Disclaimer: Bullying has become a hot topic in our nation due to the extreme behaviors and repercussions that have occurred in recent years. This article is not meant to condone bullying behaviors; instead, it's meant to offer an alternative and more empowering perspective.
Physical harm inflicted on another person is not okay in any circumstance. In addition, to minimize emotional harm and maximize growth, proper emotional supports are recommended for children and adolescents who are experiencing bullying or engaging in bullying behaviors.
Before we jump into the dynamics of peer relationships, let’s talk about the individual child for a moment. I believe, and have witnessed time and time again, that humans are organically and intuitively compelled toward growth and wholeness. This may be challenging to believe or see in our culture because, as adults, we've learned a variety of methods to trick ourselves out of growth, distract away from it, our convince ourselves that we're not worthy.
Children, on the other hand, have not yet learned to limit themselves in this way. Children are constantly seeking experiences that will help them to develop, grow, and become more balanced. It's an amazing capacity, and it's happening across environments.
With the innate wisdom of children in mind, let’s look at the dynamics of bullying. Bullying involves at least two people – in this case two children. One child is engaging in bullying behaviors and one child is the target of those behaviors.
I want to stress here that the perspective of perpetrator and victim is not a helpful one. “Both children in this interaction are looking to fill a need and develop a certain aspect of their personality,” says Bridget Borsdorf, owner and director of The Bridge Center for Play Therapy. By labeling the children as bully and victim, we take away their power. We undermine their wisdom, and we hinder their ability to handle the situation on their own.
So what exactly is being developed, and how? The answer to this question is dependent on the individual child. In general, we can surmise that the child who is being targeted is experiencing feelings of helplessness, inferiority, and inability to take charge. Borsdorf also suggests, “Likely, this child is feeling un-empowered not just in this situation, but in other aspects of his or her life, as well. In engaging with the 'bully,' this child has found a mentor for self-empowerment.”
In essence, being granted permission to handle the situation and engage with the other child, he/she has an opportunity to practice being empowered, standing up for him or herself, and feeling capable of doing so.
The child engaging in the bullying behaviors is likely having the opposite experience. This child may be overly independent and confident, and feel that they too often have to take charge and stand up for themselves. They, similarly, have found a mentor who can teach them to be vulnerable. For them, this process is about learning how to rely more on the support and care of others, and that it’s okay to experience self-doubt or to not be in control.
With this new perspective as a frame of reference, it's easy to see how our current methods of handling bullying are not optimal. Typically, the child who is being targeted will be “rescued” by concerned caregivers, including parents, teachers, or educational administrators. The child engaging in the bullying behaviors will be punished, and likely separated from the other child.
The first child receives the message that she/he really can’t handle the situation, leaving them even more disempowered. The second child receives the message that they are not okay and they do not get to connect…who would want to be friends with a bully, anyway? The original feelings of both children have gotten more intense because of the intervention of well-meaning adults.
Neither child got where they were trying to go, but that does not mean they are going to stop trying. So, again the children will seek mentors and the opportunity to try on new skills, but this time where they seek it will also intensify. We have entered a cycle of disempowerment and disconnection.
So, how can we stop the cycle and empower our children to grow and develop into well-rounded beings?
The first step is to get clear about what it is your child is trying to learn or develop. Once you establish the end goal, you can find additional ways to support the learning process outside of the peer relationship. It's important that this step is done from a place of support, rather than a place of protection. Though the parental instinct is to protect, I suggest giving your child some space to handle the situation independently is going to result in your child ultimately feeling confident and empowered (it may take a little while to get here, so try to have patience).
Genevieve Johnson, therapist at the Bridge Center for Play Therapy encourages the use of modeling healthy boundaries, and teaching your child how to create his/her own boundaries. Though the children in this interaction cannot control the behaviors of the other, they can control their own behaviors.
At any point in time, one of the children may disengage or remove themselves from the situation. Utilizing boundaries will allow the children to engage with one another without becoming overwhelmed or flooded. Keeping the experience at a tolerable level will maximize the growth of the child, and minimize potential distress.
Have compassion for the children on both sides of the situation. Remember, both are trying to become fuller versions of themselves. Have compassion for yourself. Bullying is TRIGGERING. Not only does it hold a lot of weight in our culture, but as a parent or caregiver it's natural to want to take control of the situation and remove children from what you perceive to be an unsafe or unfair experience. Have compassion for the parents or caregivers of the other child as well, as they are likely also feeling protective.
Finally, if the situation is escalating, or just feeling uncomfortable or unmanageable, don’t be afraid to seek support. Outside resources can help the child to process their emotional experience and integrate the learned traits, as well as support parents and caregivers through what may very well be a challenging time.
So, what’s the takeaway from all of this? Is bullying good...?
This perspective is not meant to condone bullying, but to see it from a new, empowered perspective. Instead of labeling children as victims and bullies, can we see them as makers of their own rich experiences? If so, we open up endless possibilities for them to be fully themselves. As a therapist, I know the following to be true: Nothing goes away until it's taught you what you need to know. Let’s learn from the bullying epidemic in our culture, and find a better way to support our youth.