Wounded people wound people.
There’s been some local news about bullying in a school recently. I did not see the (now deleted) video shown on social media but those who did described what many would actually call assault.
The ‘bully’ was given a 3 day suspension and there are calls for bullying to be criminalised. Understandably parents are very concerned and angry.
But I think we need to stop for a minute and consider what is happening.
Do you believe that a happy, well rounded individual, who feels loved and wanted, bullies or attacks others?
Or is it a case that the bully is behaving in such an awful way because they are living a life where they are missing love, connection and true happiness?
I saw this video exploring bullying, including the experience of a self confessed bully.
We need to go back to the neuroscience to understand the developing brain, which is not fully mature until around 25 years old, and what happens to it when it experiences adversity during childhood with no strong adult buffers to help it build resilience.
Perhaps the person being attacked provoked the bully? Maybe the bully’s trauma bucket was full and the provoker over stepped the line? This would cause the bully to flip their lid!
Maybe the bully saw another child seeming to have it all, everything they don’t have. Loving parents, nice clothes, friends...
Do we really think that othering the bully, punishing them, telling them they are bad is going to make them decide to not behave in such an unsocial way?
Do we really think that a teenager has any control over their autonomic nervous system? That they can override the fight/flight/freeze reaction that happens when under duress? If they are facing adversity their immature brain is unable to regulate. They get stuck in fight/flight mode. A teen with a propensity to go into fight is going to find that even someone looking at them in a way they perceive as ‘wrong’ triggers them into defence, lashing out verbally and/or physically as first line of defence.
If they are facing neglect, abuse or simply disconnection they will feel that they are not important, not worthy. They might have a feeling that they are bad.
Punishment by school, police, or the community is only going to reinforce the message they are already internalising, that they are bad, unwanted, in danger, with no-one caring. They will react aggressively and be looking for ways to dull their pain. Substances, inappropriate relationships, over eating, compulsive purchasing and more.
Wounded People wound people
In this fascinating talk, What Makes a Bully, Gordon Neufeld confirms that giving consequences for bullying is akin to “pouring gasoline on fire.” I encourage you to put aside an hour of your time to listen to the entire video (I listened while doing my ironing!).
Putting it very simply, inherent in human beings is the drive to care for others (dominance) but also to be cared for (dependence). Caring for others uses the alpha instinct (to take control) coupled with a caring instinct (use that control to care for another). Individuals wounded in a way that removes the caring instinct from the alpha instinct will end up with a deep seated instinct to dominate those seen as weak.
So when someone is bullying another, even so far as assaulting them, we need to ensure that they know this is unacceptable behaviour, of course. But if we don’t back this up with finding out what support they need we let them down, and we let those who are bullied down. Because the bully’s behaviour won’t change.
Instead of calling for criminalisation we should be tackling bullying through an attachment lens. This is a public health requirement. I don’t profess to know the answers to how we make a difference for those who find themselves attacking others in a misguided attempt to make themselves feel better, to be in control, to be dominant. I refer you back to Gordon Neufeld in the video I shared. He says it‘s quite simple but it’s not easy!
So I do think we owe it to ourselves to work on this, to find ways to support kids who bully so that they no longer need to make themselves feel better by belittling others. Basically it’s about relationships, compassion and connectIon.