What’s going on when adults bully children?

June 11, 2022  |  By Dr. Jennifer Fraser

adults who bully children

If you’re interested in blogs in the series, How I Became an Unlikely Whistlebloweryou can read them here.

Parents, teachers, and coaches are not usually the bullies we feel comfortable talking about. We prefer to talk about child-to-child bullies. What’s going on when adults bully children? In most cases, adults come by bullying behaviors honestly because they were bullied in childhood. They think it’s normal conduct. They think it gets results. They think it made them “tough” or gave them “grit.” In all these justifications for bullying behavior, what you really are hearing is that these adults are identifying with the aggressor.

If a child is raised by an abusive parent who bullies them, then they may opt to save themselves by mimicking the parent’s lack of empathy or outright cruelty.

Adults who bully kids may have been humiliated and terrorized by a parent, teacher, or coach. Adults who bully kids were likely beaten down by an aggressor and now fear gentleness, softness, sensitivity, kindness, caring. They associate such terms and associated empathy and compassion with weakness. After the harm they survived, the one thing they never want to be again is vulnerable or weak like a child.

Let’s ask the question again and focus on the answer.

What’s going on when adults bullying children? They are protecting themselves by identifying with the bully. They are terrified of once again becoming a victim.

In the comments on my TEDx Talk (I know the audio is horrible, out of my control) viewers do not comment that the bullying they endured at the hands of adults or even children made them strong or successful. Not a single one says that it gave them grit or toughness. Take a moment to hear what victims say about bullying.

“bullying made me sick”

“I definitely think bullying effects my behavior. My self esteem. I’m very defensive and over protective with myself. I pray that I’m able to get over this. I’m 37 now.”

Bullying “does have long term effects I’m 35 now and I can honestly say bullying has absolutely broken me.”

“As a 31 year old male, who experienced bullying / social ostracization, I know that my lifespan has been significantly shortened.”

“I cannot bring myself to say ‘former victim’ even 37 years later because I’m still struggling with the trauma.”

“So ya, I hate my life. I am 20, and still can’t get over the fact that I was taken advantage of.”

“I will say now at 20-21 years old, neither my self-worth or self-esteem are the best, and I struggle with social connections (and missed lots of opportunities). Loneliness or isolation, and/or simply not fitting in is almost certainly my norm now.”

“I feel alone.”

“The effects are reaaaaaally long term. Like years and years pass and I still haven’t found my self-esteem and I avoid social situations and my biggest dream is to just die.”

Don’t know about you, but these comments break my heart. These victims are expressing personally how long-term, how damaging, how serious the effects of bullying are. Everything they say is backed by extensive research. Adults might rationalize their bullying conduct, say it’s due to their passion, or that the children need motivation and discipline, and only way to achieve that is through humiliation and harm, but the fact is bullying does nothing but damage children.

There is zero research that provides evidence that any form of bullying and abuse improves performance, increases health and wellbeing, makes an individual resilient or tough. It’s all a tragic myth.

Many adults who bully children don’t know or don’t care how much damage they are doing. They do not recognize that the abuse they suffered as a child, if left untreated, is like an infectious disease which they pass on to the next generation.

What’s going on when adults bully children? They are trapped in a cycle of abuse.

Parents who bully their own kids perpetuate a cycle of intergenerational trauma. Teachers and coaches who bully infect year after year of students and athletes. It is little wonder that we have an epidemic of child bullying (as they imitate adults) and an epidemic of youth mental illness in our society.

Abuse done by adults to children, all forms of abuse are connected to mid-life chronic disease and shortened lifespans.

Emotional abuse, emotional neglect, physical abuse, physical neglect, and sexual abuse all damage brains and bodies. The extensive research took place from 1995 to 1997. How much has changed since then? We know there’s correlation between adults abusing / bullying children and chronic disease, but we haven’t even found the courage to include this critically important, lifesaving information into school curriculums. Why is that?

Do adults worry that children will realize the way they are being treated is damaging? Might they speak up and ask it to stop? Might they recognize adult hypocrisy when they say “don’t bully” and then subject children to bullying themselves?

Adults abuse of children is connected to: substance abuse, mental illness, physical illness, eating disorders, disordered relationships, failure to perform, aggression, and school shootings.

What would our world be like if we adults found the courage to read research on the impact of all forms of adult bullying and then teach it to children? What would our world be like if we adults stopped normalizing the abuse of children and instead invested heavily in getting educated across the board and rehabilitated if defaulting to abuse?

It’s time for change. It’s urgently needed.

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