As kids begin to settle into the school year, the subject of bullying inevitably comes up. Parents, teachers and kids ask me what makes bullies act the way they do. Well, there are competing theories, and I could probably write a whole book about it (just add it to the shelf with the thousands of others on the same subject).
Dan Olweus, chairman of Norway’s Special Group for Research On and Prevention of Bullying and Antisocial Behavior, states, ‘Bullying involves a pattern of repeated aggressive behavior with negative intent, directed from one child to another where there is a power difference.’ In other words, there’s a lot more to it than just ‘boys being boys’ and some shoving on the playground. Indeed, adults, of both genders, can be bullies too. In these cases, bullying can be more subtle and not always obvious or physical. Bullies act the way they do for three basic reasons:
In order to feel “big,” a bully must make others seem “small.” People who are secure have no motivation in this regard. They feel fine as they are, and even if improvement is needed, it’s not accomplished by tearing others down.
People, especially adults, don’t just bully in physical ways. Have you ever noticed the little put-downs from certain people after you do something well? The person putting you down is jealous, and feels insecure about his or her own perceived (or real) lack of accomplishment. In an unhealthy, rather sad way, it ‘helps’ the bully feel better about him- or herself to tear you down a notch or two.
It’s important to see the bullying for what it is, so you don’t go on the defensive. It’s normal and natural to want to defend yourself, but if you do so in this situation, you’ll give the bully the very satisfaction he or she is seeking. Not a good idea!
Some people are hostile in order to gain psychological leverage, or power, over others. “If I cut you down before you cut me down, then I have the upper hand.” It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that assumes that everyone else is out to get you. You treat everyone like an enemy and (surprise, surprise), they all become your enemy.
Sometimes people do this with friends or love relationships. Deep down, they feel that they’re going to be rejected anyway, so they go on the offensive before anyone has a chance to hurt them. Feeling this way, even subconsciously, doesn’t necessarily make it real. In my experience, irrational and unhealthy behavior such as this is what often brings a couple to marriage counseling. Sometimes one or even both parties suffer from this problem; probably starting in childhood, in relationships with parents or other significant adults.
Perhaps others in life have bullied you, and you therefore feel a need—even a justification—to dish out the same to others. Children who are beat up at home (verbally as well as physically) sometimes respond to the abuse by taking it out on others. This may carry over into adulthood. It’s understandable, but not an excuse. Not all (and not even most) victims of physical and/or verbal abuse in childhood grow up to be bullies. In fact, some young people respond to the climate of nastiness in their families by resolving to never be the same way as adults. Why some children from abusive homes take this approach, while others simply repeat the abuse they learned, is a fascinating question.
The worst way to deal with a bully is to appease him. Making excuses for, accommodating, or attempting to reason with the bully gives him psychological visibility and validation that he is somebody and that he’s worthwhile in his capacity as a bully. This leads, in turn, to more bullying.
The best way to deal with a bully is to ignore him. It’s a good approach because it gives him psychological invisibility and invalidation. But if, for whatever reason, you can’t ignore the bully and you must confront him, then, by all means, do so. Be strong, assertive and take care of yourself. If the bully is someone in your personal life, simply tell him or her, ‘This is not acceptable. I don’t talk to people this way and I won’t allow people to talk to me this way. Reason with me, don’t attack me.’ Be prepared to do strong things like hanging up the phone (not in anger, but with a warning); or refuse to talk until civility is restored, or to simply walk away. Remember: Behaviors that you too easily excuse are reinforced and will often return, while behaviors that you refuse to tolerate will tend to stop.
Bullying is not always curable. Though some bullies may want to be cured, it’s not your fault if the bully doesn’t want to change. It’s only your fault if you don’t take care of yourself and don’t respond appropriately. Doing so may be hard and confrontative in the beginning, but you have the power of choice to do so.