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“Dealing” is the bully: Key experiences of bullying, and advice to children outside standard deviations of policy’s control.

This was originally drafted for Washington State University Childhood Development (PSYCH-361) for Discussion.

Pardon, I am posting this post 11 PM on a weekday to push it to the bottom of discussion, because it is lengthy, and because this subject is a very close subject personally with a lot of feeling, thought, and past, present, and future behavior being adjusted continually as a result of tremendous work due to decades of effects from bullying and attitudes developed in response to trying to find ways to resolve it at younger ages.

Introduction

Before answering, I’d like to note that bullying behavior seems to objectify a target, so it’s difficult to say “I” was a target. This body and its associated behaviors overt served as an object, where object is best operationalized as serving as a prototype/exemplar to which attitudes modeled, reinforced, and emergent were manifested toward the target. A much different post had been written, but after reviewing Olweus Bullying Prevention Programs (OBPPs) it felt necessary to leave the experiences in, instead of compressing it, because it relates. Key experiences will be shared, followed by actions taken, and some advice that had already been given to kids and parents in the U.S. Army as an aikido instructor on the topic of in the mid- to late-1990s and post.

Key Experiences

J.B. Meets Motherly Guidance. 

Bullying started early in childhood when attending public school, and there was a larger kid (J.B.) that had been held back and was part of the classes. J.B. was aggressive in pushing on the playground during recess, and used name calling, and such. Peers would join in and then if J.B. wasn’t doing what he was doing, there would be shunning. After approaching parents at home, I had been requested thusly, “if anyone ever hits you, I want you to hit them back.” Well, that happened in the middle of lining up on a brick wall receiving a hard shove by J.B. I remember the slap against J.B.’s face quite vividly, and at that moment the teacher at the time, Mrs. M. came out and sent us to the principal’s office. At this time, paddling was accepted, and I remember sitting in the chair in the principal’s office, and my mother flew in the front door and disappeared to the back, only to come out moments later to drive me home. There was much sadness and tears, and I remember being on the bed with her and her consoling me, and she delivered a line most beautifully, “remember when I told ‘if anyone ever hits you, to hit them back? I didn’t actually mean it.” So from then forward, when bullying happened, I just protected myself from injuries taking every insult, assault, and on occasion battery—even from my father. I was not expelled and looking back I think it was a combination of the art teacher that may have saved the day. Grades dropped from straight A honor rolls to Cs and Ds—like a light switch went off.

The Clique that Kicked at the End of Chemistry Class

The bullying did continue and in middle school, there was a gang of peers in a chemistry class that waited outside the door to class, after class. I saw it coming, I knew what was going to happen, but I walked out anyways. I just curled up into a ball and made micro-adjustments to avoid the kicks from hitting my face, lungs, heart, and stomach. I remember peering through my arms looking into the doorway of the class, and seeing the teacher watching, turning a back, and walking away. It wasn’t reported, and nothing was done. The sad thing was, the peers enjoyed it, they smiled, while kicking, and laughed.

The Rumor of a Hit List. Things escalated further, and one day I had been pulled out of a World History class to go to the principal’s office and the principal’s office was dark, and the shades were open, and I saw out the window. After the principal arrived, the first words were, “do you have a hit list?” I remember not confusion, but awareness. I didn’t have any words to respond with, I was trying to figure out what a hit list was, but lightly, because what became more interesting were the sheriff cars rolling into the front circle out the window. Then the K-9 units. Then the German shepherds coming in, “do you have a hit list?!?!” It was repeated, and I do not like telling this story often, because I’d rather not identify with it. That said, it might be helpful for others to study. This went for some time, and then the principal got a call, and then said I could go back to class. As I was walking to class—later realized that I walked to class alone, I saw the sheriffs leaving, nothing was said, nothing was exchanged, and the dogs just passed. I turned the corner in a hallway, and saw the last sheriff waiting, and he looked at me, and looked at the locker, and the left. Papers everywhere, books everywhere, and I just shoved it all in the locker, shut the locker, and then went to the same history class I was pulled out of. Nobody said a word. I sat down and the teacher started to say something about the great pyramids. My book was still open, and I don’t remember anything after. No lawsuits, no psychologists, no apology (all realized in hindsight).

And The Glass Wall Bowed

This is important, so I will continue. I was enrolled in a Tae Kwon Do (TKD) class under M.K., parallel to a new violin extracurricular class. I enjoyed both, but the tension between them and price I think, was too much to bear. I continued TKD and had joined with an immediately younger sister. A few months later, or about six months, another incident occurred. I witnessed another group, the groups seemed to grow throughout school. I walked into a gym locker room and most of the boys had encircled another boy who was sitting on the floor with a back against ceiling to floor glass around the coach’s office looking up at everyone, and the lead bully was standing with his friend looking down.

