Bullying, Part I: There’s More to a Bully Than Meets the Eye

Originally posted Sept. 1, 2008

Noah’s first encounter with a bully happened while he was still in diapers, when another two-year-old shoved him off his sunny perch atop a little-tykes picnic table. A stunned Noah retaliated with a toothy bite to the other boy’s leg and a stunned me fretted that my son was being bullied by a baby-thug – and becoming one himself.

No one likes a bully. But you know what? Chances are pretty good that the bully knows this, and feels the same. Serves him right, you say? If all you’re concerned about is keeping your children away from ‘the big, bad bully,’ I have news for you: you’re part of the problem, not the solution.

There’s more to a bully than meets the eye. I really bristle at the word “bully” as I try to imagine his story. Sometimes kids bully because they have a deep need for belonging but lack the social skills to successfully cultivate friendships. They aren’t born to bully, but develop that tough exterior in response to and in defense against how they are treated. If you’re the parent of a bully’s target, however, it makes sense that appreciating this would be difficult. But consider that there might be a world of pain behind those fists and that name-calling. You know the one about the guy who comes home from a day of working for a tyrant and kicks the dog? The same thing applies here. When a person feels a lack of control in one area of his life he sometimes compensates by over-controlling in other areas. It’s actually an interesting survival mechanism, an unconscious way of creating balance. Think of bullying behavior as a symptom or flag, an unconscious S.O.S. for help.

We typically think of bullies as thugs who intimidate little kids ’til they surrender their lunch money or trip them up as they walk home from school, but the thugs aren’t always boys – or even children. We’ve all seen shocking videos of high school girls literally attacking other girls. And who can forget the tragic case of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier who committed suicide after a period of cyber-bullying perpetrated by an adult who posed as a teenaged boy on-line? Being the target of chronic bullying can lead to depression, anxiety, school avoidance, declining grades and to other devastating conclusions, according to campus shooters who, in suicide notes, point to bullying as a factor in their undoing. Such was the case of Cho Seung Hui, who perpetrated the Virginia Tech massacre that left 33 dead.

Did you know that roughly 25% of American school children report being bullied and that 20% acknowledge doing the bullying (source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services)? Bullying is a serious public health issue. As parents we can help to stem the bullying tide. Understand that extremely permissive parenting can allow bullying tendencies to flower, and recognize that the opposite extreme is of equal concern: stop being a bully yourself. When you’re rude to a waiter or gossip about a neighbor, creating an environment where she is excluded, do you think your kids don’t notice? Bullying often starts at home. If children grow up in hostile family environments, where they see a power imbalance exploited to intimidate or harm another, they can learn to become victims or perpetrators of hostility themselves. If this sounds like your family, consider this: do you really want your daughter to grow up believing that it’s ever okay for her to be treated with hostility or to demean another person?

A few years after the baby-bully incident, Noah came face to face with the real deal. Two weeks into Kindergarten he encountered a much larger Kindergartener on the school bus who was a year older than he and who gave him an overzealous noogie and then repeatedly slammed his head into the seat in front of him. This, according to a Mom riding the bus who’d seen the incident unfold. She said she was too shocked to intervene, was unwilling to report the incident because of her friendship with his parents, and only mentioned it to me out of concern for why Noah didn’t stand up for himself.

That he never even told me blew me away. Not a peep. I cried buckets.

Sometimes kids don’t tell for fear of retaliation from the bully, or fear that they will be perceived as cry-babies. I spoke up, however, and expressed that while I expected consequences for the boy, it mattered as much that someone figure out why it happened to begin with.

Once a bullying crisis passes, be careful not to foreclose on the possibility that your child and the bully might become friendly, if not friends. As for Noah and his baby-bully, they developed into preschool pals. The kid from the bus actually came over to apologize, and he and Noah ended up playing in the backyard while his Mom and I chatted nearby.

Teach your kids strategies for dealing with bullies (see tips below), but be part of the solution and model for them the most important things of all: respect for others and compassion for those who bully. It’s okay to teach forgiveness and grace while you set limits and protect your kids.

Tips for Parents

Insist that your school creates and follows through on their bullying and harassment policies, and suggest that supervision be beefed up in known bullying ‘hotspots’ like lunchrooms, bathrooms and school busses

Remind children that stopping to stare when they see bullying in progress just adds fuel to the fire. Without an audience of bystanders many bully-dramas fizzle out. Teach children to report bullying behavior, and make sure they know the difference between telling and tattling.

If your child is bullied, coach him to walk away from a bully’s taunts. Though it may seem unrealistic, role-play how your child might respond. Teach him to firmly say “Please stop, you’re hurting me / my feelings.” Sometimes this stops a bully in his tracks.

Kids are less vulnerable to bullying if they develop friendships and use the buddy system. Encourage them to befriend kids who get picked on, too.

Most important, make sure children understand that bullying isn’t their fault

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