But I Did Just Say “No”: A Look at the Current Culture of Bullying

Let me start with a disclaimer:

I don’t believe this is an issue with all children in all schools.

But, I am going to use the term “children” because saying “most children,” “some children,” or “select children” makes it too easy to say: “this doesn’t apply to me or the children in my life.”

A bit of back story: I am a Masters Student in Counselor Education at the University of New Mexico.  To complete the last requirement of my MA, I have to spend time as a Counseling Intern at various locations.  Being a Counseling Intern means that I counsel people with a few supervision sessions throughout the week. This past semester I spent my internship experience in a middle school.  Usually, this gets a gasp or a pitied expression, but let me tell you, I love middle schoolers.  They are just trying to make it through those three years while their bodies undergo the second greatest physical change they will experience in their lifetime (Infancy being the first major change).

Being a middle schooler is becoming even more complicated.  Spending time in a middle school brought to light some challenges that I did not anticipate.


One of the those challenges that I identified in my time as an Intern was bullying (Surprise! Bullying in a middle school….).  As I see it, there are two major issues surrounding the culture of bullying.  The first is differentiating bullying in a school; the second is a major decline in empathy.  Let me start with the first issue.

The challenge of identifying bullying was not the issue.

The issue was about differentiating between bullying and conflict.

Any time a student had an experience that they didn’t agree with or something that didn’t totally go their way, they often would find a Counselor, Teacher or Administrator and say “I’m being bullied.”

The culture around bullying is extreme these days and almost all conflict is filed under “Bullying.”  Many schools and communities are scared.  Scared that if they differentiate and label a potential bullying situation as a confrontation, they could miss something. They could miss something big that could end in a major trauma for the involved parties. Rightfully so.

So, there is the first challenge: how do we effectively and safely teach each others to differentiate?  I am going to write more about confrontation versus bullying in a post following this one, because it is a beast of a topic.

For this post, I am going to focus on the second challenge I found surrounding bullying.

Alongside Nancy Reagan, adults spent most of the 1980’s teaching children to “Just Say No.”  I think, from what I know, that started to stick.  So, we have finally taught our children to say “no.”  Say no to drugs, tell bullies to leave them alone, etc.

In the case of bullying, children are no longer stopping at “No, leave me alone.” I had children come to my office and start discussions on “What do you say to bullies when they are making you feel bad?”

I, more often than not, got the response “I tell them to ‘stop and leave me alone.”  So, now what?  Do we need to go on a “When somebody tells you ‘No, and leave me alone they really mean it” campaign?  I can’t see that as one of the future initiatives taken on by our lovely First Lady.

Here is what I think we can do:

(Re)invent the teaching of empathy and understanding into our culture.

Right!? Empathy.  I really feel that would be a start in the right direction.  Empathy is an illusive beast, many experience sympathy and think they are experiencing empathy.  The thing about empathy is that most kids (and adults for that matter) need to work on learning the skill of empathy.  I am not just making this up.  It’s science, people!

So, why would we need to reinvest in teaching our children (and ourselves) empathy? A recent study, out of the University of Michigan led by Sara H. Konrath, shows a marked decline of empathy over the last thirty years.  And to really put the cap on this whole conundrum, narcissism in young people is on the rise.

Let me take a moment to clear some vocabulary up. Let’s talk about empathy versus sympathy.  This can be a really challenging concept to grasp, so don’t feel worried if you are a bit lost on the difference.

Empathy is being able to recognize the emotions that are being experienced by someone other than yourself.  So, it isn’t about you – it’s about the other person.  When you start to recognize the emotions someone else may be experiencing, you begin to gain an empathetic view.  When the feelings start to become about the emotions you are having over this person’s experience, it becomes sympathy.

Okay, so, why would it actually be helpful to teach children and adolescents about empathy rather than sympathy?

First of all, empathy is a learned skill.  It is not something that many people get on their own, though it does come easier to some than others. Empathy requires individual insight and patient reflection.  This can sometimes take a while for children to learn.  For most of childhood, kids are mainly very egocentric (egocentric means only seeing from their own perspective).  Kids want to feel good. One of the major hidden barricades that isn’t talked about often with children, is that sometimes, when you don’t think about the other person, bullying can feel good.  Bullying can give a sense of power and prestige that other activities in life cannot.  Children respond to a peer who is more socially powerful than to recognize a peer who walks a crying comrade to the nurse.  Bullying is what gets attention (positive and negative attention). Prompting children to think about what emotions someone may be experiencing in any given situation will likely help slow the bullying.  When you become aware of how bad it feels to be put down by someone else, it is harder to have the realization that you are making someone feel that way.

Let me close with a few final thoughts:

Bullying absolutely does happen inside – and outside of – schools. It happens for adults and children.

Kids who bully are not evil, they often start bullying to feel good.

Not all bullying is mislabeled or misunderstood, but it is critical to differentiate. I found the mantra of “kids who usually bully others are being bullied by someone else” begins to open the window to empathy and understanding.  If we don’t teach our children skills, they will build themselves up in whatever ways they can learn on their own.

I know, I just spit out a lot of new information.  You don’t have to believe all of it but spend some time thinking about how you can foster empathy and understanding in children (and adults) around you.

How can we shift to a place of understanding from a place of power?

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