Bullying and the Dangers of Labels

Boy being bullied in school – Young students making fun of a young boy at high school

In my writing the theme of bullying frequently pops up because bullying situations occur from childhood through adulthood. No one remains unscathed. If not bullied, you may have been the bullier, or you have seen someone else being bullied. And oftentimes we are reluctant to accept that we are being bullied, or if we accept it, we don’t want others to know. Being bullied becomes a shame we carry and try to hide away. WHY?

Because of the frequency in which bullying appears in my work, I periodically research bully prevention techniques, statistics for how things are changing, such as less physical and more cyber bullying occurs today vs. in the past, and in my recent research, I ran across something that struck me as something we need to address to help change the bullying climate. The importance of NOT labeling. What a profound truth. Labeling is a way to try and put people in one box or another, and we’d all be better off if we simply accepted people for their individual uniqueness rather than attempting to label them. But that is a topic for another time. How does labeling relate to the situation with bullying?

When we talk about a kid who bullies others, we label them as “the bully”. When we talk about a kid who is being bullied, we label them “the victim”. Even looking up labeling, the first thing I ran across was the following definition: assign to a category, especially inaccurately or restrictively. “children were labeled as bullies” Once a label has been applied, our brains, which keep everything heard, said, or thought — even if we don’t remember it — tucks that label away and give us the impression that this is what and who we are. Especially with kids, when told they are a bully that label gets applied by their brain and they may feel they cannot change. This is what they are … a bully. This works the same way with the victim label. The word victim has all sorts of negative connotations associated with it. As a society, we have reached the point where we tend to blame the victim for allowing the situation to occur, rather than focusing on the behavior of the perpetrator. So not only does the person being bullied have to deal with the situation itself, but they also have to deal with the blame associated for allowing it to happen to them. NO ONE wants to be the victim. Again, as with the one bullying, when the label of victim is applied, the brain clings to it and we start to see ourselves in this light. And it can feel like there is no way to get out from under the label.

Labels such as these are inaccurate at best based on a specific situation. Once a kid has been deemed a bully, then it is easy to overlook when a different situation arises that they play a different role. Maybe instead of the bullier, they are the bullied, or perhaps trying to defend someone being bullied. It is the same with the victim — it may apply to a single circumstance and we become blinded by the label. I explore this situation in The Journal of Angela Ashby where Angela doesn’t like the school bullies and is intent on keeping her best friend from being bullied, but in the process becomes the bullier of those who bullied her friend. Labels also disregard other factors such as peer influence and the situational climate.

How do we get away from these labels which are damaging regardless of which is used? Focus on the behavior and not the person. Instead of calling a person a bully, refer to them as the person who bullied. Instead of referring to someone as the victim, refer to them as the person who was bullied. This takes the focus off the person and puts it on the situation and each person’s role in the specific situation. It isn’t a label your brain tries to hang onto for life.

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2 Comments on “Bullying and the Dangers of Labels”

  1. This is such an important subject, and new information is coming in every day. It’s important to keep up with best practices so we can help both parties heal. Young children often bully because they are hurting and pain is all they’ve ever known. Focusing on the situation helps both parties detach from taking on these roles.

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