At the school my daughters attend, there is an active anti-bullying program, and the B word resonates in the classrooms and the hallways on a regular basis. Bullying is certainly not a taboo there. Kids get to verbalize about it. They draw pictures of it. They are encouraged to come up with ideas of how to fight it. At some point I even thought it was excessive. As soon as a friend disagreed with my kids or did something annoying, they would call him/her a bully. I had to sit them down and explain the subtle nuances.
Problem is, bullying itself is often subtle. As a part of some Girl Guide leader training, I once watched a documentary on bullying, and it made all of us grown-ups realize how discreet it can be to the adult eye. We had to pay very close attention to the video footage of the school playground to notice what was going on. In girls especially, bullying can happen in the way someone looks (or does not look) at you. It is very insidious. Then, watching the interviews with the bullies and their parents, we couldn't believe the denial that was going on. Plus, the bullies themselves presented a misleading image: they were lovely, balanced little girls. Not cruel monsters. That is, until you listened to how their victims felt about the whole thing.
Another reason why bullying is hard to identify and to react to is that it's often committed by people who, a day ago, were your best friends. Not only is it painful, it's very confusing. A form of psychological torture, really.
For having very unfortunately played both roles (the victim and the bully) when I was in middle school, I am too aware of its complexities. I know from a fact that being bullied hurts. Big time. I also know from a fact that being a bully, most of the time, feels like a joke; you're not really aware of the wrong you're causing. It's just funny. (Not!)
Everybody has theories on why bullying exists, and on why it is so prevalent. Please keep in mind that I am not a specialist of the topic, nor have I extensively read the research. I am nonetheless going to share my views, most of them stemming from my own personal experience.
To begin with, I do not think bullying is a recent phenomenon (my own experience goes back to 25 years ago, and I'm pretty sure my parents' generation had to deal with it too). Aggressing your peers to feel better about yourself is just one of those ugly human tendencies (oh! maybe I do see ugliness sometimes!)
Granted, today's context may have an impact on bullying. Contributing factors could include the media: there is a lot of bullying going on in reality TV, and some pretty popular adults resort to it (Simon Cowell is one example). The social media is in cause too. It is pretty damn easy to bit** people anonymously through Facebook and other web platforms. Even university professors are a target, as made obvious by some of the comments left by students on the Rate my Professors website; one of D's colleagues painfully discovered it, and he was deeply affected by it. (D does not have any ratings yet; is that good or bad?)
But the contemporary context does not explain it all.
Why do people adopt a seemingly unexplainable behavior? Because they gain something from it. Bullying makes you feel powerful, in control, important. In my case, as a 12-ish year old, bullying was the way to ensure I was still accepted in the "cool gang"; that I could hang out with the most popular kids. If you didn't bully, you were out. You had to hang out with the "not so cool" kids. Worse: you could end up being bullied yourself. Which is exactly what happened. When I realized how insane bullying actually was, I said "goodbye, gang", and made new, "uncool" friends (who proved to be pretty cool after all). I completely stopped bullying. I started behaving nicely with the scapegoats. It felt great. I made even more friends! BUT: the popular kids, my "ex-friends", they did not appreciate. And so I became another one of the victims. Which was tough in more than one way. Really tough.
(I am NOT proud of having played the bully part, but I AM proud of having - relatively quickly - come to my senses and found the courage to say "No, I'm not gonna be a bully, I'm not gonna hang out with bullies, and I'm gonna stand for the bullied". Kids, if you're a bully, or even if you're a silent witness, it is not too late to put your foot down and change your attitude!)
Now for the tangible actions. I believe bullying has to be attacked from two fronts: the bully, and the bullied.
The bullies need to be showed what bullying actually does. I believe that in many cases they just have no idea (which does not excuse their behavior, obviously). I certainly did not know how hard it was on the victims.
Of course, we have to keep in mind that a certain proportion of the bullies are probably bullied at home, by their parents or older siblings. In which cases the challenge is multiplied by 10: how do you monitor what a kid is exposed to at home, and how do you erase one of the most influential things of all: modelling after your parents!
Speaking of what happens at home, the way some kids talk to their parents borders on bullying, too. If kids do not learn to respect others within the family nucleus, how can we ensure they do outside of it?
The bullied, on the other hand, need to be given tools. They need to be reminded that when you're bullied, the causes are external to you. Kids have that tendency (probably because of their natural egocentrism) to look within themselves when the cause of something is not obvious. (Eg: kids of divorced parents often blame themselves for the divorce.) We have to make sure that every kid knows and understands that being bullied is NOT your fault; there's nothing wrong with you, even if the bullies are usually pretty good at making you think otherwise.
Every kid has to know their own value and feel confident about himself/herself, so that even the worst bullying on earth, as unpleasant as it is, is not gonna impact on his/her self-esteem. I am convinced that one of the main reasons I survived being bullied relatively intact (despite a lot of tears) was that at home, I was accepted, respected, loved and valued. I had a safe haven to go back to every afternoon. I knew my own worth, thanks to my devoted parents. The bullies had some grip on me, but I was still able to slip out of their hands.
I did have to work, though, on my shyness (which I call "the silent handicap"). There might be absolutely nothing wrong with you, shyness is not gonna help. Bullies have a gift for identifying targets who will not retaliate (usually the soft-spoken kids). In my opinion, being assertive is one of the tools that helps keeping the bullies at bay. Assertive in a respectful way: respecting of others, and self-respecting as well. As a swimming instructor trainer (student job I held for many years), part of my responsibility was to teach the kids leadership skills. There's nothing more beautiful than seeing a shy, unsure teenager blossom into a self-confident, respectful, influential, positive role model. We need to do more of that.
What are YOUR strategies?