Smart Parenting XXIII: Coping with Bullying
...but as servants of God we commend ourselves in every way: through... kindness, the Holy Spirit, genuine love.... (2 Cor 6:4,6)
In a recent Smart Parenting essay on the spiritual and practical aspects of love (Morelli, 2011), I start out simply with St. John's most profound yet un-complex understanding of God: "God is love." (1 Jn 4:16). This love is shown in the relation of the persons of the Holy Trinity amongst themselves, God's creation and continuing care for His people, and the self-emptying (kenotic) love Christ has for us by His incarnation, passion, death and resurrection for our salvation. I then go on to point out that we must understand the meaning and application of Divine Love in our families and to the world. We have to emulate in our own lives this same love and model this to our children and others by our behaviors, which should be:
a set of actions that are aimed at the good and welfare of the other. Love means having truly beneficent care for the welfare of others in thought word and deed.
In a follow-up essay, (Morelli, 2011b) I point out that if love is understood in this way, we would be given one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit, peace. And in turn, children disposed to peace in working through their relationships with others.
However, some blatantly uncharitable behavioral patterns are so widespread and commonplace in society that we fail to view them as being associated with a lack of "beneficent care for the welfare of others." This is especially true if such anti-social, unloving behavior is socially sanctioned by a peer group and if a child-adolescent is susceptible to peer pressure and wants to gain increasing power and acceptance by their peer group. According to the personality theory developed by Henry Murray (1938) and further developed by David McClelland (1985), these motives could be described as a need for affiliation (n aff) and power (n pow). These needs are developed over the experiences of one's lifetime (O'Connor and Rosenblood, 1996).
These motives seem apparent in recent widespread news media reports of childhood-adolescent bullying. Certainly bullying is not new. The proliferation of information technology, smart phones with video capability, the internet and social media have certainly made bullying and its consequences more well-known. What is new is that such information technology can now itself be a vehicle for bullying behavior.
Bullying is inappropriate behavior that entails purposive hurting and/or frightening of others. It is intentional and repetitive. Bullies use their social status or position, for example 'being in the in-group,' to legitimize their hurtful treatment of others. Such hurt can entail verbal-psychological abuse such as belittling, labeling, lying, name-calling, rumor mongering and teasing. Bullying can also entail physical abuse such as hitting, poking, punching. An extreme form of bullying, 'sexual bullying, is actually a form of sexual abuse, such as 'rape by blackmail.' Furthermore, bullying is not something that is outgrown.
Consequences of Bullying
Information I have gathered from research reported by the National Institute of Health (NIH)i points out the serious psycho-social effects of bullying for both victims and for perpetrators.
Bullying has serious and lasting effects, effects persisting at times into adulthood. Victims of bullying have higher risk for depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. They report increased sadness, lack of interest in activities and loneliness. They tend to blame themselves for being deficient or for 'lacking something' in some way (or they would not be bullied the way they are). They also display changes in eating and sleep patterns, complaints about health and greater incidence of actual illness.
As noted by decreased Grade Point Average (GPA) and various standardized academic measures, bullied children and adolescents show a significant decline in school performance. This is accompanied by an increase in school truancy and dropping out.
When retaliation is considered a viable option, violent measures are apt to be chosen. NIH reports that 12 out of 15 school shootings in the 1990's were done by those who were themselves victims of bullying.
The characteristics of the perpetrators of bullying are equally disturbing. They have a higher risk of alcohol and drug abuse in adolescence and adulthood. They display an earlier and more frequent degree of sexual activity. They also display a higher likelihood of engaging in fighting behavior and vandalism. NIH statistics show that 60% of male bullies in middle school were convicted of crimes by age 24. Bullies also have a significantly higher rate of dropping out of school. As adults, bullies also are more likely to engage in abuse toward their romantic partners or spouses, as well as their own children.
Exposure to Bullying
Those children who merely witness or are exposed to bullying are also not immune from the effects of bullying. NIH data indicate that in comparison with a normative group they have an increased use of tobacco, alcohol and other drugs, report a higher incidence of mental health difficulties, including anxiety and depression. They, too, are likely to miss, skip and drop out of school.
