Bullies! They seem to be everywhere these days. In schools, at the workplace, even at home. The media love to cover them and the rest of us can’t stand to be around them! I have the dubious honor of being called an “expert” on the subject of bullies. Having experienced both the receiving and the giving ends over my lifetime, I suppose I have earned that title. But I am not alone in my expertise. Just watch the news to see how many “experts” there are.
At the ripe age of five, I was initiated into the intrepid world of victimization by my older brother, who was seven years my senior and twice my size. He taught me well about the intense fear a bully can inflict. Ruthless beatings were commonplace and continued for many years. With five kids and a very busy household, my parents had no time to deal with “boys being boys.”
The effects of these beatings were dramatic. At school I learned to avoid conflict at all costs. With mastery inspired by sheer terror, I managed pretty well to stay out of fights. But when the altercations would inevitably erupt around me I’d freeze up, stop breathing, and stand there shaking. My survival rested on getting people to like me to thwart any possible aggression. Because it was as serious as life and death to me, I became an expert at conflict avoidance. Despite having many friends, I felt as alone as a kid could feel. Little did I realize that I was just one of a multitude of young children living in a daily nightmare.
Over the years my survival strategy was to hide behind a stocky build and reputation as a tough football player. Early one sixth-grade morning, the bottom fell out. Some silly argument broke out between me and one of the skinniest kids in the school. He threw a punch at me and I froze. In my pre-conditioned mind, I was right back to fighting my brother with no choice but to curl up and take it. So that’s what I did. I was bloodied and emotionally devastated when the playground teacher rescued me from the physical torment. But no one could take away the humiliation.
This incident was the final straw that led me to the martial arts. From there it was off to the Marines, and then the Marine Recon Special Forces unit. After that I moved to Asia to study more martial arts and work as a bodyguard, bouncer, and movie stuntman. Switching from a scared nervous kid into a macho tough guy, I became the stereotypical barroom brawler. Among a steady stream of senseless fights, I somehow survived an armed robbery and three gang attacks. But as tough as I thought I was, fear was still my ruler. It wasn’t clear at the time, but my life was driven by the unconscious vow to never again be a victim.
The armed robbery occurred in the Philippines. The country was under martial law at the time and armed guards were at virtually every street corner. Two other Marines and I had wandered far off the beaten track to enjoy a few beers. Suddenly we were literally surrounded by five or six Filipino army soldiers with a variety of weapons pointed at our heads. I remember feeling frozen in place, and the tunnel vision from the adrenaline made me focus on one of the guns pointing directly in my face, which was a shotgun. The hole of the barrel looked like it was a cannon. The whole scene took on that eerie slow motion quality of a bad dream as we emptied our wallets and pockets of cash per their demand. In the end they actually gave us back enough money to catch a bus back to the base where we should have been in the first place. Being accosted by a gang is scary enough, but when weapons are used, the fear is even greater. These guys could have killed us if they wanted and no one would have even known.
The gang attacks all occurred while stationed in Hawaii. The first was by a group of fellow Marines who had a chip on their shoulder about our Special Forces Recon unit. I was sucker punched while sitting at a beer garden with a fellow Recon Marine. My first reaction was stunned amazement that we were being accosted within the safety of our own base. The fight lasted a good few minutes (which is very long for an average fight) though it felt like it went on for an hour. At one point I broke out of the foray and could have run for it, but my buddy had been cornered and was taking a pretty good beating. Again, the intense fear produced that slow motion, surreal quality, and I vividly remember diving back into the fight to get him out. It was at this point that I experienced my first breakthrough of turning the fear into total adrenalized fury. After tossing a few of these thugs off my friend and bouncing one of them headfirst into a wall, the faint sound of sirens entered my awareness. In a flash, we were surrounded by military police, who handcuffed us all and took us in. After a short interrogation, my buddy and I were allowed to leave. The others were charged with various crimes, including trying to hit a military police officer right there at MP headquarters. It turned out they were extremely drunk and hell bent on finding trouble. It should be noted that in the extended melee, no one was hurt very badly. This is a common experience in many fights, because under the adrenal rush, people lose the ability to hit hard, focused strikes. There is typically so much flailing going on that often the injuries are minimal.
The other two gang attacks I experienced were when I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time and was accosted by local people who were fed up with military personnel invading their island. I was not hurt in either, and in both I got away after delivering a good swift kick to the groin of the lead guy. Many people who only spar adhere to the idea that groin kicks are not possible in street fights, because they rarely work in sparring. This points out a major difference between controlled sparring and the realities of street combat. In both of my cases, the guys were standing heavily on their feet with legs spread apart, almost inviting the kick. This is also similar to police reports of officers adopting classic stances under duress with feet wide apart despite years of training in elaborate side-forward stances.
