Andrea Mathews on Bullies in School

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Andrea has over 30 years’ experience as a practitioner and supervisor of others practicing in the Mental Health field, having held such job titles as Counselor, Family Therapist, Program Director, Clinical Director, and Clinical Consultant. Currently and for the past 16 years she has run a thriving solo private practice in which she offers both Transpersonal and Cognitive Therapy to individuals, couples, families and groups. She talks to Ciaran Connolly, Co-Founder of NoBullying.com about Bullies in School and what it means to be Bullied. 

The interview on Bullies in School can also be found here

Andrea Mathews: Hi. My name is Andrea Mathews and I’m a licensed professional counselor in Alabama in the United States and I have been working in the mental health field for approximately 30 years and have worked in several cases where bullying was an issue and several cases where a child abuse or physical abuse of any kind was an issue and so I’m very familiar with the topic and very happy to contribute to this cause. Thank you very much for having me.

Ciaran Connolly: Brilliant and thank you again for taking time out and talking to us today and sharing your expert opinion. It’s greatly appreciated. Do you think that bullying is as big an issue today as it has been (was) 10, 15, 20 years ago?

AM: I think it’s as big and it may have been bigger in the past. Of course we aren’t going to have statistics on that because it wasn’t being reported and so we aren’t going to really know the answer to that question but if you’re asking for my opinion, I think it’s as big and hopefully because we are shining a light on it, it’s reducing some but I think the compulsion to bully is stronger than the light. So, I think that people will continue to bully and we certainly need to address the problem and yes. The more we address it, hopefully, the more it will reduce but I’m sure…

CC: And you mentioned in your introduction…you talked about bullying and abuse. Is there a difference between them? Or is that all the same?

AM: I think that abuse and bullying are very very similar and when I talk about abuse I’m talking about physical abuse, verbal abuse and emotional abuse and I guess mental abuse as well and those are various types because that’s what we are seeing with regard to social media bullying and texting bullying and those kinds and ways of bullying. We are seeing mental abuse that way. We also see emotional abuse that way and with regard to bullying, it’s all face to face bullying. It has the same impact but different, OK? Because usually peer to peer bullying is a little bit different than parent to child abuse because the parent has been put into a position of authority and trust and the parent is somebody who almost has been made into a God-like figure. So, the betrayal runs deeper with regard to physical abuse but the same psychology exists for the abuser that is the abuser is always going to be a bully of some sort.

CC: And do you see… you mentioned the social media and I guess text and mobile phones. Do you see a difference in how people are using that today again going back 10 or 20 years?

AM: Of course. I mean social media is obviously very much more used now than it was back then. So…and the fact that we have figured out how to use social media to bully is just informative of how much bullying was perhaps going on in our schools prior to social media. When I was working with kids in schools prior to all everyone-having-a-cell-phone, I heard the same stories. You know, they were being laughed at, they were being ridiculed, they were being mocked, they were being put in a corner and then slapping them on the head or punching them or poking them or something and so the same bullying existed but we just didn’t have the social media format. So, now with the social media format out there, it is just giving us information about how much bullying was always going on that we missed.

CC: Of course and we get to see a lot of very sad stories in the media here in the UK and Ireland and of course we see some very very sad stories come across the news from I guess US and Canada as well. Is this kind of media helping with dealing with bullying? Or is it raising awareness or is it causing its own sort of a problem as well?

AM: No, I don’t think it is causing its own sort of a problem as well. I do think it could [have] the potential to reduce it and here’s how. I think what it does is help the bullied to be more aware of when they are being bullied because I think part of the psychology of the victim of bullying is that they [aren’t] really…aware that they are being bullied. They believe the bully because they don’t think the bully is a bully; they think the bully is just telling them a truth and so that’s why it works so well. They don’t really realize that this is a problem that the bully has and that’s part of what happens when we shine a light on it is that the person who is being victimized by the bully begins to realize that “Oh! Well, this is not my problem. This is the problem that the bully has and he or she…has some kind of emotional problem that they are trying to take out on me” and that changes the psychology of the victim to the point where they begin to say “Oh! Well, OK. Maybe I can get help now because it really isn’t me. I’m not the problem”.

CC: I was going to say at the start you mentioned some cases you have come across some cases of bullying. Have you seen severe cases and consequences of bullying?

AM: Severe cases and consequences? I’m not sure what you mean by that.

