In 2015, I facilitated a three day seminar in Sao Paolo, titled The Invisible Landscape of Bullying and was subsequently invited to write an article on the subject for the Brazilian journal, Conexao Sistemica Sul.
Bullying amongst young people is a worldwide concern. There are websites, books, plays, films, newspaper articles and discussion forums dedicated to the subject.
Surprisingly, it was not until 2000 that the topic moved into mainstream awareness when Canada introduced the first Bullying Prevention Week. Today, it is in our schools, amongst our children, that bullying is most clearly seen and felt.
According to Child Helpline International, which manages 173 help lines in over 142 countries, nine out of ten cases of bullying take place within schools. 
Policy makers and educators have introduced countless prevention and intervention strategies but the frustration grows as none appear to be conclusively effective. Forceful language and prescribed punishment ring hollow as the problems associated with bullying continue to escalate.
Whilst doing research for this article, I entered the word bully into a search engine, specific in my choice of the word as I was interested in the psychology of the perpetrator. What I was offered were sites such as Dealing with Bullies/Fighting Bullies/Bullies Out. Most articles, it seems, counsel the victims of bullying. There appears to be very little professional discussion on services available for bullies themselves.
Victims evoke our sympathy. Perpetrators elicit reactions of discomfort and aversion.
When I was five years old I bullied a girl in my kindergarten class. Sita was quietly confident and she was very bright. Her presence was a constant reminder to me that I was considered neither of those things.
I was fascinated by Sita. I wanted to be like her. I wanted her to notice me and admire me too, but she took no interest in me. I didn’t know how to win her friendship in a way that was kind and inviting, so I made my presence felt in other ways. I was angry at being ignored and so I began to provoke her. I sought to point out what I felt was lacking in her. This made me feel a little better about myself, but it wasn’t long before Sita’s friend reported me.
I was called in front of a panel of 4 teachers who accused me of being a bully and a racist. I didn’t know what either of those words meant. If someone had explained the concept of victim and perpetrator to me in the language of a five year old, I believe I would have seen myself as the victim and Sita as the perpetrator.
A bully generally feels like a victim. The furthest thing from being the victim is to become the perpetrator. Bullying behaviour is an effort to cover up the bully’s own vulnerability.
On April 7th, 2011, 23 year old Wellington Menezes de Oliveira killed and wounded 24 students at Escola Municipal Tasso da Silveira in Rio de Janeiro. Oliveira, a former student at the school, had been badly bullied. In a video recorded two days before the massacre, Oliveira said the following:
The struggle for which many brothers died in the past, and for which I will die, is not solely because of what is known as bullying. Our fight is against cruel people, cowards, who take advantage of the kindness, the weakness of people unable to defend themselves.
It seems likely that Oliveira considered himself to be one of the ‘kind’ and ‘weak’ people, persecuted by the ‘cruel’ people.
Children are not born ‘bad seeds’ and bullying is not instinctive. It is learned behaviour. It is behaviour modelled by adults. Grown up bullying can be dramatic and highly visible, as in domestic violence and gangland crime or it can be subtle and concealed, so much so that the abuse is almost imperceptible. Adult bullies may portray their peers as overly sensitive to criticism, emotionally fragile, even a little unstable.
Weakness is frightening, because it serves as a reminder to us all of the fragility of human life. We live with constant uncertainty and enduring vulnerability. Unconsciously, therefore, we gravitate towards what we perceive as strength in all its different forms – physical, financial, social. Some value the safety of the group; others seek positions of leadership, hoping to acquire an even greater measure of certainty through adulation.
Bullying, whether physical or emotional, is an attempt to compensate for feeling unprotected. It is a display that masks a sense of powerlessness. At heart, it is a longing to belong, a quest for certainty that our place in the group is guaranteed, always.
In a 2008 Channel 4 documentary titled Disarming Britain: Kids, Knives, Broken Lives, one young man reflected:
It’s nice to be loved, but if someone fears you, it lasts longer. You can do something wrong and they won’t love you anymore, but if you get respect through fear, you’ll always have that ‘bad man’ badge; even if you never make it, even if you’re unemployed, even if you have 8 kids from different girls, you’re always going to be able to go back to the area where you were raised and you’re always going to be somebody. It’s about belonging.
The American Psychological Association advises on its website that parents who suspect that their children are bullying peers at school, should look carefully at their own behaviour. It asks parents to consider how they interact with each other, with friends and work colleagues. Do they motivate others with positive and enabling language and behaviour or do they use threat and punishment? What are the parents modelling? What are the children faithfully imitating? 
