If it’s true that we have zero tolerance for bullying, why is bullying an epidemic that gets worse each day? Backwards
Bullying occurs once every seven minutes. It’s amazing that it flourishes when it’s well-documented to cause intense social-emotional suffering, and poor school performance, and can even lead to suicide. In fact, a new word has been coined to describe the tragedy of suicide caused by bullying: “bullycide.” Why are we powerless to stop this destructive behavior? Backwards
After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, it became common knowledge that bullying and harassing an individual can result in extremely violent and tragic consequences. But what, if anything, has really changed in our approach to bullying since that time? In the past four years alone, the U.S. has had 114 school shootings — and 75 percent were connected to bullying. Clearly, our understanding and approach to bullying are a shocking failure. What can we do to turn around our failed approach? Backwards
While it’s more difficult to unlearn something than to learn it, we must try to forget everything that we’ve been told about bullying and start with a clean slate.
Next, employ these four strategies to reverse our backward approach to the bullying crisis: Backwards
1. Broaden the focus beyond children
Bullying is learned behavior. As psychotherapist Dr. Katie Hurley reminds us, “Bullies are not born, they’re raised.” If we truly want to stop the bullying epidemic, we need to look at our child-rearing practices. We need to support parents in understanding that if they were raised in a bullying framework and believe it’s a healthy and effective way to teach their kids how to succeed in the world, it’s time to change. Backwards
We need parents to understand that bullying acts like a virus. It’s infectious. If a child is humiliated at home, made to feel worthless, is ignored, or is exposed to mockery and shame, he will frequently act out these same behaviors on the playground or in the classroom. If we want to stop bullying in our society, we must train our focus on the adults. Backwards
2. Widen the scope of awareness beyond parents
Parents aren’t the only adults who may infect children with bullying behaviors. This transmissible behavior can be taught by teachers and by coaches. It can be a young person’s boss or manager. Bullying is so rampant, that it can also be inflicted by adults’ bosses or managers. At present, 76.3 million employees are impacted by bullying in the workplace. Backwards
If bullying is a learned behavior, then the way to stop it is to shine a spotlight on all the adults who instill it and make them aware of its effects. We don’t need to blame, shame, or ostracize them. Those are bullying behaviors. We need to recruit them to instantly call out any bullying behaviors, no matter how seemingly small. We need to create a culture where 99 percent of people are whistleblowers, not just 10 percent as is now the case. Backwards
3. Make anti-bullying education and practice a priority
Change our bullying culture that seeps down from the workplace to the playground will involve the kind of daily practice that we require of children and teens when learning math or music or soccer. It requires the kind of daily practice expected of employees when learning new technical or soft skills. Considering the negative impact on mental health and physical health, we have no time to waste. Backwards
We must find time to shift our society from a bullying and abuse culture into one structured on empathy and compassion. The brain doesn’t learn from a workshop or a pamphlet. The brain learns by repetition at timed intervals. We know this and that’s why we teach children over and over again, building in more complexity to key lessons they need to learn. This is how we need to provide key lessons across all age groups about bullying and abuse. We must teach others how it harms brains and what to do when it’s happening at the hands of children — but more importantly at the hands of the empowered adults in their lives. Backwards
Once we commit to teaching children and adults how to treat one another in non-bullying ways, how to self-identify as abusers, and how to seek rehabilitation, we will create a far healthier society, saving billions of dollars now allocated to mental health, health, criminal justice, addiction, and welfare. Each of these complex issues is connected to childhood adversity at the hands of adults.
4. Expose all forms of bullying as abnormal and unacceptable
This is the most challenging step because for those who grow up in a bullying framework, it becomes normalized. In the bullying paradigm in which we now live, many believe bullying is a necessary evil for greatness. The Academy award-winning films Whiplash and Black Swan both portray how powerful and dangerous this myth is.
Bullying and abuse don’t make a person great. No evidence backs this up, while there’s vast evidence — psychiatric, psychological, neurobiological, and neuroscientific — that shows how all forms of bullying and abuse harm the brain.
As a society, we must adhere to a new understanding that sticks and stones may break my bones, but bullying and abuse may break my brain.
About the author
Jennifer Fraser, best-selling author, and award-winning educator has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature. Her online courses and workshops provide dynamic lessons on the impact neuroscience has on personal development and culture change. Her previous book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom (Motion Press, Aug. 8, 2015), explores what happens when the bully is a teacher or coach. Her new book, The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health (Prometheus Books, April 1, 2022), delves into how bullying affects the brain and how the brain can heal. Learn more at bulliedbrain.com.
By Jennifer Fraser