Bullying and Cyberbullying: Inside and Outside of Sport

Bullying in the teen and pre-teen population is pervasive; virtually omnipresent.

Thirty percent of American schoolchildren report being involved in a bullying incident either as a bully, victim or bystander. Sixty four percent of children who were bullied did not report the incident.
The word “epidemic” might be an appropriate description of the situation. Let me state two fundamental points :

  1. Bullying is wrong and
  2. Bullying needs to stop. Specifically I mean that bullying needs to BE stopped … by adults.

These points are both obvious and simple and it is where all the energy is being spent these days; on efforts to STOP bullying; or at least TRYING to stop it.. Great!!! Putting a stop to bullying is where all the work has to START.

However, I believe there are alternative perspective and additional solutions that have the potential to affect deeper and more lasting change. My personal observations and experience based on literally decades of working with youngsters in this population has taught me that there are some alternative issue which are worthy of consideration as we deal with this problem.

These issues are not, in fact, simple or obvious but by both acknowledging and understanding them we can discover clues which can help all of us begin to truly remedy this problem

1. Let’s begin with “Why?” Why does bullying occur?

The prevailing “folk wisdom on the streets” is, of course, that this population’s

  • stage of growth and development and, in particular;
  • raging hormones are both to blame.

There is some truth there but only up to a point. I believe that the deeper and more fundamental causes of bullying are neither simple nor obvious but are rooted in complex issues concerning social order; and “pecking” order specifically. I believe that by dealing with these issues; the “social/pecking order” issues we can achieve change within this population on a deeper and more permanent level.

This is not necessarily a “quick fix” like sending a student to detention or bringing the parents and the children in for a “talk” (a solution which I personally find less than useless) but something else; a change in “perception” specifically .. that will affect a more permanent and lasting change. 

Remember…Thirty percent of American schoolchildren report being involved in a bullying incident either as a bully, victim or bystander. Sixty four percent of children who were bullied did not report the incident.

2. “No longer … but … not yet …”

Youngsters in the 12/13 – 16/17 age range simply put are “NO LONGER … CHILDREN”. They cannot and do not look to their parents for the same forms of protection or direction, structure, and guidelines on rules of behavior and most importantly the CONSEQUENCES of that behavior. Simultaneously they are … “NOT YET … ADULTS”. They are truly in the “twilight zone” of human development; a “no man … and no woman’s land” where there are no (key concept coming up here) … rules.

The rules in fact, are almost literally being made up … and changed virtually moment to moment and on the spot.

3. Teenagers are DEVELOPING human beings. They are not “there” (at adulthood) yet.

They are “in the process” of development. Having been a sports professional my entire life I will tell you that teenagers’ bodies are changing before our own (and of course their own as well) eyes virtually on a daily; moment to moment basis. This is why, for example, youth sports leagues are divided into competitive categories; in general, at two-year age increments. Nine year olds usually cannot compete successfully against eleven year olds. Compounding this miasma is the fact that growth rate follows general and not specific … or individual … rules.

Inevitably there is the child who is behind or ahead of the curve; the boy who is an athletic Superman when he is twelve but finished and not even interested in sports by the time he is fourteen or conversely the fourteen year old who gets cut from the freshman baseball team but gets scholarship offers when he is a junior at sixteen. (I actually have one of those as a client at the moment).

Kevin Costner (I have read) graduated high school at 5ft. 2in. (which I understand was a source of deep concern and angst for him) but is now a foot taller at 6ft. 2in. Can you imagine what thoughts he had about himself back then that turned into beliefs and he may still be struggling with because of it. What about your childhood and what you are still carrying?

It is a subculture of chaos, confusion, anarchy, angst and (again); no rules!

This explains the aberration of behavior which often occurs around ages fifteen to sixteen with incidences of underage drinking, forged licenses and i.d.s; all a manifestation of young people wanting adult privileges without the attendant responsibilities attached.

Now this, of course, will all inevitably change. Societal rules which will be in place by the time they are (roughly) seventeen but for the time being now it is all chaos and anarchy.

4. “What is most important … to them? Why, their friends of course.”

 “Why their friends?” Because their friends are the ONLY people they relate to at the moment. They cannot relate or attach themselves to the population beneath them; i.e. children .. nor do they relate to the population above them in the pecking order; i.e. adults. This is, always has been, and always will be the case; even among other segments of the population.

