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Why Telling on Bullies Backfires

Bullying becomes a bigger problem when adults triangulate

Author's Transparency Declaration: I have a financial interest in a company that offers products and services that may be related to the content of my writings.

Izzy Kalman
Source: Izzy Kalman

An important research study recently made the news. Sibling bullying has been going up in recent years. This follows on the heels of another important study that found that kids who attend schools that have anti-bullying programs are more likely to be bullied than those who attend schools without such programs.

Why is this happening? For the past fifteen years, the modern world has been conducting war against bullying. All of society has embraced the “anti-bullying” message. Schools have been declaring that they won’t tolerate bullying, and that kids must tell the adult authorities whenever they are bullied so they can step in and make the bullying stop. Parenting magazines have been bombarding parents with warnings that they must not tolerate any bullying among their children, that they must intervene immediately whenever it occurs, and that they must get therapy for their children who are bullies. Why is the situation in school and at home getting worse? Shouldn’t it be getting better?

Scientific thinking requires that we consider that our interventions may have unintended negative effects. We don’t just assume that because our intentions are good, the results will be positive. If we implement an intervention intended to solve a problem, but the problem gets worse, we must seriously entertain the possibility that our intervention had something to do with it.

It became clear in the 1930’s that the war against alcohol was causing more harm than good, and the war was abolished. More recently it has become recognized that the war against marijuana has been causing more harm than good, and that war, too, is in the process of being abolished. But because the war against bullying sounds so unquestionably good, we continue intensifying it.

The common wisdom of how to deal with bullying is based not on science but on belief. One of the basic tenets of the anti-bullying creed is that kids must tell adult authorities when they are bullied. While this instruction should be treated as a hypothesis that needs to be tested, bullying researchers treat it like an axiom–a self-evident truth that requires no proof. Despite the huge body of research showing that the popular bullying prevention programs that rely on telling don’t work well–or even increase bullying–telling remains an unshaken foundation of the anti-bullying dogma.

Before I continue, it is important to remember what bullying is today. The word bullying conjures up images of criminal psychopaths committing physical violence against defenseless children. Of course the authorities need to be involved in such cases. But such acts are rare. According to the modern psychological definition used by schools and society, bullying is when people treat you in any way you don’t like.

Thus, most acts of bullying are insults, rumors, gestures, social exclusion and typical childhood aggression that that doesn’t cause injury. Virtually everyone engages in such activities, and we can all be accused of bullying based on the modern criteria. Even many victims of bullying are accused of bullying because they responded aggressively to being bullied.

The established belief is that if kids just told the adults authorities that they are being bullied, the adults would be able to make the bullying stop.

It would be terrific if that were true. And it could be true if the adults actually did what worked most reliably—which is to teach kids how to handle the bullying on their own, without taking their side against those they complain about.

Sometimes telling adult authorities does work. Unfortunately, it often makes the situation worse—sometimes dramatically worse. Examine the bullying cases that made the news because of serious violence. You will discover that the violence almost always occurred after the victims informed the school authorities, who are now required to act like law enforcement agencies, protecting the virtuous victims from the evil bullies and bringing the latter to justice.

The process in which a person tries to rescue an apparent victim from an apparent persecutor in the ordinary hostilities of life (i.e., excluding situations in which criminal violence is occurring) is also known in psychology as triangulation. The rescuer unwittingly intensifies hostilities between the two parties, one party becomes hostile towards the rescuer as well, and the rescuer actually prevents the two parties from figuring out how to solve their problem with each other.

A guaranteed method of getting people to despise you is to tell on them to the authorities. Try it out. The next time your neighbor plays music loudly at night, rather than talking to them directly, call the police on them. See how your neighbors treat you from then on.

Most experts in sibling rivalry recognize that the major cause is triangulation. The parents are the most important people in the lives of both kids. Once the parents get in the middle, playing detective, judge and punisher, each child desperately wants the parent on their side. The kids become prosecuting attorneys against each other, trying to get their sibling in trouble with the most important person in the world to them. As they plead their case, the two sides get angrier at each other. The loser of the judgment becomes angry at the parent as well, and seeks the next opportunity to create a fight in the attempt to get the parent on their side against their sibling. The winner also seeks to create further fights to keep the parent on their side. Thus, the cycle of fighting never ends. The parent is going crazy trying to stop the fighting, not realizing that they are perpetuating and intensifying the fighting.

The same process happens in schools. The very moment a kid informs the school authorities that they are being bullied, the stage is set for matters to become worse. Imagine you and I are kids in school and I tell the school authorities that you are bullying me. Then a school official launches an investigation into your behavior and informs your parents that you are an alleged bully. Are you going to admit your guilt? Are you going to like me better? No. You will hate me and try to blame me. Your parents are also likely to take your side against me. You will inform all your friends that I am a snitch and turn them against me. You will want revenge, possibly by looking for an opportunity to get me in trouble with the school for bullying you. Thus further bullying–worse bullying–is set into motion by the school’s intervention.

However, we have been led to believe that the schools have the power to make bullying stop. Therefore, when the telling backfires and their child gets treated even worse, parents inevitably accuse the school of not doing enough to make the bullying stop. The truth is that the schools are trying very hard to make the bullying stop, but what they do usually makes it worse.

Does this mean that kids should never tell? No. But what counts is whether the adults actually know how to make the situation better.

Unfortunately, most don’t. They believe their responsibility is to play detective and judge––to take the side of the alleged victim against the alleged bully and to punish and/or rehabilitate the latter. Determining objective truth is not a simple matter, as any police detective can tell you, and meting out true justice is also not a simple matter, as any judge can tell you. Investigations and trials almost always result in intensified hostilities among the parties.

The following are rough guidelines for when “telling” is advisable:

  1. It’s always fine for kids to turn to adult authorities if their request is, “Kids in school/my siblings are tormenting me. Please teach me how to make them stop,” and assuming those adults actually know how to teach this to them.
  2. It is important to tell adult authorities when a true crime has been committed, or to prevent a crime from happening. No one is allowed to batter you, rape you, or steal or destroy your valuables. People who do these acts should be apprehended and punished.
  3. If kids see that another child appears to be miserable and isolated, they should tell the adult authorities so that they can try to find out what is happening to that child and provide the help they may need.

Most bullying is not criminal behavior. It is verbal or relational. It goes on throughout the lifetime, not only among kids in school. Kids deserve to be taught how to handle such actions on their own. They also deserve to be taught how to defuse physical threats and confrontations, because there isn’t always going to be an adult around to save them. Their peers will like and respect them much more if they deal with them directly than if they tell on them. And they will have more self-respect as well.

To understand in greater depth how adults unwittingly increase aggression among kids, and how they can reduce it with little effort, please read my free manual, A Revolutionary Guide to Reducing Aggression Among Children.

For a comprehensive explanation of what can cause anti-bullying programs to fail, read, Why Your Anti-Bully Program Is Not Working.

Author's Policies Regarding Comments: 1. I rarely respond to comments because I simply don't have the time. If I don't respond to your comment, please don't take it personally. 2. Psychology Today has a strict policy about nasty comments. I believe in free speech and rarely censor comments, no matter how nasty. Every nasty comment by adults––especially by ardent anti-bullying advocates––illustrates how irrational it is to expect kids to stop engaging in bullying.

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