Bullying–a Cycle of Abuse

Talking to our children about bullying definitely makes it more real, doesn’t it? When we begin to see our kids concern, hear their questions, feel their fear? And how we navigate those tender topics will have a lot to do with how our children respond to the idea, and the reality, of this pervasive form of societal abuse.

Nathaniel and I had an interesting dialogue tonight about bullying, victims, and different kinds of abuse—including one person lying about another, or blaming a victim and why victims of abuse so often remain quiet—how the cycle unfolds and continues to spiral, sometimes out of control. Maybe because he’s entering Middle School next year, and he’s hearing a lot about bullying, he’s sharing some growing concern about the issue. He’s wondering what it looks like, what he’d do, why people act in certain ways, and who’s at fault.

There are so many ways that people bully one another, many being so subtle that it can often take a panel of experts to decide whether certain behavior constitutes. There’s physical bullying—aggressive types of bullying. There are threats to physical safety, threats to emotional or psychological well-being. There is teasing, name-calling, taunting behavior. There is the type of bullying used to belittle someone—to cause them to feel left out, singled out, or hearing untrue rumors about themselves. There are devastating impacts from cyber-bullying these days!  bullying-research-image

Ultimately, bullying means there is a difference, or a perceived difference, in power. When one person seems to have power over another, and uses that power to cause harm—that’s bullying.

I gave an example of one boy bullying another, and the victim doing everything in his power to stop the bullying—talking, practicing compassion, setting boundaries, using defensive force, and even using humor—and eventually needing someone to help him advocate for himself, if the person bullying just won’t stop. Often, even if the kid being bullied gives fair warning, a “bully” will often respond with, “go ahead and tell. I don’t care if I get into trouble,” all the while, possibly feeling “above or beyond” the rules—or subconsciously trying to get the attention he desperately needs. So the kid finally tells an adult—someone who can set more effective boundaries and provide stronger consequences that hopefully make a difference for both kids.

And what does the person bullying do? He blames the victim for being a tattle-tale, a wimp. He externalizes any responsibility (most often, right?) and blames, even when he had every opportunity to change the behavior. And in his mind, this is the truth—it is the fault of the other kid, or the teacher, or the school… but never his—he simply can’t see it. And he convinces others that the other kid is the one at fault, and sometimes (oftentimes) his parents will enable the behavior and belief. And so the cycle goes…

…And children who are not held accountable grow up to be adults who believe they can do no wrong.

And the other kid? Hopefully he has enough emotional support to buoy his belief that he is not the one to blame and that standing up for himself was the right thing to do, and that sometimes we all need support—we need people to advocate for us when there is an imbalance in power. Sadly, this is often not the case—we have way too many kiddos, and subsequently adults who raise more kiddos, who feel safer simply keeping their mouths shut.

Why does this happen? Why don’t victims of such abuse get both the advocacy and the support they need? Similarly, this is a common scenario in adult relationships—both with domestic violence as well as more subtle types of abuse—“bullying.” The following article in Psychology Today mailto:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/in-love-and-war/201311/why-do-we-blame-victims theorizes that it’s against our natural tendency to support the victims of such behavior because we fear letting go of our attachment to the belief that the world is safe. We prefer to believe that bad things happen to bad people, and we get what we deserve.  Holding these beliefs helps us to avoid the vulnerability that would come from true empathy. If bad things happen to people who don’t deserve them, they can happen to us as well.

Now this is an area I’ve struggled—for years, I struggled to acknowledge victims, even myself when I’ve been victimized. In fact, I’ve explored the extremes of this victim pendulum well! After recognizing that I spent much of my life as a victim, I formed a reactive defense, wanting to believe that we each have ultimate control of our lives. It used to really irk me when someone in a “victim position” actually claimed to be a victim, because I wanted them to acknowledge their own power and, therefore, a solution to the problem, because that allowed me to believe “I” was all I needed for solutions to my own problems. Of course this was my own way of avoiding vulnerability.

2121754867_745c975b98_mI continue to explore the balance between victimization and personal power, being a relationship therapist who does a lot of work around our primary issues being systemic and “relational” rather than solely “personal.” I support people in looking not at what their partners are doing wrong, but how they are responding because even when our partners make the worst of mistakes, it is our ability to respond effectively that sets us up for relationship success.

…And that’s another post!

This PT article asserts that our avoidance of vulnerability to others’ suffering comes with a deeper cost—that we are less able to empathize, less able to feel true compassion for others because of our own fear.

I want to add to this theory. If we actually look at the “wrong” that someone has done…. And we look deeply, we also become vulnerable to looking at some reflection of ourselves. Example: If we honestly look at a child who is bullying, we often look at the parents who’ve potentially taught, enabled, and modeled a way of being in the world to that child; we may also look at the school system that hasn’t provided safety, and we can’t help but look at a society that hasn’t provided enough community, support, and love. Ultimately, we look at our part in that society, if we are willing. To acknowledge the entire system that supports bullying—that supports abuse—we must look at ourselves. And that’s really uncomfortable for most of us.

When friends and family remain neutral about abuse or bullying, saying “it was both people at fault,” they deny the needed life lesson of the perpetrator, colluding with him or her, and they also make it less likely that the victim of abuse will reach out for support. This is one form of “enabling.” When we take the easy road, seeing both people as equally culpable, we not only continue to enable abuse, but we support the avoidance of accountability that we each need to hold.

Just to be clear, I am not talking about issues where each person truly holds equal responsibility and both are blaming one another, which can be very confusing. I’m talking about actual abuse—where there is a consistent pattern and a disparity in power; whether physical, sexual, emotional, financial, or psychological—and I’m talking about both children and adults. There is a big difference here in areas where we “claim victimhood,” and where people are truly victims. Both are real. Both are worth our time.

Nathaniel and my discussion ended in the shared belief that it is all of our responsibility to acknowledge where and how abuse and bullying manifest, and to step into the vulnerability of acknowledging our part in it either continuing or ending.

I feel grateful for the privilege of sharing these dialogues with this very wise soul! And I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

For the Love of Your Life!