Simple exercise to prove the point:

Watch a child in a room full of adults; a small child; two years old or less. He/she is comfortable and safe holding on to Mom or Dad but watch what happens when another child is brought into the room. The child will loose their hold on Mom’s hand in a flash and make a bee line for the other child. “Oh look … a friend; someone just like me; someone as big (or small) as me; someone with my same language, wants, needs, etc.” He/she toddles over. “Yo … how you doin’?” Nothing matters about that OTHER child; no perceived discriminatory guidelines exist. The only characteristic that is important is that it is ANOTHER child.

No? Still not convinced? Think this works only with tiny kids and teenagers? Watch the segregation among other “age related” populations. The millenials are not playing shuffleboard and croquet with the old folks at the country club, are they? That’s an exaggeration but you get the point.

5. “What are the rules?”

No rules and (this is the REALLY hard part) even when/if you have them they don’t work because they don’t UNDERSTAND the boundaries of behavior. Verbal abuse; i.e. teasing is a prime example.

Teasing is one of the forms of bullying that is most vicious and harmful; practiced in classrooms, and in gymnasiums, and playing fields, and of course on the internet. Teasing is not necessarily all bad. Has anyone ever seen Don Rickles perform? Get on Youtube and watch him on any number of celebrity “roasts” It’s hilarious. If you take his comments at face value they are horrendous but within an adult environment where people (even the recipient of the joke(s) understand that it is intended to generate a laugh; not abuse.

Teenage children on both sides; the bully and the victim do not understand those parameters. They are in the process of feeling them out; what is funny and what is not; what generates a smile and what produces hurt feelings. Furthermore, the perpetrators are often motivated by feelings of jealousy or the desire to ascend in the pecking order within the environment of their friends. 
Pecking order is of paramount importance and it can much more easily be achieved by pulling someone down rather than rising up or ascending on your own merits.

Finally, rules in society are in place in order to govern and protect the majority and, most importantly, rules have CONSEQUENCES. This is a very important distinction because, for the teenage population in today’s society, there almost literally are NO CONSEQUENCES.

Particularly in our currently under-financed middle and lower/working classes parents are overworked and underpaid and exhausted. It is far easier to allow the TV or the computer games to run nonstop than to spend time in discipline. “Parenting”; particularly as it relates to structure and rules have been placed in the hands of the schools. And good luck with that. In our litigous culture the paradox has been created wherein the schools have been burdened with the responsibility of structure but without the teeth to enforce consequences. “How does that work?” “It doesn’t.” Don’t believe me? Go to any school in America and watch the action unfold, it’s not pretty.

6. “What a mess!!!” Absolutely and without consequences how do you stop bullying?

You don’t. Human beings are animals and all animals operate and learn within a very simple formula for learning appropriate behavior. That formula is pain/punishment vs. reward.

This, incidentally does not have to be a “corporal” punishment; meaning physical punishment but it does have to at least have, what I referred to when I was training horses as a “wall and a door”.
When a horse I was training was doing something that I did not want him to do, I very simply made it difficult (or impossible if I could) to do whatever it as he was doing that was inappropriate … usually by offering resistance BUT simultaneously I would also offer him an “escape”; i.e. a way or a place whereby which he could literally “move to: and get relief from the resistance; i.e. a door. It did not take long for the animal to seek the “relief” position rather than continue to push against the resistance. I believe that the first solution to bullying is to offer “resistance”; a consequence to inappropriate action but SIMULTANEOUSLY to offer a “door”; a way out … even a REWARD for APPROPRIATE behavior.

7. “Impose rules; new rules; most importantly new VALUES.”

Pecking orders exist throughout society and, to some degree, they have place and purpose. Society, in general, functions under a system where there are “chiefs” and “Indians”. Interestingly enough, an individual may be a “chief” in one area of his life and an “Indian” in another. That is because, in adult society the “order” within the “pecking” order is set by levels of wealth, achievement, status, power, etc.

Those “issues” and appropriate “levels” have not YET been learned during the teenage years. Whatever is “of value” is largely in the process of BEING “discovered”; even “experimented” with during this time.  That is why things like “whoever is the prettiest girl, the best athlete, the coolest guy, funniest,” etc. are important (of course they are not) to this age group. They are important because they don’t have OTHER standards.

