Implementing healthy boundaries to end the victim-perpetrator dynamic
By Ofer Zur, Ph.D.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
What is Cyberbullying?
Cyberbullying is the harassment, taunting, impersonation, or other forms of unwanted attention through technology (cell phones, social media, etc.).
A rude comment on social media can quickly escalate into abuse as more people join in. A sext can be forwarded to an entire peer group in virtually no time at all. Preteens and teens get caught in the perfect storm of wanting social approval and spending a lot of time online, usually without adult supervision. In situations where a mature adult could block the offender and be done with it, young people can become overwhelmed by the onslaught of activity. Unfortunately, the self-worth of many young people is deeply connected to how their peers treat them. A social environment that is unfriendly, for example homophobic or transphobic, leaves members of the group vulnerable to abuse. Even before being cyberbullied, many teens are already be working hard to scrape together some self-esteem (Chen, 2010). People can tell when they are rejected, and it hurts.
Compounding these problems is a reticence to tell parents about bullying and cyberbullying. Targets may be afraid of losing Internet access, or undergoing further embarrassment. They may not trust their parents to actually help, and can fear parental involvement making things worse.
Who is getting hurt?
Victims are people perceived by perpetrators as weak. In mainstream U.S. culture, that tends to be LGBT youth, the disabled, the neurodivergent, and immigrants. School culture is a microcosm of the larger adult culture, as kids are doing what they see and what is allowed. Many adults are shocked at the behavior of their kids when school administrators get in touch to point it out. We must always ask ourselves: what have we modeled? What do we allow at home that may be getting worse at school? Are our children so emotionally dysregulated that they are hurting others? Does our home contain healthy boundaries and healthy empathy?
Boundaries and the Role of Emotions
Both bullies and victims are lacking in healthy boundaries. Bullies lack healthy shame, which alerts us to when we have crossed our own boundaries or the boundaries of another (McLaren, 2010). Because shame is uncomfortable to feel, it serves us well when it is calibrated. Much like an electric fence.
Cyberbullying targets lack healthy anger, which is the boundary-setting emotion (McLaren, 2013a). While most people associate ‘anger’ with rage and attacks, in its healthy form anger sets calm, clear boundaries. Irritation, resentment, annoyance, and rage are the unhealthy manifestations of anger that come out when we do not set a healthy boundary in the moment.
Like anger, shame has a bad reputation. However, both are vital to our growth as emotional beings. All emotions have a purpose. As Karla McLaren states, “emotions are action-requiring neurological programs” (2013b).
For a cyberbullying target to feel empowered enough to set calm, effective boundaries, she needs an embodied presence that supports any boundary-setting words. A voice of “no” accompanied by a scared body is likely to incite more abuse, as what is truly being communicated is fear. On the other end, bluster invites a fight. Whether a student is setting boundaries in person or online, confidence, calm, and grounding are key.
The Role of Adults
Too often, adults brush off the complaints of children and teens. When a scared young person seeks support with a boundary and is dismissed, she becomes more scared. The adult she comes to has a lot of power in these moments. To stand behind a young person, aligning to their most respect-worthy self, is to increase her strength. Being a good ally to the young people in our lives requires slowing down enough to notice those moments. How we handle kids reaching out to us for help has a huge effect on their lives.
The organization Kidpower does great work in this area, helping young people get the attention of the adults in matters of safety. This applies to emotional and physical safety. For example, students in the program are instructed to say the phrase, “This is about my safety” until they get the attention of an adult who will listen and help.
Training adults to slow down and notice when a child needs help, and training children to get the attention of adults, is a two-pronged approach to give kids the support they need.
The Effects of Cyberbullying
When students are bullied online or offline, the school experience becomes one of humiliation. Young people usually don’t get a choice about going to school, so when peers turn against them they can feel trapped. Parents who force students to attend school, where they are being abused, become part of the problem. Accepting harm can become the ‘new norm,’ resulting in anxiety and depression.
When people’s boundaries are repeatedly violated, they either become full of rage or anxious and self-critical. These are two results of being unable to hold one’s space. Without the confidence and self-esteem that comes from healthy space-holding, students can easily become isolated. It is a short road to eating disorders, cutting, lashing out, and other acts of destruction.
Not everyone lives through the experience of being cyberbullied. Dozens of young people have killed themselves after being abused online (Broderick, 2013 & Tozer, 2013). One of the more famous cases is that of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman whose roommate filmed him on a date with a man and broadcasted it publicly. Clementi jumped to his death from the Washington Bridge a few days later on September 22, 2010 (Pilkington, 2010 & Tyler Clementi Foundation, 2016).
