Lisa Dixon-Wells, bullying prevention expert, on bullying behavior: how it starts, where it leads, how to stop it.
It was most likely you, or your spouse.
Bullying is not genetic. It is a learned behavior.
These were just a few of the illuminating and startling facts I learned from Lisa Dixon-Wells, M.Ed., founder of Dare to Care: a prevention, awareness, and early intervention program.
I first became familiar with Lisa, and her program, while attending her talk at a local elementary school.
It is shocking to learn of the long-term damage caused by bullying. There is not only extensive damage to the victim’s self-esteem, but also to the future life of a bully whose behavior is not corrected in its early stages. One of the biggest stumbling blocks in changing a bully’s pattern is breaking the wall of denial at home. As I learned during a one-on-one conversation with Ms. Dixon-Wells, when it comes to a bully’s parents, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
There is a difference between bullying behaviour and bullying.
Before labeling a child a bully, or a victim of bullying, it is important to understand how few children actually fit the description. Dare to Care outlines the criteria:
- Targeting a child for repetitive negative actions
- Imbalance of power so victim can’t defend himself
- Unequal levels of affect
The percentage of children who squarely fit the bullying profile is small, explains Lisa:
6% of children are actively involved in bullying. But, when you take out those kids that … are just caught up in the moment … you’re left with only about 2% who we would define as true bullies. And by that we mean: it is a learned behavior. They have learned at a very young age that they’re going to get what they want, when they want it and nobody is going to stop them … It’s a learned behavior typically learned and enforced in the home.
Little bullies learn their behaviors from Dad and Mom.
Being a father, I began my conversation with Ms. Dixon-Wells expecting her to blame fathers for teaching their children how to bully. This has been my experience so far: dads have been the aggressors on the baseball field, in the park, and even in lineups for busy events as they yell and refuse to wait their turn.
But, as Lisa points out, that has changed. Moms are now equally responsible, and just as capable of aggression, as their male counterparts:
Typically in a bullying home, one of the parents tends to be more of the bully. In the past it was considered typical: the father would display more of the aggressive power-oriented behavior; the mother—the wife—would tend to be more passive, almost bullied within that relationship, and then that trickled down into the children. Nowadays, however, it’s females trying to show that power, and showing it in a very aggressive way. Look at the media; look at the shows out there: when you get “Housewives of ‘fill-in-the-blank’” it’s all about aggressiveness; it’s all about competitiveness. It’s nasty.
Lisa also explained what bullies do so masterfully: they skillfully twist the truth and use the victim’s words against them to the point where even the victim may be confused as to the real facts. Bullies are master manipulators; they refuse to take ownership and are very quick to point fingers at others. They feel their behavior is justified, often explaining that the victim had it coming.
Men and women have each developed their own style of aggression.
Boys fight, girls tease. Why? That’s what boys and girls learn from men and women:
The number one tactic of choice for the male species is more of the ‘physical/confrontational’: get in their face; if it escalates, it escalates. It’s loud, it’s aggressive, it’s quicker to see. In terms of schoolyard bullying we see boys; we notice them because it’s loud, quick and dirty. It has always been that girls and women are taught to be nurturing and to be caring. So for girls and women we’ve never really learned the skill of confronting, it’s not comfortable for us to take on that role. What’s comfortable for us is go behind people’s backs and spread the rumours and gossip, and damage them that way; win our little war through damaging our relationships; damaging their reputation amongst their peers.
The parenting attitude shift from ‘Listen to your teacher’ to ‘Don’t talk that way to my child.’
When I was in elementary school, if the teacher threatened to call my parents, I was terrified. In a he-said-she-said battle, I would lose to the school every time. They were right, too; I was usually lying through my teeth. Today, teachers not only have to deal with little bullies, but with disbelieving parents as well:
(For parents, it’s) typically a more power-oriented sense of entitlement; seeing the world as a very competitive place—‘It’s a dog-eat-dog world and I’m going to teach my kids to survive in it’—which in some ways is good: your children needs survival skills in this world. But, it’s the way they go about it: power oriented, not taking into account other people’s feelings. That sense of entitlement is an absolutely huge feeling, and we’re seeing this more in schools than ever before. Parents (are) becoming more involved in their children’s education, but not in the healthy way of sitting down and working with their children. (Rather) in being the helicopter parent and coming in and trying to solve every problem, and being that very dominant parent—not wanting to hear what the school has to say, and feeling that, as a parent, they have the solution.
Most little bullies turn into big convicts.
Yes. Chances are if you’re child’s bullying behavior is not addressed, he or she will one day be arrested—a blemish that will follow them for the rest of their lives. This is one of the statistics Ms. Dixon-Wells uses to warn the child’s parents of the consequences of denying there is a problem:
I can count on two hands the number of times in fourteen years the parents of true bullies have actually come to a presentation. They don’t see it as a problem.‘How can you call my child a bully? He’s just doing what he needs to do to get ahead in this world.’ It doesn’t work well for them for their child to have empathy, and for their child to back down a little bit. That goes against what they see the world as being, which to them is a very highly competitive place—‘I’m entitled to be above the law; I’m entitled to get there first’.
I throw out the statistic: ‘60% of kids who bully end up having a criminal record. I don’t think you want that for your child … you’re doing your child no favours by letting them get away with this behavior.’
When you stand up to (bullies), most of them shut down pretty quickly.
Final words for bullies, victims, and those around them:
Before we ended our conversation, I asked Ms. Dixon-Wells what her postcard messages would be to those affected by bullying:
You have a pile of excuses (for) that behavior. We’re going to pop that bag of excuses because you do not have the right to hurt anyone in any way.
But she warns:
We will not get to the bullies; you can say whatever you want to them. They are master manipulators and they’re charmers. The goal is to pop that bag of excuses that allows them to justify their behavior. Until you do that, you can talk and talk and nothing is going to change.
The parents of bullies:
More than ever we need to open up the lines of communication with our children … we’re not sitting down and talking anymore … share your stories, make it OK to talk about (bullying). Don’t diminish your child’s feelings. Make it OK for them to talk about it. And then, more than anything, be your child’s advocate.
No school is immune to bullying. If you don’t think your school has a problem, then I feel sorry for the kids in that school, because you’re missing the cues. To teachers: every day there are teachable moments. Talk about humanity, talk about empathy—[the lessons are] there for the taking.
There is nothing wrong with you. You are not the one with the problem. You need to let an adult know, and if that adult doesn’t listen you, just keep going and going until you find an adult who listens to your story and is there to support you.
Lisa Dixon-Wells has been working in school systems across Western Canada since 1990. After completing her M.Ed in Educational Psychology (1997), Lisa’s focus has been on Comprehensive Guidance and Bully Prevention. As the creator of the Dare to Care program, her work has focused on early prevention and intervention in elementary and junior high schools. Through professional development, parent information nights, and classroom facilitation (including assemblies, student forums, and role playing), Lisa has helped over 200 schools create and maintain safe and caring school environments.