Well, I’m not okay
I’m not okay
I’m not okay
(Okay)

—My Chemical Romance, “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)”

How are our children supposed to let us know that their lives don’t feel safe?

 

The issue of bullying has emerged as a significant theme in popular discourse in the United States and elsewhere, with October now designated “National Bullying Prevention Month” by the grassroots National Bullying Prevention Center

“I wonder if we have the courage, and the tools, as a culture to really look at what is going on with bullying in the fabric of our society.”Grant

As a society, have we dropped the ball? Is the care we provide so inadequate and non-attuned to their needs that our children typically don’t feel safe in their own communities?

In the abstract, the bully is generally regarded as a legitimate target for hatred and payback, whether the bully goes after people perceived as gay, or who have the wrong skin color, the wrong-shaped body, or even the wrong-shaped eyes. But to approach the issue from the bully’s perspective, how do bullies acquire the feelings of shame and alienation driving their treatment of others? And why are we consistently caught off guard by it — by something going on literally in our own backyards? And finally, what does this say about the hackneyed rhetoric about family values and children being our most precious resource?

Some people think the best response to a bully is for the victim to give as good as he gets — or better; that responding in kind will “teach ‘em a lesson” But does that really do anything to fix our failure to protect vulnerable children — including children whose life experience has led them to bullying?  Can we find a way to address all sides of this painful issue?

“What is bullying saying about the ways in which we do—and don’t—create and sustain safe environments for our kids?”Mark

In irrelationship theory, bullying can be seen as part of an ecosystem of unsafety in which, for aggressor and target, bullying is the outcome of emotional abandonment by caregivers — especially caregivers who use their children to compensate for their own deficits and disappointments.  In this dysfunctional ecosystem, the impulse to bully eludes attempts by caregiver to manage them. But what drives those impulses?  What do they mean? And who — or what — is their real target?

Of course, extreme situations such as abuse and neglect may make bullying behavior more intelligible. But most bullying situations aren’t traceable to anything so dramatic. Instead, bullying behavior seems more often to arise from slow-burn situations in which an individual’s caregivers were not up to the task of fostering feelings of safety in their children.

Irrelationship grows out of not-easily-discerned terror that a child feels in an environment she or he perceives to be unsafe. Bullying behavior may be an outgrowth of having felt unsafe as a small child which surfaces later in “new” settings such as school or workplace — settings that include individuals with traits or behaviors that challenge the limited range of what the bully considers safe or acceptable.

“The bully is acting out vulnerability just as profound as that of his target.”Daniel

In this instance, bullying may be reckoned as the price paid for our widespread use of mutual isolation to defend against our fear of vulnerability and intimacy. Is bullying a symptom of our thwarted need for trustworthy alliances with others all through our lives? Aggressive behavior, then, may be the bully’s song-and-dance routine, developed to blunt awareness of her or his disappointed need for others, on the one hand; and, a call for a functional kind of adult supervision, on the other. Bullying clearly calls for adult or clinical intervention. Such intervention provides the aggressive child (or adult) and caregiver an opportunity to deconstruct aggressive behavior and to begin again. After all, does anyone really want to be a bully?

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