“Hey, bullying guy.” I was about to push the exit door on my way out of an inner-city high school. A 6′ 4” man-child towered over me. We were the only two people standing in the long, brightly lit hallway. “Hey, what’s up man,” I responded. He paused, looked at the floor and softly said, “I’ve got one of those stories, too.”
I first asked him what I ask every student: “Is the bullying still going on?” He shook his head no and paused. Even softer than before, he stated, “I wasn’t the one being bullied.” That statement hit me hard. “The things you said back there reminded me of what I did in middle school to a kid,” he said. It pained James to say, “I don’t know why I did it. I guess I just wanted to be cool.”
After presenting reAct to Bullying to over 170 schools and more than 120,000 people, I’ve learned that we often put the majority of focus regarding bully prevention on the bullied student. There’s even been a swell in equipping bystanders with appropriate and effective strategies and tools. Although both are absolutely appropriate, we can’t forget the third actor in this drama – a person who displays bullying behavior.
Where Do Bullies Come From?
Numerous studies conducted over the years have attempted to determine the root cause(s) of bullying. It’s not a uniquely American phenomenon. Bullying exists in every culture and every nation, in varying degrees. In fact, this kind of behavior even extends to the animal kingdom. At its core, bullying is a basic social construct gone haywire.
But why do some individuals become bullies while others do not? The bullies many of us face in school (and later in life) often come about through bullying situations of their own. A 2016 study examining bullying behavior in schools determined that students who are bullies are often bullied themselves.
“Students who are victimized are more likely to exhibit aggressive behaviors towards others,” said study principal investigator Alexandra Hua, from Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York. “This phenomenon may lead to a vicious cycle whereby bullies create bullies out of those they victimize.”
Bully victims are often told to retaliate in kind. However, “just punch the bully in the nose” is poor advice. Dr. Andrew Adesman, Chief of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics at Cohen, notes, “Behaviors may involve retaliatory measures against aggressors, acting aggressive in order to fend off future bullying attempts, or worse, learning by example and engaging in bullying of previously uninvolved peers.” In other words, engaging in similar behavior can sometimes put victims on the path to becoming bullies themselves.
Breaking the Victim/Bully Cycle
Children and teenagers often behave in ways that baffle the adults in their lives. At the center of this behavior is a desire for acceptance by their peers, which sometimes runs counter to what they know to be right. That young man to who stopped to talk to me after my presentation knew in his heart that he’d been unkind. He wanted to fix the damage he had done, but wasn’t sure it if was possible.
I looked him in the eyes. “James, thank you for telling me this,” I said. “It’s weighing heavy on you, huh?” He nodded. I went on, “One of the first things I’ve learned is you are not a bully or a victim your entire life. It was a bad choice — one that you regret. I do need you to do two things for me, though,” I said. Our eyes met. “Number one — now that you know better, will you do better,” I questioned. “And number two,” I put my hand on his shoulder, “whenever you see that boy, can you apologize to him?” He nodded, again, and we hugged.
Permanently affixing a label on a bully, a bullied student, or a bystander can be perilous. Young people tend to live up (or down) to our expectations of them, and labeling them can perpetuate the cycle. We must recognize the need for appropriately supporting everyone, even when it’s difficult. That means teaching victims and bystanders how to react to bullying. It also means guiding bullies to own up to their behavior.
That latter part is perhaps the most difficult. It doesn’t happen overnight, just as bullies aren’t made overnight. But it is an essential part of the process if we are to strive to end bullying among our young people.