CC: Have you ever come across in your daily work someone who has been, I guess, severely traumatized by bulling? Or has developed some long-term, I guess, psychological problems? It has impacted them socially maybe, I guess we trying to see… can bullying damage people and children long-term?

AM: Yes, I think…the earlier the bullying begins the longer term the problem because in the early ages, when children first start attending school when they are 5, 6, and 7, they are not finished trying to decide who they are and if somebody can come along and say “Well, this is who you are. You are really a jerk!” or” You are really stupid” or “You are really whatever those pejoratives that they use to bully them” then that person begins to believe that and so there is part of the long-term consequences. On the other hand, regardless of age, when somebody is physically bullied, there can be some long-term post-traumatic stress that goes with that. There is some avoidance, there is some nightmares, there is some really negative self-talk and some flashbacks of what occurred and those people are going to definitely need some therapy.

CC: And of course I spent some time on your website and you do have a lot of links and interesting articles on your site and focus a lot on children’s self-esteem and emotional intelligence and the development of children at different ages. Is it important to understand how children develop at different ages? You mentioned there, the younger bullying might start the longer impact it can have. Is this important to know and to realize?

AM: Yes, I think so. I think we might consider all kinds of things as a result to that. If we are being creative about how we educate our children, what environments we put them into, I mean I have all kinds of theories – don’t even get me started on education and what we should do different about that – but yes. I mean I think that we could definitely have that impact. I also think that when children have somebody, several hopefully, everybody in their home that they can go to and they can trust and they can talk to…that shortens the length of the problem especially if somebody can intervene and make it stop. What we understand for example, what we understand now because research has been done on it right now, is that a child who is sexually abused if they have somebody to go to and talk to and can that person can intervene and make it stop, then that child is not impacted on the long-term whereas…I mean, they actually feel like they have been brave and strong and they have accomplished something really good and it strengthens their character but if somebody…doesn’t have anybody to turn to with regard to any kind of bullying, so I’m stretching that sexual abuse over to the bullying arena now, but if they don’t have somebody to turn to, it makes it harder because they have to keep the secret and the secret festers and becomes self talk and that’s what becomes difficult.

CC: Very good and you mentioned earlier the environment. So, I guess there is a few environments that especially young people exist on a school, on a home life and then maybe even society itself. Are each of these environments very important and different to the impact that has to the child?

AM: Yes, absolutely. Of course. If a child comes from a home where he or she is being abused already, then they are more likely to be abused unfortunately because they have that sort of body language and presentation that tells the bully “You are the one I’m going to pick on” because that’s what a bully is looking for. They are looking for the people they can pick on who won’t pick on them back and that’s the very nature of the bully psychology. So, they are going to seek out those people that are different, that appear to be different or are different, who …seem to be having some kind of trouble, who seem shy, who seem to be socially awkward. Those are going to be the people that will be picked on by the bully and so yes if they come from an environment at home where those kinds of things are already in play, then they are more likely to get abused unfortunately at school. So, yes there is that but then if they come from a healthy environment at home that doesn’t necessarily mean they won’t get abused particularly if they are different or if they are dressed differently or they talk differently or they look differently or any kind of difference is something that the social world that we live in today just doesn’t want to tolerate and I think that’s more of intervention when we get to that part talking about the interventions. That’s definitely one of the interventions that we could do as a public is to create an education about difference that allows more reign for it.

CC: Of course and this is the big problem in society is tolerance to people who are slightly different and enjoy a different lifestyle and upbringing and you have talked a lot about the home life and the importance of home life and you warn me not to mention education of school. So, of course I couldn’t resist the temptation. So, you feel schools – then of course we as a society again drive teachers and educators for grades and exams and performance – but are we also maybe guilty or missing an opportunity to make our children or to help our children be better citizens of the future?

AM: Yes. I mean I think so. I think we…No, I don’t know as much about the educational system over there so forgive my ignorance about that but in America our system is basically, and it’s not always this way, but basically it is kind of what I call the ‘sit down, shut up and listen to me’ system where students are not taught to think original thoughts, they are not taught to come up with original ideas or to experiment with the realities of science or maths or English, they are not taught to pursue their interests. They are taught to dumb down all of those things in favour of listening to the teacher and I think that does not enhance self esteem because how can I have a self esteem if I don’t have a self to esteem and if I’m told all the time not to know who I am but listen to the teacher then I’m being systematically taught not to know myself? So, yes. I have a bit of talks about that.

