Bullying: What Victims Can Do

Last week, the Atlantic published an article that takes a new perspective on the problem of bullying.  The upshot: prevention is all very well, but not enough is being done to treat victims of bullying after the fact, and such treatment might be a way to stop the bullying cycle.

The article suggests that victims’ reactions to bullying can perpetuate the problem.  If victims receive counselling and social tools, however, they may be empowered to improve their situations.

The key to anticipating victims’ responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.

What’s more, victims’ views of friendship and social roles had an influence on how they dealt with bullying.

Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may [sic] be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly.

I was sometimes bullied as a child and adolescent, and I recognize myself in these descriptions.  I was the cool, avoidant type; I was likely to pretend nothing bad was happening, and to gratefully accept crumbs of decency from my tormentors when they decided to be nice to me today.  And I did see friendships as “fixed”: I had no idea how to make friends, clung to friendships once they were even tentatively established, and was bewildered when they failed.

What’s more, for years into my professional life, I replayed my role as a victim in my classrooms.  My desire to be liked by my students and avoid conflict led me to tolerate unacceptable behaviour toward me and others.  It still does, occasionally, but learning to moderate my own responses, to deal with such problems directly, and to accept that I can only control my own behaviour and can’t keep wishing that others will change, have all helped me be a more effective teacher and, frankly, an adult.

The comments section of the Atlantic article contains a rash of responses crying “You’re blaming the victim!”  I think this is misguided.  You don’t have to be the one at fault to take action.  And in the end, who is more likely to approach this problem in a constructive way – the miserable twerp who is taking pleasure in his/her power, or the child who stands to benefit from a change in the dynamic?

What do you think?  Have you ever been bullied? Have your children, or siblings, or other young people you know?  Do the measures proposed in this article seem viable to you?  Is training for those who suffer from bullying likely to help solve the problem?


Thanks once again to Erin M. for sending me to a thought-provoking article!

Check out English Teaching Daily, a site out of India that describes itself as “your one-stop-destination to access the happenings in the field of English Language Teaching.”  Today, they reprinted my post “Why Do I Have to Learn This?”

Image by Rotorhead


25 thoughts on “Bullying: What Victims Can Do

  1. I could have written what you wrote, we seem to have had similar experiences in school. My tormentor in high school was the son of a prominent, wealthy business man who donated lots to my private school, so when I went to the administration, it fell on deaf ears. So I played the cool, unaffected person, and latched on to anyone I could be friends with. Not only did this scenario continue to play out in my friendships, and as a teacher, but also in my relationships and marriage which failed miserably. I’ve had to learn as an adult that I’m good enough to choose to be around those that will treat me well.

    I applaud what is being done to help students that are bullied, but its still not enough. We shouldn’t have to train the victim how to respond. We should be focusing more attention on establishing strict punishments for the bullies, so they can learn their actions will not be tolerated.


    1. Unheardof:
      Punishment is definitely necessary, but I wonder if it helps. That is, is may prevent the bully from harassing that particular person in that particular way, at least for the moment, and it will show that there are consequences for his/her actions, but does it address the issues that made him/her a bully in the first place? I wonder if constructive responses from the victim and other peers might do more to confront the bigger problem. After all, once they reach a certain age, children and adolescents are far more influenced by each other than they are by adults. Punishment is not negotiable – there have to be consequences – but when it comes to making progress, I’m not sure punishment is what will do it.


      1. As always your comments are insightful and thought provoking. I applaud any program that is focusing on eliminating this negative part of childhood, beit bully-related, victim-related or both. Your right about wondering if punishment will help. Today’s wimpy, water-downed, “feel good” punishments that are in most school systems probably would do little. I’m suggesting harsher punishment. I really believe if a bully is terrorizing a school, the authorities need to get that student out of the school, and depending on the extent of their behavior press charges if necessary. After all, harrassment is against the law.

        John Stossel did a report on bullying (i.e. The In Crowd), and although it was not in-depth research, many bullies commented their bully behavior came from avoiding being the victim. If given a choice kids would much rather be the bully than the victim. In order to keep from being a victim, aggressiveness took over as a means to survive. Once that happened, control and power over someone became an aphrodisiac and perpetuated the behavior. Friends went along with it because they too would rather support what they knew was wrong rather than risk being in the place of the victim.

