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What Melania Trump Doesn’t Understand About Bullying

FILE - In this May 7, 2018 file photo, First lady Melania Trump speaks on her initiatives during an event in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington. The White House says the first lady returned to the White House on Saturday, May 19. She had been at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center near Washington since having an embolization procedure Monday for an unspecified kidney condition that the White House said was benign. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

One of the primary goals of Melania Trump’s ‘Be Best’ initiative is to protect children from cyberbullying. However, that focus was obscured this week, when the First Lady told ABC News that she “could say I’m the most bullied person in the world.” This statement exposes something I’ve suspected since the initiative was launched — Melania Trump doesn’t understand bullying, and she certainly doesn’t know how to help children who are suffering from it.

Saying you are one of the most bullied people in the world sends a message to the young people you are trying to reach that you think it’s unlikely that their pain is as significant as yours. There’s a big difference between “I want bullying to end because I know how much it hurts” and “I want bullying to end because I am the person most affected by it.” The most important thing you can do for a child who is being bullied is listen to them, not tell them that you probably have it worse. What children need most is to be supported and listened to so they can build the emotional and social intelligence to recognize toxic friendships, navigate difficult social situations, and appropriately express and regulate their own feelings.

To be clear, I don’t think it’s fair to say that Melania Trump is too famous or powerful to be bullied. Although bullying does suggest a power imbalance, sometimes that imbalance comes from the sheer numbers or intensity of the negative comments. Many celebrities have deactivated their social media accounts after being the targets of online hate, including 14-year-old Stranger Things star Millie Bobbie Brown.

The ‘Be Best’ campaign’s focus on cyberbullying, rather than bullying in general, is also troubling. In that same interview, when asked about how bullying might affect her son Barron (who is in seventh grade) and other children, the First Lady responded that “that’s why my ‘Be Best’ initiative is focusing on social media and online behavior.” Yes, cyberbullying is obviously a huge problem, and it is a relatively new one that requires new tactics to prevent, but most bullying still happens in person. Many parents who did not grow up with the internet may think of cyberbullying as a new and unfamiliar threat, but it is simply another form of bullying and can be dealt with in the same way.

The only resource the ‘Be Best’ initiative has made available on its website—a 17-page brochure about online safety—isn’t particularly helpful when it comes to bullying. The vast majority of it focuses on protecting personal data, limiting screen time, and computer security issues like choosing strong passwords. What guidance it does provide about bullying is brief and confusing:  “Encourage your kids to speak up. Cyberbullying usually stops pretty quickly when someone speaks up. If your kids see cyberbullying happening to someone else, encourage them to try to stop it by telling the bully to stop, and by not engaging or forwarding anything.“ — so should children tell the bully to stop, or not engage? The next relevant advice is “Don’t react to the bully” and “Block or delete the bully” which also goes against the advice to “tell the bully to stop.” Ignoring bullies and engaging with them directly are both strategies that can work but can also backfire. The answer isn’t to give hedging, unclear advice and try to recommend both strategies at once — it’s to build children up so they have the courage and skills to make their own decisions.

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