Uncomfortable truth about victims

Paul Coughlin,
Oregon Author of No More Christian Nice Guy

Like their tormentors, victims are misunderstood.  Many think they get picked on because they wear glasses, are fat, have above-average grades, and so on.  Thought some children with these characteristics are bullied, many are not.  The frustrating and painful truth goes deeper than spectacles, obesity, or ingenuity.

Here are characteristics that bind victims to isolation, humiliation, and despair:

~They acquiesce too quickly to demands.
~They cry and cower, sometimes making elaborate displays of pain and suffering, fueling further attacks.
~They offer too few healthy boundaries.  They refuse to defend themselves, leaving their attackers undeterred to future attacks.
~Their lack of self-defense is noticed and disliked by both aggressive and non-aggressive peers.
~They don’t take good-natured teasing well, mistaking it for outright criticism.  They bristle easily and are short on humor.
~They often radiate low self-confidence with words, actions, and body language.
~They don’t know how to join in and participate with their peers.
~They wear distress on their sleeves—they’re socially not shrewd.  They don’t know how to conceal their feelings when doing so is wise and prudent.
~They often do not engage in sports and don’t compete well when they do.
~They are more likely to have stomach pain, bed-wetting lapses, and fatigue.  (The pain they feel is not just “in their head.”)
~They are submissive before they’re picked on.

This list was hard for me to study, consider, and accept when one of my children fell into the hands of a bullying crowd.  Yet I did my child no favor, my anxious gut no favor, by pretending things didn’t apply to my kid when they did.  Those days are behind us now, but they wouldn’t have been if we’d held on to our wounded pride and kept our heads in the sand instead of embracing a plan of action.

Parents of victims, please don’t forget the study mentioned earlier where children who didn’t know each other were put into groups in which bullies quickly found their victims.  Recall how the victims refused to take a leadership role even when opportunities presented themselves.  They spent their time in passive play, parallel to and apart from their peers rather than with them.

They are not embraced by their non-bullying peers because they are picked on.  Kids, like adults, prefer smooth and worry-free relationships.  The friction victims bring to school life is not wanted by other kids, even though the victim status is completely unfair.  Most teachers are loath to admit that either bullying or victimization goes on, considering them an open indictment of their adequacy and supervision.

Isolation from their peers sets victims up for depression and anxiety during the pivotal adolescent years and beyond.  This social marginalization is probably more damaging to them in the long run than the bullying itself.  Worse, the maltreatment by both bullies and peers compels them not to trust others.  They perceive themselves as incompetent in social situations and have a low view of their abilities.  They underperform both professionally and personally.

If the list of victim characteristics reminds you of a previous chapter, it should.  It reeks with the results of parental overprotection.  Bully victims often come from overprotective homes where they get little if any practice handling conflict; as a result, they have little if any confidence in their ability to negotiate the world on their own.  Overprotection prevents them from learning the skills necessary to avoid exploitation.

Taking matters into one’s own hands can bring unforeseen consequences, like when Tianna Onyebuagum of Goodletsville, Tennessee, told her son, Kenneth London, to strike back against his oppressor.  He hit fifteen-year-old D’Angelo Karr with a rock and killed him.  Onyebuagum received one year of probation; her son will live the rest of his life with the memory of unjustifiable homicide.

Other parents have even become so fed up and angst-ridden that they’ve taken matters into their own hands, desperate and enraged after abdications of authority and a vacuum of common decency.  Like Liang Jiqian, of China, a father sentenced to death for killing four boys and one woman and seriously injuring two other children.  His son was continually bullied by local kids and villagers due to a bone disease that left the boy unable to speak or walk.  But it’s the school shootings that hit us the hardest, as they should.  Is there a place more important to communities than where their children gather to learn and socialize?  A school shooting wounds us more as a community than a shooting inside a house of worship, than inside a court of law.  Adults see schools as a tender place, a kind of greenhouse that cannot endure real-life elements too long without freezing or scorching what’s inside.  And that’s our children, the focal point of so much worry and hope.

Our assumption is part of the problem.  Those inside are not getting the protection they need.  We can go ahead and blame “bad teachers” and self-serving school policies on bullying if it makes us feel better.  But that will only make matters worse.

