Blog: Bullying Is Not The Same As Teasing


Bullying Is Not The Same As Teasing

Teasing does not create trauma, or unmanageable helplessness.  Bullying does.

By Mark Smaller, Ph.D.
On a radio show recently, I was asked by the host if media focus about bullying was exaggerated.  “Isn’t this what we used to call teasing, and just part of growing up?"
Bullies are insecure, usually having been victims of trauma and bullying themselves.  Bullies know the helplessness they inflict on their victims.  They want someone else to feel as they have.  The bystander passively witnessing the behavior of the bully shares in that sense of helplessness.  By not intervening, the bystander enables the bullying.
Teasing does not create trauma, or unmanageable helplessness.  Bullying does. Furthermore, bullying begets more bullying. How many times have we heard after a school shooting that the shooter had been bullied somewhere in their past?
Bullying and the presidential campaign
The radio host’s question was striking, especially in the context of a presidential campaign where one candidate is often described as a “bully.”  The candidate is frequently featured on the news as personally attacking and putting down political opponents or reporters, stereotyping women and groups from diverse races or religious backgrounds, weight-shaming, making fun of a physically challenged reporter, or in speeches recommending violent behavior toward protesters at rallies.  Intimidation and bullying behavior becomes the means to a political end.
The statistics on bullying
Statistic show that 77% of all children in the U.S. are bullied, and almost 90% in the grades 4th through 8th (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 2008). In one estimate, 35 % of adults report being bullied in the workplace, though only 2 % of those incidents are reported (Workplace Bullying Institute, 2011).
Dealing effectively with a bully
“Robert,” a nine year old boy was struggling with a bully on the playground.  Parents and teachers had been notified but the bullying continued.  When Robert reluctantly shared this problem with his therapist, they began collaborating about a plan. It was based on Robert stepping out of his helpless position and confronting the bully.  The “confrontation” would involve firmly asking the boy, “Why are you being mean to me?  I have only been nice to you.”  We agreed it would help to be in earshot of other students, and, if possible, with a teacher.  Robert’s passivity had been an ongoing issue being addressed in his treatment.  Bullies often prey on passive victims.  
The therapist explained that the other student might be an insecure person trying to make Robert felt the same.  “What does ‘insecure’ mean?” Robert asked.  The therapist explained that although the other boy might be “tough” on the outside, it was likely he was very unsure of himself inside.  Robert understood this, since he sometimes felt that way. 
The next week, and to Robert’s amazement, the plan worked.  He reported the boy, in response to his question, turned red, seemed embarrassed.  The interaction diffused the bullying behavior.  Robert reported he and the other boy were even becoming friends.
Robert had the advantage of supportive parents, teachers and a therapist.  Many children do not report they are being bullied.  Depression, failing grades, and a sudden reluctance to go to school sometimes are the indirect way to let parents and teachers know something is amiss.  A bullying scenario may have unfolded at school and the child already feeling ashamed, helpless, and reluctant to ask for help.   
Bullying in the workplace
Playgrounds however, are not the workplace.  Being harassed or bullied by a fellow employee, or an employer, when one’s career and livelihood is at stake, is more complex.  Recognizing that the behavior might have meaning--anxiety and insecurity of the bullying colleague or boss--may offer some direction in managing a difficult situation.  Passivity only encourages the bullying behavior.  Colleagues, friends, and family witnessing this kind of behavior must be engaged to help. 
Linda, who works in a small law practice, described her managing partner as intimidating and unreasonable. With about fifteen years’ experience, Linda usually tried to accommodate the managing partner's demands.  Extreme accommodation had been adaptive growing up with an unreasonable and sometimes abusive mother. 
One day, when the managing partner made an unreasonable demand, Linda angrily shouted out, “No. I will not do that!”  She was as surprised as her partner!  The manager backed off.  Linda felt not only empowered, but also curious. Why had she gone along for so long with unreasonable demands, both at work and outside of work? 
As parents, teachers, friends and citizens, we have an opportunity to model responses that reject bullying behavior.  By speaking out privately and publicly, we communicate to our children and fellow citizens that such behavior is potentially destructive. Maintaining respect for diverse points of view underscores the foundation of a democratic society; where the individual can love and work, and not worry about getting attacked for one’ s differences, whether they be political, sexual, racial, or religious.  

Mark D. Smaller, Ph.D., is the immediate past president of the American Psychoanalytic Association.  He was founding Director of Project Realize, an in school treatment and research project at Morton Alternative School in Cicero, Illinois. Dr. Smaller lives and practices in Saugatuck, Michigan in southwest Michigan, where he also consults at the local high school.