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  • Márcia Fervienza

Bullying: A Different Approach to the Root of the Problem

We talk a lot about bullying. We know the definition, we have prevention plans, and we have hotlines for the reporting of bullying. We are constantly working on increasing awareness. However, the statistics are staggering. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, in 2003 160,000 students per day stayed home because of bullying. Plus, one in every four students says they’d been bullied at school in the last 12 months. Also, one in 20 did not go to school in the past 30 days because they were afraid. It doesn’t matter what we do, the cases on the news are alarming. Teen suicide due to bullying is prevalent; fatal college hazing is frequent and mental illnesses that develop as a result of bullying are common.

What is happening and how did we get to this?


America is a nation mostly focused on performance, pragmatism, and results. Which is probably one of the reasons it became the great nation it is today. But that focus also determines the way scientists study human behavior. The core of their studies is put on what is observable and can be replicated in a laboratory. That affects the way we understand the human being. The subjective world inherent to the human animal that can’t be exhausted through observation becomes an afterthought.

Our focus on what can be observed and modified through training leads us to treat bullying as a behavioral problem. As such, schools create programs to teach children to care for each other. They explain the importance of speaking up when seeing bullying. And they treat bullies as individuals with problems to regulate their emotions. However, these approaches aren't doing much for our statistics or the wellness of our children. The numbers continue to increase, and kids continue to kill themselves due to bullying. So, there must be something else.

Let’s take a closer look at the few strategies I mentioned above.

1. “Teach our children to care for each other.” We care for people’s wellbeing when we are empathetic. Empathy is the ability to share and understand the feelings of another. To share and understand, we must be able to relate to it, preferably through experience. Therefore, empathy can be hardly taught: it must arise from experience and emotional vulnerability.

2. “Teach our children to speak up when they see bullying.” Bullies build authority and respect through the spread of fear. Any child living in an environment where bullying is taking place feels defenseless. They know that anyone is a potential victim. Thus, reporting behaviors that may threaten their safety requires trust that those around them will keep them safe. Therefore, to speak up, children need to trust the adults in charge. And trust is built in two ways: through behaviors that are consistent with speech, and through bonding. In other words, we need to believe that people act as they say, and we need to feel that they care.

3. “Bullying happens because some children are born with problems to regulate affection.” In other words, there is a dysfunction in the way they manifest anger or frustration. Hence, school counseling focuses on developing programs to help children manage their feelings. And that is valuable but doesn’t address the root of the problem, just the consequences. The central question is: why are they so angry? What are the environmental conditions that are creating such strong emotions?


Let me start by saying that, as a Brazilian woman, I have been bullied myself. Yes, it was hard and painful, but I never heard of children killing themselves due to bullying. I have never heard of fatal college hazing, even though hazing was pretty typical for college freshman kids. And I have never heard of children that had been accidentally killed in a bullying situation. None of that happened back then and still isn't very common. Considering that mine is a third world country where people live in precarious situations, what is the difference?

We know that kids can be mean. In fact, humans can be mean. Although humans, we are animals. Or, as Robert Wright would say, we are moral animals. Still, we see that kids react differently to similar events in each of these countries. This comes to hint at the fact that culture can influence behavior.

Let us not forget that the United States culture is fascinated with winning, power and violence. And that will somehow influence everyone's behaviors. But for one to be willing to inflict pain to the point of killing another, it is required a lot of repressed anger. How have we come to this and why are things different in these three countries?


One of the main cultural differences between my home country and the US is in child-rearing. My culture, like most of Latin American's, raises their children much closer to parents. Our whole society is structured to keep children close to parents, allowing for prolonged dependency at all levels. And that starts with pregnancy. Maternity leave runs for longer (five months) and can be coupled with pending vacation time (30 days). This allows moms to take care of their children for six months before they have to return to work. Because maternity leave is paid at 100% of the salary, new moms don't have to rush their return to work. Furthermore, their job is protected for two years from the moment that the company learns about their pregnancy. That builds in some flexibility once they reassume their position. If new moms are laid off within that period, indemnifications run high.

Due to our national job security laws, employees relocate less often (if at all) for work. When a company lets someone go, they have to pay 40% of the employee's total employment agreement as a fine. The employee also receives in cash any vacation not taken. Besides, they receive access to their unemployment savings account. There, they will have access to 16% of their monthly salary. This contribution is collected monthly throughout their employment, being 8% discounted from their paycheck and 8% matched by the company. Therefore, we can count on some money to manage our lives until we find another job locally. Because relocations are less frequent, people live closer to their extended family. Hence, people are not as dependent on daycare services: they can count on family help. Furthermore, children usually live with the parents until they get married. When they go to college, they attend a local school, returning home every day after class until graduation. That also helps to keep them close to the family.

