The public perception of bullying is that bullies are acting out to cover their own fears. They may indeed be afraid, but accepting this as a reason makes bullies sound like victims of their fears — like we’re supposed to feel sorry for them and not hold them responsible for their abusive actions.
The issue is not whether bullies are afraid. Bullies bully other people to feel powerful around them and to feel power over them. Bullies start out feeling like zeroes, like nobodies. When they intimidate, threaten or hurt someone else, then they feel like somebody. The key is the feeling of power.
We often think of the child bully as being male, but the percentage of girls who intimidate their classmates and siblings is increasing dramatically. Bullying doesn’t stop at the end of the school day, either. Whether bullies are at home, at school, or they’re threatening and intimidating other kids on the Internet, they’re going to act out to make themselves feel powerful. Many kids who are bullies at school are bullies at home. The most common victims are their innocent siblings.
What are the consequences of bullying? You may have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when it comes to sexual victimization or assault. PTSD can occur any time people feel they have no control over the way their pain is delivered. They live in fear, not knowing when they’re going to be hurt. Kids who are constantly bullied and not protected will develop symptoms of PTSD — constant anxiety, constant fear, idiosyncratic behaviors to compensate for those feelings. They’ll fall behind in their development.
Dealing with bullies requires holding them strictly accountable for the abusive, hurtful or disrespectful things that they do to feel powerful. They need to practice appropriate ways to feel powerful — using social skills, articulating their feelings, communicating honestly with others and solving problems. Those skills are difficult to develop. It takes work; it’s like learning how to multiply or learning how to add. But it can be done. Holding bullies accountable for inappropriate behavior gives them boundaries and gives them a roadmap for doing that work.
If your child is a bully
If your child starts to exhibit bullying behavior, the first thing to do is realize it’s something you need to address. You can’t kid yourself that it will go away on its own. If adolescent bullies are not stopped, and not taught more appropriate ways to solve problems, they become abusive parents, spouses and bosses. We all feel powerless at times, but there are better ways to deal with that than to abuse other people.
You as the parent have to set a standard: No excuse for abuse. There’s no excuse for cursing someone out, for breaking something, for hitting anyone. The bully always has an excuse, a way to justify this behavior. This justification is so powerful that it takes the place of empathy for the other person. That’s why you have to have a no-excuse standard.
A kid may curse out his sister and say foul things to her and then make up some justification about what she was doing to him — “She went into my room again” or “She wouldn’t get off the computer.” Let the kid tell you the excuse, and then reiterate, “There’s no excuse for abuse.” Don’t shut off communication, but don’t validate the thinking errors that go into the justification of abusive actions. There should be consequences for abuse. Later, you can talk about appropriate ways to handle a problem.
If your child is bullied
If your child is a victim of bullying, it may be because he is the sort of child who has difficulty standing up for himself. Bullies look for easy targets, because that makes them feel powerful. If you can teach a child not to respond to bullying, to walk away, bullies are less likely to press that child.
The most effective strategies for dealing with bullies are “avoid” and “escape.” These are things you can teach your children: Avoid bullies when you can. Walk away from them if they’re in your vicinity. If you’re being bullied and that doesn’t work, you need to get help from somebody who has more power than the bully. You shouldn’t have to fight because somebody else is a bully. Go to someone who has more power than the bully, like the teacher or the police. Teach your child that he has to hold that person responsible. Getting hit in school is still assault, and parents shouldn’t back off if that happens. You want the other kid’s parents down at the police station. You want them to be as uncomfortable as you are.
It hurts to be bullied, and this fact should never be minimized. Teachers, parents and school officials are sometimes inclined to say, “Well, they’re only kids. It happens.” It shouldn’t happen, and it’s adults’ responsibility to provide a healthy environment for our children. The best schools are the ones who develop a zero tolerance for violence and zero tolerance for bullying, and parents should demand that and support it.
At the same time, if your child is experiencing abuse at the hands of another child, ask this question: “What would you find helpful?” Find out what your child would find helpful to improve the situation. Here’s why this is important. If a child is being bullied at school and his parents just take over the situation, then he’s powerless on both ends. Be encouraging, give him a chance to work it out, offer some help and ideas. But also let him know that if it’s still a problem, you’re going to step in and protect him.
The Truth About Bullies by James Lehman, MSW, May 2008, is reprinted with permission from EmpoweringParents.com and Legacy Publishing Company, which brought you The Total Transformation Program. EmpoweringParents.com is an online community and resource for parents offering practical content that addresses child behavior problems.