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The Truth About Bullies

by James Lehman, MSW
The Truth About Bullies

The public perception of bullying is that bullies are acting out to cover their own fears. They may indeed be afraid, but accepting this as a reason makes bullies sound like victims of their fears -- like we're supposed to feel sorry for them and not hold them responsible for their abusive actions.

The issue is not whether bullies are afraid. Bullies bully other people to feel powerful around them and to feel power over them. Bullies start out feeling like zeroes, like nobodies. When they intimidate, threaten or hurt someone else, then they feel like somebody. The key is the feeling of power.

We often think of the child bully as being male, but the percentage of girls who intimidate their classmates and siblings is increasing dramatically. Bullying doesn't stop at the end of the school day, either. Whether bullies are at home, at school, or they’re threatening and intimidating other kids on the Internet, they're going to act out to make themselves feel powerful. Many kids who are bullies at school are bullies at home. The most common victims are their innocent siblings.

What are the consequences of bullying? You may have heard about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when it comes to sexual victimization or assault. PTSD can occur any time people feel they have no control over the way their pain is delivered. They live in fear, not knowing when they're going to be hurt. Kids who are constantly bullied and not protected will develop symptoms of PTSD -- constant anxiety, constant fear, idiosyncratic behaviors to compensate for those feelings. They'll fall behind in their development.

Dealing with bullies requires holding them strictly accountable for the abusive, hurtful or disrespectful things that they do to feel powerful. They need to practice appropriate ways to feel powerful -- using social skills, articulating their feelings, communicating honestly with others and solving problems. Those skills are difficult to develop. It takes work; it’s like learning how to multiply or learning how to add. But it can be done. Holding bullies accountable for inappropriate behavior gives them boundaries and gives them a roadmap for doing that work.

If your child is a bully

If your child starts to exhibit bullying behavior, the first thing to do is realize it's something you need to address. You can't kid yourself that it will go away on its own. If adolescent bullies are not stopped, and not taught more appropriate ways to solve problems, they become abusive parents, spouses and bosses. We all feel powerless at times, but there are better ways to deal with that than to abuse other people.

You as the parent have to set a standard: No excuse for abuse. There's no excuse for cursing someone out, for breaking something, for hitting anyone. The bully always has an excuse, a way to justify this behavior. This justification is so powerful that it takes the place of empathy for the other person. That’s why you have to have a no-excuse standard.

A kid may curse out his sister and say foul things to her and then make up some justification about what she was doing to him -- "She went into my room again" or "She wouldn't get off the computer." Let the kid tell you the excuse, and then reiterate, "There's no excuse for abuse." Don't shut off communication, but don't validate the thinking errors that go into the justification of abusive actions. There should be consequences for abuse. Later, you can talk about appropriate ways to handle a problem.

If your child is bullied

If your child is a victim of bullying, it may be because he is the sort of child who has difficulty standing up for himself. Bullies look for easy targets, because that makes them feel powerful. If you can teach a child not to respond to bullying, to walk away, bullies are less likely to press that child.

The most effective strategies for dealing with bullies are "avoid" and "escape." These are things you can teach your children: Avoid bullies when you can. Walk away from them if they’re in your vicinity. If you’re being bullied and that doesn’t work, you need to get help from somebody who has more power than the bully. You shouldn’t have to fight because somebody else is a bully. Go to someone who has more power than the bully, like the teacher or the police. Teach your child that he has to hold that person responsible. Getting hit in school is still assault, and parents shouldn’t back off if that happens. You want the other kid’s parents down at the police station. You want them to be as uncomfortable as you are.

It hurts to be bullied, and this fact should never be minimized. Teachers, parents and school officials are sometimes inclined to say, "Well, they’re only kids. It happens." It shouldn’t happen, and it's adults' responsibility to provide a healthy environment for our children. The best schools are the ones who develop a zero tolerance for violence and zero tolerance for bullying, and parents should demand that and support it.

At the same time, if your child is experiencing abuse at the hands of another child, ask this question: "What would you find helpful?" Find out what your child would find helpful to improve the situation. Here’s why this is important. If a child is being bullied at school and his parents just take over the situation, then he's powerless on both ends. Be encouraging, give him a chance to work it out, offer some help and ideas. But also let him know that if it's still a problem, you're going to step in and protect him.

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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


When 29 year old son, we'll call Tim, was in the 3rd grade he was bullied by a classmate + henchman. He did not want me to intervene but wanted to know how to deal with it. He had tried avoidance and was being pursued and ambushed regularly for several months when he finally brought the problem to his mother and me. I offered him three options: talk to the school and let us know what they suggested or would like us to do, I would sign him up for self-defense classes, or he could try to learn why MIke had picked him. I also explained that a lot of bullies have a lot a pain going on inside and that bullying makes them feel stronger. I think he got it. My son opted for solution three. As Tim remembers it, rather than avoid Mike he sat with him at lunch one day and told him, "I never did anything to you and all you do is mess with me. I don't even know you. I just want to know if you're mad at me, why; or what your really mad at." He left and kept it up one way or another until one day they started to really talk. He learned over time that Mike had just been through and ugly divorce from an abusive dad and more details over time. As it turned out by the middle of fourth grade they were fast friends and it lasted until Mike moved to another town after 9th grade. They are both 29, married Dads who get in touch occasionally. We picked our son up at Mike's place one day. He was about 14 years old and I asked him why my son had been his target way back then. He said that he just remembered that he was mad and unhappy all the time and every time he saw how happy Tim seemed all the time it just made him angrier. When asked how they ended up being friends he didn't remember any incident but said that he just found himself talking to Tim and liking him. This is a long story that has been told in the short form. Tim and Mike's story just seemed so relevant and the article brought back to me a memory of a very proud father who's son opted for the more humane path...won no battles and yet won the war.

