Re-examining Bullying: A new approach to helping a bully

Although bullying is not a common phenomenon, it still takes place at school, in the neighborhood and wherever children & young people gather and commune. It is said that bullying happens in all racial and ethnic groups, as well as across all socioeconomic classes. Bullying involves those who bully and those who are bullied. Sometimes, school-goers may experience both. Bullying takes various forms such as verbal abuse, physical harassment, taking away of privileges and rewards, or deprivation of basic rights and needs. Nowadays, bullying takes a virtual form as well, in online chat rooms, in social media sites, and sometimes through e-mails.

Prevalence & challenges

Bullying is easily monitored and controlled at primary school level. Children at this level are more readily frightened by the potential punishment they would receive for bullying from authoritarian adults. However, middle and high school pose a different challenge altogether due to the fact that teenagers are not as intimidated by adults as younger kids.

Teenagers tend to be more defiant and feel that they are equally, if not more powerful than adults. Additionally, middle and high schools tend to be bigger in size and almost always suffer from shortage of human resources (such as student services & support personnel) that could be allocated to pay more attention to the psychological well-being and development of students. In general, most resources are channeled to exam preparation and career development, with very little interest shown in the area of students’ mental health. The aforementioned points may well explain why bullying is a more difficult thing to deal with at middle and high school level.

Traditional approach

Conventional approaches to dealing with bullying have all focused on stopping the incidence through the use varying degrees of punishment. This “fighting fire with fire” approach (as I would call it) has proven to be ineffective for many reasons. As a matter of fact, administering punishment to a bully only reinforces his/her desire to engage in more such unhealthy behaviors.

Typically, if I am hit by someone stronger than myself, instead of hitting him back (knowing that I could never win since I am the weaker of the two), I would be tempted to hit another person who I perceive to be weaker than myself and whom I know would not retaliate. In psychology, this is called displacement, which means unconsciously transferring feelings for one object (perceived as threatening and difficult to defeat) toward another object (perceived as non-threatening and easy to conquer).

This explains why a woman who is mistreated by her husband takes out her anger and disappointments on her children; or a teacher who is humiliated in front of other colleagues by his principal takes out his dissatisfaction and frustration on his innocent students.

Psychological reason

Similarly, in all likelihood, a person who bullies others suffers from being bullied himself. For example, a child who may be bullied at home by his big brother may misplace his anger toward his older brother on other younger kids at school. Since humans learn the best by observing and imitating others (especially people close to them), bullying is learned from others and replicated in different situations.

New approach

Logically, to effectively deal with a bully, one needs to investigate the “true/actual” psychological experiences of the person. If someone bullies because he is being bullied in the first place, then administering punishment would not help the situation at all. What’s needed is a positive intervention to identify and eliminate the bully’s own misfortune and fix his negative psychological experiences that trigger unhealthy responses in the first place.

In this sense, the popular notion that a bully typically does what he does because he wants to get the attention of others and flaunt how bad he is should be RE-EXAMINED. If psychological displacement is indeed an unconscious experience, then a bully does what he does without realizing that he is hurting inside and that he needs someone to help him heal.

Adults (through their training at universities) are taught to “label” deviances as abnormal and treat them as such. The problem is, the moment we label someone a “bully”, we fail to see past the individual’s label. All that we see is the label and not the individual. This is why most psychological and/or educational intervention and treatments are shallow with little or no positive outcomes.

I would emphasize that in dealing with a bully, or any other crisis such as bullying, we MUST see and treat people as humans first, before we see and treat them as whatever it is that we label them (e.g. ADHD, Underachiever, Dyslexic, Bully, etc.). Doing this would allow us to deal with the matter with more humaneness. We would also be able to tackle the matter more realistically, practically and accurately. We often make mistakes in assessment and diagnosis of psychological conditions and behaviors because we choose to see what we want to see. We should stop doing this and start looking at things as they manifest themselves in reality. Otherwise, we would continue selecting and using the wrong tools, techniques, strategies and interventions to fix problems such as bullying. (Note: errors in assessment and diagnosis invariably lead to errors in the choice and application of interventions and treatments.)

Setting them free!

People who bully are actually normal. They just need to realize that a certain part of their behavior is maladaptive. They also need to be helped to become aware of the causes of the maladaptive behavior. Bringing their own hurt/pain/frustrations/anger into awareness and then allowing them to see how these negative experiences affect them and the people being bullied by them would open the eyes and minds of the bully to a truth that they never saw and experience before. They say that the truth would set us free. In this case, a bully, when is fully aware of his inner psychological functioning and how it ought to be monitored and regulated, allows the truth he learns about himself and others TO SET HIM FREE.

I would summarize the process with three simple steps, taken from the 2011 movie, The Chaperone:

  1. Confront it
  2. Be truthful (accept/admit the truth)
  3. Let it go