While many families look forward to the possibilities the new school year brings, some children dread the arrival of September for fear they'll encounter the school bully. Paul Coughlin is founder of The Protectors, an organization that promotes faith-based solutions to bullying. In a recent interview with the 700 Club, Coughlin shared insights on the nature of bullying and how parents, teachers and peers can effectively intervene.
Q: You say bullying is not always physical intimidation. What are some other forms of bullying?
A: Most bullying is verbal, not physical, which is why it’s so important to help our children learn how to not respond with a public display of pain or anguish, and if they do, to provide quick and effective verbal comebacks that defend their own dignity and at the same time do not escalate the problem. Another popular form of bullying is excluding and isolating other kids.
Q: You believe that parents who coddle their kids are unwittingly making them targets of bullying. How so?
A: Coddling, or over-parenting, often makes children psychologically fragile and unsure of how they fit into the world around them. It tends to breed an insecure and non-assertive orientation toward the world around them, and non-assertive children are among the prime targets of bullies.
Q: Why are some kids singled out by bullies?
A; Most serial bullies are highly predatory and selective of who, how and when they intentionally harm another person over time. They target people who they are confident will not push back and accept their abuse. Such targets tend to be passive and unsure of themselves and have few if any friends who will defend them.
Among the most bullied group of kids in any organization will be physically and mentally challenged children, most of whom have no real relationship to their bullies. Such people are targets because contrary to what many of us have been told, bullies possess average to excessive self-esteem. Many believe they are superior to others.
Some bullies are more brazen and audacious. Motivated by jealousy and envy, they will sometimes target more popular students. Why are they willing to take such additional risk? Their excessive pride and arrogance compel them to take great risk in their attempt to wrestle attention away from others. They possess an entitled mindset that causes them to believe that they are more important and valuable than others. Unfortunately, they can be difficult to reform. In some cases we should stop calling it bullying and call it what it really is: pre-criminal behavior. It’s worth noting that serial bullies are five times more likely to commit a major crime by their middle 20s, and four times more likely to abuse their future spouse and children.
Q: On the other side of the issue, why do some kids become bullies?
A: Bullies tend to, but not always, have parents who are coercive and possess a dominating and superior orientation toward others. So their children grow up with parents who model bullying. Bullies can also come from homes where there is lack of adult supervision, especially male supervision. Some studies have connected inordinate consumption of violent media to bullying.
What can really help us understand why some people bully and others don’t is to think of the ring in the popular novel and movie series, Lord of the Ring. The ring represents dark power, and the more one puts it on, the more perverted that person becomes. Many kids try on the ring of bullying. They feel the rush of power, pleasure and even glee that comes from dominating and humiliating another person. C.S. Lewis called this the Diabolical Self. But most kids take the ring off. Their conscience catches up with them. Serial bullies, however, keep the ring on. The pleasure they receive from intentionally harming another is simply too powerful and pleasurable for them to resist.
Q: Bullying isn’t just something that kids have to deal with while they are in school. What are some of the lasting effects of bullying?
A: Studies show that targets of serial bullying have greater difficulty forging lasting adult relationships. Specifically, they struggle greatly with trusting others, anger management, and especially resentment, which is one of the negative emotions that tether people to drug and alcohol abuse. A recent letter from the mother of an adult bullying survivor (ABS) puts a face to the under-reported problem. “Can you help my son? He has lots of anger, difficulty with social interaction and relationships, deep-seated resentment, self-hatred, is haunted by guilt and shame, and retreats into obsessive behavior when hurting.” Some never fully recover from what happened to them.
Q: Many targets of bullying don’t speak out about it. How can parents tell if their child is one of them--or if their child is a bully?
A: Common signs of bullying include sudden outbursts of anger where they didn’t exist before, unexplained injuries, torn clothing and unexplained missing or broken personal items. A sudden drop in academic performance, a lack of interest in school and a desire to miss or leave school are also indicators.
Signs that your child is bullying are harder to ascertain. Signs could include how your child speaks about other people as if they aren’t fully human. One of the universal words used by bullies to describe others is that the targets of their disdain are “animals.”
