The Bullying Breakthrough: Real Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, Bystanders, and Bullies

The Bullying Breakthrough: Real Help for Parents and Teachers of the Bullied, Bystanders, and Bullies

by Jonathan McKee


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In a world full of caring adults, how is it that we keep missing the cries of hurting kids?

“Today, when the bell rings, kids might leave their school campus, but they can never escape the other world, a world where mockers and intimidators thrive. Ironically, they carry a gateway to that world right in their pockets, because they see that world as an avenue of escape. . .but in reality, it’s putting them in bondage." --Jonathan McKee 

With chapters including:

Digital Hurt

The Escape Key

Why Didn’t You Say Anything?

Meet the Principal

Real-World Solutions

and More!

An expert on youth and youth culture, McKee shares his own heart-rending story and offers a sobering glimpse into the rapidly changing world of bullies, bystanders, and the bullied while providing helpful ways to connect with these kids, open doors of dialogue, and give them the encouragement they need and the validation they're searching for. . .too often in all the wrong places. 

The Bullying Breakthrough promises real-world help for dealing with today’s bullying culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781683226888
Publisher: Barbour Publishing, Incorporated
Publication date: 11/01/2018
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 653,923
Product dimensions: 5.10(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Jonathan McKee is an expert on youth culture and the author of more than twenty books, including The Bullying Breakthrough, The Teen's Guide to Social Media. . .and Mobile Devices, and The Guy’s Guide to God, Girls, and the Phone in Your Pocket. He has over twenty years of youth-ministry experience and speaks to parents and leaders worldwide. For more from Jonathan, go to or follow him on


Read an Excerpt



They don't know

Sticks and stone may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

We've all heard it. We all had teachers who reiterated it.

"... words will never hurt me."

Complete foolishness.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I probably don't even need to give you thirteen reasons why.

Anyone who has been mocked or victimized will tell you nothing is more crushing or more demoralizing. Speaking completely candidly, I'd rather get beaten senseless than become the victim of public humiliation — because sadly, I've been there.

That's the intriguing thing about bullying. I've read countless articles and studies, heard theories from well-known psychologists. I've attended assemblies and conferences about bullying ... almost always by someone who hasn't been bullied.

They don't know.

They really don't.

* * *

I grew up five minutes from the American River Parkway, a beautiful recreation area where the American River glides 120 miles from the Sierra Nevada Mountains down to the Sacramento River. One of the trails we took as kids would bring us to the edge of a cliff 120 feet high overlooking the north side of the river. Sacramento residents call it "The Bluffs." A romantic lookout for many, but for me, a location where I would contemplate taking my own life.

When I was sixteen years old I stood at the edge of that cliff staring down at the rocks below.

I can't tell you what was unique about this particular day. I honestly had experienced hundreds of days like this, especially years prior in middle school, being mocked, pushed around, and demoralized while my classmates looked on with laughter or passive approval.

I don't blame them. You had only three choices: laugh, ignore, or say something. Those who spoke up would only be next ... so everyone chose either laughter or silence. Literally everyone.

No one ever spoke up.

I probably couldn't have put words to what I was feeling standing on that ledge: loneliness, hurt ... a longing for someone who understood? Most of the people in my life didn't even know what went on at my school every day. It's not their fault; I never really shared the experiences. If I did, I most likely wouldn't have even used the word bullying, because in my mind bullying was a big kid cornering a little kid and stealing his lunch money. My aggressors weren't big kids. They weren't even all male. My aggressors came in all shapes and sizes. But what I was experiencing was actually textbook bullying.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as "any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated."

"Perceived power imbalance" — a good word choice. Kids don't have a positive concept of "self," so they try to make themselves feel better by hurling verbal onslaughts at others. That's an accurate description of what my peers did to me each day. I was an easy target, so I became a stepping-stone others used to raise themselves up so they could feel more powerful.

"Repeated multiple times"— also accurate. For me it was daily in middle school, at least weekly in high school. Certain environments seemed to foster it more than others, none more so than PE class.

That particular day began with gym class, physical education, or PE as our school called it. PE is a cruel requirement for nonathletes, something the physically fit will never understand. PE is where the weak get intimidated by the strong. PE is where small boys get hung by their underwear or slapped in the back of the legs while bystanders laugh hysterically.

