I had a stare down with a bully this weekend. She was probably six years old.
It happened on a playground on which my three-year-old daughter was playing. The mean girl was calling my kid names and otherwise being intimidating. As a matter of principle, I would like to instill in my daughter a sense of self and social confidence to deal with such abuse. But as she’s still so young and without the wherewithal to defend herself in such situations, I decided to intervene.
After I delivered some curt words and a prolonged death stare the kid backed down and went off in search of a new victim. On the car ride home, I talked with my daughter about the episode and tried to give her a little pep talk about how this is life and the mean girl is actually worthy of our pity. I then shared some pointers of how to handle a similar situation in the future but I suspect I will have to revisit this discussion many times again.
Bullying is Now Commonplace
Bullying and aggressive behavior are not just within the confines of the playground. It’s on the rise everywhere impacting both youth and adults worldwide. But certainly, it’s central in the socialization of kids and teens most profoundly.
According to federally collected data, approximately 20 - 28% of kids aged 12 - 18 have experienced being bullied. In general, the U.S. has an about average amount of bullying when compared to other countries according to a World Health Organization survey.
Both boys and girls equally participate in the harassment but it takes different forms. Boys tend to bully by “sexting” (sending messages of a sexual nature) or threatening physical harm. Girls more commonly spread lies and rumors through social media or impose social exclusion.
Unfortunately, the cruelty doesn’t stop once a kid becomes an adult. It just changes forms. In recent years there has been more open discussion of bullying as it can also show up in our non-childhood social dynamics.
In fact, it may be long standing in our workplace relationships or even our own families. Previously we may have chalked up menacing behavior to difficult family relationships or a demanding boss or colleague.
But the effects of bullying, regardless of when and where it occurs, still impart real pain while wearing down one’s mental health. Research indicates that being a victim of persistent bullying can lead to or worsen feelings of isolation, rejection, exclusion, and despair, as well as depression and anxiety.
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Empathy’s Role in Understanding Bullying
Today bullying is only a part of the mix of growing social division often exploited through toxic politics and cyber harassment. It’s eroding our basic respect and compassion for one another leaving us as hostile strangers in the same land.
But to find our way out of such a downward spiral, we need to call upon our own empathy for others to clearly examine the origins of the problem. For when we empathize with the bully we begin to understand his thought process and motivations more objectively. This, of course, doesn’t offer up justification for the behavior, just explanation.
Everyone is born a clean slate and they are taught and conditioned to either love or hate. For the haters, they may have been subjected to circumstances of abuse or neglect leaving them to feel disempowered.
Or alternatively, aggressive behavior has been modeled for them as what is normal and acceptable. Kids of white supremacists don’t know anything else. The result is a propensity to bully without a deliberate plan to do so.
Why Bullies Bully Others
What a bully wants more than anything is validation. A recognition that they matter. They act out as a means to overcome their own shortcomings whether they recognize them or not.
They usually can’t put two and two together but their aggressive behavior is a behavioral manifestation of how miserable they feel. It’s their form of social rage and unfortunately, their victims are just caught up in the explosion.
When the problem is framed in such a way, it helps the target (let’s not use the word victim) avoid internalizing the message. As psychotherapist Jenise Harmon at Psych Central confirms, “Bullying is not about you. You’re not the one with the problems, so you shouldn’t ever take it personally."
Bullying is always about manifesting internal rage derived from fragile egos.
But this may serve as little comfort when you cross paths with such types in everyday life. While we can’t control their behavior we can control ours. The secret to dealing with bullies is to change our mentality of being a target. Part of that is appearing unflappable. Consistently demonstrating that their behavior has no effect on us.
Strategies to Combat Bullying
Here are six ways to feel empowered against a bully and to diminish their power.
1 - Present Yourself Confidently
A bully seeks out the weak. But if you don’t cower, he has no power. Present yourself with confidence and self-assurance even if you have to fake it. That means looking him directly in the eye, maintaining confident body language, and speaking more assertively. Most bullies are mean and lazy. So if you present yourself as a force, he or she may decide to move on to an easier target.
2 - Get Social Support from Others
Bullying is like an animal kill. A bully tries to isolate the weak and vulnerable. By doing so, the target is easier to conquer. However, when a target is socially supported by others the odds aren’t in the bully’s favor. So, seek out the support of others even if to reinforce your rationale that the bully’s behavior is out of line.
3 - Use Simple Unemotional Language
When communicating with a bully be direct and objective in your response. Keep your cool and don’t let him read that he can get a rise out of you. Through the precision of your spoken words, you make it crystal clear that you will not be victimized. Your words are not initiating a challenge but a standing of your firm position. In most cases, a bully will secretly respect that.
