Reflections of an ex-bully

Perhaps a little insight can help parents and students understand how to deal with bullies and help their bullied child

I’m a bully. Reformed.I was bullied. In fact, in the small town in Nebraska where I grew up—I’m 49 now—I feel I lived in a culture of bullying and violence. And it started young, with parental corporal punishment a simple fact of life. I was a weirdo from day one, and I think that the other kids (and adults) sensed that I rarely felt at ease.

Bullying, from my point of view, is about power. It’s about the powerful exerting their influence through abusive actions to force the less powerful to conform. “Less powerful” can mean smaller, shyer, nicer, heavier, weirder, more sensitive, smarter, effeminate or butch—any individual who doesn’t fit into the bully’s unbridled definition of acceptable normality. That’s why the new kid sometimes gets bullied. He or she is outside the bully’s experience, and therefore different by nature. It is truly nothing personal.

This is the first point: Bullies are not born. They are created by other bullies.

The bully culture is underpinned by the American culture of survival of the fittest. Schools are almost without exception designed to create a hierarchy, a rich environment for bullying to take place. First, there are the teachers who are tasked with keeping order and have wide latitude in how they enforce discipline and correct behavior. Some of the emotional and physical abuse I suffered at the hands of teachers—one nun in particular—would probably get the teacher jailed today. But often, those teachers and coaches set the stage for other bullies by singling out a student for “socialization,” insinuating that the other students exert peer pressure to bring the student into line.

But children and young people do not understand social indoctrination, and I don’t think most have the self-awareness to understand how their own behavior affects others. This includes both the bullies and the bullied. As insane as it may sound, bullies often think they are helping the people they bully.

Here’s an example: In the hierarchy of high school, seniors are larger physically, have more experience fitting in, and have more hormonal control than younger students, particularly freshmen. They are tasked by adult administration and teachers, sometimes tacitly, sometimes overtly, with showing the younger students how to act. My school had a formal night where the seniors took the freshmen out and treated them poorly, although I think the tradition died the year after I took part. Seniors only have their own experience to inform them how to get particular behavior out of their subordinates. And in this structure, it’s likely they suffered someone who was better at getting an action though violence, teasing and threats.

All this creates fear and uncertainty. Younger students never know when their behavior is going to be corrected or even which behavior or unchangeable aspect of their looks or personality is going to be judged wanting.

This is the second point: Bullies are afraid. This is true on a couple of levels. First, the bully was taught fear by parents, teachers, and older bullies. Second, there’s the fear of the “other” among the bullies—that new kid, for example. And the randomness of the bullying creates fear among the bullied, but more than that, it spawns a situation where the kid loses confidence in him- or herself, sometimes blaming themselves for the bullying they suffer. The problem is the things that are most likely to draw the bullies’ attention are completely outside of the bullied person’s control: No one can help their newness, their acne, their skin color, their knock-knees or perceived sexual orientation.

And the fear begets anger. The frustration caused by not knowing where, when or even why discipline is going to be administered creates a constant feeling of unfocused resentment—which can be exhibited in self-destructive behavior, acting out, and continuation of the bullying cycle.

I have never experienced the Facebook-bullying phenomenon, but I find discussions of it analogous to the relationship between a child and emotionally or physically abusive caretakers. When the bullying takes place at home and at school and on the cell phone, 24/7/365, the student—for whom years are interminable—can lose hope. And those tragedies are the stories we are hearing and reading about so much these days.

For the parent of a bullied child or for the child, an awareness that bullying starts at the top of the systemic structure of schools, home and society may be enough to temper the horrible feelings of powerlessness and inevitable loss of self-esteem. The best way to combat bullying is to go after the teachers, coaches and administrators who generate the bully culture though approval or ignoring the bullying that goes on under their noses, and if the parent or student does not get relief, to move up the ladder. The answer to proactively combating bullying is constant awareness and training for administrators, teachers, parents and students.

Bullying’s effects are lifelong—even if it’s only the guilt someone carries about the torture they inflicted on others when they didn’t have the self-awareness or empathy to recognize that they were hurting others and themselves.