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Understanding Kids Who Bully

Bullying is a learned behavior. Some people bully in an attempt to feel more powerful. Conversely, people with healthy self-esteem seldom consciously choose to hurt others.
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We are in the midst of an epidemic. One in 7 kids suffer from it. It destroys lives and can have fatal consequences. It's bullying. As a teen therapist in Los Angeles, I work with a diverse, multi-cultural population of clientele. The number of families I work with expressing concern that their children are being bullied is on the rise. As a community, there are things we can all do to decrease the likelihood that children will become bullies.

Bullying is any act that includes ridiculing, taunting, excluding or shaming another person. This can be done directly, as in public humiliation, or indirectly, as in spreading rumors. If you have ever experienced intimidation by a parent, teacher, neighbor, employer or spouse, the feelings evoked were probably ones of helplessness and despair, and/or perhaps anger mixed with a desire for revenge. Bullying victims are often susceptible to feelings of self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. Adolescents are particularly vulnerable to bullying attacks, leading them to question the honesty and safety of future relationships.

We are living in a time during which differing points of view are commonly labeled as right or wrong, good or bad. Perhaps bullying could be understood at as a side effect of seeing countries go to war over religion, or people being judged based on the color of their skin or sexual orientation. When children hear adults talk down to and about others or use intimidation to get others to do what they want, we may be teaching our children to become victims -- or bullies.

Teens, although highly vulnerable to slights, are quick to dish them out. Testing each other and the world, their expressions are often uncensored. When teens witness others responding hostilely toward each other on television or in real life, they are influenced to believe this is appropriate behavior; however, imitating these behaviors disrupts a teen's ability to form close and lasting emotional bonds with others.

At times, teachers, parents, classmates and siblings can all say hurtful things to children. Even families who generally get along well have occasional disagreements. In your relationship with your teenager, it is important to model healthy conflict resolution skills and argue respectfully. The foundation of any respectful argument involves avoiding raising your voice, swearing, and name-calling or pointing your finger in the other person's face. Threats or taunts only escalate tension.

A large part of my work with parents of teenagers involves teaching them to lead by example. I encourage parents to model respect of self and others through appropriately expressing their negative emotions. It is essential for parents to create a safe space for their child to come to them with their problems. To do this, parents need to listen to their children without over-reacting, and then help them learn from their mistakes. During your interactions with your teenager, do you teach respect, compassion and acceptance?

Bullying is a learned behavior. Some people bully in an attempt to feel more powerful. Conversely, people with healthy self-esteem seldom consciously choose to hurt others. If a child is behaving aggressively toward other kids, it is important to try to understand the underlying feelings driving the behavior. How can you as a parent help your child feel better about him/herself such that they don't feel the need to attempt to boost their confidence at someone else's expense? Teaching teens how to slow down and tolerate their negative feelings creates space for them to consider how to respond appropriately. If we can address the underlying pain that causes bullies to lash out, we can ultimately diminish the number of bullies and bullying victims.

Another key to solving the bullying epidemic is for parents to actively teach tolerance of differences. When little Johnnie hits a friend for taking his toy, there is an opportunity to teach about sharing. When bigger Johnnie mocks his classmate's sexual orientation, there is an opportunity to teach about diversity. Everyone is born with different attributes and access to opportunities. Mary may wear glasses. Sam may walk with a limp. Judy may wear second-hand clothes because her single parent struggles to put food on their table. Miguel may talk with an accent.

For parents of bullying victims, know that there will always be people who don't treat your child the way you would like. We live in a world where differences in preference and opinion abound. Teaching your teen self-acceptance and helping them to be comfortable in their own skin is invaluable. Encouraging children to develop a strong sense of self-love enables them to respond in ways that prevent giving bullies satisfaction.

There are also ways to handle insults that can remove their sting. For example, if someone makes a mocking comment about one's clothes, hair, accent or physical features, a viable response could be to simply say: "Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Thank you for sharing yours." The bully is seeking a particular response from their victim, and when they fail to get that response, bullying stops being fun. Unless the bully is pathologically disturbed, simple techniques like using humor or walking away can resolve the situation. Of course, physical violence must be dealt with through adult intervention with the intention of creating a corrective experience (i.e., anger management classes for the bully and emotional support for the victim).
We all need to take a stand to protect the emotional lives of our children; however, use caution against getting caught up in rejecting attitudes toward bullies because this creates more humiliation and shame, a contributing factor behind their pain. Working together, we can find a way for victims and bullies alike to safely get assistance.