February 27, 2012

The psychology of bullying

I recently had the opportunity to speak to Dr. Erika Holiday, psychologist and co-author of Mean Girls, Meaner Women. I am eager to read the book, and will be reviewing it here on The Mom Pledge Blog once I have. In the meantime, I wanted to spend a little time with Dr. Holiday talking about the psychology behind women who engage in bullying behavior.

One of the questions most commonly asked when someone is a target of bullying behavior, or witness to it, is why? Why do people bully? I personally have a difficult time wrapping my head around what leads someone to attack. And, since our focus here in on moms, I was eager to speak to a professional who understands the particular factors which contribute to female behavior.

What motivates a woman to engage in bullying behavior?

There are three main reasons why women hurt each other: biological, evolutionary and psycho-social. I go into each in detail in my book, but will try to explain briefly for you now:

Females are master ruminators. In other words, we have a hard time letting go. We hold on to things and do not release them. Men tend to blow up and then move on. They release. Women ruminate. And the more we hold on, the greater our hurt or anger.

Looking back thousands of years, women spent a lot of time alone together. The men were out hunting, and women needed each other to survive in their absence. Therefore, they could not take out their aggression on one another. So women developed covert ways of dealing with their feelings. Over time, that led to the brain developing a certain way. That is why women are so good at using words to hurt each other, and at manipulation.

Present day, women are bombarded with examples of negative female relationships. TV has countless shows in which women hurt each other, for example. And the internet has really changed the dynamics of how women interact. It gives them a forum for taking out their aggression anonymously, offering an invisible cloak.

What is the best way to respond to bullying behavior?

I know it is hard, but try to remember that it is ALWAYS about the bully, never about the target. Often it comes from unresolved issues from childhood. Do what you can to get out of the situation. Do not respond. That person is looking for vulnerability and anyone who will play into her game. Don't give her that.

Change the lens through which you are looking at the situation. It is not your issue. Instead of taking it personally or becoming hurt, think to yourself, "Wow, if that's how she chooses to spend her time and energy, so be it." Look at the situation from the outside. Do not internalize it.

We should work to feel compassion for bullies. They are hurting, and they need help, too. Bullies can change their behavior. I have seen it changed. But the underlying issues have to be addressed first. Therapy is a major contributing factor to healing.

How can we support our daughters to keep them from being bullied - or becoming bullies?

The number one thing is to role model positive behaviors and appropriate female-to-female relationships. Be mindful of your reactions, your child will copy you. Second, have healthy, regular dialogue so she knows she can come to you. That way you can be aware of any issues that come up and deal with them head on.

Treat bullying like the major issue it is. You should take it as seriously as you do topics such as sex, for example. Think about how to talk to your kids about bullying. The good news is, this issue is getting more attention. More people are working to address it. And there are plenty of resources available.

Thank you so much, Erika, for sharing your insight with us! I know The Mom Pledge Community will benefit from it.
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