On Bullying and Being Bullied: Breaking Free of the Binary
Children are absorbing confusing messages when it comes to the topic of bullying – and vital behavioural communications are being missed. Jeanine Connor, adolescent psychotherapist and author, greets the start of Anti-Bullying Week 2022 with an invitation to therapists to challenge reductive dichotomous thinking, refocus energies on understanding context, and relieve young people of the often unconscious pressure to ‘pick a side’.
A proclamation that I shout from the proverbial rooftops given any opportunity is, ‘All behaviour is a communication.’ So, what is bullying behaviour communicating and, more importantly, are we listening?
The way we think about bullying needs a rethink; I think. There is a tendency to define behaviour in binary terms: bully/bullied, abuser/abused, perpetrator/victim. Dichotomous thinking, which splits complex concepts into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, is a defence; it negates grey areas and makes the convolutions of life more tolerable. But it also leads to assumptions, generalisations and a denial of reality, which is usually more nuanced than the dichotomy suggests.
Previous media coverage of Anti-Bullying Week urged us to ‘Sock it to the bullies’ and claimed that celebrities were ‘… united against thugs’. These are confusing messages, particularly for children and young people.
Let’s think about a fictional child, Shelby, who is being bullied at school. Some of the bullying behaviour is subtle: swiping his books onto the floor, calling him a ‘mummy’s boy’ in hushed tones, facial gestures in his direction in the playground. Shelby is also subject to physical bullying: a hard kick to the shins during football practice, a push and a shove in the lunch queue. He has been labelled ‘Poor Shelby’.
Shelby’s home life is chaotic. His father misuses alcohol and is violent towards his mother. Shelby is the oldest child and likes spending time with his mum, helping her to look after his baby sister and make packed lunches for him and his dad. He’s described at home as companiable and a great support, ‘mummy’s little helper’.
Let’s think about another fictional child, Shelby II, who has been labelled a bully. Some of his behaviour is subtle: swiping other children’s books onto the floor, calling them names in hushed tones, facial gestures in the playground. Shelby II has subjected children to physical bullying: hard kicks to the shins during football practice, pushing and shoving in the lunch queue.
Shelby II’s home life is chaotic. His father misuses alcohol and is violent towards his mother. You know the rest…
According to the Anti-Bullying Alliance, the charity responsible for Anti-Bullying Week, 30 per cent of children have been bullied in the last year. The true figure is probably higher. There are no statistics to reveal the percentage of children who bully, but we can suppose they make up another 30 per cent or so of the child population and they deserve our empathy and support too.
Reacting sympathetically to children who are bullied, while ‘socking it’ to those who bully and labelling them as thugs, is akin to binary thinking; it is reductive and keeps us stuck in a dichotomy. Instead, we need to consider all behaviour in context and consider the models that young people witness at home, school and in the media. If those models are dichotomous (abuser/abused, perpetrator/victim), the child is compelled, consciously or not, to pick a side (bully/bullied).
Whichever position they take up, their behaviour is a communication which they need us to acknowledge. Whether bullied or bully, young people need us to listen empathically and without prejudice, to explore and make sense of the experiences that have preceded the behaviour that brought them to our attention.
We do all young people a disservice – those who are bullying, and those who are bullied – when we collude with dichotomous, binary thinking. As therapists, we are well equipped to help children think in the grey. When cultural conversation and organisational strategy on the topic of bullying seems skewed, I think our profession has a responsibility to offer an alternative perspective. The reality can be hard to tolerate, just as young people’s lived experiences can be hard to tolerate, but the nuanced thinking that therapy can provide is the antidote young people deserve.