Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for February 2nd, 2010


Posted by Dr. Vollmer on February 2, 2010

    Relationships stream through our lives, from birth to death. The bully/victim relationship is one such connection that can shadow childrens’ lives with outcomes we can only guess about. Sally, my 18-year-old patient, the subject of and was bullied mercilessly when she was twelve and then again when she was fourteen. Both times, the bully was expelled. Both times, the removal of the bully created increased tension. Sally, thinks about both bullies almost daily. I worked with Sally through both episodes. We talked about it in-depth. I spoke with officials at the school. We had family meetings. Nothing seemed to help. Sally felt like a victim, but when the school principal sided with Sally, and expelled the bully,  Sally felt like a perpetrator, filled with guilt. 

      Bullies feel bad about themselves. They torture other children to feel powerful in their worlds. The target of the bully is a mirror image in that the victim also feels bad about himself. It is almost as if the two unconscious processes float in the atmosphere until they find each other. I think of it as a lock and key. I also think of it in terms of sadomasochism. One part of the “couple” feels pleasure in making the other feel bad. The other member feels a certain pleasure in being a victim. The word pleasure is complicated though, since I do not mean that the victim feels good about being teased, but I do mean that the victim, on a deep level, feels he deserves it. To be clear,  I do not mean that the victim is responsible for being bullied. The victim is a victim, and as such, needs protection from adults. However, I also think that it is important to understand that often times, on an unconscious level, the victim often feels like he deserves to be treated poorly, and so he does not abort the process.

    How could a victim stop the bully? Ignoring is the simple answer. The bully is looking for an affective response, a sense of agony, a sense of squirming. If the victim walks away, then the bully is not having much fun. He is not achieving a sense of power. If ignoring stops the bully, then it follows, that parents and teachers need to tell kids to not react to the bully. However, not reacting is a skill. In order not to react, the child has to have impulse control and he has to have other kids he can go and play with. Without these two ingredients, a child will be prey.

    Sally does not like herself very much, she never has. Her family is stable. Her parents are married. There are no financial problems, no health problems. Sally has good impulse control. Cognitively, she is bright, but she does have a slow processing speed. This means that it takes her a little longer to learn new ideas, but once she learns things, she manipulates concepts in a sophisticated way. She likes people, but she is afraid of them. Some might say she is socially phobic, but I would say that although that is a part of the problem, she also lacks confidence. That is, being with kids her age makes her anxious, which appears to be in part, genetically determined, and in part, determined by her low sense of herself.   Others might say she has Asperger’s Syndrome, since she struggles with friendship, but since I see her struggle as a result of her low self-esteem, I do not think she is in the autism spectrum.

       Sally  has the vulnerabilities that a bully is looking for. She has few friends, and she thinks poorly of herself. When a bully is mean to her, she does not have friends who will defend her. She either engages with the bully or she is alone. Both options are lousy, but being with another kid, even a bully, is preferable to being alone. So, when the bully was expelled, Sally was even more isolated. Sally’s life went from bad to worse.

    At twelve, and again at fourteen, Sally seemed to be on a path of painful loneliness. High school did not get better. Fortunately, college has been remarkably positive, both academically and socially. Although she goes to a small university, the expansion of her world has enabled her to find people like her. After all these years of being alone, Sally is expanding her horizons. College has given her the opportunity to find people just like her, with similar struggles and similar hopes and dreams. Maturity has also helped. Her growing brain has allowed her to understand why she has struggled with friendships. She has grown able to articulate her distress, and not hide from it. I would like to say that therapy has helped her make a narrative, but since I work with children, I can never be sure whether it is our work together, maturation that would have happened anyway,  or both.

     Sally still struggles with feeling pride over her accomplishments. She still wonders if her friends really like her and as stated above, she still thinks about the bullies and she feels bad. In years past, Sally could not use words to express these struggles. She would sit silently. She would stare off into space. She would want to use my computer to show me interesting internet sites. Now, Sally talks about how she is disappointed with herself. She talks about how she falls short of her own expectations. She gets good grades, but she does not feel good about that. She wonders why. Our use of  words together to wrestle with her demons is new for us.  

   I think of the two kids who bullied Sally. I think about how Sally could not fight back because Sally did not understand that she deserved better treatment. Sally wanted connection and she was lost and confused about how to get that. She is sensitive, and even though the bullies were cruel, she did not want them to suffer, because she knew what suffering was, and she did not wish that on anyone. Sally is sweet in that way. I wonder what Sally’s life would have been like if these bullies did not exist for her. I think her development would have been a lot easier. I think they were harmful to her emotional growth. Yet, I also think that knowing Sally, and knowing the dynamics on a playground, she was a likely target, and as such, it would have been miraculous if she escaped her childhood without falling victim.

    Sally’s story makes me want to tell parents of bullies to first, stop the bullying, and second, work on the child’s self-esteem. If we assume that kids who fall victims to bullies are seeking connection, then we need to channel this need for relationships into ones which are growth-promoting. Parents need to think about their children’s relationships, to make sure that these bonds are promoting  a positive self-assessment.

   I return to the old saw. Positive relationships make our lives better, negative relationships take away from our sense of ourselves, and most relationships are a mixture of both. Parents need to check this balance, so that when their kids grow up, the newly minted adults can make good relationship decisions for themselves. The bully/victim connection reminds me  of dysfunctional marriages. I would like to think that paying attention to this dynamic  in childhood creates healthier relationships downstream.

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