Where Bullies Come From

Bullies start out as victims. Victims can also be bullies. Let's take a look behind the labels.

The  in Howard County coincided with the kick-off of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month in October. This event has already generated several days of nationwide media focus on workplace and schoolyard aggression.

I thought about looking up my tormentor from sixth- and seventh-grades on Facebook and submitting an interview with her for Salon's "Interview With My Bully" series. Then it occurred to me that there might be people wanting to interview me as well: my younger siblings, for example, or maybe the girl I targeted with a cycle of hostile anonymous poems in sixth grade.

The forces that make a kid a target for abuse can turn the same kid into a bully.

The undiagnosed Autistic Spectrum Disorder that made me a figure of fun to my classmates in my tweens limited my empathy for others and my ability to figure out why other kids didn't like me.

I couldn't marshal my superior verbal skills to defend myself from taunting. But I could - and did - use them to eviscerate my brother and sister. I struck out in writing at the girl who I (wrongly) believed was the force behind my unpopularity instead of listening to the peers or teachers who were trying to tell me what my problems were.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the biggest single difference between kids who bully and kids who get bullied is that victims are more socially isolated.

There are a lot of reasons why a child can be socially isolated that have nothing to do with abuse. But social isolation is one of the signs that educators and doctors recognize as a flag for physical, sexual, or emotional abuse of kids.

Kids learn how to interact with each other by watching how their parents behave at home and with other adults. It's probably no coincidence that bullying prevention month is the same time as Domestic Violence Awareness Month.

Now wait a minute, I tell myself. My own kids have been busted for fighting at school, to say nothing of first-grade gang violence. Does this mean I'm asking for a visit from Child Protective Services by making that pronouncement?

We parents generally do the best we can. But our best is rarely perfect.

I learned a lot of valuable lessons from my own mom and dad. When I open my mouth to correct my kids, I hear their voices coming out more often than not.

Most of the time that's a good thing. Not all the time, though. In the spirit of National Mental Health Awareness Week, I want to acknowledge the help that my psychologist and a couple of child psychologists have given me and my family.

Learning to be the kind of parent you want to be means finding - and imitiating - positive examples outside your own experience. Sometimes that means asking for help.

Asking for help is harder than it sounds. When you're already judging yourself - for staying married to a substance abuser, for example, or letting a relative yell at your kids - why would you want someone else to pile on and chew you out for what you're doing wrong?

To you, my brothers and sisters in dysfunction, I say this: that's not what it's about. Psychologists (and licensed social workers, and teachers, and clergy, and doctors and nurses) want to help you, not shame you. They want to give you the tools you need to make a better future for yourself and your kids.

Over the next couple of weeks, I want to talk more about mental health, violence, and family dynamics in this column. Give me your thoughts in the comments below or by e-mail.




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