The last 13 years have found me teaching Adrenal Stress Self-Defense, where ironically I have logged literally thousands of adrenal stress fights. My role is to play the meanest badass bully I can be. My “vocation” has been an ongoing in-depth study into the mindset of bullies, rapists, and murderers. Through programs like EZ Defense, F.A.S.T. Defense, and RMCAT, we effectively teach skills to overcome the various bully types that exist in the world. These skills allow people to break out and leave victim mentality behind forever. I sure wish someone would have taught me that when I was younger.
Bullies are thriving in today’s society and are not limited to any particular age group. But experts agree that bullying behavior usually develops at a young age. Littleton, Colorado; Santee, California; and Williamsport, Pennsylvania are but a few of the many towns across the US where children are perpetrating atrocities on other children. The common factor that binds them together? Investigations into the lives of these youngsters “gone terribly wrong” show that virtually all of the perpetrators were prior victims of bullying. You could justify calling this a growing epidemic.
The following statistics from the September/October, 1995 issue of Psychology Today support such a claim:
• One third of all students and half of all boys report being physically assaulted.
• Seventy-four percent of 8- to 11-year-olds say teasing and bullying occur at their school more than smoking, drinking, drugs, or sex.
• For 12- to 15-year-olds, the number rises to 86 percent, still higher than substance abuse or sex.
• Both age groups called the teasing and bullying big problems that rank higher than racism, AIDS, and the pressure to have sex or to try alcohol or drugs.
• One study set up a video camera in a Toronto schoolyard. In 52 hours the camera captured 400 episodes of bullying. One incident lasted 37 minutes while students kicked and punched another helpless young student. In the average mid-size school, a bully acts out on the average of every seven minutes.
Bullying is rampant. It is not just an inner-city problem but occurs just as much in upper-middle class communities. Mean kids bully, and often so do nice kids. Kids say everybody does it as if it were a normal part of human behavior. It probably is. Bullies have been around for a long time. You have probably been a victim of a bully. Most of us outgrow these experiences, and although perhaps slowed down a bit by these incidents, move on with our lives. But some do not.
I have investigated written sources on school bullying, managing aggressive behavior, and a myriad of violent incidents over the last few years. I have interviewed elementary, middle, and high school teachers, counselors, and principals, as well as instructors of excellent programs such as C.A.P. (Child Assault Prevention). I have also worked with the amazing folks of the Columbine Connections group. This organization was created to help the Littleton community cope and recover in the aftermath of the Columbine massacre. Perhaps no single group knows better the systemic failures that lead to the growing number of atrocities on our children by our children.
My search focused on three categories:
1) What makes a bully (personality, social conditioning from school, home, media, what do they gain by bullying, etc.).
2) What makes a victim. Since it’s a two-way dance, how do the above factors create victims that can antagonize or even draw bullies to them?
What makes a Bully?
Experts agree that a bully is typically someone who has been bullied before. Bullies have somehow learned that aggression is an acceptable way to deal with conflict. Perhaps they come from abusive homes, broken families, hostile parents, and/or siblings. Typically they are searching for a sense of power and control over their lives. Getting a response from the victim is the bully’s ultimate reward.
Bullies often have average or even high intelligence levels. The aggression usually starts at an early age and increases over time as they experience success with their strategies. It often starts in preschool and thrives in elementary and middle school. Bullies tend to choose more victims at the start of the school year as they scope out potential long-term “hot prospects.” As the year progresses, they choose fewer victims but act more severely with those they have selected.
Other factors can be depression, isolation, substance abuse, mistrust of a school’s ability to protect them, and students’ changing views of violence. The influence of violence in video games, TV, and movies undeniably contributes to the increase in bullying. A reported 25% of children grow up with the attitude that violence is an acceptable response to disrespect. Incidentally, girls can be bullies too. Statistics show a strong increase in girls fighting girls in school.
Bullies enjoy inflicting fear and pain on others and have a strong need to dominate. They may see themselves positively because they lack awareness of how others perceive them. Or they may actually be looked up to by more vulnerable children. If so, they are looked up to for being tough but are not well liked.
Most bullies have a downward spiraling through life, their behavior interfering with learning, friendships, work, intimate relationships, and mental health. Bullies often turn into anti-social adults and are more likely to commit crimes, batter wives, and abuse children.