That morning in PE a popular kid had said something cruel. I don't remember the exact exchange, but knowing me, I probably retaliated with a quick verbal jab. I had developed a quick wit over the years. I had plenty of experience defending myself.

But this kid wasn't going to tolerate any banter. He hit me hard in the jaw. I can still hear the cackles from the crowd and feel the stares of those who quickly circled around. Funny, I don't recall the physical pain of the hit.

More words were exchanged. I had two choices: fight or back down. I chose to back down.

Social suicide.

Names were called — cruel names that are difficult even to put into print.



I was neither, but it didn't matter.

Threats were made. "You'd better watch your back!"

He meant it. And he was right. This altercation had triggered a social seismic shift, and there were aftershocks. You see, once someone is publicly humiliated, the victim bears an invisible KICK ME sign on his back. For the rest of the day I endured shoves, jeers, and cruel whispers from kids I had never even met. Other kids with low self-esteem jumped on the opportunity to step up a notch on the social ladder by lowering someone else a rung.


I don't know why this particular day pushed me over the tipping point, since I had experienced many other days like it. Regardless, six hours after the original jab, I stood at the edge of the cliff looking down at the rocks.

Should I jump?

I wanted to jump. I really wanted to, honestly, for selfish reasons.

I'll show them.

They'll regret everything they ever said!


Something happens to kids when they are repeatedly mocked and pushed around publicly. It changes them. It happened to my dad, and it happened to me. But the hardest by far was to see it happen to my son, Alec.

When Alec was in fifth grade, we noticed a dramatic change in him over a period of just four weeks.

Our family had just moved across town, and we enrolled our three kids in a new school. The girls adjusted fine, but Alec immediately became a target of harassment. It happened daily. We saw it on his face the first day we picked him up. We asked him what happened.

"Some kids teased me," he said.

We did what most parents do. We told him not to worry about what other kids say.

See — I did it too. "Ignore it." It's a common parental response (so common I'm focusing my entire next chapter on it).

We were dead wrong.

My wife, Lori, and I watched a sweet, innocent, gregarious boy gradually chiseled down to a repressed, dejected little kid. Bitterness began to emerge. His posture literally changed. Previously he walked with confidence and a little bounce to his step. Just a few weeks later, his shoulders drooped and his head hung low, almost as if he was scared to look around.

It's sad to see what bullying does to a kid. My dad and I both eventually recognized it in Alec. He was emotionally broken. We knew it all too well — we both had been there.

My dad is five foot four as an adult. So as you can imagine, as a kid he was small — plus he was shy and a little on the pudgy side. It doesn't take too many times hearing the words "fat" or "midget" thrown at you to develop a complex about your weight and size.

Kids don't even need physical imperfections to be bullied, but if you have a major physical flaw, you're a prime target. My buck teeth provided plenty of ammo for everyone. I shudder even typing those words — buck teeth. It seemed as though not a day went by that I didn't hear them.

My baby teeth were fine. But when my permanent teeth came in ... wow! It's literally too much to describe; just flip the book over and take a peek at the picture on the back cover. Yeah, that's me in fourth grade.

I heard it every day.

"Hey, Bugs Bunny!"

"Buck-toothed beaver!"


"Hey, can opener!" (You gotta give creativity points to whoever came up with this insult.)

And I didn't just hear it from mockers — I heard it from little kids in the grocery store!

"Mommy, what's wrong with that kid's teeth?"

"Don't stare, honey."

You wouldn't believe the things I heard.

When people poked fun at me, I always hoped adults would intervene. But my confidence in adults quickly faded.

Most adults didn't notice the jesting and teasing. Some actually laughed. In fourth grade I was at a basketball camp when a group of kids cornered me, making fun of my teeth. I remember trying to retort; I don't recall what I had planned on saying, because I never finished my sentence. All I could manage was something like, "Oh yeah, well I can do something you can't ..."


And my coach quickly interjected, "Yeah! Chew through wood!"

Once an adult opens that door, it never shuts. No one at that camp called me by name again. I was "Beaver" or "Woody Woodchuck." (Isn't it nice when nicknames are memorable little tongue twisters that kids can all shout together?)