This is the first time this is being written ever, and there are chills (HPA-Axis is activated writing this). The boy said to the one on the floor in front of everyone, “I want you to play with yourself.” It was delivered in a way I’ll never forget, and in that moment, there was a wish to act, but I could not, it was as if my feet were stuck in concrete. I was outnumbered, and now I know that it was a bystander effect, and a diffusion of responsibility, but I am not so sure—it was that hint from long ago not to “hit back”. And yes, the boy on the floor started to comply, and at that moment I left, and only one other boy did. We did not run; but we did not act dejected. Given past experiences with teachers, what could be done? Yet I was just analyzing and studying human behavior—more perhaps a schizoid personality type’s defense mechanism looking for safety.

Later, a miraculous thing happened. Again, the gym class, and all gym classes were Cs and Ds at the time—J.B.’s (though not at the school at this time) sidekick went to shove me into the wall lockers. I still remember his face. If one were to imagine writing the word “went” in “went to shove”, it is in the first serif of the first letter of “w” that a side kick flowed forth, not flew… flowed, like proverbial water. It was not a kick at all, it was a completely different feeling, like when water rising after a drop falls upon waters’ surface. J.B.’s sidekick was stunned—a fist ploughed into his chest. J.B.’s friend flew off his feet into the glass wall. The glass wall bowed and rippled with a deep resonating sound. J.B.’s friend slid down the wall onto the floor, into the same exact spot the earlier boy was bullied. J.B.’s friend was holding his chest, curled over, breathing, yet despondent. I felt his pain, I felt empathy.

The entire group of boys in the gym class went silent and formed a distant circle. I then walked straight to the entrance of the gym office, and asked the gym teacher, “should I go to the principal’s office now?” I remember he looked at me and was silent, then said, “no.” After that, I was invited by a guidance counselor and the gym teacher to both help children with learning disabilities move between classes (I just realized why, writing this), and be an assistant for the gym teacher’s basketball team (yep, now it makes sense too).

Social Stigma

Many years later, since the glass wall incident until entering high school, I had been left alone. I brought portable computers to classes (my father worked for IBM Federal Systems division on weapons systems) and I pretty much conducted my own studies in computers. Quite “different” into high school, a new clique decided to name call, and things started to escalate, yet was stopped abruptly when I heard over a shoulder walking down the hallway, “don’t go near him, don’t mess with him, he’ll kick your ass”. So, bullying was traded for its ripple effect in defense, stigma.

A School Aware but Distant

Was something done in the school to address it? I am sure things were done, and I am sure evidence was being consulted on by staff, but it was an earlier time than today. It’s possible it was being studied, and not interfered with. I do not know. Attempts to gain records are denied and under red tape. The schools I attended was in Spotsylvania County, Virginia. I cannot say much but can share that these schools have students that go onto government careers in defense, intelligence, and in support of U.S. State Department operations. A guidance counselor pried into home life, but I was too locked up to communicate, and the only teacher to penetrate the shell was one that saved my graduation. I knew she saw me, and I appreciated it and thanked them.

A Curious Admission and Today

Years later, during a call home, mother had shared something she had withheld for years, that a group of people came to visit her offering to place me in a gifted school, a private school—she turned them down and didn’t want to lose me. She wanted me to have a normal life and have friends. She had me watch films like Mercury Rising (Becker, 1998), and read books like Ender’s Game (Card, 1985). Her message was, “they will try to take advantage of you, don’t let them.” I never trusted this, it felt overprotective, and it did take a toll. Today these fingers are bleeding from the work to get to this University today and I am nearly broke after COVID-19 lock downs. I survive with a beautiful family that took decades to find and build a home conducive to study and research. Bullying can and does create lifelong damage, but I knew the worlds bullies came from, there was one on our block growing up, and it was a very dysfunctional home, I saw the father yelling at the son, slamming doors etc. I could not get angry at them, but I could stop a cycle.

