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The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

When we first meet Emmett, he is an eighteen-year-old going home from a juvenile work farm. Later we learn that he was incarcerated because a bully picked on him, and he responded by punching the bully, who fell hard, hit his head, and died. What would have been a fight with a few punches thrown turned into involuntary manslaughter. Emmett served fifteen months before his sentence was shortened, secondary to his father’s death. Waiting for him back home is Billy, his little brother. With their father dead and their mother long gone, Emmett, still a teenager, is responsible for raising Billy.

Many skills would help Emmett (anger management, checking impulsivity, opening up to others, trusting safe people…). Today, we’re going to discuss a highly relevant skill for many school-age kids: how to deal with a bully.

Bullying is physically or verbally aggressive behavior intended to cause harm to another person. It can be repeated at varying levels of frequency and is done both in private and in public. Bullying can be overt and obvious or more pointed and subtle. Bully’s motivation can be increasing their social status, defending against the notion that others will bully them, peer pressure, or general insecurity.

Bullies are not invincible. Here are ways to deal with them that will help the bully’s victim short-term and lessen or stop the bullying long-term:

  • Respond with firm yet courteous confidence (this may mean faking confidence until you feel it) to neutralize the bully. If a bully sees that they have provoked an outpouring of emotion, they will continue.

  • Create an exit strategy, if possible. Once the victim has neutralized the bully’s behaviors, they should remove themselves from the situation. Friends can be instrumental in helping a victim leave while feeling supported.

  • Remain connected with friends and family and tell them about the bullying. Bullies gain a significant upper hand when their victim feels isolated.

  • Nurture self-confidence in other areas, so the victim doesn’t generalize and internalize the bully’s negative messages.

If Emmett had used positive coping skills when faced with the bully’s taunting behavior he would not have physically engaged with the bully. Did he start the altercation? No. Was it ok for the bully to victimize him? No. But, are there ways that he could have handled the situation that would have vastly altered the course of his life? Yes.

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