Venting, like catharsis, seems so natural: we all blow off steam sometimes. And when we finish, we usually heave a great sigh of relief.
But to me, the real questions are, “What’s the point of venting?” and “Can it help stop bullies?
I think of venting as a process, or part of a process, not as a result in and of itself.
Tens of thousands of years ago, we might have vented our fear and anger through physical action. Get rid of the adrenaline, calm down and decide what to do. But we still had to be careful and keep ourselves in check enough while we’re venting to see the signs of saber-toothed tigers or giant bears or we wouldn’t be around to vent again.
Or we might have used a big club to whack an opponent and then face the consequences of that rash act.
Nowadays, we can still use some techniques like physical effort to release steam and calm us down. For example, working off adrenaline by banging a ball or running or boxing. In addition, a wise woman once said that whenever she got angry, she vacuumed her house. That way, when she finished being angry, she’d have a clean house and she could focus on what to do next.
Some people use anger and venting to give themselves enough energy to stop harassment and bullying. In that case, it does help us stop bullies. A classic example might be Ralphie Parker in the movie, “The Christmas Story.” In that case, he channeled his anger effectively and vented while he was beating up the bully. But usually, when we act from anger we’re not strategic; we do dumb things that make the situation worse.
Therefore we must challenge ourselves to stop repeated replaying and re-venting over the same incidents and injustices. Repeated venting without effective action becomes narcissistic whining and complaining, which becomes boring and self-destructive.
Such repetition drives our good friends away. I think it was Annie Liebovitz who said, “Spilling your guts is about as attractive as it sounds.”
We most also be wary of hanging out with people who vent repeatedly. Yes, injustice might have been done, but we still have to move on effectively in life – either fight the injustice effectively or go in a different direction successfully.
I’ve met too many people who have filled their lives and many hours of psychoanalysis in endless probing and catharsis. They seem to assume that if only they vent enough, finally they’ll come to rest in peace on the other side. Too often they end up knowing everything about some sides of themselves, but never having changed their behavior, fixed the situation or created wonderful lives. A life of verbal and righteous indignation is not a very fruitful life.
I’m more focused on overtly using techniques for moving to the other side and rapidly taking effective action.
Parents who bully children, and parents who bully and abuse each other are all too common, but an often unrecognized bullying situation is teenagers who bully their parents, especially their single parents.
Of course, teenage girls can be manipulative bullies, but for a typical example, let’s focus on a 19 year-old boy who is mentally and physically capable of being independent but who’d rather sponge off his mother and lead an easy life at home. He’s not working enough to support himself, he’s not succeeding in full-time school and he’s not struggling sixteen hours a day to become an Olympic champion. He’s merely hanging out trying to have a good time every moment.
They’re good at arguing. They want to convince you that “love” and “support” mean that you give them money. You have to love and give to them, but they don’t have to give anything in return. Their hidden assumption is that if you can’t make them agree with any changes, they don’t have to change. They’re masters of whining, complaining and blaming others, especially you, for their problems.
They’re great emotional blackmailers: “A good, loving mother would take care of me while I’m getting it together. A caring mom would help me.” They’re also master manipulators of your fear that, if you don’t cater to them, they’ll fail in life and it’ll be your fault, not theirs: “I need your love to keep me away from bad company. If you kick me out, I’ll be emotionally damaged.” They’ll subtly hint that they’ll commit suicide if you don’t coddle them. They always have a friend who has a “good mother” taking care of him.
Your caring and fear make their arguments seductive. No matter how much you had to struggle on your own to be successful, it’s easy to think that if you only give them one more chance, they’ll finally wake up and get it. So you give him one more chance – over and over and over.
In my experience, one path in dealing with healthy, intelligent teenage boys almost guarantees failure. That’s the path of giving them what they want. The more you let them leech off your energy, wallet and good will, the softer they’ll become, the harder it will be for them to become strong and independent, the greater the chances that they’ll fall in with other lazy losers. The more you give them, the more lazy, entitled and spoiled they’ll become.
In my experience, the path that has the greatest probability of success is to kick those little birds out of the nest before they grow too big for their fledgling wings. They’ve already grown too big for the nest. In order to fly, they need to strengthen their wings by use under pressure and stress.
Of course there’s a risk. They might fail and turn to drugs, booze or burglary to support themselves. They might give in to depression. But, in my experience, staying home wouldn’t prevent that. Leeching off you will only make them weaker.
Confidence and self-esteem are developed by succeeding at real and difficult challenges in which there’s a chance of failing. Staying at home avoids important, meaningful challenges.
Some of the things to say to them when you tell them they’re moving out, depending on the circumstances, are:
“I know that inside you, you have this great one of you struggling to take charge of your life. Now’s your chance for that ‘you’ to take over. Struggle and succeed. I’d rather you struggle and prove me wrong while hating me, than that you love me and stay here as a whining, complaining loser.” Use the word “loser” a lot. Challenge them to prove you wrong.
