In Expert Interviews

Interview: What is Relationship Bullying?

what is relationship bullying

Debbie Weinstock, PhD is a Life and Relationship Coach providing a variety of coaching services to help empower people to create the lives they want for themselves. She is especially dedicated to supporting respect, dignity and harmony in individuals, relationships, families and communities, even during emotionally challenging times. Debbie specializes in helping individuals and couples navigate the emotional challenges of marriage, adoption, parenting and divorce. She talks to us about Relationship Bullying.

Is bullying as big an issue today as it was say 10 years ago?

Although I haven’t found reliable statistics for the frequency of bullying over the past 10 years, personal experience suggests that bullying is at least as big a problem now as it was 10 years ago, if not even worse.

Do you see a difference in how bullying happens today – for example social media, mobile phones?

“Traditional” bullying still happens on a consistent basis in schools. The startling truth is that more than three-quarters of all middle and high school students in the U.S. report that they have been involved in bullying incidents at school, either as a victim, bully or both. Of course, bullying has now expanded to the internet and social media sites. This allows malicious rumors, damaging images and hurtful messages to be shared at lightning speed with a wider audience than ever before, making the bullying that much more insidious.

Have you knowledge of any severe cases and consequences of bullying?

I have seen several cases of severe bullying at schools that caused the affected children severe anxiety, social withdrawal, inability to perform academically, extreme discomfort attending school, unwillingness to attend, serious somatic complaints, and suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, in all of these cases, parents and outside professionals intervened in time to prevent even more serious outcomes.

Is there likely to be long term effects on people who are bullied?

Yes. There is ample evidence that childhood bullying has both short term effects during childhood and adolescence, like anxiety, somatic complaints, depression, suicidal thoughts or attempts, social withdrawal, angry outbursts, insecurity, confusion and low self esteem, as well as serious long term consequences that persist into adulthood. A recent study led by researchers at Duke University showed that adults who were bullied as children experience higher levels of depression, anxiety, panic disorders, and agoraphobia than those who weren’t. Interestingly, the same study showed that children who were both victims of bullying and bullies themselves had the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety in adulthood.

You specialize in relationships in your practice, is it likely bullying impacts relationships?

Like all other experiences we have, the experience of being bullied is likely to contribute to the way we process our environment and approach relationships. The victim of bullying may be reluctant to trust his peers, may put up walls of protection that shut others out or push them away and withdraw from social situations in an attempt to avoid further emotional pain. While the experience of being bullied can be very hurtful, how the bullying is dealt with following the incident may be even more important than the bullying itself.  Unfortunately, I have witnessed the school personnel to whom bullying incidents were reported, become complicit in the bullying, blaming or discrediting the victim and siding with the bullies. The negative effects of bullying can be mitigated somewhat if adults and peers listen empathetically to the victim, take the bullying seriously, and boost the victim’s self-esteem by reminding him of his positive qualities and unequivocal right to be treated with respect.

What would be an example of relationship bullying?

Let’s take a quick look at the different kinds of bullying that take place. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, like hitting, shoving, spitting, destroying or stealing personal property, purposely causing clothing to be soiled and causing school lunch food to become inedible. This conveys the message that the victim is weak and defenseless against the relative strength and dominance of the bully. Verbal bullying can be extremely emotionally damaging since it denigrates the child’s personal qualities and over time can cause serious damage to the child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. Verbal bullying can happen in person, by phone or on social media, and may consist of name calling or spreading malicious rumors about the child. While verbal bullying conveys the message that the victim is lacking or inferior in his personal attributes, relationship bullying sends the message that the bullied child is unlikeable, and not worthy of respect or friendship. The goal of relationship bullying is to isolate the victim by rejecting, excluding and/or humiliating her. This may take the form of refusing to talk to the child, excluding her from social activities, accusing her of bad behavior in order to get her in trouble, publicly spreading malicious rumors to prevent others from befriending her, and other public displays or stunts that cause humiliation to the victim. All forms of bullying can result in social withdrawal as a way to avoid the pain that bullying inflicts.

