I tormented a classmate from eighth grade through high school so that I could fit in with the popular kids. Years later, I'm teaching my kids how not to be the bully I was.

mom talking to daughter on porch
Credit: Illustration by Sarina Finkelstein; Getty Images (2)

The summer between seventh grade and eighth grade, my family moved across Calgary, Canada. I was uprooted from the only home I'd ever known and taken away from the friends I'd been close to my whole life. While I was terrified, I was also excited for the opportunity to make new friends.

When I arrived at school on my first day, I put my best foot forward. I chose my trendiest outfit and I was kind to everybody. I quickly made friends with a few of the girls who ran with the popular crowd and it was only a matter of days before I was living in a real-life, middle school version of Mean Girls.

The school I attended was cliquey. The rich, popular kids and those of us who ran with them often patronized and picked on the rest of the kids in the school. In the interest of maintaining my status, I followed suit. There was one girl in particular, Nicole, who I'd chosen as my favorite victim. Nicole, whose name I’ve changed to protect her privacy, had horrible luck and to be perfectly honest, it made her an easy target.

Over the next several years, Nicole and I were enrolled in school together. On some days I'd manipulate her into thinking that we were friends, gaining her trust with the hopes of obtaining more ammo for my emotional torture. Sometimes I'd feel bad and actually try to forge a friendship with her but my desire to keep my "cool" friends always pulled me in and I'd go right back to making fun of her, calling her names, and spilling her most embarrassing secrets to anyone who would listen. I was always invited to join in when some of the other girls in my circle went as far as to make up and spread rumors about Nicole. My eagerness to fit in meant that it was an invitation I didn’t often refuse.

I became a childhood bully—and that’s not something I’m proud of. But it's an experience that's shaping the way I parent my own two kids and teaching them how not to be like I was.

Learning From My Mistakes

I finally started coming to my senses in junior year when the rumors about Nicole turned sexual, escalating to a point I didn’t feel comfortable with. In the eleventh grade I decided to make nice with her, and this time it stuck. I started with an honest and sincere apology and pleaded for forgiveness. Nicole, who at this point was a bit desperate for an ally in the school, was gracious and understanding and to my surprise, she accepted my apology.

As I got to know Nicole better, it turned out that she was actually someone I’d much rather be around than the people I'd been trying to impress while bullying her. After several months we began growing closer and she confided in me how tortured she felt at school. She dreaded waking up each morning and, on several occasions, had attempted suicide, which is the second leading cause of death for people in the U.S. between the ages of 10 and 34.

What 14-year-old me thought was harmless teasing, and what our teachers had often written off as kids being kids, could have ended in someone taking their own life. The feelings that came over me when she told me this is something I'll never forget: guilt, shame, pity, embarrassment, and sadness—to name a few. But I know that no matter how horrible I felt, my pain was nothing compared to the hell she faced each day at school.

My friendship with Nicole lasted beyond high school and although we've lost touch now, I'll never forget the impact she had, and still has, on my life. I think of her often and when I do, I know I want to do my part to prevent kids from having the same experiences she did in school. That's why I'm actively doing my best to raise my kids to think differently than I did.

Teaching My Kids to Stand up to Bullies

About 20 percent of students in the U.S. have experienced bullying and more than 70 percent have witnessed it happening. That’s why I know it’s important to teach my children, 2 and 4, about bullying despite their young ages.

Although we're certainly not perfect, my husband and I do our best to talk to each other respectfully. We think it's important that our children see that they should be treating other people in their lives with respect. At their age, respect means sharing, no hitting or name-calling, minding their manners, and kindness toward each other. These same rules apply outside of our home when they're playing with cousins or friends.

Of course, our children aren't perfect either. We use positive reinforcement when they're playing nicely together, and when they break the rules we have in place, we make sure to take it seriously. We're careful with our discipline methods, especially when it comes to this type of behavior. We always do our best to remain calm and speak to our children rationally about what they did wrong and what they could have done better.

While our son is still too young to fully understand, I do my best to talk to my daughter about bullying. We discuss what it means, why it's wrong, and what to do if she sees it happening. Some of the signs I’ve told my daughter to watch for include:

  • Making others feel unwelcome, whether that means excluding them, name-calling, or hitting
  • Picking on others on the basis of their appearance, gender, or other differences
  • Teasing, nagging, harassing, or hurting another child.

As my daughter gets older and enters elementary, and eventually middle and high school, our discussions about bullying will continue and they’ll evolve to include bullying signs that are specific to older kids, including online and sexual harassment.

If my daughter sees bullying happen, she's encouraged to do her part to stop it by telling a teacher, parent, or another responsible adult. When she's among peers who are bullying, she's encouraged to remind them to play nice and be respectful.

She's in her second year of pre-school and I'm proud to say I've seen her stand up to her friends on more than one occasion when she thinks someone is being treated unfairly. I hope this is something she will continue to do throughout her life, and I hope to see my son follow in her footsteps in the years to come.