Bullying and Adults: What's the Big Deal?

By Kristen Berthiaume:

Recently, there’s been a lot of focus in the news on bullying in adults, especially on extreme cases from the NFL like that of Richie Incognito (this is his last name – really) and Jonathan Martin, which is believed to have involved obscene and racist voice mails, death threats, and financial extortion (Bullying isn’t a strong enough word to describe what went on there, but I digress). Now, I think we all suspect that some NFL (and NBA, NCAA, NHL…) players are less-than-gentlemanly in the locker room away from cameras (or sometimes, not so much away from the cameras as directly in to them – I’m looking at you, Richard Sherman) but, when does the way adults treat other adults cross the line from good natured teasing to full-on bullying and why should we even care?

I got into a debate about this very issue with some friends recently. One asked: Shouldn’t adults understand that some people aren’t going to be nice to them and just suck it up? Other friends felt like bullying in any form is harmful and not O.K. – whether it’s happening to the 4”8’ kid next door or to a 300lb NFL linebacker. After all, for better or worse, young kids look up to their sports “heroes” – even when those “heroes” are acting like jerks. Is it O.K. for these men to call their teammates names, threaten them, physically assault them, etc.? They’re big guys, after all – they can take it. Right?

So, you’re probably asking: “How does this relate to me and my family? I’m not in the NFL and I’ve never extorted money from anyone!” If you’re convinced that bullying doesn’t exist in your world, try this as an experiment. Check out one of the FB Trading Pages where people are trying to sell items locally. Scroll through and find something that you find…um…less-than-attractive. Now, check the comment section. If the item’s been up for a few minutes, there’s bound to be a little bit of snark nestled among the legitimate interest. The unkind comments are usually included for the amusement of other people (sometimes with “helpful” tags for friends who might also enjoy the laugh) and the writer seems unaware that the seller will read what’s been written. How would you feel if you were the seller? Hurt? Embarrassed? Of course, you’d get over it and move on after a few minutes but this kind of experience might leave you feeling separated from others versus part of a community. Yes, people are allowed to make whatever comments they want on these pages, within reason, but should they?

Perhaps you’ve been the victim of more serious adult bullying. A boss who was always on your case, despite your best efforts, or a romantic partner who belittled you instead of loved you. Maybe you’re in a toxic friendship where you’re expected to take whatever abuse is heaped on you in the name of being “supportive.” Being repeatedly victimized by bullying can lead to serious mood and anxiety issues in adults. Not only that, it can make us more susceptible to being victimized in the future by lowering our standards for how we should be treated and decreasing our competence in handling social situations. Maybe worse yet, when our children see that we are being victimized, they may come to believe the bullying situation to be a normal way of interacting. In the future when they are confronted with bullying, they’ll be less likely to stand up for themselves and their friends, or to ask an adult for help.

Some of you have probably been on the reverse side of this – sending the message in subtle or not-so-subtle ways that a certain person is no longer welcome or trying to intimidate a co-worker into not applying for the promotion you want. Sometimes, adults bully because they aren’t sure how to get what they want any other way – fear can drive us to resort to social tactics that worked for us growing up, even if they’re clearly inappropriate in adulthood. Aside from the fact that this kind of behavior is hurtful to others and drives a wedge between us, it also sets a much more lasting example for our kids than anything else we give lip service to (“Do unto others…” “Play nice…”). When our children see us use bullying to get what we want, we’re giving them permission to do the same and setting them up for frustration and social problems.

There are behaviors many of us have engaged in that, while not technically “bullying,” could also be encouraging bullying in our kids. This happens when we say negative things about others behind their backs (but in front of our kids), encourage our offspring to avoid certain kids for superficial reasons, and make harsh judgments about people on TV when our kids are within earshot. These behaviors may well go unnoticed by the actual targets (I really don’t think Miley Cyrus cares what you think about her new lip tattoo) but not by our children. Kids are constantly observing how their parents interact with others – from the bank teller to our spouses. Watching us helps them learn how to act. Scary thought? Think about the last five interactions you had. If your child were to copy those, would he make you proud or would he get into trouble? Are there ways you could model more appropriate interactions in front of your kids even if you still need to vent to your adult friends sometimes? (For the record, I do think she’ll come to regret that tattoo…).

If we tolerate bullying or hurtful behavior in our own homes, workplaces, and social circles, we’ll be less likely to recognize it when it’s happening to our kids or when our kids are perpetrating it. We may also be less prone to teach our kids appropriate ways of interacting with others. We can’t tell our kids to treat everyone with respect in between yelling at their soccer coach and complaining over the phone about a teacher. It’s not human nature to be kind and pleasant all the time but we can set the best possible example for our kids and hold in our rants for adult audiences only (that’s what Moms’ Night Out is for, right?!).

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