Bullies hide their fear with anger and aggression
Len J. McCulloch, Guest Columnist 7:45 a.m. EDT September 21, 2016
September is back to school month for students of all ages. For some this is an anxiety-ridden time because of previous victimization by bullies. Memories of getting picked on and made fun of, or worse, can be a heavy load to carry back to school.
Often, students with special needs are targeted. Kids with learning disorders, physical disabilities, or speech impairments, often require special education programming. They may fear the new school year will be a repeat of the previous year, with its ridicule, jokes and threats.
The causes of bullying are several and complex. Often, not recognized, is that many kids who are mean to others are using anger as a defense against their own fear. The tough guy image often overrides a low self-esteem and need to see “others” as inferior. Bullies are not happy people. They often come from a home life of instability and modeled aggression. They may have an impaired sense of themselves and an increased sense, without knowing it, of vulnerability to meanness and harm. Sometimes students can only deal with their underlying fearfulness and poor self-esteem by turning their anxieties into an attitude of anger and meanness towards others.
Understanding that bullies can be scaredy-cats can help both the victim of bullying and the aggressor. Knowing that meanness is often disguised fearfulness can be an important beginning towards modification of behavior.
Billy the Bully
Some years ago I was asked to evaluate and treat a 4-year-old with the reputation of being a bully. His name was Billy. His parents reported that Billy was a bully and would randomly run into other preschoolers aggressively. He randomly charged at other children and his stocky build would knock them over. Nine months of meaningful psychotherapy with Billy and work with his parents was helpful. His parents tended to not allow Billy to have toys with an anger theme such as army men or toy guns or the like. During play therapy, Billy was allowed to pick from the available toys representing different levels of development. Billy chose the blocks and army men and the cars and trucks.
Billy proceeded to spread these out over the floor of the consulting room, backing himself into a corner. He repeatedly did this and would become distinctively fearful and would make statements like, “Some boys could get hurt if they walked on these and they might get tripped or fall down.” With further therapeutic work Billy was able to display more of his fearful anxiety about harm coming to him and this simultaneously occurred with reports from parents and teachers that Billy was much less of an aggressor in his preschool interactions with others his age. Through play therapy and direct verbalization, Billy became more able to admit to and share his feelings of being vulnerable to harm. Parents and teachers reported a notable decline in Billy’s aggression toward others and improvement in his self-esteem and socialization.
For more information about bullying, visit www.operationrespect.com
L.J. McCulloch is a diplomate of the American Psychotherapy Association and holds credentials in mental health, addictions, trauma, social work, and brain injuries. His monthly column, “Our Mental Health” is archived at the Farmington Library, http://www.farmlib.org. McCulloch is available for a courtesy consultation and can be reached at 248-474-2763 ext. 222.