An Open Letter to Our Bullies

It is important to understand what motivates a bully.

Posted Apr 02, 2020

Dear Childhood Bullies,

As a psychologist, I have worked for decades with those you tormented during childhood. I bear witness to the havoc that you wreak on the lives of children who developed anxiety because they didn't want to go to school and face you yet again. I see individuals who remember your first and last names well into their adulthood. They describe details of precisely how you tormented them.

In fact, this may surprise you, but you were quite influential in their lives. They went to great lengths to avoid you, but somehow you always resurfaced. You and your friends chipped away at their self-esteem day after day. You made already self-conscious kids unbearably self-conscious. You contributed to the development of stomachaches and headaches and, most importantly, to the right to learn and play in a comfortable and supportive environment.

Perhaps you remember being a bully, are a bully, or you are a parent of a bully. If so, I would like you to follow along as I describe some of the reasons why children bully. Look, I am a psychologist, so I work not only with the tormented but also with the bullies themselves. They present with a variety of issues of their own. It is crucial that parents of bullies and former and current bullies understand the reasons for this behavior. Without understanding, there can be little change. Hence, my open letter to bullies.

Perhaps, you were immature and had a limited set of nuanced social skills. In that case, anger and being mean may have been the easiest behavior to display. Think about it. Behaving in an angry way is often much simpler than being kind. Kindness is difficult for many kids because it certainly makes one vulnerable. And vulnerability is not easy, is it?

And maybe the adult role models in your life were angry people who modeled angry and confusing behavior. If that has been the case, I am truly sorry. You can't really behave in a way that you haven't learned. And it is hard to be kind when you are feeling terrible about yourself.

Maybe, you were devalued and put down constantly at home, and in turn, you engaged in that sort of behavior at school. Belittling other kids may have made you feel just a little bit better about yourself, yes? And maybe it made you feel like you belonged, even if it was with a group of other bullies. Belonging felt so good, right? 

There were probably other kids who laughed when you teased the kid who didn't quite fit in. It was fun to be in the spotlight in this way, yes? You had an audience, and you were a star. And it is unlikely that you felt like a star at home or in a number of other settings. You certainly didn't want to be bullied, so as long as you were the bully, there was little chance of becoming the scapegoat, right? You were working hard to maintain your status. After all, nobody, not even a bully, can tolerate the idea of becoming the victim.

It is unlikely that you even understood what empathy meant. It is also unlikely that you understood how deeply you were impacting your victim. And if you had even a little bit of understanding, you didn't really care, did you? Bullying might have been a form of recreation for you and may have been a lot of fun. After all, you were powerful.

It is unfortunate but quite likely that the adults who should have been attuned to your behavior were preoccupied and not giving you feedback about the many problems with your behavior. Bullying may have served you in some way during your childhood, but it is a shame if you have carried this behavior into your adulthood. If you have, I assume that you have left a trail of wreckage in your path.

Again, there is a possibility that you were being treated poorly in some areas of your own life. If so, I am so sorry. You may have been in emotional pain yourself, and bullying others may have given you some relief. 

I understand that you may or may not have had bad intentions. Yes, there are many who forgive you, but keep in mind that they will never forget you. I hope that you have modified your ways and have gained a deeper understanding of the importance of how you treat yourself and others. 

Dr. G.