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Clinical Social Worker/Therapist

Bullying has been an issue for humanity for a very long time. Unfortunately, it took recent events, such as, violence perpetrated by and at schoolchildren, for people to give it the attention it needs. These violent events often seem to point to bullying as one of the problems that led to the violence.1 Certainly it's not that simple. But, being bullied is a problem that leads to school adjustment difficulties.2 

The Emotional Consequences of Bullying

  • Victims of bullying are more likely to suffer from an emotional or mental condition, including an eating disorder and an increased likelihood of psychotic symptoms as adolescents
  • They are also more likely to smoke cigarettes and as adults, to experience violent victimization and homelessness, drink more, and binge drink more often3
  • Peer victimization has been consistently found to predict concurrent and future onset of a range of behavior problems and depressive symptoms4
  • Indirect bullying (spreading rumors or not talking to someone on purpose) significantly predicts anxiety, depression, and withdrawn behaviors5

My own clinical experience associates childhood bullying with depression, anxiety, and relationship difficulties as adults.

What is Bullying?

Let me first define bullying:

  • Bullying is what we often call verbal abuse. It's the sort of words and statements that would be readily recognized by anyone else listening in, even though they don't know the context.
  • Indirect behavior, often called emotional abuse, is beyond the scope of this article. Using veiled threats, innuendo, insinuation and other sorts of indirect behavior designed to be intimidating can be seen as bullying. However, identifying it as such can be as subtle as in intimidating words that are only understood as such by the person intended. This issue is very complex and can't possibly be dealt with in a short article.

Bullying has been a part of childhood for time immemorial. Up until recently schools have avoided involving themselves in bullying that didn't disrupt classroom function. But given the recent events that have tied bullying to future violence, there have been a large number of schools who have developed bullying policies including those who have gone as far as zero tolerance. 

Bullying in childhood can dramatically change life's course. Bullying during school years has been associated with later problems with depression and anxiety. Some children are more sensitive than others. Major problems in adulthood generally have several contributing factors such as genes, parenting, and social experiences. Young children internalize experiences into assumptions about themselves and their world. A young child could take personal responsibility for the bullying by making the assumption, "I can't do anything right." Or, children can come to believe that the world is a hostile and dangerous place. Children with these basic assumptions may limit their life choices based on a belief they are less likely to be successful. They may avoid taking risks of any sort because of a belief that the world is inherently dangerous. 

Adults Often Model Bullying

Bullying is not just about children. Bullying happens between adults in social settings. The bully may see his behavior is justified by the victim’s behavior or words.

Bullying can be seen as the oppressor victimizing the oppressed or as a form of punishment for bad behavior. Bullying is a pervasive part of our culture. 

Bullying most often occurs in the context of a power imbalance. A bully intimidates his victim, a husband intimidates his wife or vice versa, or an employer intimidates his employee. Seldom will a bully take on an individual with equal power or one of superior power without others standing by in support. So bullying is not as simple as misbehavior, it is an abuse of power. 

A bully may have an anger problem and may create many problems for themselves as well as others. But being a bully is not the same as having an anger problem. A person with a serious anger problem may be as likely to be angry and abusive to people who are powerful as to those who are powerless. Thus their behavior draws cultural sanctions such as being excluded from future opportunity, attending a particular event, the end of the relationship, the loss of child custody or even arrest. 

Anger doesn't make people act angry. People have to make a choice to act angry in order to appear so. Many people feel as if their anger makes the choice. Everyone has heard the words, "you made me angry" as if that was excusing the angry behavior. 

Think about the last time you got angry at an authority figure, such as the boss. Most people, even those who have issues with anger, are able to choose to restrain themselves around more powerful people.

Bullying is a form of predatory social behavior. Children often naturally engage in bullying, because it is, in part, human nature to assert physical power over a weaker other. Bullying however, undermines orderly civil discourse, mutual interdependence and protection of the vulnerable.  We must be taught to avoid bullying.  

Managing Anger

Just because we get angry when someone does something we don't like doesn't justify treating them disrespectfully or hurtfully. This idea is captured in the phrase “two wrongs don't make a right.” Disrespectful behavior occurs between individuals and whole societies. Revenge seeking by one party tends to provoke revenge seeking by the other. This process can spiral uncontrollably until an awful lot of damage is done.

