Bullying: The advice you got is wrong. Here’s what really works. –

Share this Blog post

Bullying: The advice you got is wrong. Here’s what really works. –

I found the above article over at, who in turn found it over at the Christian Science Monitor. The article was written by Patricia Kelley Criswell, a licensed social worker out of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Criswell starts off her opinion piece by mentioning that in recent months bullying has been labeled an “epidemic” by the popular press. I all likelihood, Criswell was probably thinking about such articles as Bullying, the New Epidemic by Lauren Finnegan. As the title to Criswell’s article suggests, she believes that a lot of advice—as far as combating the apparently growing problem of bullying is concerned—is flat out wrong. Advice that Criswell finds wrong (or maybe just ineffective) …

  • (if you’re a victim) just ignore bullies
  • (if you’re a bystander) mind your own business; don’t get involved
  • (in general) don’t be a tattletale
  • (in general) just be nice to bullies (which sounds a lot like “turn the other cheek”)

What Criswell finds to be correct (or at least effective) advice …

  • bullying is about acquiring power, ergo, silence gives the bully the power he or she seeks … speak up
  • when bystanders speak up, half the time the bully backs down
  • teach kids the difference between tattling and telling
  • be kind by setting appropriate boundaries with respect to what is considered to be appropriate behavior
  • in general, empower kids to stand up for themselves

In my opinion, I think Criswell does a good job providing us with correct (or at least effective) advice concerning bullying at the level of individuals or small groups. However, advice at this level can still be wrong (or at least ineffective) when looked at from the perspective of society as a whole. Allow me to explain what I mean using a grant our Foundation made back in 2004 as a backdrop.

The grant was to the Baylor-Menninger Foundation and was in support of work that Dr. Stuart Twemlow (along with his colleagues Peter Fonagy and Frank Sacco) was doing in the area of, you guessed it, bullying. I was at Baylor College of Medicine back in 2004 attending a workshop on mentalization when I heard Twemlow speak on his paper entitled The Role of the Bystander in the Social Architecture of Bullying and Violence in Schools and Communities. I talked to Twemlow after his talk, an initial contact that ultimately led to our Foundation making a grant in support of his work.

I won’t go into Twemlow’s work in any detail, but I think he does present an interesting (and potentially productive) way of framing bullying at the level of society—a frame that might well shock you. Pulling a bit from family systems theory, Twemlow argues that the bully is often what is known as an “identified patient.” In a family system, an identified patient is that family member who has been selected (unconsciously of course) by the other family members to embody and represent the problem (or problems) the family is facing. Psychodynamically speaking, to identify a patient in this way requires such psychological  “sleights of mind” (so-to-speak) as displacement and projection. It’s the job of the family therapist to identify the identified patient, discern what problem (or problems) the identified patient represents for the system, and then to trace the problem back to its root cause (or causes). During this process of complex ferreting, the family therapist also has to take a look at why the family system is unable (or unwilling) to look at the problem (or problems) that confronts them without using such psychological gymnastics as displacement and projection. For a great example of family system therapy in action, please see the seminal book The Family Crucible: The Intense Experience of Family Therapy by Augustus Y. Napier, a book that features the pioneering work of family therapist Carl Whitaker. (As a side note, in the case described in The Family Crucible, it was the young son who was “asked” to represent the marital infidelities that the husband and wife were not willing nor able to look at consciously.)

In essence, Twemlow argues that the bully is an identified patient that holds and represents the problems that society is not able (or willing) to look at. Twemlow suggests that it is the bystander—whether parent, teacher, principal, government official, corporate leader, etc.—who creates the bully to fight fights that the bystander him- or herself is powerless to fight. So, rather than solely focus in on the bully or his or her victim, we (as a society) need to ask ourselves (adult bystanders) what it is that’s happening in society that we need a surrogate to fight the battles we are unable or unwilling to fight ourselves? I would suggest that we are (apparently) seeing an increase in bullying because adults are hard pressed to deal with such societal problems as bankruptcies, foreclosures, job loss, identity loss, status loss, overall loss of security, and on the list goes. If I had to come up with a title for this post it would be …

I Have Met the Bully and the Bully Is Me

Allow me to end with a more concrete example from David Anderegg’s book Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them. In his book (which I have summarized), Anderegg argues that the nerd or overly bright student at school is often mercilessly bullied. Anderegg’s psychology practice is filled with bullied nerds. Anderegg wrote his book in large part to get to the bottom of why so many nerds were being bullied. (I should point out that by his own admission Anderegg has a number of nerd tendencies.) What Anderegg found might (once again) surprise you. At the risk of reducing Anderegg’s work to the level of libel, Anderegg argues that nerds (who are often high functioning autistics) will inherit the world. That is to say, it will be the Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg‘s of the world who will prosper in a world that is rapidly moving from “back workers” to “brain workers.” Anderegg tries to convince us that many parents (unconsciously) know that very few high functioning autistic brain workers (e.g., nerds) will ultimately end up inheriting the rapidly emerging digital economy that consists of such things as the Internet, Facebook, and iPods (e.g, the “screen culture”). Anderegg challenges us to recognize that we as parents or other influential adults are (unconsciously) asking our kids to bully nerds as our only way of dealing with the helplessness that an emerging digital economy brings. Many adults are powerless to lash out at the emerging digital economy proper, so they do the next “best” thing: they lash out at its representation, its effigy, namely, nerds. Please feel free to request a copy of my Anderegg summary by using the CONTACT US link above.

So, all this to say that where there’s bullying there’s probably some form of displacement and projection at the level of society. According to Anderegg, nerds are being bullied because many parents unconsciously know that their kids will be left behind as the digital economy continues to emerge. I would suggest that others are being bullied because adults are having a very hard time dealing with such things as job loss, foreclosure, bankruptcy, loss of social safety nets, etc. So, how do we reduce bullying at the level of society? The first step would be for adults to recognize and own their own projections and displacements. The next step would be to understand why adults are using projections and displacements instead of confronting problems consciously and head on. Until we can do this “family therapy” on society—on ourselves—bullying will continue unabated. Again, pulling from Twemlow’s work, it’s the parent (who is stressed out), teacher (afraid of losing his or her job), principal (who has to turn around a failing school), corporate leader (who increasingly has to commodify kids to stay afloat), and political leader (who sees myriad social safety nets falling apart), who pick, create, and otherwise motivate the bully. Therefore, it is within these adult groups that we will find the solution. That’s my advice (using Twemlow and Anderegg as a backdrop).

For more on the neoliberal agenda that seeks to consciously stress out parents, make teachers fearful, present principals with insurmountable challenges, and force corporate leaders to increasingly commodify children as a way of finding new markets, please see Henry Giroux’s book Youth in a Suspect Society: Democracy or Disposability? I would suggest that it is within the pages of Giroux’s book (and others like it, namely, work by Daniel Brook and Naomi Klein) that you’ll be able to identify the real bully who’s terrorizing the schoolyard that would be our society. As Criswell suggests, speak up.