General Parenting Issues — 17 February 2004
How to deal with bullying behavior

Bullying is the act of emotional, physical or sexual intimidation that renders the victim defenseless. This behavior often begins in childhood and unless altered by intervention, continues throughout adulthood. This abusive behavior causes grave harm to many children in school and to many partners in relationships.

There is a worldwide effort by psychologists and educators to understand the causes of bullying behavior so it can be reduced and ultimately eliminated. The permanent trauma inflicted on a child victim as well as the damage done to the bully is known to have a detrimental lifelong impact.

Dr. Swearer, a U.S. researcher found in 2003 that among a group of 469 middle school children 8% of children were bullies, 35% were victims, 23% were bully-victims, (both bullies and bullied), 22% were bystanders and 12% were not involved. She showed that the majority of school children are involved in the damage inflicted by bullying behavior.

In Spain and Netherlands researchers found similar rates of bullying in the peak years between the ages of 11-14. It included verbal abuse, physical violence, theft and social isolation.

Australian research found that the rate of bullying was similar for both boys and girls, although the style of bullying was different. Boys were more likely to show direct aggression, while girls chose vindictive gossip, spreading rumors, criticism of appearance, and blatant exclusion and isolation of their victims.

Several American programs such as the Bullying Prevention Program developed by Olweus and Limber (1998) and Bully Busters by Newman and others (2000) have shown that a school wide use of these programs can reduce bullying by 50%.

Finnish psychologists found that among 10-year-old children, who generated aggressive solutions to imaginary frustrating situations, none were able to control their angry outbursts by adolescence. Negative view of other people’s motivations produced hostile, abusive conduct.

Sadly, some of the bullying behavior continues to adulthood and negatively impacts relationships. In couples, the manifestation of bullying behavior may range from angry, hostile, rageful and controlling outbursts, to coercion, intimidation, threats and shaming techniques. All of these abusive ways damage the sense of safety necessary for a healthy relationship.

The recipients of bullying behavior are able to deflect blame, if they recognize that the tantrums are symptoms of the aberrant behavior of the bullies. Yet, the partners of bullies report feeling fear, intimidation, humiliation and immobilization at the time of the abuse. They attempt unsuccessfully, to identify the triggers of the bullying conduct, only to realize that these are unpredictable reactions of the bully to his or her internal cues.

Bullies often ascribe ill intent to others. They perceive an assault to their self-esteem and react in an aggressive way to “regain” their self-worth. They view the world as a place in which the powerful people win and victims lose. Since the bullies are very fearful of becoming victims, they strike first for dominance.

When bullies doubt their lovability they become insecure and resort to accusatory, demeaning and controlling tactics to acquire power.

A man who doubted his appeal tended to accuse his wife of being attracted to other men. He questioned her for hours, at times, about her whereabouts and contact with males. Her disavowing any interest in other men only further enraged him. He did not stop his abuse until she cowered in the corner in hysterical sobs. This scene was a recurring trauma for this couple.

Bullying may take the form of intimidation, demand for certain admissions of guilt, discounting depiction of the partner, and even threats and blackmail. “If you don’t admit that it is all your fault, I will walk out this door and you will never see me again” was a theme for another couple. The bullying woman, who spoke these words, could not take responsibility for any wrongdoing on her part.

It is painful to even recite these torturous examples, let alone live them. There are people who experience this abuse and find it hard to extricate themselves from the relationship. The bully creates a belief that the victim is the cause of his or her behavior. Since it is repeated frequently enough, the victim may begin to doubt his or her reality.

Very often bullying behavior is reserved for the couple only and family and friends are unaware of its’ occurrence. The victim is often too afraid to tell anyone about it for fear of reprisal by the bully and out of shame. As the circle of support narrows, the victim suffers in silence. This isolation is part of the defenseless position of the victim, who continues to lose all protective powers.

In families where bullying of a partner and or the children occurs, the cycle of bullying gets instituted as the norm. Children who are modeled this conduct may begin to practice it themselves at an early age and become angry bullying adolescents and adults.

Bullying is an unacceptable conduct with grave consequences to individuals and society. It must be dealt with early and constructively.

  • Young bullies must be taught non-aggressive alternatives for problem solving.
  • Bullies have to be re-oriented to interpret others’ intentions as neutral or positive.
  • Children must be taught the difference between assertive (confident self-protection) and aggressive conduct (use of verbal or physical force to inflict harm).
  •  Self-esteem and confidence building programs must supplement education in schools.
  • Partners in a bullying relationship need to seek appropriate help, (such as anger management, dealing with childhood issues, etc.) by a counselor specializing in these problems.
  • Adult partners must NEVER tolerate ongoing bullying of any kind. If a demand for change in the bully’s behavior is not honored, the victim must exit the relationship. Tolerated abuse only reinforces the conduct and may cause it to escalate.
  • People who were raised by bullies can reverse the damage to themselves and their children by practicing and teaching respect and love toward others.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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