The solution to anger problems is not repressing or suppressing your anger. First, you need to understand what it is. Anger is a message from your body that someone has been disrespectful or crossed your boundaries, or that you have been over-sensitive to this situation. Anger prepares us to act to protect ourselves. Fortunately, in most situations of modern life, the behavioral response that accompanies anger involves being assertive rather than violent. The fact is, you can choose to use your anger to do whatever you want. With practice and time you can learn to take your anger and use it to listen more closely. You can also use your anger as a barometer for your boundary issue with others and as motivation to persist at discovering the problem. 

Some people struggle to be assertive. Perhaps they have experienced anger as being dangerous, like in an abusive situation. So they recognize their own anger as a potential danger to themselves or others. So instead of speaking up, they suppress their anger, try to cover it up, and that leads to all sorts of other problems. Anger piled up for a long period time often leaks out in ways that does damage to relationships. Sometimes it explodes in inappropriate behavior. At other times it shows up in choice of words or tone of voice or in behavior that is indirectly targeted at frustrating the object of the anger. 

Some of us sit on our anger for a very long period of time never completely resolving the situation. This can often be a source of depression or anxiety. Strong negative emotions awaken the autonomic nervous system, that part of the body that protects us when we are scared or angry. Our body is chemically prepared to act in quick and dramatic ways. If we don't discharge that energy in some way, it will lie in our bloodstream doing physical and emotional damage. 

For example, under stress our adrenal gland releases increased levels of cortisol into our blood stream. This is part of our flight-fight response that temporarily gives us a quick burst of energy for survival reasons, heightened memory functions, a burst of increased immunity, and a lower sensitivity to pain. However, if we don’t relax soon after, the cortisol will lead to impaired cognitive performance, smaller brain volumes, blood sugar imbalances, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, higher blood pressure, lowered immunity and inflammatory responses in the body, slowed wound healing, and increased abdominal fat.
6 7 8 9

Strong emotion is a physical sort of motivation that needs to be used in constructive ways. Some people only know how to use it in physical, large motor behavior. While exercise can be an effective way to discharge this excess emotional energy, it also robs us of motivation that can enable us to do things that are difficult, to solve problems, to speak up and be assertive, or to take personal responsibility and make some changes.

We need to learn a constructive way to influence events rather than damaging the other person's self-esteem or socially ostracize as a means to an end.

The Skills

We must learn to manage anger appropriately and express that anger constructively with assertiveness skills. And we must teach our children to do the same. Anger can be redirected at will, but for those who can’t already do that, I’d suggested an intermediate step. 

What is Anger, And What Do You Do With It?

If you find yourself angry enough to impulsively act on your anger with words or actions, STOP! If you need to, take a walk or run until you can sit and think through what just happened. Counting to 10 is probably not can it give you enough time to think about a more reasoned response to your anger. 

Sit with your anger mindfully. Look backwards in time until you can identify what triggered your anger. The intensity of the feelings you have about this particular situation is a rough indication of how important this issue is to you. Is your anger a proportionate reaction to the trigger? Are you overreacting to a relatively unimportant problem? While there maybe a few situations that could be so triggering as to warrant an impulsive response, I would argue that in relationships, impulsiveness is risky and often counterproductive even with long term stable relationships. The next question is, where did that extra anger come from if not this situation? Is there some other aspect to the situation that might need some attention before trying to respond to the current one? If there is a complicating factor unrelated to the current situation, can you proceed with resolving the current situation without further anger spill over? If not, you need more time to work on the older situation that is spilling over. 


A Peaceful Way To Influence Events

If you can put the other issue aside, then consider how you might redirect your anger in appropriate assertiveness. 

“I feel_____________ when you_____________. I would like it if you’d___________.“

The first part “I feel __________" takes responsibility for your own feelings and removes the implication of blame and/or that “you made me feel…”.  Not everyone will feel the same as we.

