The solution to bullying might be the bully

By now you’ve heard about the vicious bullying of children. 

Tyler Clementi of Rutgers made his plea for help via online forums and a video blog. Asher Brown, 13 Seth Walsh 13, Phoebe Prince and Justin Aaberg all committed suicide after enduring years of bullying by their classmates. 

The suffering these children had to endure was outrageous – but part of the reason we’re so outraged is also that we don’t know how to make it stop.  And we’ve tried everything.

Well, almost everything. 

Our responses to bullying have given victims a full range of compassion, empathy, study, insight, and action – and it hasn’t worked.  Our responses to the bullies themselves, however, has been simple:  condemn and punish. 

This is understandable.  Who doesn’t want to make these kids pay for what they’ve done?  But if it’s counter-productive … if bullies also need approaches marked by insight, study, and empathy … then maybe swallowing our disgust for the sake of tomorrow’s victims is the right thing to do.

The situation is grim: efforts to keep kids safe have included numerous anti-bullying programs, initiatives, funding programs, and legal actions. It is still under considerable debate as to whether or not any of these approaches are effective at ending bullying in our schools. Researchers Kenneth W. Merrell, Barbara A. Gueldner, Scott W. Ross, and Duane M. Isava reviewed 16 studies on the effectiveness of anti-bullying programs that were conducted between 1980 and 2004. They concluded that anti-bullying programs had little effect on ending bullying in schools. A meta-analysis published in 2007 in the Criminal Justice Review found that it was difficult to conclude that anti-bullying programs had any significant effect on bullying in schools.

Perhaps that’s because you can’t solve a fundamentally human problem by addressing just one of the sides’ humanity. 

To dehumanize bullies the way they dehumanize others is satisfying – maybe even just – but not necessarily productive.  The approach to ending bullying could include helping the bully.

To acknowledge that bullies are people too, after all, is not to approve of them – only to recognize that their issues are central to the problems they cause, and that solving those problems might be the best solution. 

Legendary humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers understood that we as human beings had endless amounts of potential to be, in essence, happy and amazing;  but he was not blind to the fact that we have just as much potential to be fearful, aggressive and hurtful. In response to this awareness, Carl Rogers stated that “…one of the most refreshing and invigorating parts of my experience is to work with such individuals and to discover the strongly positive directional tendencies which exists in them, as in all of us, at the deepest levels.” We have yet to truly understand why children bully, but it would seem obvious that suffering, either giving or receiving, is part of it.

Knowing that others see you and hear is epic in its ability to alleviate a person’s suffering. Knowing that there are others who are not only sympathetic, but empathetic to your pain is healing and empowering. The emergence of the “It Gets Better” campaign embraces the idea that letting LGTBQI youth know that they are not alone, and knowing this is the first step for moving through their pain.

The “bully” may not be getting the same message, perhaps it would be a good one to hear. In the spirit of Carl Rogers, the idea of unconditional positive regard may not be so awful. Perhaps it could take the form of a campaign that has the same brilliant compassion and it was aimed at all children; with videos starring former bullies that would let kids know that It Gets Better.

Yes, I’m sure this feels like giving the perpetrators more than they deserve and that the words of once violent always violent are coming up but that would assume that we are will always be the same people that we are.  Bullies and potential bullies also have the basic human ability to grow and become better than they are.  Encouraging that potential is one way to stop bullying that we haven’t adequately tried. 

– Makenna Berry


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