From how much you hear about bullies, there certainly seem to be a lot of them. How do so many teens end up acting so cruelly? Are there that many seriously warped kids?
Many teen bullies certainly have deep problems, stemming from many causes – harsh parenting, terrible insecurities, a failure to develop any real empathy for others. But I am a strong believer that the great majority of kids who bully are regular kids who will grow up to be normal, caring, but also far from perfect adults – just like us.
I think that most bullies do have consciences and are not, in fact, psychopaths. Not only that, but most of them don't want to see themselves as bad. And amazingly, despite their actions, they do not think of themselves as doing anything wrong.
How can there be such a disconnect? Actually, it's something that we all do, though as we get older we tend to be more honest with ourselves. Teens have an uncanny ability to bypass their conscience. They are able to convince themselves that what they are doing is not bad. Their brains supply them with excuses – reasons why their cruel behaviour isn't actually cruel. And by far the No. 1 excuse is: "I was only teasing."
They have a whole rationale.
"Yeah, it's only teasing. You know, friendly teasing. I do it in fun. I don't mean any harm by it. They should know that. It's what kids do. And if they don't get it, it's their fault. That's not my responsibility. That's their problem.
"In fact, if I tease them and it turns out it hurts their feelings, I'm actually doing them a favour. They should toughen up. They should learn to be able to take it. How will they ever learn to handle stuff if they never have to deal with it? How will they ever survive out there in the world if they can't deal with even friendly teasing? It's a cruel world out there, in case you hadn't noticed."
When they think this way, it lets them bully where otherwise they might not.
We don't like to acknowledge it, but part of normal human thinking is about doing not-so-nice things. We don't always act on those impulses.
One piece of bullying behaviour that is often overlooked is what teens say to themselves between the impulse and the act. This is the in-between thinking process that can make the bullying behaviour either more or less likely to occur. It's where the excuses come in. We all do it, but teens – more impulsive and less honest with themselves – do it more often.
Is there something that parents can do? The answer is a definite yes.
As always, you need to talk to them. Maybe with your teen this is unnecessary. Maybe they don't think this way. But many parents would be unpleasantly surprised by what their teen does. You need to talk to them.
It might go something like this:
"Nicole, I want to talk to you about teasing."
"When you say or do something that makes fun of or may cause hurt to another kid, they always hate it. It always causes them pain. It is always cruel. Always bad. You may think that it is only in fun, that you mean no harm. But you are causing them pain.
"Everybody hates to be teased, even friends who say they don't mind. They just pretend that their feelings aren't hurt because they don't want to come off as an oversensitive loser. They play along to be part of the gang. But they hate it.
"How can you know for sure that your wholly good-natured teasing does not down deep hurt their feelings? You can't.
"And because you can never know whether it hurts their feelings, even seriously hurts their feelings, it is never okay.
"And no, kids should not toughen up to bullying. Teasing is bad. It hurts. The solution is not to be able to take it. The solution is not to toughen up. The solution is not to tease."
This is what you should say to your kid. Does this make a difference? Maybe. Your words just may cause them to pause and reflect, and make it that much harder for them to go down the path to cruelty.
Clinical psychologist Anthony E. Wolf is the author of six parenting books including the upcoming I'd Listen to My Parents if They'd Just Shut Up. E-mail him questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.