It’s true, not every teacher should be teaching.  And some studies show that an alarming number of teachers not only don’t see clear incidents of bullying, but their lack of action when they do witness bullying is dismal.

However, what about a parent’s inability to raise a child who would know inside that it’s wrong to continually strip another person of common dignity?  Isn’t this where the problem begins?  We’re expecting schools to perform modern-day miracles.  We’re expecting them to reform children who receive inadequate parenting year after uninterrupted year.  Teachers and administrators are not the root cause of this cultural problem, and it’s not ultimately their task to correct it.


Disillusioned youth identify with killers who went from victim to victimizer; their desire for revenge is formidable.  Kip Kinkel, serving 112-year term for killing his parents and then two students in his Oregon high school in 1998, has received money in the mail from strangers.  Charles Williams, in prison on charges of killing two students in Santee, California, gets more than forty letters a week; several different online clubs and homemade Web sites are dedicated to him.  The Youth Violence Project devoted a portion of their Web sites to the following question:  “My teenager saw all the news stories about the latest school shooting, and to my surprise, he said that the kids who did it were ‘cool’ and ‘really brave.’  What should I do?”

After analyzing thirty-seven school shootings, the Secret Service found that “many of these children saw the killing as a way to solve a problem, such as to stop bullying by other children.”  (That is to say, school shooters don’t snap; they plan, often as they’re haunted by depression and desperation.)  The Service also warned against over-reliance on metal detectors, SWAT teams, profiles, zero-tolerance policies, and software.  Researchers believe that

[the answer] lies more in listening to children, dealing fairly with grievances such as bullying, improving the climate of communication in schools, keeping guns away from children, and investigating promptly and thoroughly when a student raises a concern.

More than three-fourths of the kills were known to hold grievances, real or imagined, against the target and/or others.  Two-thirds described feeling persecuted, bullied, or threatened—not teasing, but torment.  In most cases, their retaliation was the first violent act against the target.

School killer Luke Woodham wrote in his journal: “I am not insane.  I am angry.  I am not spoiled or lazy….I killed because people like me are mistreated every day….I am malicious because I am miserable.”

James Alan Kearbey, fourteen, murdered his principal and wounded three others in hig junior high.  He said he was bullied and beaten by students for years.

Nathan Faris, twelve, was harangued about his chubbiness.  He shot a classmate, then killed himself.

John McMahan, fourteen, was bullied by other boys.  He shot two students.

Joseph Todd, fourteen, shot two students who he said humiliated him.

This ledger of tragedy will continue until others—the estimated 85 percent who are neither bully nor victim—end their conspiracy of apathetic silence and confront bullying.

Barbara Coloroso, teacher and author in Littleton, Colorado, says she would handle her son’s problems with bullies differently today.

I took bullying seriously, but I didn’t know how to deal with it effectively.  My youngest child was targeted in grade school….On top of it, he was a loudmouth, so his teacher didn’t offer any help.  Back then, we were livid, but we didn’t know what to do.  Now I’d go to the teachers and the other parents and make sure they dealt with the boys who were bullying my son.  We would also work harder at helping him develop social skills, such as how to enter a group successfully.  He was artistic and liked to do things by himself, but any small kid who is on the playground alone is an easy target.  I wish I had worked harder to debunk the myth that bullying is normal.

Coloroso reports that today her son is doing well as a professional artist.


~Encourage your child to always tell you when she’s being bullied (kids are prone to keep quiet).
~Demonstrate assertive behavior.  Teach your children to ask for things directly and to respond directly to others.  Demonstrate that it’s okay to say no.  Do so yourself, and let your kids see you doing it.
~Teach social skills.  Show them how to resolve problems fairly and firmly.
~Identify potential friendship problems and correct them.  Teach them how to ignore common teasing and, when possible, to respond with lighthearted humor.  Teach them the value of friendship and the importance of being a good friend.
~Encourage them not to give in to bullies, to stand their ground with toys and territory.
~Demonstrate the rewards of personal achievement.  Help them learn to trust their feelings so they can resist peer pressure and respect healthy adults.  Help them set realistic goals, and let them work toward their goals without taking over the process yourself.
~Take bullying seriously.

### Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying.

Disclaimer: Articles featured on Oregon Report are the creation, responsibility and opinion of the authoring individual or organization which is featured at the top of every article.