A Wider Look at Bullying

BullyingBy 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.

About The Author

Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. ryankelly

    Some bullies have a strong need to be in control and have dominance over others.

    We also need to recognize when adults or the teachers/administration bully kids.  When does discipline or “holding children accountable” cross the line into a form of bullying?  Parents have to just move their kids to a different school, because the system supports it.  I’ve seen this in the juvenile justice system.  It takes someone, usually a judge, to just put a stop to it.  Otherwise, it seems to never end.

  2. Frankly

    to a clever corporate monster figuring out how to cheat a whole class of people out of their hard-earned pensions

    Or a lying monster IRS executive?

    Note that Bernie Madoff was a liberal-Democrat.  Just sayin’

    Back to the article.

    Can we teach coping skills for people to better handle bullies?

    It seems to me that the effort to wipe out bullies is a bit fruitless because, as you point out, bullies come in many shapes and sizes and are generally people with mental or emotional problems or challenges.   We can treat the bullies, but it seems a herding cats to get them to the therapist.  So, why not teach people skills to cope with being bullied?

    My guess… if you could factually survey every human and ask them if they have ever knowingly bullied another, and/or if they every have been bullied by another… few would answer yes to the first, but all would answer yes to the second.

    1. Don Shor

      I never bullied, and I have never been bullied.
      This is a great article. Nothing wrong, of course, with teaching coping skills, but I think it’s important that authority figures (parents, teachers, etc.) all emphasize that bullying won’t be tolerated. When you don’t, it gives the appearance of condoning the behavior.

    2. tribeUSA

      I was bullied a little bit in junior high school by a couple guys. I was small for my age/grade, and would likely have lost a fistfight with them–so the way I handled it was to clown around and laughed with them when they harassed me and called me names (and some of what they said was pretty funny!)–in both cases they got tired of it after a few instances, and didn’t harass me any more; I even got semi-friendly with one of the guys. There was another guy who harassed me in a particular nasty way; I challenged him to a fistfight (set time & place after school), but he never showed up; also he never harassed me any more (though he was about 6 inches taller than me; I was a scrappy little guy but he was so much bigger than me I likely would have come out the worst out of a fight!) At no point did I ever show any fear to the guys that tried to bully me (it may sound like bragging, but I really wasn’t much afraid of any of them; partly because I didn’t take them seriously and partly because I was a rough-house type kid and pretty scrappy).

  3. TrueBlueDevil

    Good article. I think it is tough as bullies operate in the hallways and playgrounds. I know of siblings today who have strained and minimalist relations with older siblings due to bullying behavior. I think testosterone also plays a role, and my gut reaction is that more bullies are male.

    Many of these children also join gangs today by 13, 14, which brings in a whole different can of worms. When I witnessed a security guard brutalize a handcuffed thief, I reported it to management; later, a district supervisor. I did OK for 17, but I should have gone to corporate headquarters or the police department, but I was young. That would put me at risk, which is what children face at school.

    I read somewhere that a person who has been bullied, which has never acknowledged, never get over it. I wonder if that is true.

  4. Napoleon Pig IV

    Very good article! I like the ending comment, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.”

    But, while we root out and end the causes of bullying, a process that is likely to take a while, unfortunately some circumstances suggest that along the way, we must also instill some skill in the bullies’ targets beyond the psychological, emotional and intellectual.

    For example, it’s very helpful for a kid to know how to properly curl a hand into a fist for use in combination with his or her arm, shoulder, and hip, along with some instruction on how to direct said curled hand rapidly to a target that will result in the infliction of significant pain in the bully without breaking any of the would-be victim’s hand bones. Blood and tears from the bully are optional. Oink!

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