The Response: Assertiveness
Standing up to the bully is one of the major NIH recommendations for those being bullied. In fact, this practice is the psychological response technique of assertiveness. In a previous paper (Morelli, 2006c) I defined assertiveness as:
Assertiveness is a skill that can be acquired to communicate a necessary view or feeling in order to bring about a favorable psychological or spiritual result. This definition has two qualifications: 1) The assertive utterance should be socially acceptable; and 2) only when a minimal response fails to bring about the desired result should an escalation of words and communication pragmatics occur. For the Christian, a third corollary applies: All assertive pragmatics must be done in the love of Christ which includes patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control - what is known in scriptural terminology as the "fruit of the Spirit" (Galatians 5: 22-23).
I also pointed out that assertive practices were described in Holy Scripture:
Implicit in the instruction of Moses is the divine imperative that views must be communicated. We see it revealed between God and the prophets. Ezekiel recorded one example of this divine imperative, "So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me" (Ezekiel 33:7)
We see it revealed in the relationship between Christ and His disciples as well. Our Lord Jesus Christ counseled His disciples not to be passive, but to take measured action steps when confronting people committing sinful acts. Jesus said, "If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (Matthew 18: 15-17).
An example from the NIH guidelines is to shout out loud: "Stop it." This draws attention to the bullying act and at the same time makes it a more public event, while simultaneously communicating to all within hearing that the position of the person being bullied is that "I will not take it anymore."
A follow-up action is to walk away in such a way as to give the impression you don't even care. This may be far from the emotional truth, the child bullied is very much hurt. But the feedback to the bully that they have the power to hurt others is very reinforcing (providing pleasant feelings and satisfaction to the bully). Therefore, it is important to keep up the behavioral lifestyle you feel comfortable with. If you like reading books, working on the computer, enjoy studying, like the clothes you wear, do not change anything on account of the bully. If you change your behavior so the bully thinks he or she has won, this reinforces the bully. The bullying behavior will more likely occur in the future. (Morelli, 2006b) On the other hand, walking away from the bully acts as a negative punishment technique, which, if carried out consistently and effectively, will aid toward reducing bullying behavior in the future. (Morelli, 2008).
Developing a sense of healthy self-esteem is critical in standing up to bullying. Morelli 2006, 2009 distinguishes between good and bad self-esteem. Bad self-esteem is a type of narcissism (or self-worship). As St. Paul told the Philippians: "Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others" (Phil 2:3-4). The Church Fathers warn against inappropriate, un-Godly self-esteem by using the Greek term kenodoxia, where keno means esteem that is empty, vain, hollow, groundless, deluded, and doxa means glory, praise.
Appropriate, or Godly, self-esteem is grounded in truth. In this sense, "self-esteem" means a true and honest appraisal of both one's strengths and weaknesses. Children and adolescents who are bullied can be helped to see that the standards that bullies apply for being in the esteemed "in-group" are often superficial and un-Godly and that many other worthy characteristics exist.
At times, children and adolescents can be given (age-appropriate) self-esteem exercises to help them make these distinctions.
Varsity Joe is big man on campus, the idol of all the girls. He seems to notice only the most 'attractive' girls. Although these girls are potentially jealous of one another, they know who would not even be 'considered' attractive enough to be eligible to be a Varsity Joe 'groupie.' They tease, make fun of and mock the dress, life-style and friends of any girl not eligible to be a 'groupie' girl. It just so happens that Varsity Joe is not interested in a real girlfriend at all. Someone whom he could care about and become committed to. He is interested in 'hook-ups, one night stands.' He brags to his buddies about his conquests and even gives intimate details of his encounters.
'Left-out Suzi' is devastated. Not only don't the boys pay attention to her, but she is constantly the brunt and victim of brutal teasing by the 'groupie girls.' They call her names, like 'nerd' and 'four eyes.' They 'accidently' bump into her and knock her books and notes out of her arms so they fall all over the school floor. They make fun of her clothes: "Where did you get that blouse? At the local thrift shop?" They even tease her about her private parts: "You have nothing Joe would want anyhow."
