Insensitive Bullies and Sensitive Victims: Brothers and Sisters in Hurt

May 30, 2012

In striving to be useful ahead of sweepingly insightful, today’s focus is on better understanding bullies and bullying, with particular regard to helping kids who tend to get bullied.

In simple terms, kids who have relatively non-sensitive constitutions tend to plow forward into new situations and out into the world with hardy confidence.  If they are knocked down it’s not such a big deal, nor are loud noises, bad smells or overly stimulating environments anything to rock their worlds.

These kids, if treated well, are natural “winners” in our extroverted and loud society.  The teachers don’t “worry” about kids who speak up, are first out into the yard and grab what they want when they want it… unless they are mean or cruel about it.

However, when hardy hail fellows are not well-met by caregivers, these kids tend to “act out” their frustration, demanding attention in negative ways and zeroing in on sensitive kids who they can easily hurt, thus dispelling their bad feelings and being gratified in terms of power and control by having a strong and stimulating effect, albeit a traumatic one, on someone else.

Mitt Romney is a good example of an insensitive person who may have secretly felt a little neglected in being sent off to boarding school and suddenly finds himself going Lord of the Flies with a pair of scissors.

Conversely, sensitive orchid kids, if optimally supported and protected, can blossom into splendid original thinkers and innovators, creators and helpers.  But if these kids are not optimally supported and, where necessary, protected, they tend to “act in,” withdrawing even further from an overwhelming and scary world.  In being highly reactive to pain, they are natural targets for insensitive people who are also in pain.

Thus the bully-victim relationship might be understood as a traumatic bond between two complimentary versions of hurt.

In our society there is a tendency to label the bully as “bad,” and then call out for more punishment, but there is scant understanding that these kids need compassion and understanding for the way they are wired.  Often parents of bullies are either bullies in their own right (i.e. wounded) or are absent or less involved that would be ideal (see previous post on this)

Readers of this blog post, however, are more likely to be the sensitive parents of sensitive children, or the bewildered not highly-sensitive parents of sensitive children.  So what to do if your orchid is being trod upon by unhappy dandelions?

Perhaps the key point is to truly hear what your child is experiencing in their hurt, their sensitivity, their fear, their shame and their confusion about how to manage the insensitive kids and how to manage their own feelings.

Listening and feeling what our kids are feeling is a fundamental place to start, not the giving of advice (especially that “be assertive” sort of advice that only works if a kid feels empowered and clear about what that actually means and how to possibly do it—and if they did they wouldn’t need that advice, in other words, that path is bound to fail).

Vilifying the bully as a terrible person doesn’t really help much either.  Better is to validate your sensitive kid for who they are and, depending on their age and level of development, educate them on how much more reactive they are—by nature; and how much less reactive the bully is, by nature.  Neither is better or worse, but acknowledging the differences is a good start.

Supporting our kids to try different strategies, informed by deeper understanding about the way the bully is wired, might help them become a little bit Caesar Milan/Bully Whisperer.  Calm confidence is key with anxious aggressive animals and also with humans of a similar stripe.  While there are situations where things can be truly dangerous for kids, most of what we deal with, at least in the early stages of bullying, is fairly innocuous (physically) but psychologically devastating.

Role-playing, where you play the sensitive kid and your kid plays the bully, can lend insights and also offer opportunity to practice skills.  The goal is to appeal to our children’s intelligence, compassion and creativity to work through the anger, the fear and the drama to realize that the bully is just a kid who wants to feel safe, liked and good about themselves (and does not).

Once a kid who is being bullied realizes that the crappy feeling they are now carrying is probably the same feeling the bully carries around and doesn’t know what to do with, our kids might realize that the bully is no more confident or adept at social relating than is our timid and confused orchid.

Given that making the insensitive kid sensitive is a reach, we may get further supporting the sensitive kid to use that sensitivity to get inside the other kid’s shoes and head a little bit and then meet the bully where they are:  a little more direct, a little more loud, a little more… insensitive—a little less terrified.

In appealing to the intelligence of sensitivity, we can encourage our kids to try different things and note how it works out:  humor can be fantastic in signaling to the bully that we’re able to laugh at ourselves, that none of this is all that serious, and that we’re open to liking the bully if they can learn how not to hurt us.

Finally, we want to imbue our kids with the belief that humans can be kind and compassionate, and that people who hurt others are themselves hurt—but could feel better and act better too.

The truth is a powerful thing, and armed with it, our kids grow more powerful.  It is cool and powerful to be kind.  People who hurt others in a bullying sort of way are not merely less sensitive; they are unhappy and hurt plus not terribly sensitive.

As the playground shifts from a land of friends and foes to a land of friends (who are kind and feel good about themselves) and kids in pain (who are less kind and engaged because of that hurt), perhaps the sensitive kids will gain the skills and insights they need to better join the group (and thus be less of a target due to isolation).

To feel loved (or at least liked) we must feel understood.  Our task is to understand our children so that they truly feel our love, which helps them to feel confident and empowered.  This means paying attention and tolerating the sorrow and frustration of hearing about our kids being hurt.

