I deserved it
“…I was not really teased they just ignored me or did not invite me to party or group meeting[s]. However, I was a young boy and I was not a nice guy all the time. So, I maybe deserved that situation I know better and learned that to earn something I need to do some favor or be nice to them.”
I’ve gathered data from surveys that I administered from two different cohorts more than 3 years apart. The study documents evidence about the long term effects of childhood bullying. The respondents are culinary students from around the Pacific Northwest brought together in a Portland culinary college; a group with the love of food as a shared trait but other than that, very diverse. In the near future, I will write up and submit the results for potential publication. Today, however, I was reviewing the short answer responses to the survey and found some very interesting and inspiring so I thought I would separate them out and provide some insight, guidance and suggestions based on those responses. The first one I will share with you is a response suggesting that the target, in retrospect, might believe he or she deserves the bullying they got later in adolescence for bullying, or bad, behavior earlier in life. My interpretation of this is that many children might believe that the bullying they receive is because of something they did, or do, or they deserve it somehow. It doesn’t get reported or it gets assimilated into his or her life as though it is a normal part of growing up and never gets reported. This can definitely add to the perpetuation of bullying, the normalization of bullying behavior and, the long term effects.
*note: Daniel Olweus established the most widely accepted definition of bullying: “A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself as a result of a real or perceived power differential.”
The perpetuation of bullying
Follow me on this topic because I might go a bit deeper than I really should but here goes…I had a previous post entitled, Power, Control and Bullying, in which I theorized that bullying behavior can stem from children feeling powerless in other parts of their lives and so they exercise what power they CAN have on smaller, or perceived weaker, targets. So a child feels powerless and turns their frustration on to other children and, because children come from homes with different idiosyncratic cultures, that can continue to happen. Furthermore, a child comes from an environment where all they know is being picked on or controlled by someone and it becomes a normal part of his or her life and so when they are targeted, they submit because they feel comfortable in the role as powerless target. On the face, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing because we should have safe environments for children regardless of their backgrounds and their dispositions. I don’t think I’m raising a submissive son, but he is an introvert and so recoiling or not putting himself out there is just his disposition – I like to think, and Susan Cain has written about the guilt some parents feel in her books on introverts so I feel justified in thinking this, I didn’t have anything to do with it and it is just his personality. In reality, Liam and Oliver both get many opportunities for autonomy and decision making but being an introvert means Liam often doesn’t assert himself but I also know he doesn’t take any crap at school – according to his teachers since Kindergarten.
So, is there a happy balance? Maybe, but I know many other kids do not get the opportunities and some get opportunities that developmentally they probably shouldn’t be getting. Thus, the development of the, “I learned how resilient I can be” or, I am better for having been bullied” perspective reported by many of my respondents. Keep in mind, children being, “resilient” doesn’t mean they have positively dealt with the abuse or the trauma they have encountered. To them, a traumatic event can be a benchmark from which they measure future traumatic events – in other words, that event is the reference point and could be processed by the child as, “normal.” Quick recent example, our youngest, Oliver, is 3. This past Halloween we went trick or treating and had hit probably 10 or 12 houses and he would march right up, say trick or treat, get his candy and say thank you. We got to one house where a man was dressed as death or something horrible and he was teasing and scaring the kids. It affected Oliver more than I would have imagined. But even after 10 positive, rewarding events, that one became the marker for the rest of his trip – didn’t go up to another house. That creepy guy and I curse his mask for all time, set the standard for my son (for at least that night). So children are still negatively affected by the bullying but since it is all they know, it isn’t unusual so they wouldn’t report it and just moved on with their lives appearing to be, seemingly, resilient.
To close, if a child comes from an environment where they are controlled and submissive, then it is likely they will fall in line with bullies and thus perpetuate the existence of bullying and I saw this as I analyzed my data on adults who suffered bullying. OR, they become bullies, which I also noted in the analysis; this perpetuates bullying as well. There is a happy medium where children can be given opportunities for power and control, thereby alleviating the need for submission by other children. It’s Utopian but I think reachable.
The normalization of bullying
Many of the respondents in my dissertation study, or the two later studies, said that, “bullying is a part of life. It’ll never end.” That kind of conclusion contributes to the persistence but also to the normalization of bullying behavior. If we treated bullying like other types of abuse of children, especially sexual, it may not be so normalized. But we are a violent species with a long history of using toughness, violence and subjugation as a measure of, especially, a man. But in a competitive and individualistic society, it isn’t unusual for boys and girls to be brought up with the, “kill or be killed” mentality. If a child is bullied and has been for a long time during childhood, it isn’t a stretch to believe they would feel it is the way things are and it’s not unusual – I would say this could happen most seamlessly if it happens in the home – and thus normalized. Consequently, if you are controlled and oppressed, but can see that other kids aren’t, it wouldn’t be unusual to think you did something to deserve it.
For example, when I go upstairs at bedtime for the umpteenth time, and tell my boys to stop the horse play and it is bedtime, then take away some privilege because they won’t stop, Liam, the oldest will obviously object and try to negotiate and so forth but I am sure on more than one occasion, I have told him, if you would follow directions and go to sleep, I wouldn’t have to take away the stuff. He clearly believes that he is being punished for something he did and he deserves the punishment [probably not Liam because he, in his mind, has never done anything wrong]. So it is in the mind of a young child, if something bad is happening around them, their egocentrism, which can last in their cognitive development until 7 or 8 years old, tells them that it is their fault. The normalization comes when the child identifies with the role as target (or even bully), others around them treat them as such and egocentrism makes them feel like it is their fault that people treat them a certain way.
The Long-Term Effect
Like I shared at the opening of this essay, the respondent who wrote that, because he may have been a little booger growing up, maybe he deserved the bullying he got in middle school. This is 20+ years later and the person still harbors memories of when they were bullied and then rationalized that maybe it was because of their own behavior. That is normalization, identification and perpetuates bullying behavior. Another respondent in my most recent survey echoed what many of the respondents wrote when he or she wrote that they have difficulty speaking to others confidently because of the relentless teasing they got when they spoke up in class in high school. Another said, because of her LGBTQ status, she was teased and maligned without end during high school and still has difficulty speaking to men because of the verbal abuse and disrespect she received when she did. As an adult she is wary of speaking up because of her high school experience. She, and all the other targets of bullying who responded to my surveys, did not deserve to be targets – and the bullies do not deserve vilification and isolation – they are both victims of circumstances. Whether it is environmental or it is in their DNA (highly aggressive or very submissive), we as adults, teachers and parents, can help steer them in the right direction. In addition, some of my respondents said they are stronger because of the bullying they received as youngsters but I think they would have been strong regardless of their abuse.
Despite what many comment sections on the internet might reflect, children don’t deserve to be bullied. The evidence on bullying shows most, if not all, bullies are also being bullied. Even if that bully is a controlling parent or an abusive sibling. We are talking about children who are in toxic environments and who are looking for something to hold onto so they feel in control of their lives. We can turn that around by giving them opportunities to take a positive hold of their lives and that will help a bully change their behavior. Furthermore, the child doesn’t “deserve” it, even if they have been abusive themselves – that’s a hard one to swallow if you are the parent of a child who is being bullied or the target of a bully – but it is true. They are children. Even in a 16 year old, I regress back to my Kindergarten teacher days when I say, “they have only been on this planet for 16 years, let’s give them a break and the benefit of the doubt.” Even children, who were “born” aggressive, can be guided in a direction but it takes a concerted effort – school, community, home – to help bring about different, positive behaviors and bring an end to bullying.