Those who haven't been mocked or teased might not understand the repercussions of nicknames like this. No, for me these labels were not just cute nicknames. They were a badge. Each name was a sign saying OPENSEASON, and I was an eight-point buck. For the rest of that week I was mocked, shoved, and threatened. Everyone knew it was socially acceptable to demoralize Woody Woodchuck.

"Hey, Woody, why don't you chuck this wood!" So when my son was being bullied, I knew what he was experiencing.

When I talked with the principal, I provided her with specifics. After all, it wasn't just boys who were picking on Alec. A girl in his class had just turned around in her chair the day prior, leaned on his desk, and said, "Wow, you are the ugliest kid I've ever seen. Your mom must wonder, Why is my kid so ugly?"

I shared this incident with the principal. She didn't seem to process it. I wish I would have had a hidden video camera in her office. She didn't address any of the specifics I shared; instead she bragged, "Our school doesn't tolerate any bullying."

She actually showed me a banner hanging in the cafeteria: OUR SCHOOL IS BULLY-FREE, THE WAY IT'S MEANT TO BE.

These Bully-Free signs and banners are becoming even more common in schools across the country today. Google it. You can buy them all over the web, "to send a positive message and inspire students to think before they act."


I'd love to see that data and hear those testimonies: "There I was, about to knock the books out of Eugene's hands ... but then I looked up and saw a poster ..."

My son, Alec, and I still talk about that useless banner to this day.

Alec got to the point where some kids started pushing him and slapping the back of his neck. It was so hard for Lori and me to hear the terrible accounts day after day. Finally I told Alec, "You don't have to take that. You can stand up for yourself."

Alec looked up at me with his big blue eyes, his lip quivering, and said, "I don't want to get into trouble."

I told him, "You won't get in trouble from me!" Maybe that was just another victim talking. I don't even know if it was good advice. Lori questioned my reasoning. "Are you sure that's what he should do? Or is that just someone who was bullied as a kid talking?"

It was a fair question.

Fight or flight. Those are the two natural responses to confrontation. We decided to encourage him to seek "flight." In fact, we switched schools. He got plugged in with a group of really creative kids — like him — at his new school and at church. But we also enrolled him in martial arts to try to boost his confidence.

Some of Alec's scars slowly began to heal. That is ... until the first week of middle school when some kids started pushing him around.

I'll give you one guess as to where this happened ...

During PE.

During PE as Alec ran around the track, two boys would stop him and tell him, "You can't pass." Of course, the teacher was nowhere to be found.

Note to teachers and administrators: It's hard to be "bully-free, the way it's meant to be" like your banner says when gym class is a free-for-all for big kids. (Don't even get me started on "picking teams." I still have dreams about standing there alone, the last one chosen.)

I didn't want to lose all the ground we had gained with Alec, so I asked him more about the situation. "Can you avoid these kids? Can you run somewhere else?"


It's always good to avoid the situation as best as possible. But the confrontation with these two bullies was unavoidable. Day after day they found Alec when the teacher wasn't around — which was a lot!

I looked Alec in the eye and told him, "Alec, if those kids push you or corner you, hit them in the nose as hard as you can, and don't stop swinging until someone pulls you off!"


Let me add a quick disclaimer here. I'm not advising you to defer to violence. In today's day of lawsuits, you'll probably get sued.

But I honestly didn't care.

They had poked Mama Bear ... er ... Papa Bear one too many times, and frankly I was ready to go down to the school and start tossing kids around. I was one straw short of grabbing the keys and telling Lori, "Call our lawyer — I'm going to be arrested in about thirty minutes!"

But my advice to Alec that day was to swing away.

Alec was shocked. "I thought I wasn't supposed to fight."

"Defending yourself is way different than fighting, Alec," I assured him. "If they bully you, you go Christmas Story on them!" "But Dad, I'll get suspended."

I leaned in close to my boy. "If you get suspended for defending yourself, Alec, I'll take the day off work and take you out for ice cream, and then we'll hang out and have fun all day. You won't get in trouble from me for defending yourself. You'll get rewarded."