I spent five years working systemically and therapeutically in inner city London schools and I observed that children who bully others share certain characteristics. They struggle academically, they come from families where there is conflict and they are often seen as leaders by their peers.
Many of the children who were sent to me because they bullied others expressed the frustration they felt when school staff failed to listen to their point of view. Adults, they said, often criticised and punished without asking questions or attempting to understand all the facts. Most young children do not have adequate emotional literacy to articulate what they are experiencing and so expressing those feelings through their bodies becomes the most accessible way of releasing frustrated energy.
I was asked to run a series of Lunch Clubs, both for children who had difficulty managing their anger and for those lacking self-confidence. There was a clear gender divide – no girls ever attended the ‘Strong Feelings’ clubs and there were never any boys in the ‘Friendship’ sessions.
The boys arrived with the label ‘violent in the playground’. The girls were defined as having ‘low self esteem’. The boys were clear and articulate about their rage and what lay beneath it. The girls’ anger was palpable but it was fragmented and much more difficult to reach. There was, however, an uncomfortable sense that it was building and that, at some point, it would break out in uncontrolled and possibly violent behaviour.
Bullying stems from exclusion and children who show hostility towards others do so because it permits them a level of protection, physically and emotionally. They may feel isolated but anger and physical violence also help them feel alive and in control.
Bullying is often modelled in the home and is transferred to school. These children learn that it is more immediately manageable to incite fear in others than to feel the fear in themselves.
In schools, attention is focused on the bullying behaviour of children. Adult bullying is largely ignored, perhaps because it is more difficult to name and control. Head teachers, anxious about performance targets, make ever increasing demands on classroom teachers who, fearful for their jobs, insist on greater application and higher grades from their pupils. Angry parents verbally abuse and physically threaten members of staff and head teachers respond with indirect and more insidious forms of bullying.
Oak Park Primary School* where I worked for several years, decided to run a Practical Parenting Programme (PPP). Instead of opening it to everyone, the school only sent letters of invitation to the most challenging families. The organisers were surprised and annoyed when no parents showed up for the course. ‘Weighing the pig doesn’t make it fatter’ and shaming parents won’t make them better parents.
Bullying is behaviour that makes other people feel bad about themselves and makes them feel as though they don’t belong. It can be words, actions or silence.
In many schools, the ultimate solution to bullying is exclusion. According to an article in The Independent, the number of primary school students permanently excluded from school rose by 13.9% in a single year. Exclusion as a strategy to eliminate bullying is highly damaging because a child’s difficult behaviour is based on a fundamental feeling of exclusion, which often has its origins within the family. Excluding children from attending school doesn’t teach them anything; it simply reinforces the idea that they deserve to be excluded.
Respect and kindness need to be modelled. In classrooms all over the world, teachers are managing very difficult behaviour. Many do this through punishment and they do it through shouting. Research has shown that the more teachers raise their voices in the classroom, the noisier the children are. The adults are modelling the behaviour.
It is important to forbid bullying and yet its occurrence cannot be ignored. Its roots must be reckoned and respected.
Anger can be rough and awkward but it needs to be expressed and children should be taught how to express it well. Strong feelings are instinctive in all of us and they can give us the courage to stand up for the things we consider to be important, such as injustice. Managing anger should be taught with intelligence and sensitivity as part of the school curriculum. In most schools, expressions of anger are simply forbidden and punished.
At Oak Park I was asked to offer classroom sessions on inclusion in an attempt to address the issue of bullying in the school. One of the first things I discovered was that children are extremely upset by what they consider to be ‘unfairness’. In classrooms and playgrounds teachers often misread a situation and known troublemakers are blamed for things that may not always be their fault. The sense of injustice and the lack of opportunity to explain leave children feeling angry and helpless. Situations like this may re-enforce what they are experiencing at home.
We discussed the relevance of the saying: Sticks and Stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me and together we came up with an alternative: Sticks and Stones can break my bones and words can break my heart.
It is not possible to change another person’s behaviour. We cannot prevent people saying things to us or about us that are unkind and untrue. As an example, I might say to a child in a green sweater: You’re wearing a red sweater. My mistake would be obvious to everyone. However, if I accused someone of having taken my phone and he/she denied it, who could the children believe? Who was telling the truth? I may have inadvertently left my phone at home, so the only person who really knew the truth was the person I was accusing.