I have had adolescents in counseling who have been the victim of such bullying. As I pointed out in Morelli 2008b, I usually approach such problems using a Socratic method, asking questions, and having the counselee state, and thus discover, the facts and outcomes for themselves.ii One of the first things I do is to commend Suzi for talking to me about the problem. I suggest that we can see if we can make some sense of what is happening. Let us develop a rough 'character scale.' I first start out by asking, her what she thinks makes for "good personal character in others?" The answers I am looking for are qualities like loyalty, dependability, caring, sensitivity, trustworthiness, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, good citizenship and spirituality. I then ask her what she thinks are some poor personality characteristics others may have? Of course, I am looking for characteristics opposite of the good qualities listed above. Then I go through some of the bullying girls one by one, asking Suzi to 'rate' them on this crude character scale, so to speak. I also would ask Suzi to rate 'Varsity Joe." Then I ask a critical question: "What does this say about them?" The answer usually automatically pops out (facts speak for themselves): "They are not very nice people;" or "They don't treat people nicely." Then I ask a series of transition questions: "So, you are judging yourself on the basis of people who have poor character?" "Would you really want people of poor character to be your friends?" "Does their opinion of people with bad character really matter?” "What type of friends would you want to have?" "Would you value their opinion?" If I thought Suzi harbored some inner unexpressed feelings for Varsity Joe. I would go through these same Socratic questionings.
Example Two: An extreme example of a Varsity Joe
First, let me point out that, as in all my examples, this is based on a real case. It happened right after I received my Master's degree, while continuing study for my Ph.D. I was a medical center intern and this case was referred to me by the intake staff. This took place years prior to the Child Abuse Reporting Laws for various professions, including mental health practitioners. I was also not ordained a priest. Today, I would have to immediately report this next case to the appropriate authorities.
A 14-year-old girl was referred to me for Oppositional Defiant Disorder and a pre-adult form of Dependent Personality Disorder. All aspects of the case are not relevant to this essay. Obviously she was angry, annoying, argumentative, refused to comply with rules at home and in school. The major threat to her physical, psychological (and spiritual) well-being, however, was the vicious beatings she would receive from her "boyfriend." As usual, I did not directly attempt to change her lifestyle. I told her we could talk about whatever she felt comfortable talking to me about. I would not tell her what to do. I did ask her if was Ok for me to simply ask one question. “Yes,” she agreed. Now I am talking to a girl just about 10 years younger than myself, with bruises and contusions all over her face, neck and arms. I asked her "Why do you think your boyfriend beats you the way he does?" Her straightforward answer: "To show me he loves me." I now had something to work with, but not at that time. Her parents and school authorities were always telling her what to do and especially to break up with this 'boyfriend.' The more they pushed, the closer she held on to the relationship. I knew I would have to have much patience. I should point out that "Varsity Joe" is really not a good descriptor of her boyfriend. Although, to my knowledge, neither she nor her boyfriend were gang members, the medical center was right in the middle of an East Coast 'inner city' blighted urban area.
My initial psychological intervention was to develop a trusting rapport with her. I would ask her what she did during the week, especially the things she did with her 'boyfriend.' It appeared to me I was the only person in her life that cared for what she and her boyfriend did, without ever suggesting or telling them to "break up." After a couple of months, she would spontaneously start our session with telling me something they did together. I would always be enthusiastic about what she told me. After several months, I thought she was ready for the critical question. Once again I asked her permission to ask her. I asked her: "Dolores, what is love; how do you know someone really loves you?" Thinking she spotted a trick question, she immediately responded, "[Love] is the way my boyfriend treats me, keeping me in line, making sure I know he really cares for me." "Ok!" I responded, "Thanks for the answer." Dolores was obviously not ready to move on to the next question. But little did I know; I had planted a seed. Several weeks later, looking like she was at the losing end of a really vicious prizefight, she said to me,” You know the question you asked a few weeks ago about love?" "Yes." I responded. She began to break down, sobbing and crying. She managed to say something like: "He really doesn't love me. If he did, how could he keep beating me like this?" In subsequent sessions we went on to discuss what "real-genuine" love was; what she was worth; and what she wanted out of life. It was the beginning of a favorable psycho-social shift. Although we did not use the term bullying at that time, it was the beginning of her standing up to "Varsity Joe."