Actions Not-Taken

If you want to know what actions I took, I must be quite direct to everyone including scientists. I didn’t take action. I remained. I studied within this remaining (it’s called zanshin in Japanese culture). I felt compassion for the behavioral expression echoing from dysfunction. I studied everything people did, I listened, I felt, and I observed. Was it me studying, listening, feeling, and observing? No. Saying it was “me” seems conceited. Everyone expresses these capacities, so is it me? No. Autotelic?  Perhaps (look, holographic words). It’s just this perception, these senses at play. Somehow early on it was realized that THIS isn’t really “me”. There is joy in stillness, a stillness that allows causality to be seen more clearly, and when the time is right (i.e., kairos). I really felt bad about what had happened to J.B.’s friend. I let TKD go, because I didn’t want to hurt people (that created another whole problem) and only years later in Ft. Wainwright I had found Aikido. Here’s the thing, I think what prevented internalization was the lack of identifying with feelings, thoughts, and behaviors. The decisions NOT to harm were what was reinforced by harm inflicted; I felt their surprise, their pain, and their confusion after unexpected defense, it hurt me.

Advice to Children

To frame the advice, it will be helpful to review OBPP’s “four key principles. Adults at school (and ideally, at home) should (a) show warmth and positive interest in their students; (b) set firm limits to unacceptable behavior; (c) use consistent nonphysical, nonhostile negative consequences when rules are broken; and (d) function as authorities and positive role models (Olweus, 1993a, 2001b; Olweus et al. 2007)” (as cited in Olweus & Limber, 2010). I’d have to say that this isn’t in the hands of the children, it’s in the hands of adults, and given my experience, in cases, adults had been neglectful, and the system was neglectful. At the time in Virginia, everyone was struggling with inflation, and rapid rising prices. At this time one income households became two income households. Kids became latchkey kids. This leads to a reality in that while OBPP’s implementation reduced probabilities of bullying, probability is not reduced to zero (Olweus & Limber, 2010, pp. 127-129). I would share my story with kids, and tell them that in a world where you could fall through the cracks, I have no legally acceptable advice except that of my own example.

Today, I look at society today through societies thousands of years from now. The American Psychological Association (APA, 2022) defines bullying as “aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions. The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to ‘cause’ the bullying.” I’m having trouble differentiating bullying temporally (i.e., bullying over short to long periods of time). From the cheap seats of a cabin on a side of a mountain, there is bullying in shorter spans of overt behavior over time (i.e., school bullying) to longer spans of covert behavior over time (i.e., systemic racism and inequality leading to strain which leads to dysfunctional families).

In closing, the final advice is this regarding dealing with bullying—don’t deal with bullying. Dealing is the bully. Instead work to implement long known policies like inter-group contact (Allport, 1954), cooperative modeling through social learning (Bandura, 1973), unconditional positive regard (Standal, 1954; Rogers, 1951), and a whole host of evidenced based practices informed by grounded theoretical frameworks, and application of these through the lens of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI). We know these work, but like the boys all huddled around the one boy serving as entertainment (it’s excruciatingly painful to write), where is the one voice to call out and halt the tyrannical emperor, who is not a person (i.e., scapegoat), but most likely a mismatched evolutionary behavior of “putting people in their place”—dominating authoritarianism. The world is literally on fire because of this kind of bullying, from children, to adult. 

Margin Note: Concerning bullying, I wonder if bystander effect is moderated by generations of socio-cognitive modeling by way of performance-audience behaviors and its attendant reinforcements to orders of descendant generations concomitant with larger venues of performances as a result of technological progress. Basically, are we modeling people into audience members rather than actors? How could such an experiment be designed?

References

Allport, G. W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Addison-Wesley.

American Psychological Association [APA]. (2022). Bullying. American Psychological Association, Psychology Topics. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/topics/bullying.

Bandura, A. (1973). Aggression: A social learning analysis. Prentice-Hall.

Becker, H. [Director]. (1998). Mercury rising. Imagine Entertainment.

Card, O. S. (1985). Ender’s game. Tor Books.

Olweus, D. (1993a). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Blackwell.

Olweus, D. (2001b). Olweus’ core program against bullying and antisocial behavior: A teacher handbook. Research Center for Health Promotion (HEMIL Center), University of Bergen.

Olweus, D. (2007). The Olweus bullying questionnaire. Hazelden.

Olweus, D., Limber, S. P. (2010). Bullying in school: Evaluation and dissemination of the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 80(1), 124-134. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1939-0025.2010.01015.x

Rogers, C. R. (1951). Client-centered therapy: Its current practice, implications, and theory. Houghton Mifflin.

Standal, S. (1954). The need for positive regard: A contribution to client-centered theory. Unpublished PhD thesis, University of Chicago.

Media

Verbruggen, S., Payne, J., & Marsalis, A. [Directors]. (2022). Invasion [Television program]. Kinberg Genre, & Boat Rocker Media. (Original work published 2021).