At the Heart of Bullying

by Becki Porter-Harmon, MA, BCC

At the Heart of Bullying

A lot of press and attention has been given to the problem of bullying.  This is rightly so.  The impact of bullying on the victim can range from mild annoyance and stress all the way to PTS (Post-Traumatic Stress).  Some kids handle these situations with more resilience than others, and are able, with support to get through them.  Other young people are more negatively affected by the same type of interactions.

The thing is, there is always a great deal of emphasis placed on helping the recipient of bullying. Again, rightly so!  We want to protect and support anyone in a victim situation.  However, when you think about it; unless we address the needs of the bully, any real inroads into the problem will probably stay at a static place.

The needs of the bully?  I can almost hear the yelling now from offended parents.  Please re-read above before going on, if this statement angers you.  This is not to the exclusion or over-ride of taking care of the victims.  I do offer the thought, though, that bullies are bullies (most of the time) because they have problems that are not being addressed, (again not 100%). There is a problem at the heart of the bully.

Sometimes bullies just out and out bully others, because they have been bullied. Unfortunately, I am talking about often within their families.  They may have abusive parents, or maybe just highly critical parents.  Or they may have parents or siblings who have established a pattern of criticism and making jokes of the bully at the bully’s expense.  Sibling abuse or criticism is often ignored by parents, who don’t realize that in the extreme cases (or just because it is truly upsetting to the victim) this type of relationship can be damaging.  Normal sibling rivalry needs to be in the eyes of whoever is getting the bad end of it, or it needs to be addressed.

Bullies may have low self-esteem, in general.  Sometimes, their home life is structured so that they do not feel that they have any control over or say in their lives. The familial and social situations that they have grown up with may serve to reinforce a sense of self that does not feel effective to the child.  They may get a quick “fix” of self-esteem or power, plus an adrenaline rush – when their intimidating behavior draws attention from a crowd, and produces fear or hurt in the victim.  It works, and so they return to this distorted behavior.

Jealously or a threat to one’s “position” are extremely scary to teenagers.  For those whose ego is already a bit shaky, it may seem that the only line of defense against this untenable situation is to put someone else in a bad light.

There are also bullies whose emotional issues go beyond those described above. Some children have emotional dysregulation problems, due to a variety of behavioral health disorders.  Kids with ADHD sometimes don’t have the impulse control in their differently wired brains (ADHD is a neurological problem we now realize) that allows them to think through the impact of what they might do.  There are other developmental disorders that might cause a child to strike out.  Depression and anxiety in adolescents, in response to the pre-disposing scenarios described above, can show themselves in bullying behavior.

I would never support just “allowing” the bullies of the world to “get away with it”.  The thing is, they are children just like the victims.  Hopefully, society can begin to see that they come to the situation with issues that are the heart of the problem.   I think that parents need to do some radical self-examination, at the first sign of their child being a bully.  NEVER take a “not my child” approach.  It is hard, because parents don’t want to look at what they may have done, or are doing, to contribute to the development of bullying.  It is always a two-way street.  Of course, the best-intentioned parents (which is most parents) may have had no idea.  Do the best thing for your kid’s future and assess the situation. Get help.  Contact the school or wherever the problem is occurring and ask for help, sooner than later. Seek a counselor with experience working with adolescents.   If you didn’t get the chance to prevent, you can now intervene.

Schools and other youth serving organizations need to shift their paradigm a bit.  Identify those potential bullies early, educate the students and families, and offer early intervention help to these kids —- in tandem with support for the victims. These kids need help with self-esteem, empathy, trust, and coping skills – at the very least.  Some of them need higher levels of intervention; including addressing abuse in the home.

If we lower the rate of development of bullying behavior, we lower the rate of those being bullied.  Aiming for the heart of the problem, seems like a win-win for all!

Becki Porter-Harmon, MA, BCC is a clinician with over 35 years of experience, and a Resident for Licensure in Counseling with Center for Pastoral Counseling of VA. She sees clients in McLean, Annandale and Herndon. She invites you to visit her website: to learn more.   For appointments please call: 571-335-5431


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