Will Your Child Become A Bully?

I was bullied without mercy in my tweens and teenage years. It generally centered on my weight. No need to re-detail it here.  I write about it on this blog. I speak about it to anyone who is interested.

The bullying ranged from fat shaming and other appearance and intellect based taunts, to an actual physical assault. It came from both school- peers and adults. I remember my baseball coach telling to run faster to first base by pretending I was chasing a refrigerator.   I remember the gym teacher taunts about my gut during the dreaded “shirts and skins” dodgeball or basketball sessions.  If I knew there was a shirts and skins gym event scheduled, I sometimes forged my mothers signature on a sick note.

What I don’t write about much, is how I became a bully during my early college years. In particular, my freshman year at Penn State.  It centered around my overpowering desire for acceptance and how I defined the way to gain that acceptance. How I perceived others as defining it.

I bullied my freshman college roommate, “Hawaiian Dan”  without mercy. We called him “Hawaiian Dan” because of the touristy, bright, Hawaii-style shirts he would often wear.  In bullying/fat shaming Dan, I was hoping that doing to him what happened to me  would both gain me acceptance and make me feel better about myself.

Dan was, like me, an overweight quiet, shy kid. He was from San Diego and like me, wanted nothing more than to be included and to make friends.   My response to these similar needs was to call him a “fat pig” and tease him about his loose fitting clothes on his “big body.” I would leave notes on his bunk on how he was not wanted and unworthy to be my roommate.

The irony was that our other two dorm roommates wanted neither of us around. They left me notes on my bed asking me to find another place to live and take Dan with me.  Of course, in my mind it was because I was fat an ugly and the only way they would change their mind is if I showed I was one of them by  treating Dan like they treated me.  Like the kids in high school treated me. Like some adults treated me.

Eventually, Dan’s brother, a much bigger guy than I was, came to the school and confronted me, threatening to beat the hell out of me if I continued to bully his brother.  I stopped. I never apologized to Dan for my behavior and regret that to this day.

A lot has changed since then in terms of awareness but bullying still goes on at all levels of education. Behavior learned. Behavior repeated. A never-ending, damaging cycle to both the bully and the victim unless self-awareness becomes part of the equation to allow us to step back and looks at our behavior, a tall task for a teen wanting acceptance.

That is not to say that every bullied child will grow up to be a bully or suffer the long-term effects. As I constantly stress, correlation is not the same as cause.  We are all unique individuals. Genetics and environment can take one hundred different people going through the same issues in one hundred different directions. However, learned behavior and the need for acceptance can be powerful motivators to bully when the psychological conditions are ripe.

While what happened to me can be an anecdotal cautionary tale in the possible effects of childhood bullying, not all children will respond the way I did. Adults who experience the effects of bullying as a child, self-esteem and awareness have to step in for recovery. Face the past. Analyze it. Discuss it. Learn from it. Allow themselves to be vulnerable. I have been in therapy for over fifteen years doing that very thing. Not only does it lead to recovery from the long term effects of child hood bullying, it can prevent cycles from being repeated.  It starts with teaching our children compassion, empathy and voice.  Compassion and empathy for those who appear to be struggling. For the bullied. For the disabled. For the kids perceived as different in a negative way.  The voice to express empathy in a way that will prop someone up instead of allowing others to tear them down.

How can you stop a bullied child from becoming a bully? Being an expert in only my story, I reached out to Dr. David Henderson PhD. Here is what he had to say:

You can stop a child who has been bullied from becoming a bully by giving them an open invitation to channel their pain in three very important activities that will transform their pain into a greater purpose:

  1. Invite expression: When a child has been bullied, there are a lot of feelings that might surface that they have difficulty articulating. Inviting a child to talk about what hurts and teaching them how to get to the root of that hurt not only empowers them to deal with the bullying itself, it equips them to become emotionally intelligent as adults, able to talk out their feels rather than acting on them. Bullying, at it’s core, is an acting out of deep-seated emotions that can’t be expressed in any other way. Most bullies are not emotionally intelligent. If you want your child to avoid being a bully themselves, teach them the skills necessary to process difficult emotions using language and verbal expression. In the end, this will lead to a stronger sense of self, deeper connections in their relationships, and a security that enables them to manage future challenging relationships in a healthy way.
  2. Invite empathy: Let’s face the fact that hurt people hurt people. When we understand why people do what they do, we will be better able to preempt their hurtful actions by setting healthy boundaries and establishing appropriate responses. Empathy allows us to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand their motivations. What does a bully really want? How is bullying getting them or not getting them what they want? What are the long term consequences of bullying? These are the kinds of questions we can be discussing with our kids. By allowing them to step into the shoes of a bully, we can ask those harder questions and challenge or kids to decide what will be best for them to do, given similar circumstances.
  3. Invite leadership: Bullying is a very primitive form of immediate gratification. If someone feels angry, it’s easy just to lash out. Putting someone else down takes less effort than building yourself up. It makes us feel powerful and in control to “put someone in their place,” but it’s reactive, impulsive, and generally not a sustaining coping skill for dealing with our own insecurities. When our kids are bullied, it reveals insecurities that can be accepted or worked on depending upon what is being revealed. This can actually serve to strengthen a child and push them to accomplish great things. Think of the Bill Gates Steve Jobs of world. When working with children who are wanting to lash out in anger, getting them to value patience, persistence, and hard work as the way to get back at “haters” is key. It’s also important for them to understand that if they are ever going to accomplish anything in life, naysayers and bullies will always stand in their way. Better to get used to it now. As Eric Geiger said, “If you want to make everyone happy, don’t be a leader. Sell ice cream.” This is a valuable lesson for kids to learn early. Parents can instill this mindset by having regular conversations about the best way to react to bullying in their own lives.