What makes a bully?
And, more importantly, what can be done about them?
We know bullying is a huge problem. Even the Prime Minister has admitted to having been a target as a boy, and Price Waterhouse Coopers research suggests the problem costs society $2.4 billion per annual school cohort.
The first step in addressing bullying is to realize that we as a society have been unwittingly promoting the view that people are fragile, are in need of constant reassurance, and must be protected against criticisms and so-called microaggressions.
Consider a report on the BBC website which states “A head teacher of a leading primary school has said young children should not have best friends because it could leave others feeling ostracized and hurt.”
Seriously? Children are being taught that their feelings are easily hurt and that they are easily offended and powerless to not be offended. Such thinking becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. This needs to stop.
Malcolm Turnbull might be all smiles on school visits now, but he admits he was bullied during his own school days.
The second step in stamping out verbal bullying is to understand that bullies engage in bullying because of their own feelings of inadequacy and insecurities, despite the outward mask of confidence they wear.
People relate with others in accordance with how they relate to themselves.
Those who genuinely like themselves, not in a narcissistic way, but who can appreciate their own self-worth, genuinely like others and have no need to torment, attack, or harass them. They neither see themselves as inferior nor superior to others.
But this is not true for bullies, whose bullying behaviours are better seen as calls for help.
This is not to excuse any bully’s behaviour, but an understanding of the bully’s primary motivations provides clues on how to reduce their bullying behaviour.
Bullies typically continue their bullying behaviour when they are psychologically rewarded by seeing the fear and anguish in their victims. When these rewards stop, often so does the bullying.
Bullies feed off the targets’ defensive responses. If the bully throws verbal ‘mud’ and it does not stick, they generally move on to an easier target.
The third step is that, in addition to dealing with the bullies’ behaviour, there is also great benefit in helping targets of bullies understand what they can do to prevent themselves from being victims.
Immediately after reading that last sentence, some will protest: “You are blaming the victim” or “But targets shouldn’t have to do anything; it’s the responsibility of the bully to change his or her behaviour.”
The reality is, however, that bullies are generally not responsible people, and due to their own insecurities, are on the lookout for targets to tease and torment, even when there are laws that say they should not.
I am not blaming the targets of bullies.
I merely wish to empower them so that they no longer need to be fearful in the face of verbal attacks and taunts.
It would help kids if they better understood what motivates bullying behaviour and the best way to respond.
What I am suggesting is teaching children some psychological defence skills that will make them psychologically ‘Teflon coated’ and immune to the kind of verbal abuse that often leads on to physical abuse by the bully or even suicide for the bullied.
There are many non-defensive responses that the bully will certainly not find reinforcing. For example, when being teased, a simple and calm response such as, “Oh, why are you telling me that?” or, my personal favorite counter to an insult intended to upset me, “Thanks for that feedback, I’ll give it some thought” can turn the attention back to the bully.
These responses are much like the classic response of, “Is that all you’ve got?” to a flasher: He is quickly deflated.
I must emphasize that my assertion that children can benefit from learning effective skills to prevent themselves from being targets of bullying is in no way meant to replace the much-needed adult interventions aimed at stopping bullies through social and legal avenues or to lessen the culpability of the bully.
The reality is, however, that there are times when adults are not there, or their interventions are not effective.
As such it is an educational imperative to strengthen the inner resources of potential victims.
Of course, the strategies I’ve described don’t come easy to children who have grown up with the mistaken belief that other people’s opinions of them are more important to them than their own opinion of themselves.
A crucial part of any psychosocial self-defence education program will need to focus on helping children find ways to value their opinions of themselves more than the bully’s opinion of them and others’ opinions in general.
Children are more likely to do this when they see the significant adults in their lives model this. Adults, please remember this.
As Albert Einstein once said, “Arrows of hate have been shot at me too, but they never hit me, because somehow they belonged to another world with which I have no connection whatsoever.”
This article was originally published in The Daily Telegraph, 19th March 2018.