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Bullying (Part 5): Why Do Children Bully?

  • Posted on November 1, 2010 at 3:29 PM

After a few distractions, I’m back to the issue of bullying.  I started with a description of bullying, where I attempted to distinguish between bullying, harassment and abuse.  Then, I discussed boys bullying and girls bullying.  I left off with a thought for bullies, because it is my experience that many bullies are victims themselves.

Now, I would like to explore some of the other reasons for bullying.

Two Basic Reasons

There are two basic reasons children engage in bullying behavior: (1) to buoy the self-esteem of the bully, and (2) to sink the self-esteem of the victim.  These are two different, distinct motives.

Victims of bullying and abuse often need to boost their self-esteem.  There are many ways people attempt to do this.  One way, as I mentioned earlier, is to engage in bullying.  Those surrounding this individual—parents, teachers, other supportive adults, and their own peers—can help this person find productive ways to build self-esteem, and thus eliminate the need to bully.  It’s not always easy, especially when the abusive situations that trigger the need cannot be resolved, but it’s worth the effort.

Not all bullies are like that, though.  Not all bullies are needy children stuck in an unendurable situation they don’t know how to deal with.  Some kids bully for fun.  These people bully not to boost their own self-esteem, but because they like to witness the effects on others’ self-esteem.

In my lay opinion, I consider this behavior pathological.  Perhaps there is already a psychological diagnosis for this kind of behavior, but I suspect our society is too enamored and forgiving regarding bullying for this to be the case.  Disabilities and disorders, after all, are determined on the basis of what society considers normal or acceptable.  If being morally challenged isn’t pathological, why would bullying be so?

America Loves Bullies

The increase in bullying (or, perhaps, the increase in our attention on bullying) has been called “epidemic.”  And part of that epidemic is that bullying is an acceptable pastime in our culture. 

I would say most kids are good kids.  But not all kids are good.  Some kids are bad.  Kids who take pleasure in other peoples’ pain and suffering and inflict pain and suffering for the sake of their own fun are not good kids.  (If this behavior is pathological, however, that “badness” can be addressed and remedied, much like the bad behavior of addicts can be addressed by addressing their addiction.)

And yet we not only tolerate this behavior, there are forces in our culture that actually encourage it.  Bullying is celebrated in television, in movies, in music, in advertisements, in books and short stories and even in news articles.  Bullying pervades our culture.  Adults, kids, corporations, public organizations, and even non-profit organizations and civil rights movements engage in bullying because it works.  Not only does it work—meaning that bullying can help you achieve the results you want—but for those willing to take pleasure in other people’s suffering, it feels good.  It makes you feel powerful.  And that feeling is honest, if not true.  (You are exercising power, but the power wasn’t rightfully yours.)

So, What Can We Do?

For bullies that use this behavior as a coping mechanism, the “solution” is to discover why and to stop it, if possible, while providing the child with other coping mechanisms.  It’s not easy, but it is rather straightforward.

For bullies that use this behavior because they enjoy it or because they perceive bullying as the cultural norm, the “solution” is neither easy nor simple.  Assuming that we’re not going to get these kids in therapy any time soon, we can only do so much.  We can attempt to change the culture.  And that = HARD and LONG-TERM COMMITMENT.  There are those who have been making that effort and investing their time.  I applaud them, especially Bullying Stories.  The recent emphasis in the news is also a good thing, or it could be if less attention was paid to why the victims were bullied (i.e., the implication that bullying = homophobia) and more attention was paid to the fact that the problem isn’t new and that people with many kinds of differences are the victims of bullies.

We also have to be vigilant.  As parents (of the bully or the victim) and as “the village” (i.e., the bystanders), we have to notice bullying and we have to take steps to stop it.  We have to assert that these behaviors are not acceptable.  We have to acknowledge that bullying is not a rite of passage.  We have to allow our minds to acknowledge that bullying, harassment and abuse are different and that none of these behaviors are acceptable.

Next, to “prove” that bullying is not a rite of passage, as some claim, I will demonstrate that bullying continues on into the adult world.  And, as much as I appreciate Joel Burns willingness to speak out, I have to say, sometimes it doesn’t get better as you get older.  Sometimes it gets worse