When you mention the word “bully” to different people, you tend to get a variety of images and reactions, but the most common image is the schoolyard bully, usually larger than other kids, and almost always male, perusing the halls and playgrounds, looking for his next victim. But the reality is that most bullies do not use physical threats. Bullies typically use acceptance/rejection as the means to intimidating or controlling others.
Very few experiences in adolescence can be as traumatizing as peer rejection, or as motivating as peer acceptance. Individuals and groups (consciously and subconsciously) use the threat of rejection or the allure of acceptance as the means to controlling behavior in others. These dynamics influence several examples of teenage destructive behaviors: drug and alcohol use, teenage pregnancy, self-mutilation, vandalism, racism, and of course, bullying.
What creates these behaviors is the exploitation of the acceptance/rejection phenomenon, but what maintains it is usually lack of awareness or insight. Most adolescents know how important these influences are, but rarely understand how to achieve social acceptance and minimize rejection without yielding to negative forces. It is not enough to tell a child that they shouldn’t worry about being popular when, for most kids, this is their main preoccupation.
Lack of insight, and typically lack of confidence and assertiveness, forces most children to get caught up in the popularity game as either bullies, victims, or bystanders. The unpredictable and capricious nature of adolescent group dynamics is enough to make any child feel confused, insecure or unsafe, thus perpetuating the preoccupation with who is popular and who isn’t.
In order to help adolescents cope, it is important to help them identify just how strong their need for peer acceptance is, and how much they are willing to sacrifice in order to achieve it, without judging them or automatically telling them that it is wrong. Instead, help guide them to reach their own healthy and realistic conclusions.