“There are people in this world who can show their wounds only by inflicting them.”
-- Aurora Levins-Morales
I have been deeply touched by the many responses to my recent post about bullying (here at Psychology Today and on my own blog). So many questions and topics have come up, that rather than responding to specific comments, I thought I would collect them and respond in one post. I see the entire question of bullying as deeply significant, capturing in it so much of what I want to transform in how we overall relate to each other in the world, and to our children in particular. I imagine that every child learns deep lessons from the prevalence of bullying and from seeing how bullying is handled. I want those lessons to be ones that will support them in trusting the possibility of workable systems and human relations, and in their own capacity to make a positive difference in life around them. If even a few parents or teachers are inspired to shift the environment within which bullying happens, it would give me the satisfaction of having made a difference myself. My hope and vision are far bigger, which if you read this blog regularly you already know anyway…
I was asked how I was able to transcend what happened to me and come to a place of being open and vulnerable. I am not surprised this question is coming up. I have pondered some version of this question for years. It seems big and huge to me. While it seems pretty commonly accepted these days that people who act violently toward others were themselves previously traumatized and often abused, it is equally clear that not all those who are abused pass the violence on to others. If I understood fully what made it never appealing for me to inflict harm on others, not even in my fantasies, perhaps I could use this understanding in supporting others. Why is it that what was most painful for me was my inability to understand why anyone would treat me, or anyone else, the way I was treated? Much more painful than the actual experience of leaning against a tree all night and shivering. The more I am able to understand, the more calm there is in my heart.
My friend Aurora Levins-Morales, poet and writer extraordinaire, wrote in her book Medicine Stories about having been tortured as a child, and knowing that her only way to remain human was to resist the temptation to hate her torturers. She understood, even while it was happening, that hating them was the first step toward becoming like them. I feel fortunate never to have hated those who tormented me.
There are specific individuals who bully specific other individuals. To focus on them, and them alone, keeps us blind to the role played by the many who know what is happening and are doing nothing to intervene. As I learned from Dominic Barter, based on his vast experience of implementing restorative systems in Brazil, punitive approaches, and even mediation, remain focused on the individuals, and don’t tend to address the wider community that implicitly allows bullying to flourish. Be it adults who minimize the problem, as so many children and their parents know, or friends who stand and look and do nothing, the fragmentation of many school communities de facto reinforces bullying. It’s the community as a whole that provides the context for bullying, even when the feeling of community is absent. As a result, it seems inevitable to me that true change would come from a systemic shift. Neither ignoring nor punishing create sufficient community support for transforming the climate of bullying.
Each week I have the pleasure and privilege of talking with a dedicated group of individuals about what I write here on my blog. This past Tuesday, while discussing my previous post, someone expressed his skepticism about restorative practices working in situations where bullying takes place. I was puzzled initially about why he would think that. Then I watched The Making and Unmaking of a Bully, a link to which was sent to me in a comment, and now I understand why it’s so hard for him, for all of us, to have compassion for people who bully. As Gordon Neufeld explains, unless we can see the person who bullies from the inside, empathy would be exceedingly difficult, because the behavior of asserting dominance through exploiting vulnerability is so odious to all of us.
Neufeld also tells us that the last thing for a child to do if they are bullied, is to express their feelings to the person who bullied them. According to him, such vulnerability will only serve to increase the pull to continue the bullying.
Enter restorative practices. A profoundly exacting practice, at least the version I know, that creates the conditions for several major transformations to happen. Everyone who is involves participates, and the first piece that gets restored is the awareness of a community that ultimately takes on supporting everyone. Everyone gets heard, regardless of their role in the situation. This includes the one who bullied, who rarely if ever gets a hearing. Everyone takes responsibility for their actions, whether it be choosing to bully, choosing to look the other way, choosing not to tell anyone, or choosing to call it “boys will be boys.” Responsibility means owning the meaning of the actions, what each participant was attempting to create by their actions. In this way, everyone also gets humanized, to everyone. Lastly, everyone participates in creating an action plan designed to restore trust and to make something whole that will work for everyone.
I asked Dominic how successful such programs have been in reducing the incidence of bullying. The two factors I gleaned from what he said are that change tends to happen when bystanders, especially staff, listen and open to seeing their own complicity, and when those who bully begin to see that another way of relating exists for them. The context of a restorative circle greatly increases the chances of these transformations happening, which explains why the incidence of bullying overall appears to decrease in the schools that implement restorative circles.
I was asked how children can be encouraged to “stand up for themselves” or “defend themselves” without risking more bullying and without trampling on someone else. Indeed, short of instigating systemic change in a school or beyond, each parent or adult friend of a child who is bullied is called to find an immediate way to be with that child. I am reminded of what Alice Miller said repeatedly in so many of her books: it is not the trauma itself that creates the scars for life; it’s having no one to talk to about it. Those who have someone to talk with, even in the context of serious abuse, have far greater chances of managing their adult life in a way that works for them, even if nothing can be done to change the circumstances.
When a child experiences being bullied as a personal failure, which apparently many do, and when that combines with the pervasive knowledge that adults don’t respond effectively, the child who is bullied has no one to turn to. As excruciating as it is to see a child we love suffer, one of the comments I received speaks directly to how a mother’s capacity to remain present and relaxed allowed the child to experience the pain and to find far greater strength through this experience.
