On Bullying and Boundaries and Belonging

I don’t know what your life looks like these days but mine is bursting with the colorful personalities of four kids who bring a variety of preferences, peculiarities, and pet peeves.

One gets slightly enraged at the sound of chewing (pretty sure that’s genetic), the other oblivious to flapping molars.

One gets irritated with all the singing and dancing while the other enthusiastically belts out every lyric of The Greatest Showman.

One is meticulous about good hygiene while the other needs encouraged to wash off the funk.

One hustles out of bed in the morning and speed dresses (is that a thing?) while the other burrows deeper under the covers, savoring those last few minutes of shuteye.

And two certain cherubs are consistently L.O.U.D. and early risers. I’m not namin’ names but thankfully, they’re still contained in their tiny baby jails.

With all the differences wrapped up in each kiddo however, I have found one common thread woven through their diverse DNA: All four want to belong.

Photo by Becca Neufeld Photography at www.beccaneufeldphotography.com

Last year, our family experienced bullying for the first time. (I refer to the person who bullied as “Bee” in this post.)

Bee was in our home.

Bee sat at our table and enjoyed meals with us.

Bee played in our yard, twirled on our tire swing, and made slime with our kids.

We offered her encouragement and time and compassion. We wanted Bee to feel a sense of belonging with us, especially when conversations revealed that her home was not often a place of warmth and welcome. Despite some of our concerns with her occasional meanness toward Selah, both at school and in our home, we prayed to be hospitable and kind (and sometimes struggled to do both).

Perhaps in our naivete, we thought our open home would lead to a changed Bee–a Bee that could work through unresolved anger and begin to soften toward a Love far greater than our own.

A couple of months into 2018 however, we learned that her emotional needs exceeded our abilities and we made a difficult decision that wracked me with (false) guilt. After weeks of prayer, wise counsel, and ongoing conversations with school personnel, we set a boundary: Bee would no longer be welcome in our home until she provided a sincere apology and Selah came home with zero complaints about Bee’s aggression.

For our oldest, school no longer felt like a safe place where she could focus on subjects and friendships without wondering what Bee might do to her. Despite the many ‘tools’ we gave Selah to help build her resilience as she related to Bee, the attacks continued. While Selah felt supported by a few adults at school, her ongoing concerns fell silent on the ones who had the ultimate authority. As a result, home became her main place of belonging and we would do whatever necessary to ensure that remained so.

A few days after we set this boundary, Bee showed up at our front door, wanting to come in and play.

After consistently, aggressively, physically hurting Selah.

After writing hateful notes about Selah and passing them around to other girls.

After threatening to seriously injure Selah and another student.

After lying to teachers, faculty, and us about the extent of her behavior.

Bee still expected to join us in our home, as if her bullying had no effect on our relationship with her.

My response to her that day could be summed up in the words of Simon Cowell, “Um, that’s a ‘no’ for me.”  

I told her that we cared about her and wanted to have her in our home. I also gave her a choice to admit and apologize for the ways she had hurt Selah. (She yelled, denied any guilt, and stomped off the porch.)  

Some might think our boundary too strict.

Some might think our family unforgiving.

Some might think our family unloving.

To these I would say:

Love often sets healthy boundaries for the good of others even when others refuse to see the good.

Sometimes the best way to love those who bully is to set a boundary and offer them an alternative–an opportunity for them to own their actions–not another invitation for them to treat you with contempt.  

Bee was not allowed to hurt, taunt, and degrade Selah at school and then expect connection with us in our home. Our permission only enabled her to bully in our home, albeit more subtly. As the drama at school increased, maintaining status quo in our home seemed to communicate to Bee that we were okay with the bullying. We were inadvertently teaching her that she could intentionally hurt others and never be required to endure the relational consequences of her behavior. She could use and abuse people as she pleased and still enjoy the benefits of their company whenever she wished.

By allowing our relationship with Bee to remain unchanged, we risked emotionally disconnecting from Selah and breaking a sacred trust we’d spent a decade building. Refusing to set a boundary would have said to our daughter, “Your needs are trivial. Don’t speak up–even when someone relentlessly hurts you. No one will listen to you, anyway–not even your parents.” That was not the kind of message we ever intended to communicate.  

We care about Bee.

We pray for Bee.  

We choose to forgive Bee.

We want to see redemption and restoration in the life of Bee.

We love Bee.

Boundaries don’t make those statements less true. Boundaries don’t make us unkind. Boundaries aren’t rejection. Boundaries (in this case) offer protection and clear expectations for both girls. 

Until Bee is ready to confess and seek forgiveness, Wisdom tells us that our boundary must remain so that our home can remain a place of refuge and belonging, especially for the four we’ve been given to train and lead and raise.

Was there ever a time you set a boundary for the good of others? What was the response? How did you handle the situation?

Would be so good to hear from you! Your story might encourage another reader.

 

***I realize that bullying is a difficult topic that can elicit strong, complex emotions. Many families have endured far worse than we have, with tragic, devastating results. I have learned that even with all the anti-bullying campaigns and zero-tolerance zones, kids who bully get away with more than any well-meaning slogan aims to prevent. I highly recommend that parents continue to engage teachers and administrators, document every incident, contact the school superintendent and/or lawyer and/or law enforcement for advice, support, and resolutions, consider alternative schooling, and stay emotionally connected as much as possible with your kids, while keeping your home a safe place where they know they belong.

***Featured photo credit goes to Wokandapix at pixabay.