        Stossel interviewed former bullies. Most stated they felt good by their bullying behavior, and wouldn’t stop until their victim was angry and in tears because they enjoyed the feeling of superiority it gave them. When you have a situation where a student is purposely bullying another, perhaps being supported by other students around them, and their end goal is to humiliate them until they cry….no contructive responses in the world is going to help this situation, or help the victim. This is when an adult intervenes, shuts down what is happening, and establishes right and wrong by punishing the bully, and establishes a message that this type of behavior is not tolerated.

        Young people are resorting to suicide because of bullying. I think we’ve seen posters, assertiveness training, peer mediation, and assorted other kumbiya techniques arent’ working. Stronger measures are needed.


        1. Unheardof:

          I agree that “feelgood” measures and attempts to nurture bullies’ self-esteem etc. are not helpful. And definitely, for the benefit of others, incorrigible bullies need to be removed from the school environment.

          I heard a piece lately on … On the Media, maybe? … which discussed a case of bullying which resulted in suicide but which, upon examination, turned out to be much more complicated. The “bullies” were not at all what they’d been portrayed to be, and the victim had been a victim, not just of bullying, but of recurring mental health issues before she’d even arrived at the school in question. It reminded me of how very complex social interactions of any kind are, especially those in places like middle school, where the children are given so little guidance about how to manage social dynamics.


          1. I’ve heard it said that in some cases, bullying is the product of what is happening at home. I mean at least when kids first start out that’s all they see is their parents. One of Erickson’s stages of development is Autonomy vs. Shame and doubt. Thing is though when you go through that stage, your supposed to learn autonomy, but when you have two parents fighting and getting at each other’s neck all the time you really develop a sense of shame. I have seen students who are going through rough divorces. They act out, they want attention, they want that, but at a daycare we can’t just be there with that one student. Then they realize that, and they start being mean to other kids in their class and they see that they get negative attention. I just want to know how I can best help these kids, and parents, deal with their situation at home so it doesn’t end up coming into the classroom. At this age I can tell the other kids “Hey just treat him as you do all of your other friends,” and they try, but it’s hard to do that with someone who doesn’t seem to want to be their friends because they keep hurting the other persons. When all you know is hate, it makes it hard to know love… I know that kids in bad situations have come out of them well, but that doesn’t happen too often.


          2. Baldy:
            I know, it’s tough. When I think back on my childhood, I remember the bullies being very troubled children from chaotic families. That said, I don’t know if there’s a lot teachers can do about what’s going on at home – of course there are possible interventions, but I think it’s unrealistic to think that parents and the home environment will change very much in response to what a teacher does. On the other hand, teachers can provide models and shelter for kids at school in order to help them deal with their emotions in ways that their parents haven’t taught them to. I think it’s easier with older kids, though, who are more able to analyze what their parents have taught them and possibly reject it.


  2. As always, a thought-provoking blog!

    As a middle school teacher, there are lots of bullying related discussions where I work. We recently started participating in Rachel’s Challenge, which had been huge! It does focus on prevention, but support for victims after the fact would be a nice compliment.*


  3. I could write a novel, as opposed to a simple response. I was not bullied until grade 8. Up until then, I was very outspoken, and no one tried to bully me twice. In grade 8, a series of circumstances made me feel unworthy and therefore I accepted the bullying. Had someone taught me how to change my internal dialogue about myself, I would have been better equipped to face the tough teenage years.

    As an adult, I work in education and give and get respect in a similar manner to how I was in grade school. I speak up and I speak out. I expect people in my life to treat me and others fairly and kindly. I expect people to tell the truth and accept the consequences when they make poor choices. (I tell kids, tell me the truth and the consequences will be less severe than if you acted out AND lied to me.) Most importantly, I follow through. And equally important, I always tell a student (and their parents) when a student behaves as their true, incredible self.

    I feel, though, that often families make excuses for their child if they are a bully, often saying that it’s part of growing up and therefore not a big deal. It is a HUGE deal.

