Expert Interview: Bullying & How to Deal When It Happens to or Around You

Rosalind Wiseman

Too often, PSAs and school assemblies portray bullying as a one-sided attack that gets resolved when you "tell an adult." We know the issue is more complicated than that, so we called up Rosalind Wiseman, bullying expert and author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (a.k.a. the book on which the Lindsay Lohan movie "Mean Girls" was based). Wiseman told us not only how to stand up to a bully, but also how to stand up to others. What does a "bullying expert" do exactly?

Rosalind Wiseman: My job is to give advice to young people who are going through difficult social problems. I also teach teachers about how they don’t have to be the counselor, but they do have to be able to address bullying and abuse of power in classrooms. If they don't, they’re betraying the trust that adults have with kids, and they’re also not creating an atmosphere where kids can learn.

DS: How would you describe bullying?

RW: Bullying is an abuse of power in a conflict. You can't be surpised when you see it. Conflict is inevitable among young people and so is abuse of power. It's discrimination.

DS: If conflict is indeed inevitable, how should you handle it?

RW:If someone disagrees with me or vice-versa, they come to me directly and privately. They don't make it an opportunity to create drama, put me down, embarrass me, and they give me the chance to think about what they've said.

DS:What strategies can someone employ to avoid becoming the target of a bully in the first place?

RW:People can be targeted for just who they are; meaning their race, how much money they do or don't have, their style, where they come from, their sexuality. And if you say that you believe everyone has the right to be treated equally but you participate in putting someone down, then that's hypocritical. And people can even be put down for excelling at something.

Be clear on your personal boundaries—what you will and will not accept from people around you, even your friends. Some people are bullied for excelling at something. I have seen so many young people do this—guys in high school pretend they aren't good in school and miss out on academic opportunities because of it. That's why I want people to focus on their personal boundaries and then be able to speak out when those boundaries are being violated.

DS: What are adults' biggest misconception about harassment among students?

RW: They think it's always "one way," but that's not always the case. It's understandable that [people] retaliate.

DS: Your book Queen Bees and Wannabes focuses on girls, as have a lot of your other writings. Do you foresee having any difficulty holding the attentions of an audience of boys?

RW:Of course I worry about having the right voice when I write for boys. I have boys tell me when I suck—and so far boys have had no problem telling me when I'm not coming across effectively.

DS: When a person is bullied, how should he or she handle it?

RW: The second that you realize it's happening, breathe. Recognize what just happened. I think so often [bullying] can literally take our breath away. If you can, say exactly what you don't like that the bully is doing (name the behavior and tell them what you want them to do instead). Remind him or her that you have the right to be where you are without being degraded. You confront the person like this not because you think the person is going to agree with you but because you are handling yourself with true control and power.

DS: How much do gender roles play a part in bullying?

RW: We're in a culture that says if you're a guy, you don't complain about the bad things you see. Guys are supposed to be able to "take it." With girls, you want to be the girl that boys love. She's never uptight, she never fusses. Any girl that comes forward is [perceived as] being uptight.

DS: In terms of sexting, what is your advice to someone who is feeling pressure to send provocative pictures to his/her boyfriend/girlfriend?

RW: I think that most advice [that old people give] on this is really bad. Adults say, "Do you know that once you post something you can never get it down?" Every teenager knows that.

But I really understand why people are tempted to do this. Somebody is saying to you that you’re really special and really beautiful and he wants this. That’s a huge pull. It’s hard to say no to somebody you care about.

DS: Recently the media has focused a lot more on bullying. Is this suddenly a new problem?

RW: People have been mean and discriminatory forever, but that doesn’t make it right. I want people to focus on their own communities and their own lives. So many people say, “We don’t have that problem here.” When you do that, you’re saying that your experience is everybody’s experience.

DS: What can young people do when they see someone else being bullied?

RW: As a bystander, I think that you have the strongest ability to stop it. There is no other reason to say something.

And it’s not a weakness to ask for help. It’s a skill. You need to be smart about who you go to. You have different friends for different things, you might go to one friend for something and not another. You need to apply the same criteria for adults—who’s the person I would go to and who would I never go to?

Great advice, Rosalind! We heart you and all that you're doing to stand up to bullying!