Bullying, the Gateway to Violence—Maumelle, AR
It was a little too late to just walk away. They saw him sitting there by himself. They made comments and pointed as they approached. In his mind, all he wanted to do was run away, but he knew that would just make things worse. His mouth went dry and his palms were slick with sweat. His stomach churned with acid and butterflies. Every step they took felt like impending doom.
“Hey kid,” the leader of the pack called out, “you look like a lost puppy.”
The other boys scoffed and taunted him. They seemed to enjoy the spectacle of humiliation. It just made everything worse to the smaller boy.
The leader called out again, “Hey kid, don’t you have any friends?”
The other boys laughed and shook their heads, as if it would be impossible for someone like him to have another human being standing beside him as an ally.
“Just leave me alone,” the smaller boy said half-heartedly. “I don’t want any trouble.”
The response enraged the leader who said, “Yeah well it looks like trouble has found you. What are you going to do, call your mommy?”
The boy looked up with a flash of anger in his eyes and said nothing.
The entourage had grown larger, and the onlookers said anything they could imagine to push the two boys into conflict. One said, “He looks like he’s going to cry.” Another said, “You better watch out; he might kick your butt.” The third boy said, “He ain’t nothing but a scared punk.”
The bully balled up his fist and reared back as if he was going to hit the smaller boy who shrank back in fear. He chided, “What’s the matter, punk, are you scared? Well, I’m going to let you off easy today. Just wait till tomorrow when I come back. I might not be so forgiving.”
I am the owner of Thriveworks North Little Rock. I remember this story like it was yesterday. I was the smaller boy.
Bullying, for the most part, is a psychological attack based in fear. It is the perception of harm that causes the underlying reaction for those who are victims. In some cases, bullying can escalate into physical violence, but typically we find bullies are verbal abusers first, until they feel confident. This is much like a shark bumping its prey before it bites.
Once we understand that bullies need to see fear to gain the strength and determination to move into physical violence, we can begin to understand how to stop bullying tactics. The real trick is trying to reduce or remove fear when our natural defense systems produce fear to protect the body. It is a very natural fight-or-flight autonomic response that we must learn to understand and control.
Here are a few things we can do to reduce fear in the moment:
- Take deep breaths: The fear response typically increases respiration, among other things. Taking a few deep breaths will reverse that autonomic response. Those deep breaths give us a moment to collect our thoughts and calm our minds.
- Stand up; take a few steps back: The fear response increases by proximity, which means as the threat gets closer, our fear response increases. Simply standing up and making a little space often slows the autonomic response from fear. Just taking a few steps back also enables more time for reaction if an attack comes next. It is never cowardice to stand up and make space. It is wisdom.
- Look away: The third innate response is to look away, particularly to look down. Predators typically see dominance through eye contact. The dominant male will often stare the weaker male down into submission. While this could be a tricky step (making eye contact with a bully), it shows confidence. It shows a lack of fear. In the animal kingdom, it could create an immediate attack, but for higher-thinking animals, like humans, it creates a moment to reconsider risk. The eye contact doesn’t have to be an angry look, just a simple assessment of the enemy. In the event of an attack, it is important to be able to later identify the attacker, which makes eye contact essential.
Here are a couple of tips to de-escalate the situation verbally:
- De-escalate the situation: The bully typically doesn’t want to be humiliated. It would be a mistake to call names or engage in direct conflict, unless there is no other choice and self-defense becomes necessary. Instead, verbal de-escalation would include a simple statement of truth.“Neither one of us has any reason for conflict. Let’s just go our separate ways.”
“You seem like a tough guy and I’m not one much for fighting, so you have nothing to prove here. I’ll just go.”
(It is important to have eye contact and confidence in each statement, which indicates resolve.)
- Keep an open body language: Body language is important. Keeping hands open is by far better than clenching your fists. Standing up tall is by far better than cowering away. Relaxing facial muscles is by far better than a clenched jaw or a furrowed brow.
Here are some final considerations that touch on conflict resolution and future preparedness:
- If de-escalation works and physical violence is averted, confidence will be increased. It is important to make note of that success, particularly when it comes to controlling the fear response in the future.
- If de-escalation fails and physical violence occurs, then making a stand will increase confidence. Standing up to a bully in a physical confrontation has a strong chance of preventing future engagements. Even a bully can gain respect for the victim who stands up to him. The bully is always looking for a lamb. Being a lion will make a bully seek out other targets.
- Bullies rely on their experience. As they learn new tactics to create fear and rely on physical skills to win fights, they grow in their capabilities. The same holds true for those who stand up to bullies. Learning new self-defense moves and even rehearsing the de-escalation verbal strategies is a great way to build confidence. Having success against a bully will increase your capability to defend yourself.
Ultimately, I think it is important to remember that we have laws to prevent bullying. We have laws against assault and battery. Whenever possible, it is good to have law enforcement on your side as well as other people in authority (like teachers and administrators). We must remember that self-defense is a right, and oftentimes it is all we have at the moment. Be prepared.