There has been a lot of talk about the problem of bullying lately. Unfortunately, the problem is not bullying; the problem is our need to control the behaviors and feelings of others. This may result in either bullying or suicide when we are disappointed, so it is definitely a problem which needs to be addressed.
We come into this world with very little, if any understanding. It is the duty of our family to care for our basic physical needs, but also to help prepare us for the world. Real life isn’t always pleasant, so the natural teasing of children becomes on of those subconscious ways adults prepare children. They allow siblings and cousins to toughen one another up, hoping they won’t go too far. Not that I have seen many parents or teachers step in when young children step beyond the line of good-natured teasing, and into full-on bullying. As a pre-school teacher I was taught to “let them work it out unless it becomes physical”. People usually learn better by doing for themselves.
What they are also learning at this stage is expectations. We actively teach young children to share, but we do not teach them how to deal with disappointment. Disappointment hurts our feelings and makes us sad or angry. Even as adults who are supposed to know better, we act on those feeling through aggression. Watch children process disappointment, and you will see the more dominate child overpower (even if only verbally) the other child, establishing a pattern of expectations. Only those who are truly observant will also notice that some of the overpowering is done through manipulation instead of aggression.
We continue to grow and learn from watching the actions of others around us. We not only learn our gender roles, but how to deal with other people. What does Dad and Mom do when they are angered by others? The children are not only watching for actions, but they are listening to words, and not necessarily distinguishing the difference between just spouting off and serious planning. It’s not often a child gets the advantage of explanation, only observation left to their own imaginings.
The other evening while channel-flipping, I caught a conversation between a host and a group of young people covering the topic of bullying. One young lady had been a bully previously because her “boyfriend cheated on her”, so she took out her frustrations on the other girl. This has had me thinking. There is no doubt that I would react physically if another woman got into my face about my husband, but no one would ever hear about how he and I would deal with the situation. I know people have heard me say things to this effect and the awful example that sets horrifies me.
We do not want to seem weak. When we are in a situation that makes us feel threatened we naturally react with a “Fight or Flight” response. We cannot necessarily help this rush of chemical reaction to our un-controlled emotion. We do not always act on it (some theorist suggesting this is the cause of Fibromyalgea and other stress-related illnesses) but it is there in our bodies. Knowing it is not appropriate to do whatever we want in the moment, we let it fester.
Sometimes there are words that we use as our weapons when we feel we cannot use our hands. As adults, we rationalize that we need to express ourselves, even if we cannot do so in the way we most desire. We exhibit some restraint, but it is not enough. We make it through the moment of restraint, only to allow our brains to fester the infringement. Revenge is a dish best served cold?
Let’s go one step further. No longer is the young person watching the adults with whom they regularly interact, but they are also exposed to world events. On 9/12 Americans were ready to go to war. Many of us were willing to face the consequences of a nuclear attack on the Middle East; if you bring your war to US, we will crush you! Although we did go to war, fortunately more rational heads prevailed and there is still a Middle East. But the children still hear the cries of totalitarian oppression.
Young people learn how to bully from too many sources to try to tell them that they should not do so themselves. It is ridiculous to ask our children to do what we cannot. Then how do we fix the current problem of bullies and suicide?
The first thing we have to do is to teach that we have no control over others. We cannot make people think, feel or behave the way we want them too, just because we want them to. Just because we expect people to behave a certain way, does not mean they agree that our expectations falls within the parameters of their acceptability.
This does not mean that we cannot influence others. We have specific standards we choose to uphold. In general, the people we surround ourselves will have compatible standards. When there are variations on those standards, we need to re-evaluate the standard and the relationship. Some standards (how one dresses in public) may be flexible while others (respect) are not.
Currently, we gather people to us for many different reasons including expectations (such as with family) or influence (people we work with). We do not always conform to the same standards, and even when the other person steps over the line, we choose to ignore it. We as individuals may be ignoring it, but the young people see everything. If you support the rights of Gay Americans, then say nothing when “Uncle Bob” is slandering the gay couple next door who just adopted, you are supporting an environment for bullying.
It has nothing to do with the gay couple, and everything to do with upholding your own personal standards, and setting and example for those observing. This volatile situation has the potential to create bullying on either side of the argument, but it is a perfect example of how to handle conflicting beliefs without aggression. Speak on it with respect, but if the other person will not respect your standards, avoid them. Do not allow aggression an opportunity.
