Confessions of a playground bully


Confessions of a playground bully

JULIANA COETZER takes a look at bullying behaviour, the development of the adolescent brain and the origin of sensitivity.


IN a late-night confrontation on Facebook, a journalist sent a message to the man who made his life hell at school. He wanted to show the bully the impact his hurtful words had on him as a defenceless child. How he carried the “faggot” nickname with him and constantly tried to get rid of feelings of worthlessness.

The accused reacted indignantly. Why should his pleasant evening with his daughter be soured by a guy who can't get over himself? The journalist fired back: he wishes he had been granted such a carefree life.

And then came the punchline: “Don't be such a faggot."

Oh, yes, indeed. Don't be such a bully, sir. At least we know who you truly are at your core. From childhood bully to adult bully. (I refuse to use the word “grown-up” in this context.)

The journalist didn't get an apology. You only get that from people who are honest with themselves and have reached maturity. But the secret is out in the open. The events are no longer ignored. The message is clear: I know what you did to me, and I won't stay silent about it.

A matter of life and death

No, it's not as easy as “just get over yourself". Can you imagine what happens in a child's brain when he experiences fear every day and school becomes a place of trauma, a warzone? The stress hormones that humans release in anxious moments are secreted into a child's bloodstream, which, in the long run, lowers immunity and causes physical illnesses. Moreover, emotional development is affected, and these children are more prone to anxiety and depression.

A woman told me how she transformed from a spontaneous, cheerful child into a quiet, withdrawn teenager who hated her school years. Not only was she called vile names, she was physically attacked to the point of falling to the ground. Four boys terrorised her daily. One of them apologised and she forgave him immediately. Just the realisation that he knew his behaviour was wrong was enough. Unfortunately, the other three did not follow his example. Undiagnosed depression almost caused her death.

She had to work for years to start trusting herself and the rest of humanity. The wounds run deep.

There is no rational explanation for such behaviour.

Or is there?

The adolescent brain

For anyone dealing with teenagers, it is important to know that the prefrontal cortex, which is part of the frontal lobe, only finishes developing around the mid-20s. In teenagers, this part of the brain responsible for forward planning, understanding the consequences of decisions and actions, exercising impulse control and considering risks is still in its developmental stage. The area where logical thinking is seated is also still developing.

This statement is not an accusation. The teenage brain is going through a lot of changes and is precisely where it should be in its developmental phase. Yet, it helps to understand why teenagers and young adults sometimes behave indifferently. Why they make impulsive and reckless decisions without considering the consequences. Why they react based on instinct and are easily influenced.

What adolescence looks like:

  • A brain where rational thinking is still in its developmental stage.
  • Hormones that constantly fluctuate and cause mood swings. The dominant need is to fit in, be part of a group and find a place in the social order.

  • The child is often the product of a problematic home. He may be harbouring pent-up emotions due to being subjected to damaging behaviour, even by people outside his home , and this is taken out on the defenceless. 

Indeed, a brew of complexities. Why can't bullies sense that their behaviour is wrong? If the teenager acts impulsively and doesn't fully realise what he's doing, he should be capable of seeing another person's pain or imagine how it must feel to be humiliated.

Young children can feel empathy for their peers, and there is no evidence that adolescents don't experience empathy. Even if it is selective empathy, such as for an important friend or someone they admire. However, it appears that during adolescence there may be a period when less empathy is present as the child becomes more self-focused.

The answer?

In the words of a reformed bully:

I was an angry teenager and I am sorry every day for the damage I caused. It's not true that I lacked empathy, but it was overshadowed by anger and envy. Yes, there were domestic circumstances that caused the anger, but I no longer use that as an excuse. Nobody's circumstances are perfect. I was indeed jealous of kids with seemingly perfect lives. It was as if I wanted to make them feel the unhappiness I was carrying.

There were teachers who liked me. I wish one of them had reached out to me, confronted me and made me think about my actions. I especially wish someone had said: You are okay, you don't have to be this way. Just one question might have stopped me in my tracks: why are you so angry?

I needed attention. To be seen.

I eventually got it in a negative way.

Today, I know that the parent-child relationship should be formed before the child reaches adolescence. Healthy boundaries and rules should already be second nature. A trusting relationship with an adult who is attuned to the teenager and provides guidance is crucial. Conversations are necessary. And a good example. The chances of learning sensitivity or empathy from someone who wants to harm and brutalise everyone are slim. Respect for all people must be shown and verbalised.

Adolescence is a vulnerable time and requires an involved parent who creates a home where fluctuating emotions can be understood and managed so that they don't cause harm to oneself or others.

Hopefully, those I hurt will find it in their hearts to forgive me. I am no longer that person.

Empathy is innate, but it is also learned behaviour. Those of us who have walked the path know that sensitivity is the product of life experiences. Placing yourself in someone else's shoes is often the result of your own painful experiences.

♦ VWB ♦

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