Bullying doesn’t magically end when the perpetrator turns 18. Child bullies often become adult bullies, and although their tactics may change with age and money, their cruelty and callousness remain the same.
It’s not hard to find adult bullies; they tend to make their presence and self-importance known. Many people have had experiences with a nasty neighbor, bad boss or conniving co-worker. If you’ve missed these experiences, you have other options to observe the wrath of adult bullies. Go to a youth sporting event and witness the tyrants who loudly criticize the kids’ athleticism, berate other parents or threaten the coaches and game officials. Look into the eyes of a woman whose significant other has browbeaten her into submission. Turn on the nightly news to watch politicians use scare tactics, threats and condemnation to get their way on Capitol Hill.
These bullies are as rotten in adulthood as they were in adolescence. Actually, they may be worse because their bullying has been reinforced by the years of power they gained from it.
Bullies have power
Like it or not, bullies are in a position of power. Recent headlines and personal conversations seem to support this disturbing fact:
- While shaking hands at the end of a football game, my 10-year-old son and his teammates were treated to jeers and name-calling by parents on the opposing team’s side. (My son’s team lost that game. I can’t imagine what these parents would have done if they had won.)
- Several former classmates bared their souls with me as we discussed how bullying and mocking by popular kids made high school a living Hell. Even though they are now successful adults, they won’t attend class reunions because those old wounds still sting.
- I had a “teachable moment” with my daughter and some of her friends regarding the recent suicide of Rebecca Sedwick, a 12-year-old Florida girl who was ruthlessly bullied online by a pack of tween girls. The girls cried when they heard Rebecca’s story, and I was thankful none of them has experienced such treatment; however, I became uneasy when they began to talk about parallels they’d seen in their own middle school.
Anti-bullying programs don’t work
Parents know the sad reality: our children will encounter bullies for the rest of their lives, and they risk a lifetime of victimization unless they learn how to psychologically (and sometimes physically) defend and affirm themselves.
I firmly believe we need to drop the school anti-bullying programs and focus more on mental health and coping skills. Research released just a few weeks ago by the University of Texas, Arlington discovered these anti-bullying programs may be having the opposite of their intended effect and students at these schools are actually more likely to be victims. Lead researcher Seokjin Jeong said the programs may help students learn what a bully does and looks like, which teaches them how to better hide their behaviors.
It’s entitlement and narcissism-on-steroids
Why do kids and adults bully? The old image of the thuggish bully is fading away. Today’s bullies are all about power. Paul Coughlin, the author of “Raising Bully-Proof Kids,” wrote a great editorial that described bullying not as a symptom of low self esteem, but as a consequence of entitlement and narcissism. Bullies believe that they’re superior to others and often view those “beneath” them as being worthless. Their actions toward these “underlings” are rooted in contempt, an emotion far more sinister than garden-variety anger.
Without serious intervention, contempt-fueled kids grow up to be contempt-fueled adults and continue their wrath against neighbors, employees, relationship partners and even children. We don’t call them bullies beyond the age of 18; we use mature-sounding adjectives like aggressive, vindictive, spiteful, mean, confrontational or assertive to describe their behavior, and most people do their best to stay out of their cross-hairs by avoiding conflict, accepting abuse or giving in. Some people live their entire lives like that. Why? From a psychological perspective, it may be that victims develop a case of “learned helplessness” due to past experience. From an emotional and spiritual perspective, it may be that many people never learned coping and assertiveness skills, or they never fully embraced the belief that they deserve to be treated with love and respect. Bullies, from preschool to old school, seek out and exploit these weaknesses in others.
Finding the strength to fight back
I was a victim of bullying during my youth and adulthood. I put up with the treatment because I had perilously low self-esteem and feared confrontation. My only protection came from a way-with-words that enabled me to verbally defend myself at times, but it was of no use when attacks got personal or physical.
All that changed the moment I became a mother. I discovered I had an inner Mama Bear that would defend my children against all threats and wouldn’t back down until the enemy was defeated, and I realized I needed a little bit of that Mama Bear attitude for myself.
Even with my Mama Bear attitude, bullies can still be intimidating. Some may have the power to hurt us physically, socially or financially, but we can’t back down because that only reaffirms their belief in their own superiority and gives them strength to go after others.
There’s a funny reality behind bullies’ strength; they have it only if others give it to them. It’s taken some time, faith and deliberate effort, but I finally reached a point in my life where I don’t give up my strength. I’m emotionally secure in who I am as a person and spiritually secure in what I’m called to do. I regret having so many years without this awareness, and that regret has made me determined to help build and support my children’s inner strength.
Are we raising a generation of sociopaths?
Pop psychology tells us we should have sympathy for people who bully and recognize they are simply “hurt people who are hurting people.” Sorry, I see this view as an excuse for inexcusable behavior and an insult to people like Rebecca Sedwick and her family.
Rebecca’s case should make all of us take a hard look at how we’re raising today’s children. In many ways, our society is creating a new generation of sociopaths because too many parents want to be a likeable friend rather than a loving authority to their children, or they simply abdicate their responsibility because they don’t have the time, energy or desire to be involved.
It’s not difficult to be involved. Pay attention to what your child and her friends are doing on social media, say “no” so they learn they won’t always get what they want, discipline them for unacceptable behavior, have a zero-tolerance policy for cruelty toward others, and cut the technological cord if content on computers or smart phones is hurting them or allowing them to hurt others. Most importantly, teach them about the real value they bring to the world and invest energy in their emotional well-being.
Prevent bullies by eliminating victims
Rebecca’s tormenters will soon be adults, and it will take a little time before we know if Rebecca’s death taught them a life-changing lesson on empathy or if it served to reinforce their belief that cruelty makes them powerful.
I suspect a few of the girls will stay true to their entitled and narcissistic drives and pursue more power. The tactics work, so why would they want to change?
We may not be able to change the bullies, but we can change their pool of potential victims. How? By reaffirming children of all ages that they are worthy of love and respect and by providing them with the emotional and spiritual training the need to recognize their real strength and value.
We’ve got to change something – soon.