I could stop at bullying is bad; there’s a difference between bullying, harassment and abuse; and both boys and girls can be bullies, but the bullying behavior doesn’t usually look the same. I could stop there and just move onto bullying in the adult world.
But I can’t really. Bullying is bad. Bullies are behaving badly. But that doesn’t mean that bullies themselves are necessarily bad. Perhaps that seems like an argument in semantics. Perhaps I may come across overly empathetic. But…it’s not, and I’m not.
Semantics: I try not to tell my kids “you’re naughty.” Semantics, perhaps, but I believe it sends the wrong message, especially to literal-minded youngsters. Instead, I say “that’s naughty,” referring to the behavior. I wasn’t raised with that distinction, but I believe in making it. Like any other imperfect parent, sometimes I fail, but that’s not the point. My kids are good kids, and they need to know that. Sometimes my kids do bad things, and they need to know that, too.
It’s more than semantics. The first is a statement of being; whereas, the second is a statement of doing. There is a real difference there, and I believe that this difference can be unconsciously, unintentionally internalized. I can’t prove that. I’m not a psychologist or a sociologist. But I believe if kids grow up hearing they’re bad or naughty all the time, they’re going to believe it so strongly that they become what you said they were (without outside interference). So I do make that distinction.
Overly-Empathetic: I’ve known, both as an adult and as a child, a variety of children who engage in bullying behaviors. Often, if you delve deeply enough, there is something significantly wrong in a child’s life that leads to bullying, though it is not always direct or readily apparent. If you address what’s going wrong in that child’s life, you may be able to stop the bullying—both as a current behavior and as a coping mechanism. In effect, when one child is bullying another, what you’re often seeing are two children who are hurting badly, not just one.
Most kids are good kids—they’re good kids who occasionally do bad things. Bullying is one of the many bad things a child may do. Saying it doesn’t make the bullying any less bad, nor does it make it any less important to stop the bullying. But in order to stop the bullying you often need to understand the whys behind the behavior.
I know a child who used to engage in bullying behavior. It was rather shocking, because this child was young and bullying was not tolerated in the environment in which I interacted with the child. (Yes, I’m being vague to protect the identity of the child.) My first reaction was to try to stomp out the bullying behaviors—and I took a very authoritarian approach to this. The child was young enough for me to pick him up kicking and screaming (literally) in order to discipline him. And I did. His behavior was unacceptable, and he had to know that.
But it didn’t work. The bullying behaviors, along with other unacceptable behaviors, continued. Sometimes the victims would change, but the bullying didn’t stop, because the need for bullying didn’t stop.
The calmer, more rational I got, the more I saw that this was a child in pain. Because of my relationship with this child I was able to get close enough to see that pain and identify the cause (it took years, sadly). The child was being emotionally abused—not in the environment in which I interacted with him, but in his home environment. The child’s negative behaviors were coping mechanisms. He was in pain and his world was unstable. He felt he had no control, and bullying was a means of obtaining some control over his world.
I tried to confront the abuser, but she didn’t see her behavior as abuse. She refused to acknowledge the abuse. I researched parental abuse to see how to report it, and in my research I discovered that the state I lived in does not even acknowledge this kind of behavior as abuse. I talked to as many people as I could, but I could not find a way to make it stop.
Then, I got creative. I could do nothing about the parent. But I had limited access to the child. I could affect him. So, while his mother tore him down, I built him up. I enlisted others to help me. I’m proud to say that he now has a healthy dose of both self-esteem and empathy. He was even brave enough to confront his mother and put a stop to some of the abuse. I’m proud, not of my own cleverness, but of him. He is a good kid, and he knows it. And, yes, sometimes he still does bad things, but he’s not bad and he’s not a bully.
I have seen other kids who engage in bullying behaviors as coping mechanisms. These kids are, in my experience, often bullied, harassed or abused by adults in their life—adults who they should be able to trust, who should be taking care of them, who are hurting them instead. If bullying is all a child knows—or even just what the child knows best—the child is likely to engage in bullying behaviors. And for a few moments out of his or her day that child is going to be the one on top instead of the one being crushed.
I say this not to defend bullying behavior. These behaviors are damaging to the bully and to the victim and they should not be tolerated. But addressing the behaviors requires a willingness to explore the root cause(s) of the behaviors. If we do not, we risk the possibility that we’re ignoring warning signs of a serious situation that will, if not address, create worse problems in the future.
Of course, not all bullies engage in bullying behaviors as a coping mechanism. There are other reasons children engage in bullying behaviors. And that’s something I will cover in my next post.