Empower kids not to fear bullies

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 Pricewaterhouse Coopers research suggests the problem costs society $2.4 billion per annual school cohort.

The first step in addressing bullying is to realise 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 ostracised 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 definitely 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 favourite counter to an insult intended to upset me, “Thanks for that feedback, I’ll give it some thought” can turn the attention back on 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 emphasise 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 in particular 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. 

Anthony Dillon

Anthony Dillon, originally from Brisbane resides in Sydney where he works as a researcher at Australian Catholic University and is a noted commentator on Aboriginal affairs with contributions in The Australian and Quadrant Magazine.  More of his writings can be found atwww.anthonydillon.com.au 
Anthony Dillon

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1 Comment on "Empower kids not to fear bullies"

  1. Andrew Russell | 23/03/2018 at 9:35 pm |

    Mr. Dillon,

    An interesting article and one which certainly contains a lot of truth, but you were right to say that some of what you wrote can reasonably be interpreted as victim-blaming. I admit I am not unbaised here; I was a target of extensive school bullying, and so my response is obviously going to be impacted by my experiences. I should also point out that your argument seems deeply conflicted on the idea of individual agency and responsibility; are we all agents or aren’t we? And if, as a society, we agree children lack at least a large portion of this agency/responsibility, why are you attempting to give one bloc of children more agency/responsibility over another?

    Of course the “microaggression” thing is silly, and so is the practice of banning “best friends” for fear of being “exclusionary” (such a practice is LITERALLY found in Ayn Rand’s “Anthem” as one of the biggest sins in their new world… its called “the transgression of preference”). Most bullying, however, is not about “microaggression.” Its about things that range from (actual) harassment (i.e. repeated unwanted communication) to physical violence to coordinated campaigns of social persecution. “Microaggressions” are quite literally micro (hence the term) – bullying is a big deal. A microaggression is something like asking an Australian national of Asian descent “where are you from originally?” which is considered a microaggression because it implies they cannot be “real Australians.” I don’t think this is a big deal at all… at worst its a little presumptuous… but it hardly approaches anything at the level of bullying.

    I guess you could fairly say that PC culture’s focus on ‘microaggressions’ is encouraging people in general to be more sensitive and to lower the bar as what constitutes ‘bullying’. I’d agree with you on that, but I think its obvious that most people see actual ‘bullying’ as a substantial step up from microaggressions. Even the PC-nutcases argue that microaggressions are manifestations of unconscious bias, not a product of malicious intent.

    Secondly, whilst I agree a truly confident person has no need to bully others and that bullying really is the manifestation of a pathetic kind of psychic vampirism, I must really take issue with your “sympathy for the bullies” thing. If we are to presume bullies are making rational (in the economic sense) choices, they bully because they get utility from inflicting suffering and expect to get positive net utility (adjusting for the prospect of punishment) overall. What you propose is basically to treat the bullies as victims too; this is no different to “poor little Johnny became a rapist because he was raped by his mother when he was young and is acting out revenge fantasies against women.” Sure, people can be driven to commit atrocious acts, and mitigating circumstances are a thing, but there is a limit and individual responsibility has to start somewhere. Indeed, why wouldn’t a bully see being coddled, given therapy and asked to talk about why they’re so mean as basically a reward for their actions? Why wouldn’t such therapy become an incentive to bully rather than a cost imposed on bullies? Why shouldn’t we just increase the costs of bullying?

    Of course you may reject the “rational bully” argument and point out that bullies are children and lacking in the ability to make cost-benefit analysis. If you make that argument, then you need to explain why you think bullies lack such capacity and only victims need to be “taught how to not feed bullies.”

    I’m totally fine with empowering the victims of bullying. They should be taught that bullies’ opinions of them are irrelevant and that bullies are broken and pathetic (and frankly inferior) people. They should indeed be helped to be more psychologically independent and less dependent on other people’s evaluations of themselves. But victims of bullies are violating no rights, and their responses to having their rights violated are ones they are entitled to have. An ironic thing is that IF victims of bullies are a more rational and responsible kind of person than bullies are, through claiming that they should change their behaviors to avoid being bullied you’re basically imposing a cost upon them FOR being a better person. Let us combine this with the possibility that bullies might treat receiving therapy as a benefit rather than a cost; if we grant benefits to being a “bad kind of person” and impose costs on being a “good kind of person” then what is the expected result?

    The libertarian view of justice is fundamentally restitutive. It cares about the violation of the rights of the victim. Individual agency matters, and violators are to be made to compensate the victim to the same degree that violators violated the victim. This article’s view of justice seems to be rehabilitative; it sees the “problem” of criminality not as a violation of the rights of individuals, but as a disease which afflicts the violator. Sure, bullying isn’t necessarily a crime, but the point is your article centers the discussion not on restitution for the violated, but on rehabilitation for the violator. I am skeptical of perpetrator-centric approaches to this discussion in general (whether they be punitive or rehabilitative). If someone has been violated or unjustly treated in some way, clearly that should be the central issue of the discussion.

    To give you full credit, you do say that this kind of “don’t react to them” strategy should not be the sole strategy, and that instead it should be effectively one of several tactics used (perhaps as a last resort?) and accompanied by other tactics. You aren’t claiming interventions against bullying should not happen and you aren’t claiming that bullying victims deserve to be bullied. Stopping bullying is frankly a near-impossible task, especially when a lot of bullying allegations are impossible to prove and leave no evidence. In addition, its possible for excessively draconian anti-bullying initiatives to become weaponized against the innocent via the use of false accusations of bullying. If we are to retain a Blackstone’s Ratio approach to sparing the innocent over punishing the guilty, we do have to accept that some bullies will not have costs imposed on them for their behavior. I don’t think the problem of “kids being cruel” can be completely solved; many problems cannot be entirely eliminated even if they may be mitigated.

    But what I can tell you is that the “don’t give them the satisfaction of seeing you hurt” strategy is, for some people, basically impossible to implement. Not to mention certain bullies can be extremely persistent. A lot of bullying goes far beyond some kid shouting “you’re a poopy-head!” at someone else once or twice, but involves a long-term, persistent, premeditated and systematic course of action designed to inflict torment. Expecting a child to be able to not display any sign of reaction at all to this is often expecting too much. And as stated, not only can some bullies be extremely persistent, a lot can detect signs of distress that are subtle, and children try to hide but cannot help but show. Should bullying victims need to develop the kind of acting skills we expect of Academy Award winners? We aren’t talking about “locking your house to avoid burglary” here.

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