Understanding Bullying

By Dr David Laing Dawson

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Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Rather than write about how bad it is and how something punitive must be done, I thought I would put some thoughts together that might help understand bullying and thus might lead to effective means of reducing it on our school yards.

1. We are (mostly) dealing with children and teenagers.


Recently I saw a nine year old boy with moderate to severe ADHD (emphasis on the H). This otherwise quite charming, bright, athletic boy was spinning, twisting in his chair, constantly moving his legs, his arms, his eyes. Whatever came to mind he said, blurted out in fact. He lacked an inhibitory filter. This caused him trouble at school. He could blurt out mean comments. His mother, with a worried look, said the boy’s teacher had wondered if he lacked empathy for others.

The connection with bullying in my mind is not this boy’s behaviour, but rather the teacher’s observation, which, along with many other comments I have heard (such as a current belief in some circles that a teacher should never say No to a child) suggests to me that part of the problem here is that collectively we do not understand the developmental limitations of the brains of children and teenagers. Or, for many, we are still stuck in that Victorian era when kids were thought of as little adults.

My point being that expecting this thing we call empathy from a 9 year old, or even a 15 year old for that matter, is premature. And this lack of understanding leads to the belief that children and teens, taught good moral reasoning, will behave well, will not hurt others, will not do bad things, will always choose the right thing to do.

They still teach Lord of the Flies in school I believe. Some teachers should read it themselves.

Empathy for others is something we develop gradually, slowly, through adolescence and adulthood, and even then, as adults, we can lose it in times of heat and stress.

Do not expect empathy for others from children and teens. An instinctive response to protect small furry creatures, yes. The learning of social etiquette in order to fit in, yes. Occasional heart warming displays of kindness, of sharing, yes. An instinctive response to defend or protect other members of the same group, yes. Marching for a good cause as a positive manner of expressing a natural oppositional attitude, yes. But not empathy. Not yet.

2. Membership, status, self-worth

We humans, as young primates, instinctively seek membership, and status within that membership. Or as many male teens would say, “respect.” And by membership I mean some form of peer membership. It has been fascinating to observe over the years just how strong that need is in young adolescents, the need to fit in, to be accepted, and the fear of being rejected by a peer group.

Membership implies some sort of inclusion and exclusion criteria, some sort of agreed set of values, some kind of guideline for acceptable behaviour. And that peer group can be a club, a sports team, the school band, or just a small amorphous group who hang out together. Today, of course, it can be a virtual peer group, present only on a screen.

The teen girl lies in bed at night pinging/texting inanities back and forth with her BFFs, and then checks the number of Likes she gets on her Snapchat upload, before being confident enough to go to school the next day. The teen boy expresses his expectations of the members of his group in gang and prison talk, absorbed from television and Youtube: respect, loyalty, and harsh punishment.

Membership implies exclusion, the exclusion of those not worthy of membership. In fact exclusion of others clarifies one’s membership.

Many teen memberships/groupings are healthy: music groups, dance, sports teams, chess club…..supervised, skill and confidence building activities. Some teen groupings are informal, the crowd they hang out with for example, and the rules of membership and the expectations are unspoken but do exist, and can easily become distorted.

Some teen memberships are mostly imaginary. And today some can be part imaginary and part virtual.

What I am trying to point out here is that the act of discriminating against, of actively excluding someone is part of the way adolescents instinctively demonstrate membership. This membership can be simply member of the soccer team while others don’t make the cut. But it can also be a mostly imaginary membership in a “tough guys club” requiring, to reinforce this membership, the active exclusion of others.

I suppose one could go on with this line of thought, and propose that the need for this membership plus the need for status within this membership, is the foundation for racism and white supremacy groups.

But for this topic, it is sufficient, I think, to point out that the seeking of, the need for membership is instinctive. And such membership requires exclusion of others. And the active exclusion of others can enhance a feeling of membership/status. And the simplest way of excluding others from one’s imagined group of superior beings is to label them, call them names, tease and taunt them. A certain president (mental age about 14) does this every day.

3. Cruelty

In the late 1960’s I participated in group exercises that were a mild version of the Stanford guard/prisoner experiments. In an ordinary training space we were paired off for role playing in which one of the pair would be a guard with absolute power, the other a prisoner who badly wanted something. There were too many variables to draw any scientific conclusions, but… But what I think was the most telling result of this role playing was that each “guard” found within him or herself, a capacity for cruelty. As the prisoner grovelled and begged, the participant playing guard experienced a growing disdain that began to evolve into disgust. We did not continue the experiment long enough to find if any of us were capable of acts of actual cruelty, but we each found within ourselves the potential for just that.

It is also pretty clear from observation that bullies choose victims from whom they get a response, a reaction, a reaction of anger, hurt, fear, tears, perhaps pleading. And then they may re-enact the taunting from an increasing feeling of disdain, disgust, and then from the immediate satisfaction of excluding this victim from the imagined group the teen boy belongs to. (men among men, tough guys club, gang…..) And as teenage girls and boys without supervision they can quickly find their potential for cruelty.

So we needn’t be horrified to find a certain lack of empathy in our teenagers, and we shouldn’t be horrified to discover these human children and teenagers have the capacity for cruelty.

All teenagers need to find, to develop, membership in a peer group. If they don’t find such membership in healthy real supervised groupings they may find it in informal groups brought together by an unhealthy interest, and/or in imaginary groups and/or part imaginary and part virtual membership, or groups simply defined by their exclusiveness.

So this means adults, parents, teachers, and the school system should work hard to ensure each and every teenager feels they are members of some real and healthy grouping. And this means that we need to spend money and resources in extra curricular activity, and that having a Pokemon or Dr. Who club is as important as having a soccer team or school band. Every teen needs to be able to define him or herself as a member of, and having status within, a club, team, pro-social grouping without resorting to imaginary membership in a tough guys club or a master race.

There will always be kids that have something about them that sets them apart from their peers, and who also react badly to teasing and taunting. They are natural targets of bullying. (I am not blaming the victim here, just analyzing the reality) Their reactions can unleash the nascent cruelty of their attackers. (see guard/prisoner experiments)

In the best of teen worlds these kids are protected by peers who are stronger, and more secure in themselves and their memberships.

So, to reduce bullying, apart from surveillance, alertness, sanctions and punishment, we need to:

1. Ensure every teenager achieves some form of membership in some kind of pro-social real group, preferably supervised.

2. Make, however laws and regulations and common sense allow, successful teenagers within the school system responsible for the protection of the vulnerable.

Years ago a deaf boy joined my son’s hockey team. My son was assigned the task of looking after him on the ice, partnering him, guiding and protecting. This left him little chance of showing off to the (imagined) NHL scouts.

I was very proud.

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