What Drives a Kid to Bully

And how to help them stop

Posted Jun 12, 2012

I recently saw the heartbreaking documentary “Bully.” The film tells the stories of five children, ranging in age from 11 to 17, who are harassed physically and emotionally. In two cases the abuse was so bad it drove the children to commit suicide. When I left the theater, I couldn’t stop thinking about the film. So far the primary focus of these blogs has been to demonstrate how using the tools can empower individuals. But after seeing “Bully” it struck me as equally important to describe how the tools can positively affect the culture of institutions such as schools, where most bullying takes place.

Adolescence is when most of us decide to hide the part of ourselves we’re most ashamed of—what Jung called The Shadow. In every adolescent there is a powerful drive to fit in, to conform to the norms of a peer group. In order to do this, the individual must hide any qualities that are nonconforming. An adolescent girl starves herself to be thin; an adolescent boy conceals his emotional sensitivity.

The difference between the average, insecure, shadow-hiding kid and a bully is that the bully adopts a more aggressive strategy: the bully targets someone who doesn’t fit in, someone “different,” and persecutes him relentlessly. This is reassuring to the bully because it diverts attention from his Shadow. It works even better if he can get others to join in – the group unites around a common enemy; its motto is, “We don’t have Shadows – the only Shadow is that kid over there.”

Sadly, everyone loses. The victims of bullying pay a huge price: the modern equivalent of the biblical scapegoat, they carry the “sins” of the community and are exiled into the wilderness of social isolation. The toll – in pain, alienation, and self-loathing – can be severe. Bullies pay a price, too, albeit a less obvious one. Driven mindlessly by the fear that they might be seen as “different,” they repress everything that makes them interesting and unique. A jock can’t also be a sensitive poet. A beauty queen doesn’t dare pursue her interest in math. Instead, each is absorbed into a clique that promises the comfort of homogeneity, but delivers only the never-ending dread of being found out and ostracized.

The film does a superb job of documenting the issue. It correctly lays part of the blame on school administrators whose “boys-will-be-boys” attitudes minimize the problem. At the same time, it portrays the inspiring efforts of parents and school children who speak out courageously to raise awareness of bullying.

But more is needed. A comprehensive solution to the problem of bullying will need to change the entire culture of schools – from one which denigrates individual differences to one which honors them. In short, we must make it admirable to stand out, rather than to fit in.

This can be taught in a didactic way.But even more effective would be for it to be role-modeled for children by the adults who spend the most time around adolescents: parents, teachers, and school administrators. If these adults can be courageous every day, in accepting what is new, different, and potentially embarrassing within themselves, then a new spirit of acceptance will pervade schools. An adult who accepts his or her Shadow and uses the Inner Authority tool we’ve described in previous blogs can have a profoundly positive effect on every adolescent he or she comes into contact with.

Mostly likely, you experienced a unique individual in your own adolescence and you can remember how liberating it was to be around this person. Imagine what it would be like to be part of a community that collectively celebrated individuality. This is the kind of community that embodies the incredible courage that victims display when they hold onto their distinctive qualities in the face of ridicule; it’s a community that can give a bully that same courage – to acknowledge what is embarrassing but unique within himself, and allow it to flourish.