We often hear that a child or young person is being bullied ‘because’ …
“He’s bullied because he’s overweight.”
“She’s bullied because she has a hearing impairment.”
“They’re bullied because they don’t speak English.”
No-one gets bullied because of something about their own identity. When we use the word because in regard to the person who is being bullied, we are, effectively, agreeing that someone experiences abuse for reasons that can be attributed to themselves. By this, we are adding weight to the notion that if a child looked thinner, or if they did not have an impairment, or if they were more fluent in English, then these young people would not be the objects of bullying. This implies that when we are seen as having ‘difficulties’, or seen as ‘being different’, then we ourselves are inviting the abuse that we receive. Instead, we must be adamant that people get bullied for one reason only: the bully has a problem. It is the bully that has a skewed and unhealthy attitude towards others. It is the bully who seeks out what they perceive to be weaknesses in another person – sometimes in the hope of focusing attention away from their own shortcomings, or in an attempt to feel empowered.
Of course, in some circumstances we understand that having a degree of compassion for the bully is appropriate and useful. Those who bully have often suffered the same experience, or have been seriously abused. Bullies can change for the better, but this is unlikely to happen if we hold onto the idea that particular others are somehow ripe for being maltreated. This not only re-enforces a subtle justification of bullying, it also prevents the bully from seeing that they have a limited perception of their own identity. Bullying can happen in many ways, and to excuse it by saying that nothing is meant by it is never acceptable, because something is always meant when we make reference to another person’s being.
I would urge any parent or carer who believes their young person is being bullied at school to be as courageous as possible in asserting the right of that young person to have a safe and inclusive (if not life enhancing) experience of the school environment. Perhaps the starting point could be a determination to erase the ‘because’ word when it comes to the suffering of the one who is being bullied.
A note on the bullying of adults by adults and its relevance to young people
We know that in most instances an adult bully is in a position of some power, often in a supervisory position. They want to be seen as having influence in the workplace and having authority over others. Their bullying commonly takes the forms of consistent and aggressive bossiness, unfair distribution of tasks and fickleness of mood. This person often believes that their own contribution in the workplace is not valued enough, so being able to manipulate others might make them appear more efficient.
Sometimes, bullying by a senior at work is just the result of an unsympathetic person having received poor management training. A person in a managerial role might have forgotten – or not know – what the work of their staff really involves on a moment-to-moment basis. Making an effort to imagine the task-related needs and feelings of those we instruct and advise is very important. That means devoting a moment to stopping and thinking before giving orders simply out of habit, or because of rigid views about how things should get done. A good manager leads others by example, and mentors them well enough to trust their actions. Staff will feel safe with this manager’s honesty and are comfortable about asking them for guidance.
The way that adults conduct themselves in the adult world is often observed by children and young people. It gives an example and sets the tone for human relationships. Unfortunately, we cannot always prevent those in power from exploiting us. But, providing we don’t endanger ourselves, it is in our best interests and in the interests of our children to challenge behaviours that abuse or undermine. This way, our children may grow up with the confidence to speak out when they see or experience unfairness or injustice.