One of the consequences of this approach is a maturation process that respects the child's emotional and psychological development. They are not rushed to mature earlier due to economic and societal conditions. Nature dictates the child's growth pace, and the environment provides nurturing to allow it to happen on its terms. The child isn't pushed into early independence. They aren't kept apart from nurturing adults from an early age or for too long. All that allows for a secure emotional development and for the building of a trusting relationship with caregivers. Furthermore, the nurturing provided by close and extended family ensures the development of safe attachments. That gives the child more confidence to handle themselves in the world.


Let's look back at some of the strategies in use by schools to minimize and prevent bullying.

1. Teach our children to care for each other. As discussed above, we can't train caring behavior in children. That isn't how it works. Empathy, as the understanding of another person's condition from their perspective, requires us to place ourselves in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. That won't be possible unless the child can refer to previous experiences. Empathy is known to help increase prosocial behavior, which can prevent the occurrence of bullying. But without positive experiences brought from home, behavioral training won't do much.

Now, what kind of experiences are angry children who abuse others bringing from home? What could be the reasons that they enjoy seeing others suffer? Here is one (non-exhaustive) option: the child is a victim of abuse from figures of authority. Therefore, they abuse others in an attempt to reverse roles and get out of the victim's position. As a consequence, they choose children who appear weak (as they internally feel) and bully them. This way, they repeat the abuser's actions to try to normalize the cruel behavior that they are experiencing elsewhere.

2. Teach our children to speak up when they see bullying. As pointed out before, speaking up when anyone is a potential victim of the abuse others are suffering requires courage. And courage arises when we trust that the adults we will reach out to will protect us from retaliation. Not only that, the child has to know that said adults care for her and her wellbeing. Trust emerges through bonding. And bonding is something that is lacking in our pro-independence culture.

Our children are removed from their parents way earlier than they should. Sometimes they start attending daycare as early as two weeks old because the parents can't afford to take time off work to care for them. These days, daycare centers are much more focused on curricula than on attachment. Performance ranks higher than emotional and psychological development. Thus, children are rotated between caregivers frequently without further consideration about their emotional needs. The focus is on learning and stimuli. When at home, parents have to wake up early the next morning to work. Without the help of extended family, they have to train the child to self-soothe and sleep throughout the night before they are emotionally and psychologically ready. There are so many pressures on growing up, that very little attention is given to creating nurturing relationships. That threatens the basic trust children need to have in the adults that care for them. How can we ask these children who have been left to their own devices from an early age to trust that we will protect them when things get difficult? They won't. They will do what they have been taught to do best: they will try to work it out themselves.

3. Bullying happens because some children are born with problems to regulate their emotions. Yes, children are angry and frustrated. And it may be difficult for immature children to keep their feelings within socially acceptable boundaries. But that isn't the point. The point is that they are angry and no one is asking why. Well, there is no easy answer to this one, but we can say for sure that this anger stems from the lack of something. It may be lack attention or room to express their feelings at home. It may be lack of connection or bonding. Or maybe their feelings aren't respected or validated. The causes may vary. But teaching children to regulate their affection or giving them a mental illness label - therefore, putting them on medication - won't address the problem. It may delay more severe manifestations of the underlying issue to later in life. But, by then, parents can be left "off the hook" for any misconducts. Solving the problem requires looking deeper into the child's context and performing an honest assessment of what is going on.


Even though our subjective nature can't be measured or observed through controlled studies, it influences our entire life. Children are no different. Their needs go beyond independence. In fact, autonomy emerges as a result of allowing dependence to exist for as long as needed. As parents, we have to prepare our children for life. But the misconception lies in the belief that we do that by pushing them into early independence. That isn't the way to do it. Treating our children as birds who have to be pushed out of the nest to fly for the first time is oversimplifying their needs. Our children's early independence isn't something that they need, but something that we need. Here is where the conflict arises because nature doesn't require driving or pushing. In fact, it doesn't respond to that. It will advance at its own pace regardless of our societal or economic needs. The only thing that nature requires from us to do its job is the proper support to our children's subjective essence. Without that, they will continue to grow into emotional and psychological handicaps, as the extensive use of medications to treat mental illnesses at an early age has been showing for a while.

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