If you’ve seen the film ‘Bully,’ then you understand why I am still thinking, talking and blogging about it. This powerful documentary highlights the stories of 5 kids and families who are affected tremendously by bullying. One courageous and charismatic 16 year-old, Kelby, eloquently discusses and describes the cruel abuse she endures as an openly gay youth in her small town. The strength and seemingly eternal optimism that Kelby displays throughout the film made a significant impression on me, and I’m certain I am not alone. Her resolve in the beginning of the school year to return and face her tormentors, and her determination to be a catalyst for change in her community speak to the strength of her character and left me wondering and reflecting on the sources of her resiliency.
Several times throughout the film we see Kelby championed by a group of friends and hear from her about the importance of their support. In reflecting on her own suicide attempts, she credits her friends for being the reason that she is still here. Although her parents are extremely loving, supportive and protective, it is clear that Kelby’s friendships serve as vital protective factor as she endures physical and emotional abuse at school and ostracism in her community.
In a volume from the Guilford Series on Social and Emotional Development, Catherine L. Bagwell’s and Michelle E. Schmidt’s book Friendships in Childhood and Adolescence explores the significance of friendship for social, emotional, and cognitive development from early childhood through adolescence. According to the authors, “studies suggest that children who are able to establish friendships, despite individual and social risk factors, may receive significant protective benefits from those relationships.” It is also noted that having good friends may also promote resilience so that even in the face of peer victimization substantial negative outcomes are less likely to develop.
We all understand that a friend standing up for a child in the face of a potential bully is a powerful act. We all recognize that the mere presence of friends may discourage potential aggressors. And we all know that simply having friends may not be enough to prevent bullying and harassment. But as research suggests, and as we saw in Kelby’s story, friends – especially high quality and socially skilled friends – may be able to help negotiate challenging social situations and provide advice and good ideas about how to handle aggression from peers. It’s even been shown that having one high quality friend is more beneficial than having multiple friends who don’t necessarily provide that same level of support. High quality friends can also offer important emotional support and validation for a child after a bullying episode – providing that much needed ear for when a child needs to feel heard the most.
So the big question is… how do we as parents help our kids develop high quality friendships without robbing them of the natural childhood experiences to practice these necessary skills themselves?