Is bullying a mental health issue? It might be. Before labeling, let’s examine and define bullying, as well as what it may represent. If happiness is achieved by choosing words and actions that make us proud, the question becomes, “What makes one proud?” For some, perversely, being the biggest bully on the block achieves that goal. If so, this begs the question: How might that attitude have been cultivated? Perhaps it is as straight forward as upbringing. Or, it might be as complex as “getting lost along the way to adulthood.”
Upbringing and the ‘Hardcore Bully’
When one is raised by parents or guardians who offer conditional love and conditional acceptance, it is only natural for the child to try to please them in order to “earn” that love and acceptance. When the parent or guardian values money, power, fame and/or prestige over humanity, the child might be inclined (at least early on) to embrace that philosophy. Why? Because, to reject those core values might threaten a sense of security and acceptance. Young children rarely challenge those whose love and care or approval they need in order to survive. The child who accepts and perpetuates “bully” values may choose bullying behavior initially in order to impress their parents. Then, it may become a way of life, with feelings of success surrounding the developing themes of “win/lose” and “never enough,” particularly concerning money, time, power, prestige, and popularity. This would be a “hardcore bully.” The sad truth might then become a life of internal emptiness, since the cup is never quite full enough. The person who lacks courage or skills to develop a balanced, healthy personality defaults to accepting this type of lifestyle.
While parenting styles that use conditional love produce an environment in which a hardcore bully may thrive, the choice of the developing person determines whether or not the young adult will become a hardcore bully. The one who rejects that environment must reject the hard-core bullying upbringing – risking rejection by the parents. This takes tremendous personal courage and wisdom at any age.
Bullying Versus a Bad Mood
A person who feels loved unconditionally often builds a life enriched by a feeling of “satisfied/enough,” which is a life that embraces gratitude and positive energy. This person may become, at times, an “accidental” bully. That is, we each feel weak at times and choose words or actions that, upon reflection, trigger feelings of shame. Once a person who lives a life of gratitude and honest self-reflection recognizes he or she chose one or more words or actions that offended another, an apology in recognition, with sincere effort to make amends soon follows. This is a manifestation of balance, wellness, mental stability, and an interest in building healthy relationships filled with open communication, clarification, kindness, and mutual respect and trust.
Bullying behavior, however, does not involve self-reflection or remorse. The bully is trying to inflict pain and delights in successfully doing so. While it is natural to blow off some steam on rare occasions when surrounded by those who love and accept us unconditionally, healthy coping skills, anger management, and a strong awareness of “self” are a few tools necessary to help maintain and nourish healthy relationships.
Is there a quick and simple way to spot what’s going on? Yes: In the case of hardcore bullying, there must be (from the perspective of the bully) a clear winner and loser. In the case of a healthy, well-balanced relationship, from everyone’s perspective, the goal is always a win/win scenario.
The Struggle for the ‘True Self’
Taking a stand is a normal part of personal development for the young adult, and it comes in many different forms throughout one’s lifetime. Youngsters use limit testing as a technique to learn safe boundaries (ideally “healthy” ones.) Adolescents often give in to peer pressure and “the external society,” as this carries greater weight than the core family unit during adolescence. This developmental stage may introduce a double-edged sword.
While initially, children test limits of their parents; the “first” mentors, in order to determine just how far they can go without losing the love and support of those who raised them, exposure to the outside world provides introduction to other potential mentors. Healthy parenting offers open dialogue regarding choices, gently corrects to set boundaries, and encourages children to seek clarification. Less effective parenting withholds love as punishment.
Throughout the teenage years, the struggle for “true self” begins, representing a new list of choices to be made. If secure in the unconditional love of those who matter most to the developing adolescent, they may try out a wide variety of behaviors, including considering adopting lifestyles, cultures, professions, and hobbies that clash with their upbringing. When raising children in an environment of unconditional love and acceptance, effective parents remain open, aware of personal bias, and recognize that their children need to develop along their own sacred journey, as long as they are not a danger to themselves or others.
Lost Along the Way
So what does this have to do with bullying, and how might bullying signal a mental health issue?
A young person who intuitively senses that their upbringing encouraged the seeking of clarification, sharing of ideas, and provided unconditional love and acceptance, may become adventurous, and test limits for healthy boundaries. If life’s unforgiving limits are tested, consequences might be severe. With luck, the young adult survives and solidifies a strong sense of self, becomes a productive member of society, fulfills personal and professional potential, and generally feels blessed. This well-balanced adult is able to embrace life filled with a sincere sense of gratitude, and rarely blocks out, for any extended length of time, members of the core family unit who provide unconditional love, support and acceptance.
However, what if during the limit-testing phase a controlling cult or otherwise dangerously manipulative other person is able to attract the unconditionally loved young adult? In that sad scenario, one or more members of the family unit may suddenly be rejected. Those who love the young adult unconditionally may then be avoided and kept out of the loop. In other words, in the case of the healthy, mentally balanced limit-testing young adult, there remains open communication, eagerness or at least willingness to seek impressions and input from the family with whom core values are shared. When a controlling cult or manipulative love interest distracts the young adult, values may become blurred and choices confused. The “lost” young adult may then begin to bully the family they decide to leave behind.
Bullying people who offer unconditional love and acceptance signals imbalance of the mind and spirit. For the individual who falls prey to a cult or becomes otherwise involved with one or more dangerously manipulative people, choosing bullying behavior aimed at one or more members of the core family unit represents acceptance by the victim that the cult or manipulative person is embraced as a replacement of the original “family.” This may, in fact, signal a personality disorder, a challenge that often requires intervention by a well-educated mental health professional.
How does it happen, and why is it so important to split the victim from those who offer love or acceptance unconditionally and unselfishly? Bullying is all about a selfish desire to control others. It is the opposite of unconditional love, which seeks to empower loved ones to become their true and independent selves. The cult (or manipulative love interest) must encourage the victim to reject anyone who provides unconditional love or acceptance since unconditional love weakens the grip of those who control and manipulate the victim by providing only conditional love. In this unfortunate scenario, bullying is clearly a symptom of deep insecurity or even deeper mental health imbalance (on the part of the young adult/victim). Ultimately, the victim is the only one who can wake himself or herself from this nightmare. Once awake, the young adult can become free of the trap and reconnect with the core family, who offers unconditional love, permitting the bullying to stop and lines of healthy communication to open.
What Can Parents Do?
If your adolescent child stops communicating openly with you, avoids eye contact, chooses bullying behavior at home without remorse, or begins sneaking around, cheating, stealing, lying or otherwise deviates from the loving person you raised and adore, consider that this might be a mental health issue. If the unconditional love offered by the family is blocked out by your child, and they are still living at home and under the age of 20, bringing a well-trained mental health provider onto the scene may be very helpful. For more information on how to address this, visit www.bpdfamily.org online.
Dr. Nancy Iankowitz is a board certified family nurse practitioner and Director of Holistic and Integrative Healing LLC. She is also host of “Marcy’s World”on Pawling Public Radio. Email your questions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, call (917) 716-6802, or visit www.driankowitz.com online.