Upstanding vs. Bystanding
As is the case for many cyberbullying incidents, there were many people involved in Clementi’s suicide other than the roommate who filmed him. Everyone who watched Clementi on his date, or knew about it, and failed to report the violation to the police, and failed to reach out to Clementi in solidarity, is complicit.
The word for an otherwise neutral party who takes positive action to stop the abuse is called an upstander (Sebastian, 2015), adapted from the more passive role of bystander.
Howard Zinn (1994) says, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” In situations of abuse, there are no grey areas. The question is, did you do something to help? Or did you let it happen?
How to Support Perpetrators
Adults close to the perpetrator can help him self-correct with a clear boundary. For example, “This stops now” accompanied by the close supervision of technology, the disabling of social media accounts, and any other necessary measures to stop the harm.
Sometimes perpetrators are also victims. Meeting the emotional needs of your child is a combination of healthy boundaries and healthy empathy.
Ignoring the problem will not make it go away. Once an adult knows their child is abusing others, and allows it to continue, the abuse gets worse.
Meetings at School
Parents and caregivers can take action to stop the victim-perpetrator dynamic before it becomes a problem for their child, or as soon as they find out it’s relevant. The first step is raising young people with self-respect and a sense of safety in bringing problems to their adults as needed.
And second, parents can meet with the principal and the teachers to find out what the school’s policies on cyberbullying are. If there are no cyberbullying policies in place, parents and students can push for and assist with their development and implementation. At this time, there is a great deal of variance on schools’ approach to cyberbullying. While it affects students’ safety on campus, much cyberbullying happens outside school grounds. Some schools feel more entitled to regulate this than others.
The first known cyberbullying-related suicide was Ryan Halligan in 2003 (Nobullying.com, 2013). He was tormented for being a “fag” and hung himself in his room at age thirteen.
Even with this wakeup call, over a decade later, the problem remains with more cyberbullying-related suicides every year. Schools will develop policies that work when students and parents push for them. This sort of advocacy is an empowering act for families, and a way to engage preteens and teenagers in boundary-setting work before abuse happens.
Outside Activities to Promote Safety
Recovering from the effects of cyberbullying, or preventing such violations in the first place, is rich and intense work. It requires community support and a willingness to stand up for one’s right to a safe learning environment.
Verbal boundaries must be accompanied by a calm, confident, grounded physical presence. Sports can be a great foundation for this work, particularly if there is an emotional development aspect to the practice. Dance and martial arts are two examples. As students mature emotionally and physically, they also form a respectful relationship with a chosen teacher. Students who have a living example of healthy community will be less likely to create or accept a culture of disrespect.
To aid this process, parents can support children in finding an activity that speaks to them, early on. Going deep on the path to Mastery (Leonard, 1991) does wonderful things for self-esteem. It’s common for children of means in the U.S. to be involved in multiple activities in addition to school and homework. However, all the rushing around without time for rest and integration has its price. A balanced life promotes healthy emotional regulation and a basis for comparison of healthy vs. unhealthy environments. People who can slow down to feel what’s happening can better process the emotional work of their lives.
Broderick, R. (2013) 9 Teenage Suicides In The Last Year Were Linked To Cyber-Bullying On Social Network Ask.fm. Retrieved 10/20/16.
Chen, S. (2010) In a Wired World, Children Unable to Escape Cyberbullying. Retrieved 10/22/16.
Leonard, G. (1991). Mastery: The keys to long-term success and fulfillment. New York, NY: Dutton.
McLaren, K. (2010) The Gifts of Shame. Retrieved 9/24/16.
McLaren, K. (2013a) Understanding and Befriending Anger. Retrieved 9/24/16.
McLaren, K. (2013b) Emotions are Action-Requiring Neurological Programs, Revisited. Retrieved 10/20/16.
Pilkington, Ed. (2010) Tyler Clementi, Student Outed as Gay on Internet, Jumps to his Death. Retrieved 10/20/16.
Sebastian, S. (2015) What Does It Mean To Be An Upstander? Retrieved 10/20/16.
Tozer, J. (2013) Schoolboy, 15, Bullied To Death By Trolls On The Internet: Friends Say Vile Posts Drove Him To Despair. Retrieved 10/20/16.
Tyler Clementi Foundation (2016), Tyler’s Story. Retrieved 10/22/16.
Zinn, H. (1994). You can’t be neutral on a moving train: A personal history of our times. Boston: Beacon Press.