A Peek Inside The Mind Of A Bully
I’ve spent 25 years working with teens and young adults, helping them navigate the perils of the adolescent stage of life to grow into confident, centered adults. Along the way I’ve heard countless stories of bullying, mostly the girl to girl verbal kind, followed by the “pick on the little guy” kind that is common in boy culture, again mostly through words and only occasionally through actions.
The most common trait we hear attributed to those who bully is that they lack empathy. They do not “feel the pain” of the victims as they inflict pain upon them, freeing them to act without guilt, shame or hesitation. Unbound by a social, emotional and/or moral conscious, they can comfortably and easily do things that the rest of us would find unthinkable.
Are they really all virtually sociopaths, truly lacking all connection with the basics of feeling anything for others?
Not in my experience. There is actually a spectrum of bullies in that regard, only a few whom fit that category, and many of them suffer from the “I am special so the rules don’t apply to me” complex, not really from being a sociopath.
Most of those who do it though are not that extreme. The majority have developed a complex, sophisticated denial mechanism that allows them to hurt others, and be okay with it, reinforced by a story they tell themselves that justifies behaving this way. With little prodding, they feel deeply for what they are doing and easily reveal it – at least in the early stages of doing it.
[Note: Many video games help kids becomes desensitized and less moral. Grand Theft Auto allows kids to shoot cops, have sex with prostitutes, steal cars and get rewarded for it. The US Military uses the most violent video games to desensitize soldiers to killing. They find that the more comfortable they are just seeing enemies as fun targets on a screen, the more at ease they are with killing them off the screen. These games are popular Christmas presents in modern America.]
Youth culture today is far more complex and high-pressured than it was when we were our kid’s age. Most kids teens today have a sense of scarcity of resources and opportunities and their life feels like constant competition.
The school demands alone create more intellectual stress than most adults could easily manage as adults. The social pressures though, and the absurd standards that modern youth peer culture sets for one another, are far worse than most parents truly understand.
Many teens live with a sense that they are perpetually just one wrong choice or comment away from failure or rejection. Beyond worrying about school failure (“you won’t get into a good college and thus your life is doomed” which is flawed thinking that is endlessly perpetuated by many adults), their bigger fear comes in the form of worrying about being abandoned by the peer group, the modern equivalent of being kicked out of the tribe – especially because they spend the majority of their lives now in the tribe of their peers.
- In 1950 youth between the ages of 12 to 18, spent 60 hours a week with adults and only 12 alone with peers.
- In 2010, this age group spends 60 hours a week in contact with peers, and less than 12 with adults.
- ·In “wired” homes in America (those where every one has their own computer), parents spend on average 4 minutes a day of uninterrupted time with their kids.
Today’s kids are influenced mostly by machines (6 hours a day of screen time is the national average for today’s teens), institutions (kids typically outnumber adults 24 to 1 in schools and spend 7 hours a day there 170 days a year) and countless hours a day being influenced by peers.
For many of them, being accepted by peer culture, having status in peer culture or proving themselves invincible to peer culture, becomes their highest concern and greatest source of stress.
The fear of being kicked out of the peer tribe that dominates their experience of the world, essentially equates at a deep psychological level, to certain death. Its no wonder it consumes so much of their time and energy. (Have you ever heard your teen daughter say, “If any one finds out about this, I’ll die?” In their inner world, it is not just a cliché.)
Put any of us in a survival situation and all morality goes out the window. We’d do almost anything to survive. If you wouldn’t, you’d die.
Many of these bullies have a story they are living that links back to this.
- If they were abused themselves, this is their way of proving to themselves that they have power and are not what their perpetrator told them they were. They are proving to themselves that they are not worthless.
- If they are in a socially advanced clique, they bully others to maintain their own status and value, thus ensuring their membership and inclusion in the clique. They are not feeling bad about whose reputation they trashed because they are too busy fighting for their own social survival (remember, to them this feels like life and death!).
- If they are teasing others at the skate park or on the basketball court, it is to establish their dominance which assures their playing time in the game or status for the girls, which equates to, you guessed it, their survival in a competitive world.
- If they are teasing kids in the halls at school, it is to demonstrate to the “in-crowd” that they are funny and ruthless, and thus meeting one of the core criteria for proving worth as a man in modern boy culture. (I just gave a talk about this last week which is available here.)
I can go on and on, but most causes of bullying behavior comes back to the same thing:
They are doing it and are okay with doing it because it is what they feel they need to do to survive, in a stressful, competitive world.
Until this changes, there is little adults can do besides continue to run around and clean up the messes. All the training in the world on recognizing the signs of bullying won’t stop bullies from bullying.
Today’s kids need to have the power taken back from popular culture, especially popular peer culture. The power these have over them trumps the power most parents have to influence their kids once they hit the middle school years.
This is not “just the way it is”, nor is it indicative of a “normal stage of development”. This is a modern creation, or perhaps better said, the pervasive by-product of the modern way of life that places so much emphasis on the things that matter least – and that demands parents be so consumed with things outside of home that they have little time or energy left to address what should be their primary concern: things going on inside their kids lives.
It takes more than 4 minutes a day to raise kids to be morally and socially conscious people.
It takes more than 12 hours a week of contact and attention from adults to influence kids to choose the values of mature adult culture over the values of popular adolescent culture.
It takes more than just parents teaching kids about right and wrong, for kids to adopt these same beliefs.
I’ve built my life’s work on becoming one of these critically needed adults in the lives of youth during their adolescent years. I hear their stories, know their struggles and “get” how complex and pressure filled their lives are. .. and how much time, repetition and time and repetition it takes to help them internalize a secure self-directed value set that frees them from peer approval dependence.
They need many more people doing this too: Teaching them real life skills, helping them construct their beliefs and values independent of the negative influences of society, giving them the reassurance that they matter, their lives count and they will succeed if they choose to live a life of uncompromising commitment towards the things that really matter. .. and giving them the real life experiences now that prove to them that they already have what it takes, far more so than they realize.
We all needed it at their age.
They need it now, more than ever.
Jeffrey Leiken, MA
October 12, 2010