Breaking the Silence on Bullying

Some children dread and hate returning to school due to a fear of a renewal of bullying by their peers and, sometimes, by a teacher. Their progress educationally and socially can be severely interrupted by their response to the bullying behaviour. What I find most disturbing is that so many children or teenagers do not report these threats to their wellbeing to their parents or school Principal or empathic teacher. This passivity is very akin to those individuals in their late teenage years who experience depression and do not seek help from the significant adults in their lives or, indeed, health professionals. It has to mean that they feel that they either won’t be listened to or that they will be ridiculed for not standing up for themselves. It can sometimes be the case that young people believe they deserve the bullying or that there is something wrong with them that attracts bullying. It is of considerable relief to young people when they discover that bullying behaviour belongs to and is for the person who bullies and is evidence of considerable fear and insecurity. It is never a behaviour of another that triggers bullying; it is inner unresolved conflicts about one’s worth or value or goodness or intelligence or physicality or some combination of these that lies at the root of bullying behaviour. Until these inner turmoils are resolved, it is likely that the bullying behaviours will persist, unless the person at the receiving end of it takes action for himself and not against the perpetrator. This latter response confuses some people: ‘surely to stop the bullying behaviour one needs to take an action against the bully by fighting back!’ Sometimes, fighting back may work for the person who is being bullied, but the insecurities of the individual who is engaging in the intimidatory actions are not only unresolved, but they are not even identified. True resolution of a bullying situation is where the young person who is being bullied takes action for self by creating a solid boundary around his own person and worth; he requires help and support to find an inner stronghold so that he (or she) can best withstand the threats from others. One of the best boundary responses I have come across is a young man’s response to being taunted by female fellow factory workers on his first day of employment: ‘it must be terrible to be in a place that you try to make me feel bad so that you can feel good.’ There is wisdom in the above response; it sets a boundary and lays responsibility back at the door of the individuals who were bullying.

It is especially the responsibility of those in charge of educational, social and work environments to be vigilant for the presence of bullying. However, it can sometimes be the case that those who occupy top positions can be the worst offenders and, therefore, they can turn a blind eye to lower or middle managers’ intimidating practices. Some individuals will choose to leave these organisations rather than confront the untenable interpersonal dynamics. Parents, too, can transfer their child who is being bullied to another school and this move may, indeed, resolve the unhappy situation for the child, but the bullying behaviour has not been resolved and others will continue to be at risk as will the person perpetrating the bullying. Confrontation is an act of caring for the person being bullied, the person doing the bullying and other staff and children in the school. Staff turning a blind eye to a colleague’s or a leader’s intimidatory behaviour lets himself or herself down as well as everyone else in the school. When any adult finds it difficult to maturely challenge another’s bullying behaviour, this person’s passivity needs as much examination and resolution as does the aggressive responses – whether robustly or subtly manifested.

Passivity is as much a neglect of self and others as is aggression, a reality that has not been faced by many individuals. Given that silence is the most common phenomenon at staff meetings - no matter the nature of the organisation – passivity is as much a challenge to people’s wellbeing as is bullying. Mature parents, teachers, managers, leaders are vigilant for the presence of both passivity and bullying and their efforts are to empower both the individuals who intimidate others or who stay silent about their needs or opinions or grievances to assert themselves and to develop sound boundaries around their self-worth, dignity and their particular roles and responsibilities.

Dr. Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, Author and National and International Speaker.  He is also Director of several UCC courses.