What is the best advice to give someone who is being bullied?

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions for the very serious problem of bullying. Many of the common suggestions offered simply don’t work, and in some cases can even make the problem worse.

1- Victims of bullying are often told to “tell a trusted adult.” The problem is that teachers, school administrators and even parents have been known to blame the victim, or discredit the victim’s allegations. I’ve experienced this first hand on several occasions. I still think it’s important for victims of bullying to tell adults what is happening – not just one adult – as many as possible, but be prepared for at least some of the adults you tell to disappoint you by dismissing what you tell them. The more adults you talk to about the bullying, the more likely you will find the help you need.

2- Another common suggestion given to bullied children is, “Don’t cry, get angry or show the bully that you are upset.” This may be good advice, but not many adults, and certainly not the socially vulnerable, bullied child have this level of emotional control. After all, the whole goal of bullying is to intimidate, demean and taunt the victim to react from a place of weakness rather than acting from a place of strength and self-assertiveness.  I’ve also heard school personnel tell victims of bullying to “ignore the bully and walk or run away.” Unfortunately, this sort of response may only serve to empower the bully to keep up or even escalate his behavior. So how can we help our children learn a response to bullying beyond the natural instinct of fight or flight? In their book, Bullies, Tyrants and Impossible People: How to beat them without joining them, authors Ronald Shapiro and Mark Jankowski offer “focus” as a better alternative to the fight or flight response. Like an athlete learns to focus on the field, opportunities to make the winning move, and honing the skills that will make him an unstoppable force to be reckoned with, so too we can help our children learn to not just hide their fear and anger, but neutralize it by learning to focus on reducing their immediate stress response, keeping their own strengths and goals in mind and honing the skills they need to become confident, smart and unstoppable. One of the most important things to remember if you find yourself being bullied, is not to let the bully control or define you. The first reaction most people feel is increased anxiety or stress, which gets in the way of you thinking clearly and staying in control. Here are a few quick ways to reduce your stress and anxiety level:

To change your physical feelings of stress:

  • Take a few deep rhythmic breaths
  • Sip some water, or pop a small piece of candy or chewing gum in your mouth.
  • Change your environment if you can, for example, if you’ve encountered bullying on your computer, turn off the computer and move to a different room, or take a walk outside
  • Listen to music that makes you feel good, or “hear” the song in your mind if you can’t listen to it right at the moment
  • Focus on relaxing your shoulders

To change your emotional feelings of stress:

  • Learn to believe in yourself. You may need some help with this because we all have fears and what are called “limiting beliefs” that can get in the way of feeling strong, capable and worthy of respect.
  • Say to yourself: ~ I am strong. I can handle this.

~ I am in control of my own reactions

~ Just because a bully says something to me or about me does not make it true

3. Finally, it can be literally life-saving to find a group of friends who accept and enjoy you just the way you are. This could be a school club, if you’re being bullied at school, or it may need to be an outside organization, club, or group of people who share your interests.

How does this work?

A few years ago, I met a smart, talented young man who loved to sing and dance. He was terribly bullied at his high school and had a difficult time even pushing himself out the door in the morning to go to school. Then two things happened: He joined a local theatre group, and he became a golf caddy on the course where his father golfed. The theatre group embraced his talent and made him feel great about himself and his special talents, and job at the golf course put him in the presence of adults who treated (and tipped) him well, so he felt valued, competent and special.

Responding to bullying is a varied and complex challenge.  Recommending effective strategies can be tricky since so much depends on the details of the situation and the people involved. I’ve tried to touch on some important points today, but there is so much more to talk about. I encourage you to contact me with your questions and comments, and am always available to help in any way I can.

You can Contact Debbie at Debbie@DrDebontheWeb.com

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