Serial bullies will eventually be discovered, so look for patterns. They are adept at explaining away their behavior as “No big deal,” “I was just playing around,” and how the target is “such an idiot--no one likes her anyway.” If officials come to you and tell you that your child is suspected or guilty of bullying, your child is probably a bully.
Q: You say that the traditional ways of solving the problem by trying to reform bullies are ineffective. What’s the right way?
A: Unfortunately, serial bullies are not easily reached through appeals to peace, love and understanding. They listen to power, limits and consequences. They need to see that the pain of continuing to abuse others is worse than the pain of giving it up. So bullies need to know why stopping is good for them. Explain to them that statistics show that they are headed for a life of crime if they don’t stop, as well as broken relationships and drug and alcohol abuse.
Ultimately, serial bullies do not need more self-esteem. They need greater humility and humility is expressed by apologizing to their target(s).
Q: How can kids stand up to being bullied?
A: Since most bullying is verbal, they need to learn how to handle verbal attacks. They need to learn to appear more confident and assertive. And sometimes this means not responding to bullying and pretending that it doesn’t bother them. Bullies want a public display of pain, anguish and humiliation. Help your child learn how to not give this to them. And sometimes assertive but non-violent verbal comebacks are appropriate. One is, “Whatever.” It’s dismissive without escalating the dialogue. And it’s short. Bullies want a long, drawn out response. Don’t give it to them.
Martial arts can be effective as well in ways that some don’t realize. Instead of drawing a child into physical battle, martial arts can actually help a child carry himself or herself with greater confidence and self-assurance. It can help them put off a different “vibe” around peers, making them less likely to be bullied.
Q: 85% of bullying takes place in front of someone else. What role do bystanders play in bullying?
A: Bystanders have the most potential power of all four “characters” (Bully, Target, Authority and Bystander) in what The Protectors calls the “Theater of Bullying.” One study shows that if one bystander (they don’t have to be big or popular) stands up, using assertive but non-violent words while defending a target that the incident of bullying can end 58% of the time within 6-8 seconds. The Protectors takes this power and multiplies it by using the “Power of Two,” where two bystanders join together and defend others. This unique approach of turning bystanders into what we call “Alongside Standers” is changing schools across America and the world.
Q: What are kids supposed to do in instances of cyber bullying?
A: Targets should document every incident. This doesn’t mean they should act upon every case of cyber bullying. But if they do plan to act, they will be better able to prove a pattern of predatory behavior against them. It is usually best for targets not to respond to cyber bullying.
Bystanders should treat cyber bullying the same way they should treat face-to-face bullying. They should stand against it. Imagine if two or three people saw a classmate being bullied on Facebook and they intervened with assertive but non-violent words such as, “That’s wrong. Leave her alone.” Bullies aren’t planning on dealing with multiple people. They are likely to stop what they’re doing.
Q: What can parents do to help?
A: Parents of targets should document every incident of bullying and explain to their child that this doesn’t mean that we’re going to act upon every example. It just means that in the future, if we do plan to act, that we will have a much stronger case. They need to explain that there might come a time for action, and that their child will have a say in that decision. This will help their child feel less apprehensive.
Parents of targets should help their child learn how to appear stronger through assertive body language and words. Sometimes this will mean that their children will need to learn how to “Fake it till they make it.” The Protectors can show them how.
Some targets have few if any friends. If this is the case, help your child forge more friendships, which could mean making your home a more kid-friendly place where kids want to come and hang out.
They also need to find out if their child is what we call a “provocative target.” This means that how they behave provokes their classmates. It doesn’t justify the bullying, but it does help put the behavior into context. For example, I know a girl who would correct her classmates’ grammar when they spoke out loud in class. This provocative behavior angered some of her classmates, who in turn bullied her.
If you suspect this is the case with your child, meet with his or her teacher(s) and ask. Then--and this is very important--don’t argue. Take the information to heart and help your child avoid this behavior in the future.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.
Visit Sandy's website for reluctant entertainers at: http://www.reluctantentertainer.com