October is touted as National Bullying Prevention Month, but what are your plans to stop bullying? As a counselor educator, I’m constantly telling new therapists that making plans to simply stop bullying won’t work. People don’t have the energy for agendas to simply stop a behavior; we need to formulate plans that address what will be done instead of the behavior we want to stop. The goal of eliminating bullying should be met by building self-esteem, appreciation for diversity and kindness toward everyone. Successful plans are proactive, focusing on what a person will do instead of simply planning to not engage in the behavior.
But how can we put an end to bullying? Isn’t it human nature for the strong to pick on the weak? That’s Darwinism, isn’t it? The strong survive and the weak die off, leaving more resources for the strong. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to be?
If you are looking for examples of that, look no further than the animal kingdom. The strong fight and the winner earns mating rights to the top females, producing the strongest offspring. As part of the animal kingdom, shouldn’t our behavior be the same?
If the past is any indication, then yes, I would agree. It seems bullying will always be present. There are always big people hoping to find someone smaller and weaker they can pick on to make themselves feel more important.
There is a lot of research and speculation about the psychology of bullying. Some research supports that bullies tend to be bullied themselves, typically at home. Bullies lash out at others because someone is lashing out at them. They feel powerless to stop it, so they find someone they see as powerless and act out their own victimization.
Other research points to bullies being children who never learned to self-regulate their emotions. They don’t know how to manage anger and frustration constructively, so they frequently act out with aggression.
I agree with these postulates, and I also believe bullying is sometimes related to self-hatred. Bullies often hurt others who remind them of themselves. The bottom line is people who are hurting are the ones who often bully others. When you can look beyond the bullying behavior to the pain and scars underlying that behavior, you can develop some compassion for the bully.
Victims need to be taught to defend themselves, either physically or verbally. They need to develop the confidence to stand up to the bully. Sometimes, they may be hurt, but they are getting hurt anyway. At least they may be able to get some licks in while developing courage and self-esteem in the process. Parents who try to shelter their children from bullies rob them of the opportunity to learn how to defend themselves, an important life skill indeed.
It is also important to engage and educate the bystanders, as well. They often egg on the bully because, if they align themselves with the bully, they believe they are lessening the likelihood that they will be the next victim. Aligning with the victim by standing up to the bully is seen as quite a vulnerable position to take. We need to enact programs targeting the bystanders by developing their ability to protect victims while demonstrating understanding and compassion toward the bullies.
Here’s a take from a Mental Freedom perspective: If everyone involved could learn about their five basic needs and develop a responsible repertoire of ways to meet each of them, then when they were out of sorts, they could identify which need is compromised and take responsibility for satisfying those needs rather than looking to others to do that for them.
I don’t believe anti-bullying programs are the answer because they simply attract the energy of more bullying. Describe and focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want. We need self-esteem and mastery programs to help children understand what they can control and what they can’t. Teach them about their five basic needs and how to develop multiple options for meeting them responsibly. (Responsibly means you get your needs met while not interfering with others meeting theirs.) Once bullies learn how to meet their need for significance without hurting other people, they will continue to choose responsible ways because it’s more satisfying than hurting others to gain significance.
The best way to prevent bullying is by disrupting the generational cycle. Parenting classes could help those parents who are motivated to learn a better way. I remember teaching Choice Theory to a group of administrators of a residential facility for juvenile delinquents. One of them was a proud father who told the group he “whoops” his son when he does wrong. That’s how his daddy raised him and he “turned out fine.” When I asked how his relationship was with his father now, he said, “I hate that son of a bitch!” He decided to change his parenting style in that moment because he realized he was on the same trajectory to have his son hating him in his later years.
Another way to help is to teach children in kindergarten about emotional regulation and delaying gratification. Providing children with a simplified version of Mental Freedom would help them understand their emotions better while developing more responsible behavioral alternatives to bullying. Weaving activities throughout the day that teach children about their self-worth and the worth of others, developing an appreciation of diversity and creating healthy team-building relationships are all approaches that decrease the likelihood of bullying from the inside out. When children are taught to value themselves and others, they will no longer want to bully. In this way, bullying stops even when no one is looking. On those rare events when it happens, bystanders will be more inclined to intervene in a compassionate way toward the bully so the bully stops themselves.
Just because the “strong” have been picking on the “weak” since the beginning of time doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to the fact that it will always be so. Humans couldn’t fly, do heart surgery or build skyscrapers at the beginning of time, but we can now. If we want to stop bullying, it can be done, but the focus needs to be on prevention—eliminating the reasons for bullying—so a child who is likely to bully no longer wants to because they have more meaningful ways to feel significant.