Almost every day for a few years, Mary has spent many hours with Peter and his friends, who are very cruel to Mary. They call her terrible names, throw things at her, spit at her, destroy things that are valuable to her. She has started to eat meals in the bathroom when Peter is around, because it is the only place she can escape his torment. She believes she is worthless and has thought about killing herself. Peter has warned her not to tell anyone about the things he does to her or else he will only make it worse for her. He is much bigger than she is, so she has not said anything until now. Mary has finally come to you and shared her story, and she is afraid.
How do you feel about Mary? About Peter? What should Mary do? Do your answers depend on who Mary is, and what is her relationship to Peter? Let's think about some of the possibilities...
1. Mary is 17 years old, and Peter is her boyfriend.
2. Mary is 27 years old, and Peter is her boss.
3. Mary is 37 years old, and Peter is her husband.
In each of these situations, I think the ideal outcome would be for Mary to be able to be removed from the abusive environment. I would encourage and help Mary to remove herself. As quickly as possible. I would give her a hug and tell her that no one deserves to be treated that way. I would reassure her that she would not have to face her abuser again.
Now let's add a fourth case.
4. Mary is 13 years old, and Peter is a classmate.
Do you feel different about this one? I don't. But I know a lot of people who do. People who would tell this Mary that it's probably not as bad as she thinks. That she should try ignoring it. That she shouldn't be so sensitive. That being tormented is part of life.
Some would tell her to fight back against Peter and his friends. Maybe they would advise her to tell a teacher about the abuse. They are certain that the teacher should and can stop whatever is going on. But until it all gets sorted out, she should keep going to the abusive environment (school) every day.
I can't imagine any sane person telling any of the first three Marys any of these things. Why is the fourth case any different?
I don't know if there is a way to "end bullying" in schools. I have a feeling that harsher punishments will not do the trick. But I do know that no one should have to put up with bullying or abuse. No one should have to dread waking up in the morning, when she knows that the day will be filled with torment and harassment. No one should have to feel like the only way to stop the hurt is to kill herself.
You might know someone like Mary in one of the first three situations. You might wonder why she would have so much trouble getting out of it. Why she keeps subjecting herself to the terrible treatment. Or why she has allowed it to go on for so long already. Maybe it's because so many people told her as a child to stop being so sensitive. It's just a part of life. And she tells herself it's probably not as bad as she thinks.
Here is a follow-up post about bullying.