Bullying by Proxy

In my practice as a therapist and as a youth leader, I have many times seen youth being targeted and bullied by parents, teachers and others unknowingly.  Jamie (name changed), a 10-year-old girl, was known to have some issues in school, but was able to get along well with others in her class.  A mother of another child in the class became involved when her own child, the ‘real bully’, told her that Jamie was a “bad kid”.  Based on what her child told her, this mother started organizing friendships away from Jamie.  Therefore, Jamie was excluded from birthday parties, play dates, and friendships.  The other children wanted to be friends with Jamie, but believed the falsehoods that were spread by this mother; as a result, Jamie was targeted and victimized.  The parent became the bully by proxy by believing the false accusations that her daughter told her about Jamie and stepping in to do harm to Jamie. 

Another incident occurred with a 16-year-old boy named Matt (name changed). He was teased mercilessly by his peers at school although he didn’t do anything wrong. He tried to ignore his bullies.  One day, these bullies reported to school officials that Matt was in possession of drugs.  Teachers searched him and found nothing, resulting in Matt’s feeling humiliated and embarrassed.  Matt again ignored the teasers, but this time, these kids reported that Matt was in possession of a gun.  Teachers searched him again and found nothing. Once again, Matt was humiliated and embarrassed.  This time he struggled with anger and resentment towards these bullies and felt very insecure and alone.  The teachers became Matt’s bullies by proxy.  Although teachers or school officials cannot ignore threats, they should handle such situations discreetly and not automatically assume that the reports by other children are correct. Also, they should find out who is making the allegations and question them in detail as well.  Bullies have even been known to report that they themselves are the victims after a bullying incident, claiming that the victim is the perpetrator in order to get him/her in trouble.  Most teachers and school officials are aware of the kids that create problems like this.  However, sometimes they are naïve or cannot find proof because of parents and friends who may be willing to lie about what happened in order to cover for these ‘real bullies’.  How do we as adults handle these situations?

  • Act with maturity, think rationally and STAY calm.
  • Be aware of your own biases. Everyone has them.
  • Do not blame or pre-judge, or state unknowingly, “No…not my kid!”
  • Hold bystanders accountable; they often provide the audience that bullies want, and may actually encourage bullying. Explain that this type of behavior is wrong and will not be tolerated
  • Look for solutions.  Show healthy empathy and compassion for those being bullied
  • Adapt a ‘parent’s code’ where parents look out for each other and other children
  • Investigate accusations discreetly and respect the students involved until the truth is known
  • Pray with your kids and volunteer together in situations to help others in need so they can learn to have empathy for others

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”       Proverbs 22:6 

Chris Abatelli, LMHC, counsels children, teens, families and couples at LCC’s Dix Hills and Patchogue sites. He is the handler of Baker, our animal assisted therapy dog, who is available to assist in counseling at either site.

Call the Lutheran Counseling Center at 516-741-0994 or 1-800-317-1173 or e-mail us at Center@lccny.org for more information or to set an appointment. LCC has nine counseling sites in and around metropolitan New York.