4 - Act Quickly and Consistently
When a bully throws a zinger, it needs to be addressed immediately. Every single time. This is especially true when it’s the first few instances of aggressive behavior. The bully is testing the waters to see what will be tolerated. If left unchecked, the behavior becomes more bold. It needs to be nipped in the bud definitively from the very beginning.
5 - Consider the Timing of Your Response
Nothing good ever happens in the heat of an exchange. A bully is most agitated when trying to bait a target. But after an episode and when the temperature has come down, it may be worth calling out bad behavior to set an expectation of what isn’t acceptable. To do so, it’s very important to plan your words. Make them specific with examples but remain objective and unemotional.
6 - Seek Outside Authorities to Intervene
If the harassment continues and especially if a person’s safety and wellbeing are at risk, it is prudent to seek outside authority that has the power to intervene. This could be government authorities, other family members, or school personnel depending on the situation.
Bullying in the Workplace
If the bullying is part of a workplace dynamic, seeking sympathetic authority can be tricky. You never know the alliances at play and most HR departments feel ill-equipped to handle such issues. Unfortunately, the easiest solution may be to remove yourself from the situation. Either leave the department or leave the organization
This is exactly what happened to me at one of my previous employers. My direct manager was a textbook bully. It was so overt, it was actually pretty shocking. He would routinely berate, threaten, and demean his staff in front of others. And he was never called out for it.
I was able to side-step the worst of it because I practiced much of the advice above. But for my other colleagues, it was too painful to watch. Some begged for reassignments. I ended up quitting in protest. I shared the ugly truth and plenty of examples to HR during my exit interview. But they were impotent to affect any real change. Chances are he was a bully to them too.
Cyberbullying is Especially Destructive
When bullying happens online it takes on a more pernicious nature. According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, the percentage of individuals who have experienced cyberbullying at some point in their lives has nearly doubled (18% to 34%) from 2007-2016.
It's an exhaustive form of abuse because it can happen 24 hours a day and as long as the target is connected to the internet. There is no safe place free of the torment. The bully’s ways of victimizing can be varied and imaginative from harassing text and social media posts to creating separate websites to taunt and humiliate.
How to Compartmentalized Cyberbullies
The simplest solution to disempowering cyber bullies is to disconnect. No longer offer an audience for the harassment. When the target isn’t affected, the attack loses its potency. For kids and teens this is almost socially impossible but practically is possible.
I am no longer a teenage (or living in these times) so I am not going to pretend to know. But for adults who hopefully have more maturity and self-control, shutting down specific and targeted aggression is a simple and easy solution. Walk away.
Starving the Internet Trolls
Oftentimes, however, our online interaction with mean-spirited individuals comes by way of online trolls. They pop up when all we’re trying to do is participate in a reasonable online exchange. They’re desperately seeking attention and recognition to satisfy their fragile egos. Even if it's a fight.
The mentality and motivation of these types of bullies are exactly the same as ones in real life but they are the worst kinds of cowards. They relish wreaking havoc without the guts to show their faces.
Unlike dealing with real-life bullies, dealing with internet trolls requires a different strategy. One of complete disengagement. According to Paul Jun an admitted former troll, the reason a troll trolls is because he or she is bored and deeply insecure. He states, “A troll’s behavior reflects a deep insecurity. So having someone respond to their words gives their life meaning, regardless of how pathetic that may sound.”
He went on to add, “When I trolled other gamers with words—harsh words—many times they would ignore me. Because hindsight is 20/20, I remember being bothered by that.”
So, don’t be baited. Let the troll rot alone in his own toxicity.
As long as there have been humans, there have been miserable ones. And in today’s environment, unfortunately, there are more than ever. But for all the good people out there (which far outnumber the bad ones), we can’t let negativity derail our intrinsic sense of our own self-worth.
Recognize that a bully’s demented sense of power has no potency if not met. Conflict can’t ensue if another person doesn’t show up to fight. While we can’t eradicate bullies, we can ignore them and instead focus on the positive. There’s still plenty of that even if we have to look a little harder.
So in the end, we win.
Review the advice and suggestions from Stopbullying.gov on how to prevent bullying and effective strategies on how to deal with it. This is especially relevant for children but can apply to anyone.
U.S.: 1-800-273-8255 – Crisis Call Center
UK: 0845 22 55 787 – National Bullying Helpline
Canada: 1-877-352-4497 – BullyingCanada
Australia: 19800 551 800 – Kids Helpline
New Zealand: 0800 54 37 54 – Kidsline
What other strategies would you use to neutralize a bully?
Please share some ideas in the comment section.