Now that our fictional young person has seen hypothetical adult tolerance, how can they apply these principles in their everyday life? In a typical bullying situation, the youth may take on one of several roles:
Most often kids are the third party in a bullying situation. They see what is happening and feel powerless to prevent it. The fact is, getting physically involved can cause them harm. This harm can be from a physical altercation, but more often then not, it is fear that the bully will turn on them that keeps them from getting involved. Each situation must be measured according to it’s own particular needs. The easiest answer is to find an adult to intercede. The hardest answer is to wait it out, then come to the emotional aid of the victim. No matter what, understand that by watching, you are participating.
This is when people should learn the art of shunning. Shunning is more than ignoring, it is pointedly cutting someone off. Do not stand there and watch! Bullying is as much of a show as it is a release. TURN YOUR BACK! Do not walk away, simply turn your back. Whenever the individual doing the bullying approaches you, turn your back on them. Stop talking. Encourage whomever else you are interacting with to do the same. Do not even pretend to be friends with a bully, you are just encouraging them.
If someone you know well is behaving like a bully, discuss it with them. Maybe they don’t realize it, but as their friend it is your duty to help them become better people. If they continue in that behavior, do not socialize with them. By being friends who behave inappropriately, we are approving their behavior. If something is wrong, do not just accept it. Your acceptance perpetuates the attitudes and actions.
Of course, once a person speaks out against something, they may become the target of the bullying. Do not back down! Bullies thrive on the weakness of others. They use their aggression to feel better about themselves. You already know you are a better person for not bullying. Look them in the eye, not with anger and more aggression, but with the pity they deserve. We don’t always know why people behave the way they do, and we cannot control how they react to us, but we can control ourselves and how we will react. Purposely fill your heart and mind with compassion. (Some people can measure the emotions of others. When you allow anger and hurt inside, even if you try to not show it outside, they can use it against you. This does not need to be understood to be applied.)
Most people do not understand the person being bullied actually has more power in the situation than the bully. The bully is looking for a reaction. They either want return aggression so they can fight against those things that are bothering them, or they want to put on a show so they look good in the eyes of their peers (this is why shunning done thoroughly can work exceptionally well, especially if well balanced with rewards). By giving them neither a fight nor a show, you take away the power they thought they had.
This isn’t easy. When someone is hurting you, it’s hard to stand there and let them. If they swing at you, block it if you can, but do not swing back. It grates the nerves to even say that, much less do it, but it’s the person who gets up after being knocked down that people respect, not the person who retaliates. Remove yourself form the situation as soon as possible, and find a safe place to recuperate. Emotional strength is much more difficult to achieve than physical strength.
After the emotion of the moments has passed, and even though it may cause other issues, I recommend walking up to your bully (in a safe environment) and telling him/her you are sorry things have gotten so out of control for them. Don’t make a big deal of it, but by approaching them with compassion, you show not only them and yourself that you are the one with the strength, but everyone else observing will see that as well.
If you are the bully, you are probably not reading this. Bullies are ignorant, if not of themselves in the moment, then of the world in general. We have all had moments in our lives where we have gotten out of control and acted out on someone else. Those of us who are intelligent, take those moments and learn from them, changing our future behavior. At the very least, we make amends in some way. Even abusive partners (one of the most prevalent forms of bullying) do this.
If you are reading this because your child is the bully, you need to stop criticizing them and look at your own behavior. They have learned acceptability form home. Whatever the media may present to them, it is what takes place behind the closed doors of your home that makes the most impact. If you have allowed the media to take over, ignoring the inner workings of your home, you are going to have more difficulty regaining that control.
Ultimately, rather your child is the bully, being bullied, or watching someone being bullied, we all need to stop and look at our behavior. Everything we do teaches others around us! We watch a TV show and laugh about the unacceptable antics of certain housewives, perpetuating more shows of the same caliber; we teach the children that this is acceptable behavior for a few privileged. We all want to be privileged rather we have earned it or not, and children do not understand earning the right to behave differently. Nor do they understand that our comments are criticizing outrageous behavior, but that such behavior produces laughter and interest.
When we interact with our partners and other members of the family, are we giving them our attention, or treating them like they are interrupting our day, venting our frustration in snappish commands and comments? Respecting an adult doesn’t always mean doing it just because they said so, but an adult who expects that form of respect, is only teaching a child how to bully, and that it is acceptable at times. How many times has the news given us examples of cops that bully?
The problem of bullying to the point of suicide has little to do with bullying and more to do with the current state of standards. Why should we expect our young people to behave better than we do ourselves? There are a million solutions to the problem of bullying. I am one, and you are one. So now, what are you going to do about it?