Bullying takes many forms. It can be verbal or physical, subtle or overt, mild or extreme. There are some well-tested theories about how people react and relate in groups, and about how group members give up their power of thinking for themselves and pass it on to a leader. This is what happens in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ralph is initially the elected leader of a group of boys stranded on an island. Ralph represents order and productive leadership. As savage feelings gather force, the boys leave Ralph’s group and join Jack’s tribe, with chilling consequences where bullying takes on an extreme form of violence. One of the messages in this novel is that children need adults to help them to manage their more primitive feelings; their powers of rationality are not strong enough and their sense of self is not sufficiently developed to enable them to resist the appeal of a charismatic leader.
In talking about siblings, I have said that parents must take charge to make children feel safer. It is certainly the case that children who are insecure can bully. They may be insecure for all sorts of reasons, but they often respond well to adults taking charge of a situation that might feel beyond their control.
Bullies will often choose as their victims children who are as insecure as they are. It is painful to see your own insecurities mirrored in someone else. When bullies see their own insecurities reflected back at them they are overwhelmed by their unconscious painful feelings and they stop thinking. They hate what they see and they attack it. This may sound cruel, and that is why bullying is hard to manage for many of us. It emerges when more primitive and savage instincts are not balanced with more thoughtful, loving ones.
Sometimes children are bullied who are just a little bit different; it can be that they look different, that they speak unusually, that they have special educational needs, either gifted or struggling. Again, the power of the group is huge. Much safer to be part of the group, safely looking and speaking like everyone else. Some children manage to hold these safe qualities in a powerful way – they are pretty enough, sociable enough and clever enough to be forever in the group and never pushed out. Children who experience any sort of exclusion can look enviously at these more accepted friends, and wonder painfully what it is they need to be accepted too. It is as well to deal with bullying in childhood; bullying patterns can all too easily continue into adult life. When parents see their own children bullying or being bullied, all sorts of childhood experiences are triggered, and these ideally need to be acknowledged before help can be given as a parent. All of us have probably bullied or been bullied and will have some emotional reaction when we encounter it.
Having addressed your own issues with bullying, as a parent you can talk to your child about their experience. You can help your child to be assertive without being aggressive, and you can help to shift the extreme thinking that can arise of hated bully or pitied victim. School bullying policies currently encourage communication between bullies and victims. This can be very helpful in skilled hands. School staff have a lot of experience with bullying and can be helpful, being more distant and less emotionally involved than parents.
Thankfully, most bullying is manageable but some children need more intensive help. Bullying at its worst is traumatic and can have serious consequences on a young person’s emotional well-being. With help, the trauma can be processed and relieved.
Dr Angela Evans
Child & Adolescent Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist
Member of the Association of Child Psychotherapists