Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Bully Who Cried Wolf

This morning on Facebook, I came across an article about bullying. Or more specifically, it was about differentiating bullying from rudeness and meanness. As a researcher, I love operational definitions and digging into different but related concepts to come to a better understanding of human interaction. Specifically, the author Signe Whitson (social worker and author of Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying) defined the terms as follows:

"Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.

Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).

Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power."
The point Whitson was trying to make is that, while all of these behaviors are problematic and need correction, they shouldn't all be called bullying. Her reason for this is that overuse of the word takes away its effectiveness, especially if people begin hearing ad nauseum about cases that aren't bullying:

"I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a 'little boy who cried wolf' phenomena. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying — whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort — we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence."
What I've learned as a psychologist - and have repeated to friends, especially those who are or are soon becoming parents - is that it takes a lot to damage a person permanently. People are pretty resilient. But repeated injuries, whether physical or psychological, can have lasting effects. We need time to heal and rebuild, but if a person keeps being bullied without having the opportunity to grow and move on, they become stuck, merely reacting to it. They don't have time to prepare and build resources that would help them shield from it. Even worse, they may come to see being bullied as part of who they are. So I think Whitson's terminology is very important to keep in mind.

At the same time, rudeness and meanness can grow into bullying, if left unchecked. So I think it is still important to intervene before things get out of hand. To be fair, Whitson does say all of these behaviors need correction, so she isn't downplaying their importance. But we do need to strike a balance between responding to bullying, and intervening to keep other behaviors from turning into bullying.

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