Let’s Talk About Bullying, Part Two: Coffee and Conversation

When I was six, my family was driving on a highway late at night. Streaks of headlights and taillights painted the dark. For the first time, I realized that each car held people living lives as important to them as mine was to me.

I wanted to know what those lives were, and to share my own. So come on in, grab a cuppa (we’ve got coffee, tea, milk, and water today), and a snack (little chocolate covered donuts, Wheat Thins and a variety of cheeses; grapes, apples, peaches, and oranges, today).

Comfy? OK, let’s get to it, shall we?

Have you noticed that here are all manner of anti-bullying messages in the world right now?

Last week, I began a conversation about bullying, and invited your responses (it might not have been the best idea to begin on an American holiday weekend that followed Canadian Thanksgiving. Note to self: Check calendar, before beginning a multi-part blog series!).

If you’d like to catch up, the link above will take you to last week’s post, and the premise for this seven-part series. It’s also fine to jump in here, if you’d rather. I’ll post a running list of previous posts each week, as well, so that you’ll have options.

My goal is to initiate and engage in a meaningful, respectful dialogue about bullying – what causes it, where it fits into our culture, and what we can do to eliminate it.

I welcome diverse or dissenting opinions. My one caveat:

We’ll be discussing bullying here, but not bullying one another. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. Usually, these are based upon life experiences, personality, priorities, and maybe our mood when reading and responding. I welcome that – we can’t learn from one another if we won’t consider one another’s perspectives.

Please express your opinions with respect – as you wish from those who don’t agree with you. Comment moderation is turned on for new folks, and deleting of comments is a right I reserve, and hope not to need.

Last week, I talked about my personal doubts about the effectiveness of the anti-bullying campaigns that have sprung up in recent years. I ended by saying that addressing bullying itself ignores the roots of the problem, and that I think we need to be doing more. This week, I continue with some thoughts on the causes and effects of bullying. So, back to that question:

What causes bullying, and what can we do about it?

Bullies often are, or have been, bullied themselves.

  • They may feel invisible or powerless in their environment. When someone’s home environment is too controlled, or where there is an absence or lack of affection and regard, they may attempt to compensate by forceful acts that demand attention – even if that attention is negative. Bullying can bring a sense of power and importance, especially if a person doesn’t know any other ways of filling these needs.
  •  They’ve learned that those who have or snatch away power can wield it to get their own way – by insult or force or threat if necessary. They’ve felt the sting of blows, insults, and threats, and they’ve learned their lessons well, as a matter of self-preservation.

  • They may lack empathy, or an understanding of how their actions affect those around them.  Without this awareness, they may bully others throughout life, with no true understanding that that’s what they’re doing (Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory is a prime example).
  • They may lack the coping skills or impulse control to deal with strong emotions, so that they burst forth in unintended attacks on others. The heady rush of exhilaration that results from releasing  hostile emotions and  impulses they’ve kept cooped up can make even a normally mellow person feel invincible, and that can be a seductive experience.

When someone has been the victim of such treatment, or not helped to develop adequate preventive social skills, they may carry it forward throughout their lives.

Damning bullies, without acknowledging the causes of their behavior, does nothing to address the underlying issues that created the problem.

Complicating the bullying landscape is the fact that not every person will  become a bully in the situations described above. Some people are groomed and indoctrinated (whether intentionally or not) to perpetually become the victims of abusers.They’ve been told they’re getting better than they deserve so many times that they’ve absorbed the judgment as their own, and seek out connections that support this assessment, and their need to be punished and controlled – by partners, others in their lives, or by life circumstances.

Sometimes, what results is a dangerous combination of the two – a person who is a bully with those who are more vulnerable than them, and a victim of bullies themselves.

Consider the child bullied at school, then goes home and torments a younger sibling or a pet. Or an abused child who grows into an adult who is abusive to their own children, but,at the same time, extremely vulnerable to being dominated in social situations with other, more forceful, adults, including their own parents, with whom they may still have a dysfunctional relationship.

Whichever point on the bullying spectrum an individual occupies, it’s not the type of social dynamic that can be easily reshaped with a few hours of training, slogans, and public-interest advertising campaigns.

Maybe we need to start noticing what’s happening, in our own relationships and in the wider world, if we want to shift our culture from this type of interaction. Maybe we need to do better at recognizing bullying when we see it – not only the obvious and overt, but also the more subtle forms that might not easily be perceived as bullying, except to the one being dominated, who feels helpless, and has little or no power to do anything about it.

That’s what we’ll be exploring next week…until then, please enjoy your refreshments, and join in the conversation – it’s better with you than without!


  1. Is there much disagreement on your assessment of the problem? Seems spot-on to me. I’m not really aware of the conversation, as my kids are grown. But I’m wondering if the weaknesses of current anti-bullying measures have as much to do with funding as they do with misunderstanding. Your more in-depth approach might scare some school districts off, I’m thinking, due to cost. (Not condoning this, just trying to understand it.)

    • Hi, Gretchen!

      I haven’t heard much in the way of disagreement – actually, there hasn’t been much in the way of discussion at all, which is a bit disappointing.

      Since my own children have never attended school, I was hoping to get input and/or insight from people who do have kids in school.

      I think you might be right about the funding (although I maintain that it shouldn’t cost nearly as much as schools spend per student to offer children quality learning opportunities, but that’s another whole issue, and maybe another whole series of blogposts….).

      I do think that this approach might not be the best for schools – I think there’s too much that happens to kids outside those walls for school to be the most effective place to address these issues. But, perhaps, school could be the place from which resources can be assembled when a problem arises.

      In the final analysis, anti-anything isn’t going to be as effective as promoting choices that naturally eliminate or reduce the occurrence of the undesired action.

      So happy you took the time to comment! =)

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