I didn't know if I was giving Alec sound advice, but speaking candidly as a father, I'll confess that desperate situations sometimes generate desperate responses. At the time, I just wanted Alec to know that we were in his corner no matter what. And I hoped to provide him with the freedom to defend himself.

The next day when Lori brought Alec home from school, he looked apprehensive.

"What happened?" I asked.

Alec was looking down at the ground while he talked. "I got sent to the principal's office for fighting."

This might sound strange, but I was so proud of him! I smiled and gave him a big hug. "Sweet! Let's go for ice cream!"

Over ice cream, Alec told me the whole story. The kids stopped him on the track again and didn't let him pass. Alec tried to go around, but one of the kids pushed him. Alec swallowed hard and started swinging. He knew how to hit. He hit one guy to the ground and the other grabbed him. Alec somehow managed to get the other kid in a headlock and started punching him as well. The punching turned to rolling on the ground. Next thing he knew, all three of them found themselves in the principal's office.

The principal knew the other two kids by name; he didn't know Alec. Alec told him his story. The principal said, "I don't want to see you in here again. You can go." Then he kept the other two in his office.

Apparently a couple of Alec's hits landed pretty hard, because the next day one of those two kids came to school with a black eye.

Alec didn't have any more physical confrontations that year.

I wish I could tell you that Alec's remaining years were bully-free. They weren't. He joined wrestling the next year in middle school, and that really helped. But during his freshman year of high school, bullies actually sat in the hallway and threw pieces of muffins at certain kids, calling them names. Alec said it happened all the time, not just to him, but to numerous kids. He just tried his best to avoid those hallways.

So was it over?

The question Lori and I had was, would all these experiences have long-term effects? Or is the idiom true: "... but words will never hurt me"?

I had definitely experienced long-term effects, and apparently I'm not alone. Every time I interviewed an adult who had experienced severe bullying, I heard the same things.

• "I'm still tentative in social situations."

• "Whenever people are talking with each other at work, I can't help but wonder if they're talking about me."

• "I am still dealing with what those experiences have done to me. Depression, suicidal thoughts ..." Words will never hurt me?


I've seen it hundreds of times in over two decades of youth ministry. Bullied kids are more socially tentative, sometimes skeptical of social situations, fearful of rejection. I've seen many of them become prejudiced toward certain social circles: jocks or popular kids.

This social trepidation often causes bullied kids to push others away. Even if other kids are nice or give them a chance, the bullied don't like to let others "in." They've been burned before.

I can relate. I did the same thing, even into my college years. My skepticism toward people sometimes resulted in bitterness and quarrelling. If you met anyone who attended college with me my freshman year, they'd probably describe me as tense, insecure, and easily aggravated.

The stereotypical bullied kid is often guarded, defensive, and, as a result, socially awkward.

Today the situation is only worsened by technology. Not just because kids are mocked on social media, but because technology offers socially awkward kids a place to escape social situations, which only cripples their social skills. Technology also provides a false sense of "friendship" with people who aren't always positive influences. It becomes a downward spiral.


Excerpted from "The Bullying Breakthrough"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jonathan McKee.
Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction: Bullied, Bully, Bystander,
Chapter 1: View from the Edge They don't know,
Chapter 2: Just Ignore It Trees falling in the forest,
Chapter 3: Digital Hurt The ubiquity of cyberbullying,
Chapter 4: The Escape Key Three practices that help prevent cyberbullying,
Chapter 5: "Why Didn't You Say Anything?" Avoiding the rush to blame,
Chapter 6: I'm Right Here Three practices helping us notice and hear,
Chapter 7: The Bully In the minds of the bullies ... and how to actually help them,
Chapter 8: The Bystander The chapter you might want to read with your kids,
Chapter 9: The Bullied Spotting the warning signs,
Chapter 10: Real-World Solutions Ten tools to help bullied kids,
Chapter 11: Meet the Principal / Meet the Parents "Hello, my child is being bullied.",
Chapter 12: School Shootings Pushed beyond the tipping point,
Chapter 13: Locker Rooms and Hallways Seven tools that actually help schools,
Conclusion: "Thanks for Helping My Son",


Orangevale, California

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