CC: And again…so actually I tend to agree and we need to allow our children to breathe and discover themselves and maybe we do need to take the pressure off teachers and the education system away from exams and focus more on social skills because at the end of the day in 5 or 10 years, I can’t remember what I got in geography or history and actually the world doesn’t care about me as a person and the personality of course that’s more important and it lives with me for the rest of my life, my family and everyone around me. So, I will have to agree. Maybe our society isn’t focused on the right things but do you think it’s something we can change? Do we think we need a massive mindset change in everyone to try and bring change and break the cycle of bullying?

AM: Well, yes I do. I mean I think if we can just junk the education system like it’s now and start over, that will be great but in the en route there will be a lot of you know creative people trying to figure out the best system. So, the probably more rational plan would be to try to intervene where we are, start where we are and change slowly within the system as it is from more less performance oriented system and more original thinking system and you know you have probably run into kids who do know how to think originally and stand next to a kid who doesn’t, there is a huge difference in what you can see in the confidence level and self esteem level of a kid who’s taught to think originally.

CC:Very certainly and you mentioned also interventions, there is a few interventions. What’s your view on that? And what you think we could or should be doing?

AM: Yes, absolutely. I mean there is a whole lot that we should be doing. We should be teaching the victim, we should be teaching potential victims to recognize a bully first. One of the education, you mentioned teaching children social skills in school, and I definitely think that is essential and it’s something that is completely missing and I think if children are taught at a very young age to recognize a bully; this is what a bully does, this is how a bully thinks, this is what you will see when you see a bully so they are not going “Oh, well. That bully said something” “That guy said something to me. Maybe it’s true”. They are rather going to say “Oh! That guy said something to me and that’s a bully”. So, that you can teach at a very young age.

So, that’s one intervention I do think we need to do and the other thing is to teach children what to do once they have been bullied, once the first time they have been bullied, what do they need to do. They need to seek help immediately. They don’t need to keep it as secret. They need to go to someone they trust immediately and seek an intervention and seek help and if they are ignored at that level, they need to go to the next level and go to the next level and go to the next level until somebody listens and not stop. So, yes. Those are some things that we can do on that level but primarily I think more than anything else we need to be working with the bully. I think we can talk about working with the victim forever and it’s just like once upon time we used to say to women who were potential victims of rape “Well, you just need to stay off the streets and you need to wear this kind of clothes and you need…”. So, what the woman was doing was taking on the responsibility for what might happen with the rapist and we won’t looking at the rapist itself.

Well, now more people are beginning to look at the rapist and understand the psychology of the rapist so we know more about that. We still don’t know enough and we still haven’t done near enough about that but I think we need to be looking at the bully and here’s why. I think if we can catch a bully early enough in their lives, we can intervene with the bully and teach them that this way of coping does not need to become an identity. So, coping, what the bully does, is cope with whatever life challenges he or she has by finding a way to victimize someone else and that method of coping only makes them feel better temporarily, it does not solve the problem. It makes them feel big and tough so that they don’t feel overpowered and dis-empowered to run their own lives which very often bullies who come from an environment where they have been dis-empowered but also some bullies will come from an environment where they have been given way too much power by parents who just let them get away with everything.

They have no respect for the parents because they know they are getting away with stuff and they then transfer that on to the next environment but in either case, and these are the two opposite extremes, it can be gradations between those two poles but mainly if we can intervene where the bully is instead of just telling the bully “You shouldn’t be doing that”, we are telling the victim “You should watch out for the bully”. We need to be intervening with the bully early at the age of 5 and 4 and 3 when we see them on the playground and really beginning to get into the psychology of what’s going on with that kid and help them learn to identify new coping skills that work better because I think if we can do that we might stop the problem.

CC: Very interesting and you believe that we can possibly spot a bully or a potential bully when they are 4, 5 and 6, you think the traits are visible?

AM: Yes, I do. I do because I think children are beginning to develop an identity between the ages of zero and seven and identity is the big deal. So, if I am a child who is very for example empathetic, I might be someone who would learn and even be sort of assigned the role of picking up the emotions of other people and caring them and feeling guilty and responsible. So, that’s going to be my identity, that’s how I cope with life, I will go around being responsible for other people’s emotions and I will try to figure out what they want and please them before they even ever have to ask so that I will always feel safe. So, you know that’s an identity I’ve picked up. The same thing happens with the bully. If I can learn a new way of placing power so that’s what the issue for the bully is. It’s power. So, I need to feel empowered. So, in this place I don’t feel empowered or in this place I have way too much power, I don’t know what to do with that.

