Although I am discussing my work here, the point of view is my own, and this is not an official statement of the Pittsburgh Youth Study.
As the data manager of a long-term research study, I recently helped to write this academic paper: Bullying Perpetration and Victimization as Predictors of Delinquency and Depression in the Pittsburgh Youth Study. What we found, looking at data collected from the 503 men we’ve been interviewing repeatedly since they were in first grade, is that bullies are more likely than non-bullies to grow up to be criminals, and bullying victims are more likely than non-victims to grow up to be depressed. That’s not really surprising, is it? But it’s good to add to the hard scientific evidence that bullying is a serious problem with lifelong consequences. This whole issue of the Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research was a special issue on school bullying, with 7 more articles on the subject.
I had been kind of thinking I should write something about bullying that might be read by people who don’t read dull academic journals. But I felt very shy about it and afraid to admit that, well, I know there’s a problem and can prove there’s a problem but can’t claim I ever solved this problem for myself or anybody and tried so many things that didn’t work and when I even think about it I get so scared and what if–
Luckily, today I happened to stumble across a site with this series of articles:
- Memoirs of a Bullied Kid describes the author’s own childhood experiences and what he’s learned as an adult about how to solve the problem of bullying.
- Bullies. “Their not even human.” follows up on some comments he received arguing against the idea that bullies are real people who need love. Included in this article is a comment from a 14-year-old boy who admits that he has been a bully because he feels nobody likes him and he’s sort of wanted to provide a reason for that, but now he is vowing to stop bullying and apologize.
- What should the bullied do? clarifies that although bullies need love to heal, the author does not believe that the victims themselves are in a position to provide that love to their bullies.
I’m so glad Dan Pearce wrote these articles so I don’t have to! I was not bullied quite so consistently as he was, and I had more support from friends and adults, but the experiences and feelings he describes are painfully familiar to me. His argument that both victims and bullies need to feel loved and respected as people fits with our research finding that bullies tend to be poorly supervised by their parents, experience low levels of parental reinforcement (when parents draw attention to a child’s good behavior, instead of ignoring him until he does something wrong), and have trouble communicating about feelings with their parents. In my years of working with data from guys some of whom grew up to do some terrible things–but all of whom were six years old once–I’ve come to understand that even the worst thug has a real person inside, and I know this must be true of the people who picked on me, too . . . but that doesn’t make it easy for me to love them, so somebody else is going to have to get on that! One of the insidious effects of bullying is that it makes the victim fear she is to blame for everything–for not being normal enough to avoid the bully’s attention, for reacting strongly to the teasing so that it’s rewarding for the bully to continue, etc.–so I’m very grateful for that third article explaining why victims must not be pressured with the idea that they wouldn’t get bullied if they’d just love the bullies enough.
I wish I had all kinds of remarkable insights into bullying that could prevent anyone from ever having to experience it again. I don’t. I still get bullied once in a while, by so-called grown-ups, and every time it stirs up the same horrible overwhelming swirl of self-doubt and helpless rage. One of my greatest fears as a mother is that my child will be bullied and I won’t be able to make it stop. It’s hard to recover completely from that fear.
But love helps. Love tells us that we are, too, good-enough people; we don’t deserve to be intimidated and humiliated. Love helps us understand that cutting down other people doesn’t really make us bigger. Although it’s impossible for me to feel love for most of the people who have bullied me, at least I can turn from imagining violent revenge to imagining them getting from someone the love they need to turn them away from hurting people.
UPDATE: This article is now linked to the Empty Your Archive collection of bullying articles–where it is the first article linked because all the other topics are more popular. Just seeing that empty space under the headline “Bullying” makes me feel scared–like there might not be any help available for bullying victims, like I might be the only one, like I might end up all alone in that empty space with everybody pointing and laughing at me…but I am going to be brave and be the first one to step in there!
I’m also going to add to this article something I wrote recently, in a comment on an article whose author had described her one year at a school where she and most other students were victims of almost-incessant bullying as a “formative experience” shaping who she is as an adult:
Being bullied definitely has had an effect on how I see myself and how I expect other people to treat me–in particular, when someone mistreats me in a way that seems particularly random and cruel, I tend to feel like I must be a bad person.
BUT it’s important to me not to allow bullying to be my most important formative experience, because I am determined not to let myself be defined by being a victim. I often think of this Suzanne Vega song:
If you were to kill me now, right here,
I would still look you in the eye.
And I would burn myself into your memory
As long as you were still alive.
I would live inside of you.
I’d make you wear me like a scar.
I would burn myself into your memory
And run through everything you are.
That helps me feel that the bullying defined them, not me, and it is the bullies who will never be able to escape what they have done. It also makes me feel strong and powerful, which reminds me that I have learned I can endure even when things happen to me that shouldn’t happen to anyone–shouldn’t, but did, yet I am still here, so there!
When I was a senior in high school, a boy who had bullied me extensively in seventh grade apologized to me. That was sweet. Forgiving him felt almost as good as hearing that he now valued me as a person and thought I deserved kindness.