“This is not a discussion or a debate; you don’t get to vote. This is definitely not fair according to you. I know you think I don’t understand your side of it or how hard it is in today’s economy, but that’s the way it is. I’m protecting myself from my own flesh and blood, who’d suck me dry if I let him. You can try to argue but it won’t change anything. It’ll just waste your time. If you threaten me or damage the house, I’ll call the police and there’ll be no going back.” Don’t engage in debate. Walk away.
“I love you and this is scary for me, but that fear won’t stop me. If you become a loser, just like (fill in the blank), I’ll be sad and cry that you wasted your life, but I won’t feel guilty. I won’t regret what I’m doing.” Then walk away.
“I’m going to have a joyous, good time in my life. After you move out, if you make it fun for me, I’ll take you out to a restaurant sometimes or have you over for a good meal. But if you nag at me and make it a rotten time, I won’t want to waste my time with you. Your job is to make it fun for me to be with you. Yes, that’s blackmail. You pay for my attention, kindness and money. Be the nicest to people who are closest. Be nicer and sweeter to me than you would be to a stranger. Suck up to me as if you want something from me. You do. Even if you can prove to me logically that it’s not fair, that’s the way it is.”
“You, my beloved son, are now facing the choice we all face in life at this age. Will you settle for being a loser with a good excuse – your mother didn’t love or suckle you enough – or will you be a winner despite your mother? Every one of your ancestors faced this. Your ancestors lived through plague, famine, flood, war and slavery. They lived through worse than you. I know you have the stuff of a hero in you. Your choice is whether you bring that out and succeed, or to be a whining, petulant, blaming loser.”
You have the body and mind of an adult. You want to make adult choices in living the life you want. Now you’re being tested. Being an adult means taking care of yourself financially and physically. You probably didn’t prepare yourself. That’s your problem. I could never teach you anything because you never listened to me when I gave you good advice. We both know that. You think you know everything. You think you know what’s best for you. Now prove it. The less you learned useful skills, the more you’ll have to struggle now. So what? That’s just struggle. I hope you’ll grow strong by struggling.”
Mom, make a specific plan. For example, “You must be out by (date). If not, I’ll throw your stuff out the window and call the police if I have to. No negotiation. No promises. We allow little children to get by on promises and potential. When they’re 13 or so, we start demanding performance. Now that you’re 19, I demand performance. Your performance earns what you get.” Mom, don’t give in to satisfy one more promise. Think through what you’ll give, if anything, and under what conditions. My bottom line is, “Make me enjoy it and I’ll consider it. Beat me up, physically or verbally, and you get nothing.” The more calm you are, the better. If he can get you upset, he’ll think he can win again…as usual.
Stepchildren can jerk your chain more. A couple that disagrees strongly (one stern and one permissive) can be the worst case scenario.
This is a start. Because all solutions depend on the specifics of the situation, you will need coaching. Some circumstances that might alter your plans are if your teenager is not physically or mentally competent or needs extensive mental health counseling or is 13-16 or is a girl or there are drugs or alcohol involved or there are younger children at home?
Stay strong and firm. Don’t let him move back in even for a just week or month. It’ll reinforce the laziest in them and it’ll become permanent.
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.
In his recent ABC news opinion column, “Want to Stop Bullies?” Lee Dye cites new studies that claim that:
Girls are more likely than boys to intervene to stop bullying than boys are.
Girls intervene more because they’re expected to by their parents, best friends and favorite teachers.
Popular males are more likely to pick on weaker boys, while unpopular, weaker but aggressive boys are more likely to pick on girls.
Of course. So what?
I’m glad Mr. Dye is speaking out and I share his desire to stop bullies and harassment, bullying and abuse in schools.
The reason I’m sarcastic is that I think these studies, done by interviewing 269 middle school students in four schools in North Central Florida, are typical of the thought process and pseudo-scientific research that says that if we knew more we could design better programs to stop bullies. And they imply that we can’t have successful anti-bullying programs until we have more research.
However, this research adds nothing we didn’t already know. And the generalizations are contradicted by evidence from the recent suicide deaths of four girls in Schenectady, New York.
We already know that getting the kids involved in anti-bullying programs is critical. We already know that it’s crucial to teach children what to do when they are bystanders and see bullying. In order to incorporate that knowledge into anti-bullying programs, we don’t need to wait until there’s more pseudo-science research to prove that point.
In summary, we know that it’s everyone’s job to stop bullying in schools and everyone’s help is necessary, especially the kids. No one group can make a program work if the other members of the local community resist or are uncaring. The programs in New Hampshire are only the latest reports documenting what we know already.
Successful programs have the seven elements crucial to success:
The programs specify acceptable and unacceptable behavior
The biggest problem in stopping bullies is not the lack of research about bullying: It’s the lack of skillful effort being put forth by the most caring people. At many schools, well-meaning principals and teachers need to join forces with a core group of parents to get programs in motion. At other schools, frustrated and angry parents need to rally other parents in order to force uncaring or cowardly school district administrators and principals to make effective school policies and then take act promptly and strongly.