The inner wound can be prevented or healed in this way, providing a child enough strength and conviction in their fundamental human belonging to withstand bullying without being permanently? harmed. The idea that a child could “stand up for themselves” bespeaks the deeply embedded notion that we must find solutions as individuals. Again, since bullying happens within a larger context, it seems to me that a larger context would be necessary to transform it.
The toughest part of the entire bullying dilemma is how to respond to those who bully. Part of the challenge, as I see it, is that we are habituated to create a dichotomy between compassion and responsibility. Compassion appears to many of us to mean letting someone “off the hook”, whereas responsibility seems to mean punitive consequences which would get diluted and rendered ineffective if kindness were to be introduced into the equation. The impulse to punish is based on wanting to protect the bullied child by getting the behavior to stop, and believing that delivering consequences will deter the behavior.
Neufeld points out to us that dealing with the behavior without attending to its causes doesn’t change anything. Instead, understanding the causes of bullying and reversing the conditions that support it are the only way forward. I have a somewhat different understanding of those causes from Neufeld’s. My basic foundation is the clarity I have that no one would ever bully, nor engage in any other harmful behavior, if all their needs were met to their satisfaction, especially developmentally. I believe Neufeld and I differ on which are the unmet human needs that are implicated in bullying. I am more influenced here by Gilligan, whose book I have already recommended here several times: Violence: Our Deadly Epidemic and Its Causes. I am appreciating the deep and nuanced insight into the unbearability of vulnerability that typifies specifically bullying behavior.
With all this, my first question about supporting children who bully is this: How can we communicate to this child that we fundamentally want their well-being? If we communicate anything less, the child will, understandably, look at us - whether parent, teacher, or any other member of the community - as an enemy to defend from. This requires us to work through our own aversion and come to a place of true tenderness toward the bully, regardless of how much the behavior is abhorrent to us. This can only be done through seeing the immense suffering which no doubt underlies bullying.
Then, when we have that level of trust established with the child, my second question is: How can we open this child’s heart to their own anguish? If, as Neufeld and Gilligan agree on from somewhat different perspectives, the move toward violence rests on intense shame and difficulty in being in touch with one’s vulnerability, then softening that heart again seems essential to shifting the pattern.
Another essential piece, for me, though it’s not directly mentioned by Neufeld, is: How can we create the conditions that allow this child to see and understand the effects of their action? Knowing how abhorrent vulnerability is to this child, clearly opening to their own is essential for their ability to see and integrate the suffering of the child who was bullied. Otherwise that suffering only serves to keep them protected and immune to connection, since the other child’s suffering is the best antidote they know to their own suffering. It seems to me that the restorative circles provide a highly effective way to create those conditions, since the child who bullied is included as an equal who will be heard and respected with all the others, as well as expected to take responsibility.
Lastly, supporting the child who bullies, in the long run, includes changing the environment in a way that greatly discourages bullying. This goes back to the systemic context within which bullying happens. A strong community is a safety net for the child who bullies no less than the one who gets bullied.
Within this context, I see three roles for adults to play. First, is to model what they want the children to do. As was evident from one long comment, even a school that has empathy, emotional literacy, and mediation programs can have bullying going on when those values and behaviors are not integrated and modeled by the adults.
Second, it is the adults who will be called upon to take bullying seriously and to support everyone affected. I want every child who gets bullied to have at least one adult they can turn to who will listen, be present, comfort, encourage, and surround them with love. I want no child ever again to be asked to handle bullying on their own. Similarly, I want every child who bullies to have a place where they can know beyond any shred of doubt that they can be loved and accepted even after creating so much harm. I want this for everyone who has ever harmed another, most certainly for those who are early in their life and hopefully can have remarkably different experiences that will allow them to grow into caring adults. I want every child who bullies to also be invited into opening their heart, fully, to themselves and to those they have harmed. I can only imagine how excruciating a journey recovering from bullying others can be, and I wish it for every child whose life has led them to bullying as the only strategy to maintain emotional safety.
Lastly, adults are ultimately the ones to create the systemic changes that will discourage bullying. I can understand why this would be tough. Administrators are already balancing so many demands and requirements from all over the place, and taking bullying seriously is yet one more thing to handle. Teachers are beset, usually, with many more children to handle than they possibly can manage, and where can they find the inner space and time to address bullying effectively? Parents, the ones who are most likely to have the motivation to take action, especially parents of children who are bullied, have a huge uphill struggle to get teachers and administrators to listen, a struggle in which they often fail. Parents, like everyone else, struggle with wanting to be liked, and it’s so difficult to take on being the problem parent. Even if they start, persisting in the face of being told “no” requires a kind of strength few of us have without massive support from others.
Beyond these specific struggles, I would have to believe that another major obstacle to overcome, for all adults involved, would be to face their own childhood wounds and undigested experiences. Cruelty among children, even if perhaps exacerbated by the alienated conditions of our current culture, is not new. Neufeld reminds us that bullying happens in all mammals. If we are to support our children in having different experiences and learning from the challenging ones they do have, we will all be called upon to open our own hearts, to ourselves, to our bullied children, and to our children who bully. Neufeld suggests that finding their tears is what most reliably stops bullying acts. Perhaps all of us will need to find our tears and shed them so as to bring our natural, instinctive caring to the foreground, and ensure a future for all of us.