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How to Stop False Accusations in Their Tracks

Teaching this to children can turn the tables on a bully.

Key points

  • When people don't know how to respond to a false accusation it can escalate into relentless bullying, even leading to suicide.
  • Turning to the school to put a stop to the accusations can unwittingly cause an intensification of the problem.
  • The natural inclination is to defend oneself from a false accusation, but the act of defense actually encourages repetition of the accusation.
  • To stop a false accusation, turn the tables on the accuser by asking, "Do you believe it?"
Photo by Liza Summer/ Pexels free image
Source: Photo by Liza Summer/ Pexels free image

Many serious cases of bullying begin with a false accusation. Kids and adults alike have become victims of relentless bullying, and some have even taken their own lives, because of bullying that began with an accusation. Lawsuits against schools for failing to put a stop to bullying have proliferated. In virtually all such lawsuits, the school is accused of doing little or nothing to stop the bullying, while the school insists that it has zero tolerance for bullying and followed mandated procedures.

One of the most highly publicized youth suicides of recent times was that of 15-year-old Nate Bronstein, a student at the prestigious Chicago prep school, The Latin School. Originating with a false accusation of being unvaccinated against Covid-19, the hostilities against him quickly intensified, leading to his suicide. Bronstein's parents are now suing the school for $100 million.

Another lawsuit is being brought against the Newport High School in Washington. The parents of the boy are suing because they allege the school failed to protect him from months of relentless bullying that began with a false accusation by an ex-girlfriend that he “once hit her arm and pushed her.”

But these two incidents are mere drops in the bucket. Imagination is the limit when it comes to the types of accusations that have led to bullying, and such accusations, whether true or false, are a highly common catalyst of bullying and suicides. Unfortunately, schools often fail to solve the problem.

The failure of the field of bullying psychology

Schools are not acting blindly when dealing with bullying. The policies they follow and programs they implement have been developed by the field of bullying psychology, which has led the war against bullying for 23 years now, since its launch in response to the Columbine massacre of 1999. The psychological sciences have, at best, been treading water when it comes to vanquishing bullying. More likely, they have been making bullying worse

As a recent headline in the Sioux City Journal asks, “Is Bullying Getting Out of Hand?” Another, from WJHL11 in Tennessee, informs us, “KCS Data: Bullying cases up compared to pre-pandemic years.” Yet another, from WTKR3 in North Carolina, tells us, “Declining reports of bullying does not reflect reality, Virginia parents, teachers say.”

The problem of bullying is not getting better after all these years. Why?

The mistake of defense

We must consider the possibility that the failure of anti-bullying psychology lies in its own teachings and recommendations.

One of its basic tenets is that victims get bullied because they are incapable of defending themselves, so the solution is for everyone in school to defend them from the alleged bullies.

This assumption is fundamentally flawed.

Defending the victim from those they accuse of abusing them rarely puts a stop to hostilities. The natural thing for us to do when accused of wrongdoing is to defend ourselves and blame the accuser. Have you ever watched what goes on in a court trial? Each side insists they are innocent and the other is guilty. The judge may arrive at a verdict, but the two sides remain antagonists. The loser of the trial is even angrier at the winner and angry at the judge as well. The same thing happens in schools when they play court of law in bullying complaints. Additionally, an informing student often earns a reputation as a snitch, which can be a social death sentence.

A second reason requires us to understand how an accusation escalates into bullying.

Someone makes an accusation against us. We get upset and instinctively defend ourselves, insisting it’s not true. The purpose of our defense is to put a stop to the accusation. Instead, the very act of defense encourages the person to continue making the accusation, and others may end up joining in as well. That’s because the defensive position is the weaker one, so the attacker feels empowered and incentivized to continue. Secondly, defense is an action taken against an enemy, so the accuser, in turn, treats us as an enemy by repeating the attack.

Are our instincts defective?

You may wonder why we make the mistake of instinctively defending ourselves from accusations. Didn't our instincts develop to help us succeed?

Yes, they did. But they were formed during our prehistoric lives, in a natural world where there are no laws against violence. Creatures eat each other for dinner and defense is necessary for self-preservation.

The instincts designed to help us win in nature can cause us to lose in civilization because the social rules are different. Today, we have laws against violence and we don’t eat each other for dinner. Sure, we still need to defend ourselves in the rare instance that someone tries to injure us physically or harm our possessions. In general, though, we don’t need to fear each other as we did in nature.

Most attacks in civilized life are verbal, as with the kids in the news stories cited. By defending ourselves from verbal attacks, we unwittingly take the weaker position, and thus our instincts cause us to lose rather than win.

The “magic response” to false accusations

How do we help a child who is facing false accusations? It’s by teaching them to use what I refer to as a magic response: “Do you believe it?” This response immediately turns the tables on the accusers, putting them in a defensive position.

A great way to teach this is through roleplay. Let’s say you are a counselor assigned to help a student facing an accusation. Put them in the bully role while you play the victim. The simulation has two stages.

Stage One: Defensive response (It may go as follows):

Counselor: Let’s say we’re both students. You are going to accuse me of having cheated on a test, and don’t let me stop you.

Student: You cheated on the math test!

Counselor: No, I didn’t!

Student: I don’t believe you! You suck at math! There’s no way you could have passed without cheating!

Counselor: That’s not true! I am good at math! I don’t need to cheat!

Student: Yes, you do!

Counselor: No, I don’t! Why are you saying that?

Student: Because you always fail math!

Counselor: No, I don’t! That’s a lie!

Student: No, it isn’t!

Counselor (after a bit of back-and-forth): I give up. I’m not making you stop, am I?

Student: No.

Counselor: Who’s winning?

Student: I am.

Counselor: And aren’t you having fun seeing me get upset?

Student: Yes.

Stage Two: You turn the tables on the accuser:

Counselor: Let’s do it again. Accuse me of having cheated on a test, and don’t let me stop you.

Student: You cheated on the math test!

Counselor: Do you believe that?

Student: Yes!

Counselor: If you want to believe it, how can I stop you?

Student: You can’t.

Counselor: That’s right. You can believe whatever you want.

Now the student is left with nothing more to say.

Counselor: Do you want to continue accusing me?

Student: No.

Counselor: Who’s winning?

Student: You are.

The counselor should go on to explain to such students that kids aren’t accusing them because they believe the accusation, but because they are trying to defeat them by getting them upset and defensive over the accusation.

Children need to be empowered rather than protected

We will never put a stop to the pain and tragedies resulting from bullying as long as we believe our duty is to protect kids from each other and to act as courts of law whenever a child complains about another. It is so much more effective to teach them how to handle hostility on their own. Furthermore, the lessons will empower them for a lifetime, because accusations and bullying are, unfortunately, not limited to the school years.

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