Facing the bully: Jewish psychologist uses teachings of Jesus to help kids overcome bullying

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 13, 2008

By Katie Scarvey
We used to teach children that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.”
Of course it’s only true that names can’t hurt us physically. It would be impossible for a reasonable person to argue that they can’t inflict serious emotional pain.
But New York psychologist Izzy Kalman thinks instead of focusing on how hurtful words can be, we would be better off teaching our children how to stop the pain by changing the way they react to their tormenters. Kalman believes that the most effective way to stop teasing or bullying is for victims to act as if the names do not hurt them.
Kalman, who is Jewish, uses the teachings of Jesus to help children overcome bullying situations. Jesus, he says, was a great psychologist who taught people to stop thinking like victims.
“It boils down to treating others the way you want to be treated,” he said in a telephone interview. “But very few people actually understand it,” he said ó especially when it comes to dealing with people who aren’t nice to you.
“You’re supposed to love your enemy, turn the other cheek,” says Kalman, who has been working as a school psychologist and psychotherapist since 1978. He also points to the Sermon on the Mount, which admonishes people not to get angry.
Kalman, who has been helping victims of teasing and bullying for the past two decades, believes that when kids can’t handle teasing, when they have no tolerance for insults, their anger can become lethal ó as it did Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Because they thought like victims, because they had the mindset of victims, Kalman believes, the shooters were overwhelmed with frustration and anger ó which made them dangerous and bent on revenge.
Kalman is convinced that when the victim changes the way he reacts, the bully will change the way he acts.
Call it the dynamics of teasing. Teasers tease ó for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they’re just trying to get a laugh. Other times, their intent is worse. The person being teased typically becomes angry and tries to stop the taunting ó which is perhaps a normal response.
But it’s not the best response, Kalman says. It ramps up the situation and gives the teaser a payback ó a strong reaction.
It puts them in control, Kalman says, which is what they want. He wants victims to take back control be refusing to get angry, by actually agreeing to whatever the bully says. Without anger, teasing stops, the way a fire without oxygen dies out.
“Nobody has the power to get you angry,” says Kalman, who adds that sometimes those who use his techniques actually end up befriending former tormenters.
One local mom who wishes to remain anonymous says that Kalman’s basic philosophy makes sense to her.
When her son ó we’ll call him Bart ó complains about being picked on at school, she encourages him to control what is within his control: his own reactions.
“We’ve told him, they (bullies) want to have control, and if they can get a rise out of you, that’s what they want.”
In Kalman’s view, the role of adults should be limited, unless a child is in real physical danger. When children “tell on” the bully in order to cause adult intervention, the situation worsens, he believes.
“Nobody can force other kids to want to be nice to you,” he says. “There are certain things we have to do by ourselves.
“If you know how to deal with it by yourself, your problem goes away,” he says. “You don’t have to wait for the world to change.”
When schools give children an easy out ó “try to deal with it yourself but if you can’t, we will” ó children are unlikely to handle the problem themselves, says Kalman. Although he’s glad that schools are taking the bullying problem seriously, he doesn’t believe that most “anti-bullying” programs are helping kids. Some of them, he believes, encourage children to be upset about being teased, which actually makes them less resilient and more prone to react in ways that will cause their problems to escalate.
Bart’s mom agrees that kids who are being picked on should resist turning to an adult right away.
“I think kids have to become very confident in who they are,” she says.
Kalman wants to be clear that there are certain things that are “beyond bullying” ó like physical violence that can cause real bodily harm. Adults, of course, are responsible for keeping children from real danger, he believes.
Most bullying, however, does not rise to that level.
Kalman uses role-playing to teach children (and some adults) the techniques that work. By encouraging victims to take on the bully’s role, they learn why the bully enjoys getting a rise out of a victim ó and also why the fun quickly goes out of teasing when the object of it refuses to respond with anger.
It doesn’t take long for most kids to “get it,” he says.
Kalman follows his own clients and says he’s had a 90 percent success rate helping his clients overcome bullying. Usually, things start to improve within a week, he says, although he warns that when victims try his methods, things may initially get worse as the bully works harder to get the response he’s addicted to ó but only briefly. When clients stick to his techniques, he says that most find relief.
Although he’s sometimes accused of blaming the victim, Kalman is convinced his victim-based approach is the practical one and that attempts to change the behavior of bullies ó including punishing them ó are much less effective than efforts to change the behavior of victims.
Alan Hardy, who is in his fourth decade as a guidance counselor, says that at China Grove Elementary School he’s probably had more reports of bullying this year than he has in years past. That’s not necessarily because there’s more bullying, though, he says. Because of the programs in place to address it, like the Second Step program (a social skills curriculum for K-5 students that focuses on empathy, impulse control, problem solving, and anger management), children more likely to bring their problems to him, he believes.
He tries to give students ways to respond to bullying, he says. Like Kalman, he believes that kids should “handle it on their own” if at all possible. He also emphasizes to children that “words will never hurt me ó if I don’t let them.”
Still, he says, if children can’t handle things on their own, they should seek the help of a trusted adult.
For more information about Kalman’s approach, go to www.bullies2buddies.com.