Other anti-bullying practices
The NIH information on bullying points out that the child who is being bullied should not keep to themselves that they are victims of bullying. Bullying victims who suppress that they are being bullied and keep it to themselves are susceptible to selective abstraction, or a narrowing of cognitive focus. Their options are narrowed. It is thought that suicide and violence seem like more viable options under such conditions in dealing with the harassment. Sharing that one has been bullied, however, especially with a trusted adult, such as a counselor, teacher, or parent, allows the child to feel less isolated and trapped and to consider other alternatives in coping with bullying. Sometimes a child may be embarrassed to tell an adult face to face. A note would be an initial first step Also recommended is to travel with a trusted group. A single child is less likely to be accosted when in a group.
The Parable of the Good Samaritan
The Parable of the Good Samaritan can be an excellent medium to reach out to those who bully. St. Luke (10: 30-37) recounts Our Lord's parable:
"A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him, and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was; and when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine; then he set him on his own beast and brought him to an inn, and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, `Take care of him; and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.' Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise."
What is well known, but must be especially pointed out to children, is that the Jews and Samaritans were mortal enemies. Each considered the other to be the out-group to be disparaged by the other. The characters in the parable can be made to simulate those of the in-group and out-group that are relevant to the real bullies in their lives. We really don't know the identity of the man who "fell among robbers who stripped him and beat him," but certainly a similarity to a child who is bullied can be readily made. The Levite and priest can be seen as those who side with the bullies who beat the victim. One character, the one with moral courage, the Samaritan, irrespective of being potentially vilified by others, stands up for what is virtuous. The children can be helped to see the application of Godly love, not only as told to us in the parable, but in the application of the parable to their personal lives.
Commenting on this parable, St. Gregory the Dialogist said, "Godly love cannot be perfect unless a man love his neighbor also. Under which name must be included not only those who are connected with us by friendship or neighborhood, but absolutely all men with whom we have a common nature, whether they be foes or allies, slaves or free."iv Children, especially those who are bullies, must be taught they are to be Good Samaritans to all.
Empathy and Compassion
The psycho-spiritual foundation to adopting the role of the Good Samaritan and overcoming being a bully is empathy and compassion.
In terms of human development, empathy is the foundation of pro-social behaviors such as caring and altruism. (Lewis and Haviland, 1993) Compassion is a precursor of love (agape). Love is what we do for the good and welfare of others. How can we love, how can we work for the good and welfare of others, if we are not aware of their suffering nor have a desire to relieve it? We love others only if we can first sense their feelings and needs.
Empathy is thinking and feeling the way the other is thinking and feeling. Eisenberg and Fabes (1990) define empathy more formally: "An affective response that stems from the apprehension or comprehension of another's emotional state or condition, and that is similar to what the other person is feeling or would be expected to feel." Using the Parable of the Good Samaritan and its application to real life situations in which bullies find themselves, bullies can be given tasks to engage in focused reflection on the thinking and feelings of the bullied victims. To do such an exercise in a group session may be most helpful.
Parents can play a key role if their children are the victims of bullies or are the bullies themselves. In fact, this could be considered a specific duty requirement of an Orthodox marriage. In a blessed marriage in the Orthodox Church, the husband and wife are ordained as the leaders of their domestic church, crowned to be the king and queen of their domicile and granted grace for the "fair education of children" as the Orthodox wedding service proclaims. (Morelli, 2011)
However, unfortunately, parents seldom bring up the topic of bullying with their children. They should be able to talk to their children about what bullying is. Parents should attend to emotional changes on the part of their children. They should especially be aware of the victim effects discussed above, and be ready to talk to their children about them. Likewise, parents of children who bully should look for changes in their child’s behavior that indicates a greater degree of aggression or hanging out with a 'tough crowd.' Parents should encourage their child to be proactive about bullying, stand up to the bullyv and report bullying to the school authorities. Unfortunately, some parents may model aggression themselves, using hostility and power in their own conflict resolution issues, inadvertently teaching and giving their child permission to do likewise.
It is especially important for parents to support the likes and dislikes of their child. Not all children will excel in sports, for example. Some children may have artistic and or musical talents and such preferences should be lauded and encouraged.