Bullies that are exposed to group activities such as sports or other constructive activities will often come out of their bullying as they break isolation and become part of a group. Or they may join a gang for that camaraderie and sense of belonging. Those who don’t may go inward and find solace in video games, TV, or other solo activities.
The bottom line: Bullies have learned that aggressive behavior works for them, either as a protective facade to cover fear and inadequacy, or as genuine viciousness and enjoyment from hurting others. The former is the most common, and the latter is potentially much more volatile.
What makes a victim?
Just as certain as there will always be bullies, there will always be victims. “Younger, smaller, weaker, sensitive, quiet, cautious, different” were the common buzz words I got when posing the question “What makes a victim?” to kids and adults. On the lighter end of the spectrum are the many kids who are occasionally bullied. Often they are not living up to their potential or getting as much from life as they could as a result of the bullying. On the heavier end are kids who constantly get picked on. Some of these come from overprotective families and don’t get practice dealing with conflict. They fail to learn the skills necessary to avoid exploitation by others. They easily acquiesce to bullies’ demands, hand over possessions, present submissiveness and passivity.
Passivity can set up a vicious cycle spiraling downward. As victims get silent and go inward, they may even incite a greater level of bullying, feel worse about themselves, and go in deeper. It seems to mark these kids for future victimization, sometimes for life. Victims are often rejected by peers as well as by bullies. They can develop a negative view of school and simply hate going. Unhappy and wanting to get away, many drop out regardless of good grades.
The strongest human need is to belong. Social Isolation is perhaps the most damaging thing a human can experience, whether for a child or an adult. For kids, it is so important to be members of a social group that it can feel better to be selected by a bully and get beaten than to not get any social attention at all. Many victims will actually protect the perpetrator when teachers intervene. Of course in doing so they reward the bully’s behavior and continue the cycle of victimization.
It was interesting that of all the people working directly with kids, no one ever brought up gun control, safety locks, metal detectors, or harsher punishment. It’s not that these issues are worthless. But they fail to address the core problem. Over and over I heard these experts recommend education, counseling, getting the kids to talk, responsibility of the parents, and more funding for school resources.
Some schools have taken anonymous surveys of the kids and share survey results with parents, staff, and students.
Some are training staff to detect warning signs of depression and substance abuse; to give consistent, fair, and visible discipline to students; and to take verbal threats seriously. They are teaching the staff coping skills and conflict resolution.
Anti-bully and anger management courses are springing up around the country. Of these, the ones that incorporate role playing with verbal strategies seem to be having the greater effect. With the zero tolerance laws that abound, non-physical skills are paramount.
• Awareness of what a bully is thinking and what he / she may look for when selecting
• Body language and other cues that can tip off a potential victim to an impending bully attack, either imminent or long term.
• Awareness of whether this is a fear-based “facade” type of bully versus a truly dan-gerous person.
Typically the bully has a mindset like that of a growling dog to intimidate through threatening body language, tone of voice, and eye contact. Most bullies will act as tough as possible to scare the would-be victim into compliance. Once that is accomplished, they will either back away or push further to accomplish whatever they need to feel the sense of importance they are seeking.
Again we can draw on the animal king-dom to illustrate the predator mindset. A mountain lion does not typically go for the biggest doe or buck in the woods. They go for the weak, sick, and small. Human predators are very much the same way and will look for specific cues to determine their victims. Over 90% of communication is non-verbal, so the hunched shoulders, lack of eye contact, shuffling feet, and tone of voice are all things a predator will take in (usually unconsciously) when choosing their prey. In the case of territorial situations, the attacker will be threatened by the victim’s proximity to something they hold precious, or fear losing something of importance like a girlfriend, bike, or whatever.
Kids also need awareness of the common mistakes they make that can get them into trouble. This includes behavior, body, and verbal communication that can draw a bully’s attention. Kids need to learn assertive skills to keep that from happening in the first place. Also included is education on fear (particularly with boys). Many of the ways that boys learn to deal with fear (or not deal with it) create big problems. Fear can be used very skillfully, but without that knowledge, our reactions to fear can really get us into trouble.
You can talk down a bully by communicating assertive self-confidence. Role playing is essential to experience how various altercations can be de-escalated or successfully deterred by good assertive defense. I recommend attending an instructor training to learn to do this effectively. When taught correctly, it produces very consistent results, but it’s not as easy as it appears and may even frighten your students needlessly. EZ Defense uses a coordinated instructor team to maximize results.