The children worked in pairs, practicing strong body language, calming breath and developing inner resources: I know the truth, even if nobody else does. There is no shame because there is no truth to the accusation. I encouraged them to use their breath and to allow the truth to take root inside themselves. If they felt strong and clear, they could look the person in the eye, be it another child, be it a teacher and, holding firm to what they knew to be true, say out loud:
I am sorry you have lost your phone. I didn’t take it and I hope you find it.
If we can stand up for ourselves in a calm way, it becomes easier to talk to each other and it becomes easier to listen.
In the Strong Feelings lunch clubs, I would give the children a body map and ask them to plot the places of physical change as they felt their anger rising, For example: rapid breathing, flushed face, racing heart, tense muscles, clenched fists, sweaty palms. We practiced a body exercise to consciously draw the anger to the surface and then release it. I gave them each a squeezy ball to keep in their pockets and use whenever they felt the pressure rising during the day.
I suggested they practice the exercise every morning when they got up and every evening before they went to sleep. If they felt angry or frustrated, they could look for a quiet place, hold their body tight for a moment, then release the frustrated energy. The children said they found the exercise helpful and practiced it regularly. Over the course of the term, they got into less trouble and received fewer detentions.
Boys get into fights in the playground; girls bully each other in more subtle ways. They exclude, they spread rumours by word of mouth or through social media, and often they deny that they are doing any of these things. For an adult, it can be a slippery issue to manage.
At Oak Park, there was a system in place called ‘Talk Time’. In every classroom there was a box and children who were struggling with a difficulty could complete a slip requesting a 10 minute Talk Time session with me or one of my colleagues. I found that it was mainly girls who used the Talk Time boxes and that most of their problems were focused around friendship.
I noticed that as well as sadness, there was often a great sweetness around why one girl wanted to be friends with another. I became aware too that these girls had no way of articulating their feelings in a comfortable and safe environment within the school.
After listening to many girls, unhappy in their friendships, I decided to try something different. I suggested to one girl, I’ll call her Amber, that instead of talking to me, she might like to speak directly to the girl with whom she wanted to be friends. I’ll call her Kimberley. I explained to Amber that friendship is created between two people and is not something that can be imposed. I said that if Kimberley didn’t want to come out of class and speak to her, then she would need to accept that and find herself another friend.
Gradually, these one to one sessions grew into girls’ group discussions. I always offered the girls the choice of being in the room with them, but they invariably asked me to wait outside the door. When they had completed their discussion, they would invite me back and tell me what they had talked about and agreed to.
I was impressed by how fairly and how kindly the girls managed these groups. I didn’t contribute in any way, other than offering them a safe place in which to talk. In most cases, the girls either continued to nourish their friendships back in the classroom and in the playground or, the hostility subsided as new friendship groups were established.
Bullying is systemic and its origins lie upstream. If a child is bullying others, then the behaviour is an outlet for both rage and longing.
As I write this, I hear on the news that a young man has randomly stabbed and shot dead six fellow students in California. He had declared his intention, through social media, to seek retribution for what he described as his feelings of exclusion, isolation and invisibility. The boy’s father, I subsequently discovered, is a director on a highly popular fantasy series about young people, forced to kill each other in violent televised contests.
Bullying is a cultural issue, says Corinne Gregory: We think of bullying as occurring between the bully and the victim, but really, it is the culture that supports the negative behaviour. If you have a culture that tolerates bullying and participates in it, either implicitly or complicitly, it will continue. 
As parents, as leaders and teachers, as adults, it is our responsibility to look at all that we say and do, how we behave and what we believe with as much honesty, integrity and congruity as possible. I am reminded of a comment made by a former pupil at Oak Park:
I don’t think kids are bad, they just learn what you teach them.
* The name of the school has been changed for reasons of confidentiality.
Family Matters in the Classroom
- childhelplineinternational.org – Briefing Paper on Bullying 2015
- Michael Harmann (MSW) interviewed for: The Bully’s Perspective and why it Matters by Ann Pietrangelo
- Gang member speaking on Disarming Britain: Kids, Knives, Broken Lives Channel 4 July 2008
- The American Psychological Association. Violence prevention for families of young children.
- The Independent, July 25th, 2013: Increasing numbers of primary school children permanently excluded over disruptive behaviour.
- Corinne Gregory, Education Reform and Other Myths: Breaking the Bullying Culture