Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Bully-Victim Spectrum


flickr CC image via Eddie~S

We spend too much time dealing ineffectively with bullies and not enough working proactively with victims, understanding that all bullies were first victims.

Hurt people, hurt people. I've heard this quote attributed to many. It doesn't even matter to me who claims these words of wisdom because they are so painfully true. I have worked with countless kids who have been characterized as bullies. The first question I used to ask them after they had hurt someone is why they did it. Their answers were very predictable. Defensive and seasoned bullies would tell me it was the victim's fault, that the victim had it coming or simply deny doing anything wrong, but the other answer I heard allot was confusing to me. Sometimes kids would tell me they didn't know why they did it. I wasn't sure how to analyze this response. It bothered me a bit that perhaps they could be telling me the truth; they actually didn't know why they were committing acts of bullying.

The more I heard this response over time from kids who had treated others badly, the more I believed them. I began to understand that their behavior was wrong and damaging to others to be sure, but that there were variables contributing to it that I did not understand. I wondered about whether trying to find out what variables were affecting the way these bullies behaved might help them understand their own behavior. I started to develop a perception that the first victim impact statement should be given to the bully, because there is a victim behind every single one of them.

I'm not trying to excuse bullies from their hurtful behavior, but it strikes me that they have always been a part of society, and I don't think they're going away any time soon. All of our attempts to stop bullying in its tracks have been unsuccessful. Every day we hear horrible stories about how bullies have inflicted physical and emotional pain on their victims. We are not winning the battle against bullying. Perhaps this is true because we aren't looking at the problem the right way.

I suggest that instead of asking bullies why they did what they did, we ask them a slightly different question. After hearing hundreds of bullies tell me they didn't know why they did what they did, I decided to re-frame my question to reflect the theory that hurt people hurt people. I started asking them this question... "what has made you feel so bad in your life that you feel someone else needs to share your pain?" The result was amazing and heart-wrenching. When I asked bullies this question, the vast majority didn't respond verbally at all; they just started crying.

Behind every bully is first a victim, and we need to learn victim's stories if we are to understand their victim - turned - bully behavior. Once we have this insight we can begin to help victims heal; to deal with their pain so they aren't inclined to inflict pain on others.

We spend too much time dealing with bullies, and not enough time supporting victims. I have yet to meet even one child who entered the world wanting to hurt people.

Behind every bully is a victim with a story. If you want to break the bullying cycle, learn this story.
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