By David Hafter
My team of counselors provide prevention and early intervention services (small psychoeducational groups, classroom presentations, assemblies and one to one counseling) at many Yolo County schools. The most requested topic for the elementary aged kids is a multi-session presentation on stopping bullying. Needs dictate that we also have an anti- bullying curriculum for middle school aged kids and a cyberbullying/cyber-safety presentation for the high school kids. On a few occasions, I have been asked by school administrators and only half kiddingly: So, what do you have for teachers who bully each other?
The first time I heard this my jaw dropped a little – but it shouldn’t have. Sure, schools are well known sites of bullying behaviors but I naively assumed it was strictly a student problem. I should have known better because bullying doesn’t necessarily stop at graduation. Once off campus and into the workplace, the bully’s behaviors are renamed “harassment” and instead of making a trip to the assistant principal’s office, the bully is hustled off to human resources where a trained manager uses carefully chosen words aimed at both stopping the offending behaviors and protecting the company from lawsuits – not necessarily in that order.
With every age group, we emphasize that most bullies get away with their behaviors. Statistics say 85% of bullying among youth is not observed by adults. Therefore, the most effective way to stop bullying is for the kids themselves to decide not tolerate it. There are no innocent bystanders; what is not opposed is essentially condoned: Stand up alone, get a group to intervene or, if it feels unsafe to confront the bully directly, get adult help. Bullies rely upon intimidation to avoid push-back. When they do get called on their behavior and the surrounding culture stops supporting or tolerating them, the bullying is more likely to stop. Unfortunately, it is often hard to get kids to utilize the help adults can provide – and we are practically desperate to help. We consistently have to address the absurdity of the ‘no snitching’ schoolyard culture – which is set up by and for bullies – to intimidate, shame or punish anyone who dares to try to protect him or herself (or others) against the abuse.
Take a step back and you can easily see that this pattern also goes on in the work world. Why do we suppose there have to be laws on the books to protect whistle-blowers? Even then, workplace bullies will often take their chances; remember, they’re used to getting away with it. Those victims who are brave or outraged enough to stand up for what is right often have to fight the pressure to just ‘take it’ or ‘ignore it’ out of fear of losing a badly needed job. Or, if they follow through on what they know to be right, they may have to slog through the courts, suddenly unemployed with their lives turned upside down, and put their faith in the system to prove that ‘might doesn’t make right.’
Bullying doesn’t come out of thin air. Some subscribe to the notion that bullying is natural; it’s how the herd rids itself of the weak who might hold back the rest in the face of predators. I’m not qualified to fully judge that theory but even if it makes a valid point for herds of zebra, we humans are not running along the tundra in search of food and fighting off toothy predators. Individuals have far more to offer ‘the herd’ than the ability to run fast or fist-fight. Being out of the food chain means humans offer a wide range of individual contributions to make one a valuable member of society. That bullying is distressingly common does not make it normal or acceptable; it is not some rite of passage everyone must go through as though it were a vital source of secondary gains like toughness and perseverance.
As a therapist, I can confidently tell you that bullies are created – though not necessarily purposefully. Children who feel emotionally and physically safe in their daily world, and whose self-worth is defined through a series of reasonable successes and failures – learning experiences all – are far less likely to feel the need to bully others who are weaker or less temperamentally inclined to fight.
Bullies behave as they do for a variety of reasons, so, as attractive as it might be to give a simple black and white explanation like, “That is just a mean kid/adult,” the truths of what cause bullying behaviors are complicated. It is disingenuous and not helpful to write off the perpetrator as a bad seed. One cannot just define a child (or adult) by his or her worst behavior. In fact, one obstacle to ‘treating’ bullies is that they over-identify with their behaviors: “I know I am a bad boy/girl because I do bad things.” Separating the person from the behavior means creating a context for the behavior – not excuses, but explanations. The behaviors still have to stop.
It may be helpful to consider that we behave as we do because we are trying to take care of ourselves in the best way we know how. If our skill sets are poor, our self-care strategies are also going to be poor. If we feel life has been cheating us somehow, we may focus on getting even – and feel fully entitled to do so.
Some bullies have a strong need to be in control and have dominance over others. Others are driven by greed, from a youngster taking someone else’s lunch money or cell phone to a clever corporate monster figuring out how to cheat a whole class of people out of their hard-earned pensions. Some bullies lack the ability to regulate their emotions and out of control feelings lead to out of control behaviors; still others actually get pleasure from creating and observing pain in others (they are dangerous). You don’t have to be a therapist (or a bleeding heart liberal – both descriptions true of me) to realize that all of these reasons have roots in some level of emotional insecurity and/or mental health issues. That there are a variety of reasons for bullying behaviors means that stopping it is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. It means putting the offending behavior into a wider context which takes into account the bully’s individual emotional issues, his or her exposure to less-than-effective parenting styles, negative sibling relationships and cultural/ neighborhood stresses.
Fortunately, many young bullies eventually grow out of those behaviors. With the acquisition of maturity and hindsight (and maybe even a little therapy), they realize how badly they treated people from their past and often come to feel terrible about it. I hear stories of reformed bullies unexpectedly running into their victims years later and choosing to apologize on the spot, with complete sincerity. They then see in the often tearful or still-scared face of their victim the scars born of their cruel behaviors. Bullying indeed can leave life-long scars. Even those who fully recover from their frightening and humiliating experiences still carry emotional scars. And those whose wounds can open up quite suddenly and painfully when triggered again.
To stop bullying, find out what factors are driving the behavior and address those with firm limits, and love. Love the sinner; hate the sin.
David N Hafter, MFT is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist living in Davis.