One of the questions I’m most often asked is, “Why Do Bullies Keep Abusing Us?” I hear that from:
- Kids who want to stop bullies and cvber bullies at school.
- Adults who want to stop bullying in their love lives or in relationships with their siblings, parents and friends.
- Adults who don’t understand why their teenagers are so demanding, nasty and surly.
- Adults who want to stop bullying at work by managers and co-workers.
That question is usually asked in the context of, “I’m a nice person; I don’t deserve to be treated that way. Why is that person so nasty to me?”
The apparent perplexity behind the question comes from the idea that we’re supposed to get what we put out, not only in interactions with those we love, who also love us, but also in interactions with everyone in the world. As if, if we’re nice we’re supposed to be treated nicely in return. These people forget that bullies have different agendas and methods.
The hidden fears behind the question are:
- “Maybe I have done something to deserve being harassed and abused; maybe it really is my fault.” Of course, people thinking this way are usually riddled by self-doubt and negative self-talk. Their hidden hope is, “If I knew what I’d done wrong, I could apologize, do what the bully wants, and then they’d treat me nicely.” Their hidden anger comes from deep knowledge, “I didn’t do anything wrong; how dare that bully treat me that way!”
- “If the world is so unfair, it’s out of my control.” Of course, people thinking this way are afraid that they’re not strong enough to thrive in a world that’s dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable. Their hidden hope is that they could control the world if only they learned the magic secrets. Their hidden anger comes from the sense that, “I didn’t ask for this kind of world; I’m entitled to something better and more rational.”
Before I answer “Why do bullies keep abusing us,” let’s understand what bullying is about in a way that helps us stop bullies in their tracks. Distinguish between two questions:
- Why do children try bullying tactics?
- Why do they keep bullying as they grow up?
The way I look at it, babies and children naturally take or demand what they want; they naturally try bullying tactics. That’s necessary for their survival – babies must make us feed and change them whether we want to or not. Children’s survival-level job is to figure out how to get us to give them what they want.
Impulses to bully come up all the time, in all of us. It feels good to be a strong and powerful and simply take what we want. Unless kids are taught how to feel good or how to get what they want by other methods, they’ll continue bullying.
Parents train children how to get what they want; which means how to bully, manipulate, harass or abuse people, or how to negotiate with us to give them what they want. We train them to keep using bullying tactics or to try other methods.
There are three general reasons why children grow up and continue using bullying techniques.
- Bullying is what they see – they see one or both parents bullying successfully or it’s the only tactic they know. Their parents and family don’t teach them not to bully and also don’t teach them better ways to get what they want.
- They keep bullying because bullying succeeds – well-meaning parents, principals and teachers don’t say “No” and they don’t stop the bullying. Sometimes, we may let bullies succeed while we’re negotiating with them or because we’re too tired and worn down to be strong. You’ve seen parents teach children to get cookies, candy or toys by yelling loud enough, throwing hysterical fits or simply taking it from a younger or smaller kid.
- There’s a small group of sociopaths and psychopaths who won’t be teachable in any reasonable length of time, if ever.
Many people say that “Children become bullies because they have low self-esteem. To make themselves feel better, they bully people who are weaker.” This is usually followed by the hope that, “If I understand why bullies bully, I’ll be able to teach bullies why bullying is wrong, and then they’ll stop bullying.” These people typically allow bullies to continue abusing their targets, while they educate, beg, bribe, appease or therapeutize bullies.
Instead, take the focus away from psychotherapy of bullies and focus on stopping bullying first. Teach your kids to protect themselves from kids who haven’t learned impulse control or to use other means to navigate in the world. After you stop the bullying, then you can spend all the time you want rehabilitating individual bullies. As you well know, rehabilitating bullies can take a long time; let’s protect target children and adults right now. Educating bullies begins with stopping them. Their main motivation for learning new tactics is when the old methods no longer succeed.
So why do bullies keep abusing us: Because they’re not stopped by the responsible adults. Also, the responsible adults don’t train the targets and bystanders how to stop the bullies. In addition, principals, teachers and parents often punish the targets for taking matters into their own hands, tongues or fists.
The secret to stopping bullies is to stop them. Be as firm as you need – bullies will show you what you must do to stop them.