How Bullies Seize Their Power Over Us (And How We Can Loosen That Grip)

Aug 26, 2019

"If your community begins to turn against you or that tide turns against you and you feel isolated or pointed out, it can be pretty difficult."

That is the essence of what bullies are trying to achieve. Bullying can be a problem for students of any age – in school and for adults in the workplace. The attacks can be physical or psychological (or both) and can make school or work a nightmare. But understanding bullying on a deeper level can help inform appropriate and effective responses.

The obvious question most people have about bullying is how to get the person to stop.

But it may also help to know why the person is bullying.

Junice and Rock Rockman are Central Texas life and relationship coaches certified by an International Coaching Federation-accredited program. Their daughter Grace is a fifth-grader. Each of them has a theory about what fuels bullying:

"When you're a bully, you usually wish you had someone to help you out or to kind of lead you to where you need to go," says Grace, noting that bullying behavior can be a cry for help.

"They really might try and get the person to change their mind about how they see themselves or feel about themselves," Junice says.

"A lot of times folks that ... bully people – we don't know the foundation of what they're dealing with," Rock says. "I've heard stories of children who are hungry every day when they come to school, ... children who are abused in their household before they come to school. They don't know how to process it, so then the way they that they express themselves is by attacking other people."

Whatever the motivation, the Rockmans believe there are ways to handle and maybe even dissuade bullies.

"The only power that the bully has is that you care about what they're saying or about how they're trying to make you feel," Rock says. "So when you show them that you don't care, then they let off."

Listen to the Rockmans' discussion with KUT to hear how Grace has handled bullies in school and how her parents suggest tamping down on bullying at a time when our national rhetoric is so aggressive.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Grace Rockman: I've seen it mentally. I've seen it verbally – mostly verbally – because I just think when you're a bully, you usually wish you had someone to help you out or to kind of lead you to where you need to go.

KUT: When you say a mental kind of bullying, what did that look like when you saw that?

Grace Rockman: For me, it looked like someone had said ‘You have 16 heads’ or making fun. Or when I was in first grade, they called me "jiggly juggalos." I don't know why, but it was sort of a funny nickname. But yes, when it's mentally, they do sort of get a little aggressive.

Junice Rockman: So, like teasing you and they really might try and get the person to change their mind about how they see themselves or feel about themselves.

KUT:  Where is the line between teasing and joking and bullying? 

Junice Rockman:  It's funny at first, and then if you ask the person to stop it and you tell them that you don't like it and then they continue – is that where the line is drawn?

Grace Rockman: I remember back in the third grade, people were pointing at me because I got in trouble for something and then I got really uncomfortable. I asked them to stop, but they kept doing it and it really wasn't fun at all. It was really hurtful, and I didn't tell my teacher because I was embarrassed to and I didn't want to make them upset. So it was kind of hard for me.

Junice Rockman: It's difficult when you draw a boundary line – even with children – you draw a boundary; you're like this is uncomfortable now. And then when they continue is when I think it begins to erode at our sense of self. For children, as well as adults in the workplace, our classroom or our office space is our community. So if your community begins to turn against you or that tide turns against you and you feel isolated or pointed out, it can be pretty difficult. And you brought up a good point that you didn't want to tell your teacher. That happens probably a lot.

KUT: One thing that comes up often in talking about bullying is what should happen in the moment.

Grace Rockman: I said this once, I believe in third or first grade. I said, "What does that have to do with anything?" Because to me I think that kind of makes the bully feel like – OK, so they don't care. Then they try again and then you say the same thing and then they're kind of like – OK, this isn't working; what should I do? And then eventually they just get overwhelmed and then they find someone else to go.

Junice Rockman: So you overwhelmed the bully by standing your ground.

Rock Rockman: The only power that the bully has is that you care about what they're saying or about how they're trying to make you feel. You start to believe it. So when you show them that you don't care then they let off.

KUT: When somebody is a bully, what's going on? What's the dynamic going on there?

Grace Rockman:  I believe for myself they feel – or someone else has bullied or controlled them and then they're like, "OK, what should I do about this? I'm kind of getting a little anxious." So then they try to let it off on somebody else.

Rock Rockman: A lot of times folks that want to take advantage of people, control people, bully people – we don't know the foundation of what they're dealing with. I've heard stories of children who are hungry every day when they come to school. You know children who are abused in their household before they come to school. This child is going through a lot personally. They don't know how to process it. So then the way they that they express themselves is by attacking other people.

KUT: How can we think about turning down the temperature on bullying and having reasonable responses when there's so much going on around us that is really provocative and kind of angry? I’m thinking particularly about the political arena. It's not the only place, but it's a pretty prominent place. How do we filter that out or keep that from being the new standard?

Rock Rockman: You have to sit down and shut it off. You have to find some kind of way to step away from it at a certain point. A child may not know how to process some bully message that's out there, and we know all the stories about some children who have even committed suicide. So cutting all of that off and taking one day off or even just a half of a day. Unless we turn it off, we can't filter it out.

KUT: What about the perpetrator of that kind of communication or somebody who is a bully, as opposed to somebody who might receive a message? What kind of thought transformation would that person have to go through or what would that person have to filter out to rethink their behavior?

Junice Rockman: We’re wounded in relationships. We have to heal in relationships. So it's going to take having some healthy connection and sometimes that comes in the form of a boundary. So we have to be OK with setting boundaries of folks that are bullying.

Rock Rockman: If you are the one that's doing the bullying, find your own way to communicate: "Hey, you know I know I've been expressing some anger. Here's the reason why. Here's what's happening." And as an adult, you have to find your own inner pain, your own inner – what's going on at your core that makes you respond to people the way that you are. Find out what's going on inside of you and heal that. And then what's inside will come out.

Junice Rockman: Don't stop reaching out for help. If you reach out to one teacher and it doesn't go as you hoped or you didn't get the support, reach out again. Go to a counselor. Don't stop reaching out.