If our kids take this modeling with them into their world, perhaps they will be able to better understand themselves and the children who are struggling in their world—and if those struggling kids feel better understood they may feel liked and accepted and in turn have less reason to make others feel badly about themselves.

Here’s to caring, connecting and practicing loving kindness—with our kids, and with each other’s kids too.

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Wolf Pascoe May 30, 2012 at 4:15 pm

The most helpful thing we’ve been able to do with our son for bullying is to teach him to identify with his tormentor. Thanks for the deep wisdom of this post, Bruce.


Bruce May 31, 2012 at 6:29 am

While a small technical quibble, as we individuate we strive to become conscious of, and integrate into that expanding understanding of Self, all of our archetypal bits and pieces. Thus just as “identifying” with the hero is hubris, “identifying” with the Shadow poses the risk of negative inflation and unconscious acting out later (where the victim grows into acting the bully) or the internalizing of the bully (a critical voice that fuels our fears, doubts, anxieties and depressions) perpetually feeds and oppresses the victim.

I believe you mean “empathizing,” more than identification, as empathizing with the tormentor by striving to understand and cultivate compassion, (and as well our own individuated self-esteem to find courage through love and understanding and thus be able to set and hold boundaries), might help transform the tormentor within into a friend, as which point the odd glue or magnetism that lured our own projected problem to us changes polarities and friendships can indeed ensue (in both inner and outer worlds).

Though deepening understanding of ourselves AND our world, the wounded tormentors of our child-selves might allow us to elevate the schoolyard struggles of our children to the level of our own global back yard (i.e. where “terrorists” are everything except understood). If we truly want peace we must obtain love born of consciousness; that’s when fairness returns of its own volition.


BigLittleWolf May 30, 2012 at 5:28 pm

You speak of the shifts from a land of friends and foes to a land of friends (who are kind and feel good about themselves) and kids in pain…

If only we could reach our children – all our children – when they’re young enough to change more nimbly, perhaps we’d have fewer bullying and bullied adults.

As always, your perspective is hopeful and nourishing.


Bruce May 31, 2012 at 6:31 am

As we mature, perhaps some portion of our passion and attention will turn in that direction—reaching children of new parents with what we have learned as more seasoned parents—and perhaps gaining the prize of child-mind once again for our playful and creative selves.


Mark May 31, 2012 at 4:26 am

Bruce, almost every talk I give to parents has someone asking me how best to insure children will be safe out in the world. My response is always the same: do everything you can to make home a safe sanctuary and find creative ways to continually answer The Big Brain Question (, “Yes.”


Bruce May 31, 2012 at 6:34 am

I hope all of us can answer that question, “yes,” my mountain flower :)

And for those who didn’t have that neural net of “yes” at home, perhaps we can make one to catch them as they fall, a collective response to the singular angst of would-be catchers in the rye.


TheKitchenWitch June 3, 2012 at 7:00 am

“Orchid children.” I love it. What a wonderful way to say it.

You also have great ideas about handling bullies. All my parents told me–and it’s the most useless thing to say EVER–is “Oh dear, just ignore them.” Arggggggggg.


Bruce June 4, 2012 at 9:02 pm

Hey KW, Maybe we take our pain and frustration and transform it into something, if not sweet, perhaps savory and interesting.


Cathy June 4, 2012 at 12:00 pm

I only skimmed through this right now but will come back to it to read more in-depth. However, I wanted to comment that I have long held the (unsubstantiated previously) opinion that bullies are viewed too harshly. It’s been especially bothersome the last year or two where “bully seems to be all the buzz in the schools with all the wrong approach and focus. It’s too bad that the popular lore being spread about is wrong on so many levels. A fine example of good intentions gone wrong.


Bruce June 4, 2012 at 9:06 pm

Isn’t that what parents and teachers and community are supposed to be for—to make and hold a safe space for all our children to develop and discover that they are part of something larger, each with something to contribute, each with something to receive from others? When we project the Shadow onto others we never quite see the darkness within ourselves and cycles of hurt just go on and on. Here’s to consciousness and compassion as a key ingredient in the sort of world we would all want to inhabit.


Maggie September 17, 2014 at 6:12 am

Once the damage is done, then what?

My daughter was bullied two years ago. She has gone through therapy and I thought she was doing better. We had talked about it and her responses these days were very positive about that past experience, suddenly last night she had a melt down and something led to saying I don’t like myself, I want to change everything about me.. I asked why: she replied the kids at my old school called me lame, stupid that’s why? I need to be different, I need to be new.


Bruce September 17, 2014 at 6:33 pm

Hi Maggie,

We all slip back to old patterns under stress. The fact that your daughter has developed different coping strategies, and that she has gotten through difficult feelings successfully in the past, suggests she will return to her new level of higher functioning shortly.

If the low self-esteem or depression continue, then a tune up with her old therapist might be useful. Also, you don’t state her age, but perhaps she is facing a new level of challenge based on her brain/development?

Adolescence brings new challenges; so does age ten or so:

Finally, for more in-depth counsel on how to deepen your own understanding of your child’s sense of self and self esteem, as well as depression, anxiety and negativity you could consider my book (which is really meant to be supportive and healing for parents such as yourself):

Certainly wishing you both happier times ahead and quickly


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