“When you _________” refers to the other’s behavior. This statement needs to be very specific and as objective and dispassionate as possible. You should describe this part in a way that will represent your concern without triggering a defensive reaction if that’s possible.  Limit this part to a sentence or two. If the other person wishes to restate this part in a way more acceptable to him, that’s ok, as long as it restates adequately what you are trying to say.

“What I would like for you to do instead is _________” should be said simply and in as few words as possible.  This is your proposal to address your concern that inspired you to be assertive. 

Remember, assertiveness is not about taking control, it’s about negotiating a solution to your concern. You may not always get what you want. But you can sometimes feel better about having addressed your concern, and you may get a compromise you can live with. 

If you feel like this is an important issue that will affect your relationship with the person long term, consider bringing it up again, or changing the relationship, such as withdrawing some cooperation with the person. Then when the person complains, remind them of the issue you brought up to them and they dismissed. Note that the basis of all satisfactory relationships is mutual cooperation. If that method doesn't help, perhaps it is time to think about ending the relationship.

Not everyone will appreciate your assertiveness. In fact, some people will not tolerate even appropriate assertiveness. Assertiveness is truly an art. Every time we speak up we can learn something new about this skill. Everyone has their own sensitivities, so keep polishing your diplomatic skills. 

Say 'No' to Bullying

We all need reminders that bullying is destructive. And we must teach our children that bullying is inappropriate. Bullying is most likely to happen when there is a lack of empathy for the victim. Talk to your children about their feelings. Helping them mindfully review where their feelings came from, the options they have available to them, and the consequences of each will help send to mindfully review their feelings before they act on them. 

All feelings are okay, what's important is what we do with them. Feelings are the essence of motivation. If we are to have a productive life, we must harness our emotions and put them to work in constructive actions.

  • 1. Lurie, J. (2014). A shocking number of teens bring weapons to school. Here’s one reason why. Retrieved July 19, 2015, fromhttp://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/05/bullying-victims-carry-weapons-guns
  • 2. Arseneault L, Walsh E, Trzesniewski K, Newcombe R, Caspi A, Moffitt TE. Bullying victimization uniquely contributes to adjustment problems in young children: a nationally representative cohort study. Pediatrics. 2006;118(1):130-138.
  • 3. Koeppel, M., & Bouffard, L. A. (2012). The Long-Term Health Consequences of Bullying Victimization (No. 2012‐01). SHSU Criminal Justice Center Sam Houston State University. Retrieved from http://dev.cjcenter.org/_files/cvi/BullyHealthfinal.pdf
  • 4. Schreier, A., Wolke, D., Thomas, K., Horwood, J., Hollis, C., Gunnel, D., Harrison, G. (2009). Prospective Study of Peer Victimization in Childhood and Psychotic Symptoms in a Nonclinical Population at Age 12 Years. Archives of General Psychiatry, 66(5), 527–536.
  • 5. Baldry AC. The impact of direct and indirect bullying on the mental and physical health of Italian youngsters. Aggressive Behavior. 2004;30(5):343-355.
  • 6. Bond, L., Carlin, J. B., Thomas, L., Rubin, K., & Patton, G. (2001). Does bullying cause emotional problems? A prospective study of young teenagers. Bmj, 323(7311), 480–484.
  • 7. Lara, V. P., Caramelli, P., Teixeira, A. L., Barbosa, M. T., Carmona, K. C., Carvalho, M. G., … Gomes, K. B. (2013). High cortisol levels are associated with cognitive impairment no-dementia (CIND) and dementiaClinica Chimica Acta423, 18–22. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cca.2013.04.013
  • 8. Metcalfe, J., & Mischel, W. (1999). A hot/cool-system analysis of delay of gratification: dynamics of willpower. Psychological Review, 106(1), 3
  • 9. Scott, E. (2014, December 18). Cortisol and Stress - How to Stay Healthy. Retrieved July 19, 2015, from http://stress.about.com/od/stresshealth/a/cortisol.htm
About the author David Johnson:
After 30 years of experience providing mental health services in various settings, I have discovered six key concepts to a healthy life. Let me show you how to live the kind of life many of us only dream about, a life of passion about what is important. Let me show you the way to live emotionally free, mindfully aware and totally centered with Full Impact Living!℠
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Page last updated Jul 22, 2015

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