Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Bully-Victim Spectrum


flickr CC image via Eddie~S

We spend too much time dealing ineffectively with bullies and not enough working proactively with victims, understanding that all bullies were first victims.

Hurt people, hurt people. I've heard this quote attributed to many. It doesn't even matter to me who claims these words of wisdom because they are so painfully true. I have worked with countless kids who have been characterized as bullies. The first question I used to ask them after they had hurt someone is why they did it. Their answers were very predictable. Defensive and seasoned bullies would tell me it was the victim's fault, that the victim had it coming or simply deny doing anything wrong, but the other answer I heard allot was confusing to me. Sometimes kids would tell me they didn't know why they did it. I wasn't sure how to analyze this response. It bothered me a bit that perhaps they could be telling me the truth; they actually didn't know why they were committing acts of bullying.

The more I heard this response over time from kids who had treated others badly, the more I believed them. I began to understand that their behavior was wrong and damaging to others to be sure, but that there were variables contributing to it that I did not understand. I wondered about whether trying to find out what variables were affecting the way these bullies behaved might help them understand their own behavior. I started to develop a perception that the first victim impact statement should be given to the bully, because there is a victim behind every single one of them.

I'm not trying to excuse bullies from their hurtful behavior, but it strikes me that they have always been a part of society, and I don't think they're going away any time soon. All of our attempts to stop bullying in its tracks have been unsuccessful. Every day we hear horrible stories about how bullies have inflicted physical and emotional pain on their victims. We are not winning the battle against bullying. Perhaps this is true because we aren't looking at the problem the right way.

I suggest that instead of asking bullies why they did what they did, we ask them a slightly different question. After hearing hundreds of bullies tell me they didn't know why they did what they did, I decided to re-frame my question to reflect the theory that hurt people hurt people. I started asking them this question... "what has made you feel so bad in your life that you feel someone else needs to share your pain?" The result was amazing and heart-wrenching. When I asked bullies this question, the vast majority didn't respond verbally at all; they just started crying.

Behind every bully is first a victim, and we need to learn victim's stories if we are to understand their victim - turned - bully behavior. Once we have this insight we can begin to help victims heal; to deal with their pain so they aren't inclined to inflict pain on others.

We spend too much time dealing with bullies, and not enough time supporting victims. I have yet to meet even one child who entered the world wanting to hurt people.

Behind every bully is a victim with a story. If you want to break the bullying cycle, learn this story.

8 comments:

  1. loving this post. just finished a classroom lesson with 5th graders and we talked about much of the above....

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  2. Oh, I so totally agree!! I have worked with kids for over 20 years now. Hurt people DO hurt other people. You are so right. I actually wrote an article two days ago, looking at this from the perspective of the Early Childhood parent. How can we STOP our kids from becoming the bully? There are ways! Here is my post, if anyone is interested: http://www.examiner.com/x-22404-Rim-Country-Early-Childhood-Examiner~y2010m3d28-Bullying-Cyberbullying-and-Suicide-what-can-you-do

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  3. Powerful stuff, Sean. Very powerful. My favorite part was how you changed the question you asked them.

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  4. The re-framing process is powerful for sure... an inducer of integrative thinking leading to new paradigms, perspectives

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  5. I am a student in a Masters program and our lesson this week was on this topic. My comment to the class was that anger needs a victim. It is not an emotions that makes us feel in such a way that we don't want to get rid it. When a child is angry, and either doesn't know the cause or is afraid to direct that anger at the sorce... it must be directed as someone else we feel is weaker than ourselves. This transference in no way makes the pain they feel go away - but it gives them a bit of their self-esteen back in knowing there is someone weaker than they are.

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  6. I'm not sure what you mean by, "It is not an emotions that makes us feel in such a way that we don't want to get rid it." I would say, however, that I agree with your asessment that bullies are reacting to a known, or perhaps unknown root cause of their own pain when they target others, and of course those who aren't necessarily inclined to resist.

    I would debate that it isn't self-esteem they are after when they do this though, but rather that they intned consciously or unconciously for another or others to feel as bad as they do... to share their pain.

    Thanks so much for your reply... love to know more aobut your Masters program, and feel free to read some more!

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  7. I have a seven year old son who is/was labeled as a "bully" at school. As his mother I had to admit to myself and my husband also that he was a bully at a very tender age starting at four. After a lot of talking to my son (almost a year) it finally came out one night before bed - he was bullied by another child in preschool a few times and this was very deep rooted within him and still is. My husband and I have worked hard to have our son understand that this type of behavior has consequences and although we are on a path of recovery for him it still is deep rooted in him and a lot of times he wants to lash out at a child especially someone younger and/or smaller. If he feels he has been hurt or slighted by someone. He is on the spectrum but very high level. There are many reasons my son has given me for why he acted a certain way bulling/disrespectful etc. Its an act of getting even "well the child that was bigger than me picked on me so I have to pick on someone" A sense of power which one could say "self-esteem" sure I agree with that, afraid to direct their anger at the source, possible but when my son was upset he would let the person who upset him know he was upset with them and why? My real point here is schools/communities etc. are spending a lot of time and resources on tell if your being bullied, stop a bully in their tracks etc. Which is good but the source of the bullying the child/adult what is done for them in this whole situation? The are reprimanded,punished, spoken to etc.
    The part I think is missing - who is going to help the child that does the bulling? I haven't really seen a plan for that...My son is very lucky, although some days he doesn't think that but I hope later in life he will. He has loving parents and a school system that is trying to help us help him as well as outside sources we have used and we're blessed to have some personal resources to help us. But many times I ask myself...who is going to help that bully - the wounded child? Especially when that child doesn't have a solid or strong support system?? We need to pour resources into helping the bullies also not just hang posters in schools and other places that teach our children how to react to bullying. We need to find a good solid way to understand the bully, help them understand themselves and why they act that way and when that is done we'll all be better off.
    It is true, Hurt people DO hurt other people

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  8. Yes, I agree with you. That is the spirit in which this post was written. In my school we focus on empathy to address bullies, the bullied and also bystanders. We believe that there is a "story behind every story," and that we must learn it to truly have insight into why kids bully, and why victims are chosen.
    We have come to the conclusion that empathy is most often the missing link for bullies (formerly know as victims as this post proposes) is a lack of empathy, caused, at least in part, by a past that included ill treatment toward them as in the case of your son.
    Please check out http://www.empathyreboot.org/ for stories about how we are addressing bullies (aka victims) at our school... staff, students, parents and everyone else associated with our school.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. Appreciated.

    ReplyDelete

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