Guest Opinion: Bullying is universal, but responding effectively can be learned
I met my first bullies as a boy growing up in Switzerland, slightly built and less secure than I am now as an adult who heads an important counseling service in Palo Alto.
From my international experience and subsequent studies I believe bullying in some form is universal, whether it be physical assaults or threatened assaults or verbal, from cruel teasing to sarcastic put-downs,
Of course there are differences between the kind of bullying boys do compared to the more verbal type used by girls who bully. Boys tend to use physical bullying three to four times more than girls. And there are cultural differences between ethnic and racial groups or nationalities.
But there so many similarities in both the behavior and root causes motivating a bully that some conclusions can be made. Bullying tends to occur whenever someone feels superior — or wants to feel superior — to another group, as represented by an individual. It's a power thing, about differences. Lack of learned social skills can also motivate a bully.
Bullying can also be a learned behavior, based on a child's home environment, modeled behavior by parents or critical put-downs that undermine the young person's sense of self.
Our definition of the outside world comes from our perception of our home. Some see bullying as their only means of survival.
The media contributes with so much violence — even reality TV and radio, where most of the jokes make fun of other groups.
Responses to bullying are so dependent on the individual. If you feel shameful about who your are or insecure you in a sense allow the bullying behavior to get to you. But those who are able to respond well and ignore the verbal assaults or report the physical assaults or threats can actually alter the bully's behavior, one way or the other.
I moved to the United States in 1984 to attend the University of California, San Diego, to study psychotherapy.
In 1997 I joined the staff of the Adolescent Counseling Service (ACS) in Palo Alto, which provides counseling and support services to children and families when they are facing a challenging time or crisis. I was named executive director in 2004.
As the executive director of ACS a gay man and a foreigner in this country, it is hard for me to not ask this question about bullies: What is wrong with these people? What would drive any individuals to such cruelty as to hurt emotionally, physically, mentally and socially, another individual?
What saddens me even more is that here in Palo Alto we are in a society that prides itself in raising accepting and tolerant kids. But the reality is that homophobia, racism, xenophobia and sexism are more prevalent than thought otherwise, especially when given the chance to hide behind the screen of anonymity with all the online access we enjoy nowadays.
People are unfortunately allowed to hate in private, and that is scary. People's hate directed at groups or individuals can now be viewed by a worldwide audience via the Internet.
Bullies have always been there, but in the past the cruelty was limited to a certain social circle or boundaries and bullies could be easily identified, and acts could be witnessed and stopped.
With technology, bullies add the fact that the fear and hate will perpetually go on and on and will not, cannot get better.
So what is the real problem? The bully? Technology? Both?
The answer is surely extremely complex, but it is hard not to look at a third party here <0x0214> and that party is our society. We therefore need to accept the fact that in our society we have allowed and at some level even promoted the idea that it is tolerated to bully someone who appears or act differently.
Different reasons push individuals to bully but if you look at most cases, the bullied ones are the same: individuals who are perceived to be different and therefore a rational target or anger and hate.
As a gay child, I grew up feeling different and have been victim to name callings and often beat up and because of my shame of being different, I did nothing. At times I even felt it was normal for me to be targeted because I was this "abomination of nature"! Unfortunately, I see not much has changed since I was that lost and hurt child 30 plus years ago. But I am not the same person I was then. Remove the shame and the bullies no longer have power.
What will it take for our society to finally achieve tolerance, acceptance, fairness and full responsibility? I pledge to be a vocal role model for gay youths and for children and families who are here as foreigners and who feel as if they just don't belong. As a role model I want to show them that they are not an "abomination of nature" or fundamentally different and that we can finally all come to the table and share the meal that all of us deserve in harmony and inclusiveness.
All of us have to start to be an example and role models to our children, to our community, to our schools and teach them inclusiveness and love rather than hate and exclusion of others' differences.
We also need to teach our children consequences for their behaviors when they cross the line and adopt a no-tolerance rule for all comments, behaviors or remarks that are targeted at difference.
Please join me in this fight. This is a matter of life and death for kids of all types who walk our streets and school hallways and who can become targets for bullies for almost any reason. There are things we can do about bullying, and we will be exploring those at special conference Tuesday, Nov. 30, at the Midpeninsula Community Center at 9 p.m. It will be telecast.
People will be invited to call in with questions.
Our future cannot afford the costs of bullying in terms of damage to the individual or cultural environment of our schools and community. Our young people are precious and we need to protect them.
Philippe Rey is executive director of Adolescent Counseling Services, based in Palo Alto. He can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.