When someone gets bullied, we rally around the victim. They need our help and support. We come together to enact preventative laws and programs. But there’s another way to help bring down episodes of bullying we often don’t consider: Appeal to the bully directly. This works best with older kids, middle school and up. Get them to see how it’s not in their long-term best interest to bully others. Be direct and use their language. Use force in your words and they’ll listen. Many are natural born alphas and attracted to power. “Hey, dude, what are you thinking?” I’ve often said in my office to these kids. “I know you’re tough. I get that… it feels good to be strong. Everybody wants to feel strong and be respected… but you’re not playing the odds here.”
That gets their attention. I then say, “That kid you’re bothering, he may look smaller and weak to you. He’s different, and for some reason you like messing with him…. But those type kids tend to succeed. You may need them someday.”
I describe the many well-known examples of “geeks” and “nerds” and “oddballs” that blossom when older, do great in school, and end up in positions of authority and power. “Maybe that kid you’re messing with will become a doctor and find a cure to a disease that someone you love is suffering from. Maybe that kid will become a judge and you end up in their court facing a string of parking tickets. Maybe that kid will run a company and you’ll walk in to meet them for a job, or at a bank where you need a loan. You’re going to run into that kid down the road. I’ve seen it happen over the years.”
And I have. The world can be a small place. A few years back, I ran into someone who taunted me in my youth. Nothing physical, but he was big and strong and for some reason had me in his sights all through high school. Twenty years later he walked into my waiting room to meet a colleague. His life, I later learned, was falling apart. His marriage was disintegrating and his children were experiencing significant problems. He saw my name on my office door. The look on his face when we met eyes was deep regret and embarrassment, and it was nothing I enjoyed seeing. I would have given anything to reverse time and show him that moment when we were teenagers, and appeal to him in some way to save him that brief, but humiliating moment.
We need to recognize bullies aren’t all bad all the time. It’s important to understand how they got to be a bully. Understanding their personality, social challenges, academic problems, family problems, and how they’re wired to grab and display power, is important. Many are alphas. They’re aggressive, wired to lead, and want to control others. We think we’re channeling this aggression by handing them a hockey stick or football (as my bully had been channeled to do), but that’s never enough. There have to be serious counterbalances in place to help these natural alphas respect all people, especially those who are physically smaller, weaker, or different. Parents, teachers and coaches must use strict behavioral measures to keep things in check. They must channel aggressive impulses toward leadership and reward acts of kindness, not petty scapegoating. Most important, we need to model respect and civility at all times. Some kids may have the inclination to become bullies, but they really learn it from watching us.