Where do bullies come from?

We have a bullying problem. I know I am not saying anything new. Most parents and teachers will tell you the same. And there are a million theories about what causes it. And there are a million theories about when it started. But there is one thing I have learned as a parent. Kids copy their environment. They copy their parents. So while it might be easier and less stressful to say that children learn to bully from the television or from each other, it starts much earlier than that. It starts in the home.

As a child and a victim of familial abuse, I had a tendency to be a victim to bullies. I had never been taught how to say “no”. Actually, I had been taught that I wasn’t allowed to use that word. I had no idea how to stand up for myself when people mistreated me because my parents certainly were not going to teach me how to do that. That would have worked against their plans. So I was an easy target. Even more convenient for the bully was my likelihood to dissociate. If the treatment was bad enough, I would forget it happened. I would treat the bully like they had never been mean.

But the problem with being a victim to bullies is that it teaches you a few things. And there are always those who are weaker, less popular and less powerful. Always. So in order to stay sane and feel as though I had some power in the world, I would bully too. I treated my younger sister poorly. Some would call it sibling rivalry, but I believe it was worse than that. I was pretty darned mean. And there were friends that I considered lesser than me and I would show them that. I never learned that real relationships were not about power. And I expressed that lack of learning openly.

Bullying Doesn’t Go Away in Adulthood

So fast forward to adulthood and I only knew how to be a victim or a bully. This is not good when becoming a parent. For the first few years, I responded to my children using one extreme or the other. Either they were victimizing me with their constant needs or I was bullying them to take back some feeling of control over my life. And who was I kidding? There is no control when there are children. There is only flow. And I had never heard of flow.

As I started to wake up, I realized that my kids were learning some bad stuff. My son was learning that he could ignore my boundaries (and everyone else’s) because I was giving him the impression that he had control when I would respond as a victim. That is bad. And that is something I am constantly focused on reversing. And yes, it is reversible.

But my daughter was learning something much worse. She was learning that she didn’t have a voice. Between my son’s extroversion and my controlling parenting, she never had an opportunity to express herself. And she was learning to shut up and take it. I started noticing that her choice of best friends tended to be the strongest personality in her preschool classes. And then, the reports of bullying started to trickle in. Wow! Big problem! I was failing her as a parent.

Changing the Patterns

So I changed. I started asking her what she wanted. I started encouraging to stand up for herself. I let her tell me “no”. I let her pick her clothes. I let her pick her food (within reason). I didn’t get mad when she became angry. I let her tantrum until she got it all out. And there was a lot of it. I gave her the space she needed to become herself. I even made up a little unicorn friend who would write her letters about how she could always ask her heart for the answer.

The unicorn’s name was Grace.

Now she has changed. She is much less likely to let the bullies get away with it. She is making her own decisions. So yesterday, when we were at the pool, I paid close attention when she climbed on to the diving board. I could hear the kids in the line chanting “flip, flip, flip”. I knew she wasn’t comfortable doing a flip from a diving board. I wondered if she would succumb to the pressure. I wondered and watched. And she jumped in the water feet first with a big smile on her face. And the kids in the line acted like they were disappointed. And she didn’t care.

And I thought … job well done.

She’s going to be just fine.