The defender should keep a safe distance while also keeping a good solid verbal and physical boundary. It is important, though, to differentiate between assertive and aggressive behavior. Role playing is the best way to train a child in the subtle difference between the two, as an aggressive demeanor will often escalate the bully’s behavior. We teach the phrase “Back away, you are too close” in what we call a Bad Dog tone of voice. The words are effective in that they are simply stating their wish and are not provocative so they will not get the child in trouble if a teacher hears them. The tone of voice is much like one uses to admonish a dog that has misbehaved. It involves a neutral though powerful tone of voice that is neither weak and passive, nor aggressive. Keeping a good two-footstep distance minimum and using this phrase correctly has worked for a multitude of kids after taking an EZ Defense or FAST CATS course.
Care must be taken when teaching a child to use physical defense against another child. Clearly delineate that physical skills should be the very last ditch effort to deal with the situation. The skills should be limited to simple escape techniques. If a child risks suspension even in self-defense as some may do with the zero tolerance, the minimal force necessary should be used. Adrenal Stress scenarios train children under fire to consciously choose and act at the appropriate level necessary.
Parents need to be educated and helped with assisting their children in a cooperative effort. Those who spend time talking with their children reap huge rewards. Modeling assertive behavior and communication skills, discussing how bullying is bad and weak instead of the perceived “tough image,” and asking how things are going at school, are great ways for children and adults to come together.
Many kids attribute bullying to the “time bomb” factor where the child doesn’t feel safe to talk. This bottles up all that toxic energy inside. If children are getting bullied, be empathetic and listen. Many kids feel guilty, ashamed, and think it’s their fault. They may fear reprisals. Parents should assure their children they will do all they can to help.
Taking the child to the basement for some quick boxing lessons will probably do much more harm than good. You can be setting up the kid for a bigger failure if parents take this tact and do it incorrectly. I’m not saying it won’t work, but this provides the child with one choice, to fight. Most altercations can and should be dealt with using non-physical measures. Arming the child with only fighting skills negates a myriad of creative choices that could be used before violence is even an issue. Add to that the reality that much of the way physical training is performed does not translate well to the street and you could really be setting up the child for a tough haul. By all means, though, children who learn the full spectrum of self-defense choices grow up to be happier and healthier and enjoy greater self-esteem in all facets of their lives.
Turn off the TV! Perhaps the single most destructive force is the constant barrage of violence that is ever growing in the media. Spend extra time in activities that promote positive qualities. Although a cheap baby sitter, the TV will cost children and adults alike in the long run.
Talk to your child’s teachers. It is the parents’ right to be kept abreast of how the child is doing. Teachers see and know what goes on with our children better than we can. Many parents are worried about taking up the teacher’s time or are too busy to investigate. Teachers are very limited in what they can do and are usually ecstatic (read again!) ecstatic when parents take an active role in their child’s development. If for some reason a teacher is not responding, go to the administration and find out why. You and your children have rights, and the school staff has the responsibility to deal with bullies.
Campaign for more funding for schools in your area. Schools are poorly funded in most areas. The teachers and administration typically have a handle on how to correct problems, but lack the funding to make it happen. Over-crowding is rampant and make it very difficult for teachers to stay on top of things.
Integration vs. segregation: Many of the folks I spoke to said that racially mixed schools allow children to develop better social skills. I live outside Boulder, Colorado (home of the Jon Bonet debacle). This is a very white-bred community, and teachers there report a growing number of problems and isolation among the students. In the outlying more racially mixed towns, teachers report a more harmonious environment. Many of these teachers have worked in Boulder and see a big difference.
As martial arts instructors, we have the means to be powerful role models. The more positive role modeling children get, the better they develop. The following poem from a student was sent to me by Bobbie Matt, martial arts school owner and NW Director for FAST Defense.
With crossed eyes and a freckle nose, / He runs through the hallways dodging the foes. / Enemies pulling and tugging as he ran, / And that’s how all his days began. / Being pointed and laughed at in every class, / He wishes the days would be over fast. / As he adjusts his glasses and picks up his things, / He hates the problems the world brings. / Riding the bus home only to be picked on, / Now home, stepping off the bus only to be spit on. / Sitting in a room within his home, / He never thought he’d die alone. By Angela Mayorsky (copyright mpowerme, 2000)
Children are the world’s most precious resource. In many areas they are literally crying for help. It is our responsibility to listen and do all we can to assist.