Ask anyone you know if they were ever bullied and chances are they will say “yes” - probably without hesitation and often emphatically. Whether you are male or female you probably remember feeling powerless as a child and having someone bully you in the family or more likely at school.
Bullying means different things, and it can range from verbal teasing to physical or sexual abuse. Most people understand that the word bullying means one person making another person feel helpless or inferior in some way. This may take the form of stealing, physical intimidation, or verbal harassment. Bullies often intimidate others through implying a defect in the other person, and this may be done by targeting the victim’s sexuality, economic status, appearance, race, religion, intelligence, or any other characteristic the bully chooses.
The reason bullying is so effective, and the reason most people feel they have been bullied, is that humans need more than anything else to belong to the group. We are social beings, and our very evolution has depended on the ways in which we can communicate and use the group to support us and help us achieve our goals. Feeling you are not accepted in the group can be almost soul-destroying to an adult. That need for acceptance is so much more important to the developing ego, and that is why children and teenagers are very vulnerable to the judgment of others, especially when it comes to exclusion from the group.
So why do people bully? Knowing a bit about the bully can help parents and teachers devise ways of helping children to be protected from bullying. Studies show that both boys and girls can be bullies. Boys tend to bully in physical ways and girls tend to use social exclusion as a weapon to wield power. Power is the core of the bully’s problem. Bullies need to feel important, and they will put down others in order to maintain their own position in the group. They may also enjoy the sadistic pleasure of hurting others, possibly since they have experienced this hurt themselves. Bullies seem to be less capable of feeling the emotions of others or of caring about how their actions affect them. And this again may indicate that they received little empathy themselves.
Parents and teachers need to protect children from bullying, but what is the best way to do that? Is it a good idea to send your child off with the advice to fight back and stand up for herself? Is it a good idea to confront the bully yourself and tell her to leave your child alone? These are often the first reactions of parents. But neither of these reactions will really help a child. Telling a child to go out there and fight back means you are leaving her to her own devices, leaving her unprotected and on the firing line. Fighting the bully yourself may mean your child feels even more helpless.
The best way to help a child is to give him the tools he needs to deal with it. Listening to children is the most important thing a parent or teacher can do. Classrooms and families should be safe places where children can open up about their feelings. If children feel safe they will tell parents and teachers about being bullied. Some children feel humiliated when they are bullied, and so they must trust adults so they can tell what happened to them.
Letting a child know that there is something wrong with the bully is the next most important thing an adult can do. A parent can ask a child a question like this: “Why do you think that little girl keeps hurting other people’s feelings?” or “Why does that boy act so mean? I wonder what’s going on to make him so angry.” Knowing that there is something wrong with the bully and not with you, is very helpful to children.
And finally, adults can let children know that we can use our social skills to help us defeat bullies. Communication with helpful people such as peers and teachers can make a child feel strong, since bullies seek to isolate their victims. Discussion of feelings should be a daily routine not only at home, but in the classroom, since these discussions allow children to expose their feelings, thus preventing a buildup of shame or anger. Many incidents of school violence can be traced back to a feeling of victimization by bullies, and many bullies have been victimized themselves. It’s possible to break this cycle of bullying and talking about feelings with warm and empathic adults is the best way to do it.
Eileen Johnson is the author of The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights, Jason Aronson, Inc.