    I attended a seminar last fall that talked about the concept that children with behaviour issues, including bullies, are lacking skills. Not that they are misunderstood, but that, like any other type of learning disability, they lack skills to cope and act appropriately. I approach bullies differently from that perspective, but my unwavering belief in the necessity for appropriate consequences for bullying remains.

    My son was bullied and when he stood up for himself, the other child pulled a knife on him. Through a series of events over a long period of time, the other student did receive the appropriate consequences, but my son also had social consequences. High school is not an easy place to be a victim who tells the truth.

    Society needs to make people accountable for their behaviour. Parents cannot continue to make excuses for their children, from why their homework isn’t done to why their child bulles. School systems and all facets of communities need to have higher expectations of their citizens. It is NOT okay to act out, whatever form that takes. It is NOT okay to lessen someone else’s value simply to make yourself feel better. And it definitely is NOT okay to make someone else’s life so unbearable that they don’t want to live.


    1. Paula: The fact that parents continue to make excuses for bullying, or other anti-social behaviour, is distressing and infuriating. The “there’s nothing wrong with my child” attitude I see from a lot of parents is part of the reason that their children behave so unacceptably.


      1. Dr. Phil had a show focusing on a couple that were having problems. The husband was outspoken, and said whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. The wife had issues with this because she felt sometimes what he said was insulting, demeaning and embarrassed her. The husband’s response to her was that it was a free society, free speech and he could say whatever he wanted.

        Dr. Phil’s response to this…to the husband…”Clearly no one has ever taken you out back and beat the snot out of you.”

        The point being that because no one ever stopped him in his tracks to the damage he was causing, he felt justified in continuing this behavior.

        Until we put a stop to the behavior of bullies, that includes allowing parents to make excuses for their children, then it will continue. Just as a husband and wife stand together in disciplining their children, so to should we as a society stand together and say bully-type behavior is not acceptable. Until then…it will exist.


    2. Paula, thank you for mentioning your approach to bullying–that of expecting honesty and of addressing the missing skills. Even for those who bully out of a desire to hurt as they have been hurt need to learn true relationship skills because they have not been taught such things. Reading your approach has been helpful to me–confirming things that I have started doing and giving me some new thoughts (well, clearer) to chew on =)


  4. Siobhan,
    Thanks for your post on this topic and for sharing the new study–so good!
    I appreciated your sharing your own experiences in the classroom in relation to this. I have had similar experiences in my teaching career and had not related them to bullying, but I can see how they were a form of accepting poor behavior sometimes in order to not “lose” the goodwill of the students because good will can be a form of motivation but also out of a sense of looking for acceptance. As I have grown as a teacher, I’ve learned better how to separate the acceptance factor from my teaching and to be myself and to make my expectations clearer and hold my students to them, but it’s still a process, as you pointed out. Thanks for putting a name to it =)


    1. ATWB:
      It took me a while to make the connection between the disciplinary problems in my classroom and my lack of self-esteem. One of the most challenging and enlightening experiments in my current approach is to consistently address unacceptable behaviour, whether it’s calling a student out in class or (more frequently, as my reflexes have been dulled by years of second-guessing myself) addressing problems with students after the fact, in private meetings or by email. It keeps me up at night, but the results are always interesting! I had an incidence of this last week that I may post about soon.


  5. I was bullied in a variety of ways throughout school. I wish my father had taught me to street fight with my fists, but being female he didn’t want to do that.

    My bullies were psychopaths in training. I sometimes imagine them in prison (where I hope they ended up) and say a small prayer to never encounter them again.


    1. Anonymous: I found the video above about teaching kids martial arts very inspiring. It’s all very well to advocate “use your words,” but I think there’s something to be said for instilling children with the confidence that they can protect themselves physically, whether they be boys or girls.


  6. Hi Siobhan, thank you for posting about this! I was bullied as a kid and pretty much felt and reacted the same way you did. I’m sure I would have benefited from counseling rather than having to figure it out on my own/rely on adults to protect me.


    1. Anne-Sophie: me too – I’m not sure how receptive I would have been to the counselling when I was small, but it might have given me tools to use when I was an adolescent, or at least to make me feel more capable.


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