Parents should also become active in school parent activities. They should make sure they get a copy of the school newspaper, talk to other parents, join groups such as the PTA, even walk around the school to see any graffiti or observe any bullying behavior.vi
If the bullying behavior has escalated to serious maltreatment, especially physical or sexual abuse involving weapons, extortion or bodily harm, the local police agency should be informed and work with school authorities to overcome the problem.
The Charity of Christ
Parents can explain to their children what bullying is and how it is contrary to the teachings of Christ. Specific incidents from the Gospels or lives of the Saints can be used by parents to convey Christ-like behavior to their children. Jesus’ special love of children, the same love children should have towards each other, can be conveyed by parents talking to their children about St Matthew's (19: 13-15) account of Jesus' encounter with the children:
Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people; but Jesus said, "Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them; for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven." And he laid his hands on them and went away.
Children can be shown to embrace each other in love in imitation of Jesus. In this we can recall the words of St. John (1Jn3: 18): "Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth." In some school systems a system of students helping students (peer tutoring) has been established. A general summary of the findings (Kamps, Barbetta, Leonard, & Joseph, 1994) indicate that such programs could be effective and efficient strategy for increasing the pro-social interactions of students. Obviously, quite the opposite behavior pattern than bullying. Rather, an example of love that children and adolescents can do, as Jesus counsels "in deed and in truth."
Responsibility for guarding children
The primary responsibility not only for establishing a domestic church - a Christ-like home - but also for leading their children to Christ is entrusted to those 'ordained’ to this vocation. The blessed husband and wife, the leaders of the domestic church, the parents are those with this ordination. So, the recommendations discussed above, teaching children about bullying, how to deal with bullying, involving school and other resources as necessary, are their sacred duty and obligation. In this regard, the blessed mother and father are another alter Christi (other Christ) in their children's lives, both to guard their children and become children themselves. Is it that the parents are to become “as children” in accepting Christ's teachings, being obedient to the Father in innocence and purity of heart as Christ taught His followers. Thus becoming Christ-like models for their children.
The exaltedness of this calling is told to us by St. Isaac of Syria (Wensinck. 1923):
For the Lord guards the child. Thou must not only apply this and believe it in the case of children, but also in the case of those who, being wise in the world, leave their knowledge, and relying upon that wisdom which is all sufficient become children by their own will.
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Kamps, D., Barbetta,P., Leonard, B.R. & Joseph, J. (1994). Classwide peer tutoring: An integration strategy to improve reading skills and promote peer interaction among students with autism and general education peers. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis' 94, 27, 49-61.
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ii Use of Questions: The Socratic Method
Use of questions is actually related to a cognitive-educational model called the Socratic Method (Beck, 1995). Using this technique, an instructor or mentor does not give data, knowledge or wisdom directly. Instead, the student discovers it as a result of answering a series of questions posed by the teacher. When a child discovers something for himself, or makes appropriate connections between things, it is far more meaningful than referencing authority. When a parent asks questions like "What do you think?" or, "How is this related to what we leaned in…(scripture, reading the Church Fathers, a homily or church school etc.)," chances are much greater that the child will grasp and retain important points. Be ready to outline some of the theological principles given above. Don't preach. Keep it simple. Use clear, focused, examples.
iii I want to note that these Perpetrator Interventions are geared to the child or adolescent bully that does not have a diagnosable Mental Disorder. Those with Conduct Disorders (and subsequent Personality Disorders, such as Anti-social Personality Disorder, or Narcissist Personality Disorder. should be evaluated for possible brain anomalies and treatment. C.f. Tunstall, N., Fahy, T. and McGuire, P (2003). A guide to neuroimaging in Psychiatry. London: Martin Dunitz; Decety, J., Michalska, K.J., Akitsuki, Y., & Lahey, B. (2008). "Atypical empathic responses in adolescents with aggressive conduct disorder: a functional MRI investigation". Biological psychology 80 2, 203–11.
v Making sure the child can perform the assertiveness skills previously discussed, possibly by enlisting a behavioral psychologist to aid the child in acquiring assertiveness.
vi Other online resources:
I wish to thank my editor, Anne Petach for suggesting these parental resources: