview about her experiences dealing with, writing about, and helping others deal with the confusing subject of bullying. —Jenni)
Your books help kids and their parents deal with a very sensitive issue: Bullying. You mentioned in the introduction to My Secret Bully that your daughter was the target of some bullying at one point, and the lack of resources on the subject was one of the things that inspired you to write about bullying. What made you decide to tackle this subject in children’s books rather than books for adults?
I had read numerous research findings that relational aggression, the use of relationships to emotionally manipulate and hurt others, was evident as early as preschool and appeared to peak in middle school. When I tried to find age-appropriate books in libraries and on the Internet to help my daughter Allie, who was a 2nd grader at the time, understand this form of bullying and how to deal with it, I couldn’t find any resources. I even contacted leading experts and organizations for their suggestions. When I came up empty-handed, I decided to write children’s books to help fill this resource gap.
What were you like as a kid? Did you ever have any experiences with bullying? How did this impact your writing?
I guess I’d describe myself as a serious, rather introverted child. I liked to observe others and learn from them. Yes, I did have several experiences with bullying, both as a child and as an adult. When my daughter was bullied by a group of kids who she thought were her friends, that experience triggered my own personal memories. I was angry that she had to go through what I went through. I chose to channel my anger in a creative way, writing stories on tough social issues that kids face in their everyday world to help them cope and thrive.
Do you think bullying has changed since you were a kid? We have different tools now (cell phones, the internet, etc.), do you think these tools change the essence of bullying, or just provide more outlets for the same essential behavior?
Bullying has been around since people have been around. For many years, most of the focus on bullying was on boys and physical aggression. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that researchers started studying relational aggression among girls. That’s not to say that only girls are relationally aggressive. Relational aggression expert Dr. Charisse Nixon has found that boys are victimized relationally as much as girls, but girls tend to be more traumatized by relational aggression than boys.
You’re right about the different communication tools (i.e., Internet, cell phones) now available to provide more public outlets and opportunities for bullying behaviors that can be quickly far-reaching. However, it’s important to understand that technology isn’t the culprit. It’s a tool. What researchers have found is that kids who tend to bully others offline are also the same kids who tend to bully online. Kids who are bullied offline also tend to be those who are bullied online. Another key point is that numerous Internet safety advocates and experts report that most youth aren’t bullying their peers—offline or online. That’s not to say that bullying isn’t a significant issue. The minority of kids who are bullying can cause real harm to both the targets of bullying and the many bystanders who witness it.
Can you tell us about some of the responses you’ve gotten to your books—either from kids or adults, bullies or bullied?
When I was presenting at a school in Washington, D.C., one of the parents asked me to sign Confessions of a Former Bully for her daughter. She apologized as she handed me the book, explaining that the reason it was so worn out, with the hardback spine bent out of shape, drink stains on the inside cover, and dog-eared pages, was that her daughter took that book with her wherever she went and read it repeatedly because it helped her when she was being bullied by some girls in her grade. That book was so used and loved by that little girl, it made my heart bubble.
Another parent in the Midwest wrote to me that her daughter asked her to read My Secret Bully to her every night for three weeks straight. The child even slept with the book at the foot of her bed!
A middle schooler in northern CA had a public “Aha” moment during a student assembly when I read Trouble Talk. She shared with the other students that she didn’t realize she was bullying others when she’d say comments like “No offense but” and then say really hurtful and offensive things to others. “I do that!” she said. “Wow…I didn’t realize how really hurtful that can be.”
Bullying is a big topic in schools and the media these days, do you think the extra attention and awareness is making a difference? Resulting in fewer cases of actual bullying?
The reality is that every generation has had, and will continue to have, experiences with bullying. It’s not an issue that will completely go away. I think media has done a good job raising public awareness of the devastating effects of bullying. However, I also think bullying has become such a hot buzz word that it has the tendency to be misused and overused. Not all hurtful behavior is bullying. Experts often define bullying as having three key elements: an intent to harm, an imbalance of power, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior.
I personally prefer how this school I visited in Racine, WI, described different tiers of hurtful behaviors:
- When someone unintentionally says something or does something hurtful, and they just do it once, that’s RUDE;
- When someone intentionally says something or does something hurtful, and they just do it once, that’s MEAN;
- When someone intentionally says something or does something hurtful, and they keep on doing it—even if they see you’re upset or you’ve asked them to stop—that’s BULLYING.
In many of your books you include (either in the body of the text or at the end of the story) suggestions for kids and parents about how to recognize bullying, talk about it, and deal with it; what were YOUR most valuable resources when crafting these suggestions?
The resources I used were:
- Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies for Reducing Bullying by Stan Davis (Research Press 2005)
- Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention by Stan Davis (Research Press 2007)
- Handouts from the many excellent presentations I’ve heard at the International Bullying Prevention Association’s annual national conferences. (I’ve attended nine of them.)
Over the years, I’ve expanded my list of go-to resources and now have these resources posted on my website for adults to readily access.
Bullying is a complex topic, with (as we’ve been discussing) books written on the subject; but for someone who might be reading this right now, who may be experiencing bullying but doesn’t know what to do, or hasn’t found the courage to speak out, what is one thing you would say to them?
I would strongly encourage that person to reach out for support and help from allies, caring peers and/or adults who he or she trusts. While we cannot get rid of all the hurt in this world, our allies can help us get through the hurt.
Is there an important question you feel people should be asking about bullying, but aren’t?
We adults are really great at giving advice to kids. But how often do we check in with them to ask if our advice is actually working for them? We need to find out from the kids, themselves, what’s working and not working when it comes to preventing bullying. If our advice isn’t working, we better come up with more effective solutions, so that we don’t leave these children flailing in the wind.
Trudy Ludwig is an award-winning author who specializes in writing children’s books that explore the colorful and sometimes confusing world of children’s social interactions. She has received rave reviews nationwide from educators, experts, organizations, and parents for her passion and compassion in addressing relational aggression – the use of relationships to manipulate and hurt others. Trudy wrote her first book, My Secret Bully, after her own daughter was bullied by some friends. Since then, she has become a sought-after speaker, presenting at schools and conferences around the country and educating students, parents, and teachers on the topic. Find out more about Trudy, her speaking engagements, or her books at her website: www.trudyludwig.com