Comment By : kyosaku

To make a long story short....I recently defended my son who is now 18 at a meeting with a school principal for a supension he got from an assist. principal............He was dismissed/suspended for something that in reality was not his fault....Alot of teachers think if a person is defiant/stand up for what teens believe in even if its "under their breath" profanity words and not directed at a teacher its showing disrespect for adult/or teachers and that is not always the case.... Teens are not always given the time/are not listened to by parents or teachers.......If a teen can't talk to a parent/teacher, then how about some various counselors to deal with issue/problems at school instead of sending teens home with dismissals/suspensions that disrupt their work at school...The suspensions are cop-outs and not dealing with the problems......Listen more closely to your children and defend them if needed..........You do have rights and the school needs to know that they are not always the top authority in many cases...

Comment By : ety

I found this article extremely interesting and appropriate for a current issue in our household. We recently moved to a new state, new town, and subsequently, new school. My daughter, age 10, has always made friends easily and always been able to "hold her own" against anyone. This year, however, she was the target of a couple of hooligans in her class. It started the first day of school, when they cornered her in the bathroom, threatening to "punch her face off". Her initial response (and I was rather proud of her, even though I know it’s not the right thing to do), was to shout “bring it on”. Both the hoodlums backed off and left the bathroom. Unfortunately, though, after that episode, the situation escalated. The violence went from threats to physical contact, including pushing, shoving, hitting, and punching. Until that point, I allowed her to handle it as she saw fit (yes, avoidance and escape), but now I had to intervene. When I called the school (it actually took 5 phone calls to the school and the school superintendent, and threatening a law suit to get action), the response I received was the “poor victim bullies”. The principal and class teacher made a special point of telling me (several times, I might add) how one “bully” was the victim of society and the lower socio-economic discrimination cycle. Yes, they really did say that. Well, actually, the teacher said it and the principal agreed. They both tried to convince me that the bullies, who both came from single parent homes, should be pitied and not punished and that the school counselor was working very hard with them on their “issues” (this tells me the school was well aware of the activities of these two girls). According to school officials, the bullies needed “more understanding” than most kids. Since my daughter comes from a single parent lower socio-economic household, I asked them to pity her, while she was getting the crap smacked out of her during recess. Both bullies were sent to in school suspension, and moved into another class. My daughter does not seem them anymore during the day. Next time, I think I’ll let an attorney deal with it.

Comment By : Perpmotion

Has anyone come into contact with a bully teacher or guidance counselor, the person that takes extreme measures over every little thing from a drop of water on the floor leading to in house suspensions for a child with special needs and has the audacity to tell everyone she doesn't adhere to the IEP or FBA's

Comment By : kiwi

my 12 yr old son has special needs. he is bullied everywhere he goes . school, football, parks. school cant seem to get on top of it and the police say its not illegl to bullie and will do nothing to help us even though they have proof this is happening! the parents dont want to know and when i have been round there they threaten me with violence! i dont know what to do or where to turn. my son sobs saying he hates his life! i feel awfull for him and cry all the time i just dont know who to turn to as iv tryed everything even rang social services for some advice they cant give me any answers either! my sons life is hell and i feel helpless im always showing him im trying to protect im doing everything he can but we are let down by profesionals all the time! this is destroying my sons life! i mean what can u do when the people who are suppose to protect you dont??

Comment By : jo82

* To ‘jo82’: It can be so heartbreaking to see your son hurting so much because of the bullying he is experiencing. I can hear how concerned and upset you are about what your son is going through. I would continue to bring the issue to the attention of those in charge at school and also to the local authorities. Sometimes, when you stop making people aware of what is happening, they assume the issue has been resolved. It will be helpful to document the incidents as they occur. This way, you can let school authorities know, in writing, exactly what is going on and by whom. It may be necessary to contact people in higher authority within the school district if you don’t believe the school is doing what they can to help your son. Documenting the instances can also be helpful when you contact the local authorities. Most states are taking the issue of bullying very seriously. Though I am not aware of what laws may be in place in your state, there is a website you can visit that can be useful in determining that: Another resource that may be helpful in your situation is the national 2-1-1 hotline. They can direct you to any local supports that could help you and your son in dealing with this issue. That number is 1-800-273-6222. I hope things turn around for you and your family. Good luck and take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

Bullies either have low self-esteem or just have problems with family relatives or so. They may use powerful words and physical pushes/punches to intimidate their victims. But, bullies would get what is coming to them when victims become stronger and more successful in college years or later.

Comment By : 20DeVry13

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Related keywords:

behavior problems, bullying, violent behavior, abusive behavior, school-related problems, depression, aggressive behavior, Struggling teen, Child behavior problems, James Lehman, The Total Transformation

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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