Kids bully other kids out of need for attention; out of jealousy; out of a desire to elevate themselves in a pecking order that is based on these very artificial values.

Other kids ALLOW themselves to be bullied out of the same psychological issues; not feeling that they are popular, “cool”; in possession of “rank” in the pecking order of their peers.

8. It all goes to ADULTS teaching appropriate values and addressing the subsequent issues of “self perception and self worth”

This is all a consequence of adherence to those values; those standards. In the adult world the prettiest girl, best athlete, coolest guy, funniest, etc. can still rank people high in the pecking order but so can character traits such as work ethic, honesty, integrity, compassion, and kindness. What this means, simply put, is that we will begin to get a better, faster, and more permanent solution to this issue by offering education on reward for “positive” behavior; behaviors which are the opposite of bullying; behaviors which manifest the standards of these more adult values.

Let me offer three stories to illustrate:

THE COMIC BOOKS and THE BASEBALL CARDS.  When I was a youngster I looooooved comic books; bought them, read them, collected them. Big fan especially of Disney’s Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge. My brother was a baseball card guy. Same thing; loooooved baseball cards. One year around Christmas my father informs us that I need to pack up my comic books and my brother his baseball cards because he is going to take them over to the shelter so the kids there could have something for Christmas.

We kicked and screamed and hollered and argued and fought to no avail and my dad had a simple solution for all our whining; he took us with him when he delivered the packages. When we went to the shelter, we met children our own age who had nothing; no warm home with loving parents, no “up at 5am” to open brightly wrapped packages, no big turkey dinner.

Most importantly there was also no more fighting and protesting from either of us. The feeling of loss of our possessions was replaced with the incredible sensation associated with “giving” and especially giving that is motivated by kindness and compassion for your fellow beings. It was, in many ways, a life changing experience. I am glad we got it when we were so young.

It shaped so much of our perceptions; about ourselves, our position in the world relative to others, and our self-image and just how good it felt to give and affect another human being with kidness and generosity.

THE MODEL and the ABUSE When I was in college I dated a young lady who was a very successful model in our local metropolitan area. Often she and other models were paid to go to functions and “hostess”. Inevitably it was a horror show with all sorts of men making comments. She would come home distraught and disturbed. I offered a solution that worked instantly. I knew that, in general, men who did this, did it in “packs”; usually a single man would make the comments surrounded by his buddies who would hoot and holler in response.

I instructed my friend to simply walk away and then, when there was a quiet enough moment; to seek out the “perpetrator” and confront him with a simple question;

“I wonder if you would make those comments in front of your wife or children.”

It worked with amazing results. Each and every one of the men apologized and it was not long before the abuse ended entirely. You see human beings will not behave in contradiction to their own self-image. For each of these men their self perception as husbands and fathers was more important to them than the value associated with the comments  and how those comments placed them in the pecking order of their friends.

THE TEENAGER COMES OF AGE. I recall a teenager I was working with as a therapist making a statement which I knew was, for her, “life changing”. She had had problems with her parents and commented that she suddenly found herself, “worrying about what mom and dad would think of her actions, rather than if she got caught or not.” 

I remember laughing and telling her that I thought she may have just “broken through” into adulthood.

9. “… offering instruction and an opportunity for positive change rather than punishment.”

We might take a moment to understand these issues and the solutions they offer and apply them to the problem of bullying.

People who have high level “self perception” and feelings of “self worth” and “self value” do not GET bullied as often as youngsters with low feelings and perceptions of “self worth”.

Their actions, their body language, their demeanor all say, “I feel great about myself. I am not a victim.”

Conversely youngsters who are rewarded for acts of kindness, support, and compassion, do not bully others. They do not harbor the same feelings of insecurity and jealousy which are manifested in bullying. They feel too good about themselves.

There is no doubt that the remedy for bullying begins with getting it to “stop”. However, in addition to programs which PUNISH the behavior; we should also be initiating programs which teach compassion; the practice of kindness and generosity and giving as well as the REWARDS that follow; particularly in terms of self perception and self worth. Help teenagers realize that it feels good to be good; not only amongst your peers but more importantly to yourself.

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