I’m a little child and no one has ever taught me how to deal with that. So, I just identify with it, it just becomes who I am and that’s just what I do and if you ask a bully why they do what they do at that age, they are going to say “I don’t know” because they don’t, because it just seems to be who they are and then they feel bad and worse and worse and worse overtime and then they have to do worse and worse and worse just to prove that they are actually here.  One thing and the other thing is to just keep coping more and more with the pain they’re trying to run from. So, yes on a bully and a play school playground at 3 or 4 years old will be the one who runs up, pitches the children off the swing set or just runs around biting kids or just runs around and hitting them. You know we have seen this in day care, we know that one or two kids do it so we stop right there and intervene at that level. It might make a difference.

CC: Wow, it’s so very interesting and do you think that, I’m being nosy for my own education here, do you think that children between null and seven are products of their environment parents, school and society or actually individuals? Are children born with a personality then it’s developed in those years? Is it from day zero is no personality and then it’s from their own environment? Is that a bigger question?

AM: I think that’s a great question. I think it needs to be answered and answered and answered. I think that the more research we do on family systems and on how people develop identities, the more we know about that and what we know so far is that identities are not the same as personality. I might come here with a true me, I call it the authentic self – it’s just a word, a language for it, but if I come here with an authentic self but I’m taught to sort of shelve that in favor of being somebody else because my parents need me to be somebody else and so you know and however they convey that whether it’s verbally or nonverbally, they are communicating to me and when I’m per-verbal, the only kind of communication that I get is non-verbal communication. So, I’m getting information from my parents way early about who I am or who they think I ought to be and I’m putting that on because I know that I need these people to survive.

So, I sort of get entranced with that identity and I become it more and more and more and overtime what happens is that I just think that’s who I am but if we and I worked with adults who sort of worked back, not that they are going to do a lot of memory work about the past or anything, but sort of work back into how they developed the identity. By the time I see them, they are beginning to make the distinction that way. I got this feeling over here that feels real but I got this feeling over here that feels like a compulsion and it’s telling me what to do; there is two different people in there, you can say it that way. There is one that’s the identity and one that’s the authentic self and that’s the one we want so that’s when I’m talking about children in schools learning how to think originally. I think talking about promoting that authentic self because how can you esteem something you don’t even have? So, we undo what came here in glory, that’s the way I think about it. A child comes here and just are prepackaged with this beautiful self. We can’t tell it “Don’t do that, don’t be who you are, be who I need you to be”.

CC: So interesting and amazing and I guess so many people probably don’t even realize the impact they can have on a young person’s life by their actions and words and environment we create at home or in school. I guess last question, and again thank you for your time today, it has been great. Do you think that a young person can or would or often can become a bully in later life? Do you think it’s a cycle that we might be creating? So, as they’re going into employment and maybe into positions of management or authority in a job, they can actually be bullying people at work and then maybe even that’s impacting their home life, is it a vicious cycle that we are creating?

AM: I’m not sure what you mean by a vicious cycle we are creating but I do think that yes. People do go to work and they bully, people do come home and they bully, now whether are you asking if they started late to become a bully, I guess that’s possible. I mean I think if you get in a position where you feel dis-empowered and you think that bullying is the only way to get power, then yes. You could probably do that but I think the people that are more inclined to do that or the people who are already have an inclination to do that.

CC: I understand. So, I guess you answered my point at the end. If someone is a bully in school, will they or are they likely to bully in later life and are they likely to maybe even show those traits or disperse those traits onto their children, see them bullying and the children in that environment copy them and then go back to school and it’s a new generation bringing the same traits and identity back into I guess the society and another cycle?

AM: Yes, that’s the cycle you are talking about and absolutely yes. I do think that we do pass that stuff on. May not be that the child is actually modelling his or her behavior after the parent but they are reacting to the parent and developing it again around that.

CC: Very interesting and if anyone wanted to read more about what you have written or to find out more about you or to connect with you, what is the best way for them to do that?

AM: Definitely. They can go to my website it is www.andreamathewslpc.com and more about that. You can see my books, read the articles, and listen to my radio show. Also, I have another website called www.innerwings.com it’s my speaking site where people can go there and hire me to speak for groups and organizations so that’s www.innerwings.com.

CC: Brilliant and we will have live links to both those sites underneath this video so anyone can quickly click through. So, again thank you very much for your time that was brilliant.

AM: Thank you very much. I appreciate the opportunity to deal with this definite need for us to address it.

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