At some point in our childhoods, most of us have been bullied. If not bullied ourselves, we’ve witnessed someone else getting bullied. Some of us have even been the bully. So how can we say “there’s no such thing as a bully”? It’s a radical proposition, and it’s one of the core assumptions we make at Soul Shoppe.

Over the years, we’ve had many opportunities to interact with children who were identified as bullies. When we were able to get beneath the behavior, to really connect with them, we saw every time that there was a need not getting met. Something was going on – a parent was ill, parents were divorcing, violence in the environment – there was a lack of safety and security or some overwhelming event. Children who have to navigate these situations may feel isolated, misunderstood, afraid and lonely. The bullying behavior meets a small piece of their need, even if it’s in a negative way. They get attention. They have power. Their actions matter. Or maybe it just feels good to have someone else feel afraid and upset too.

When we look underneath any bullying situation, there is always a young person with big feelings and they don’t know what else to do. They have emotions they don’t know how to manage. Bullying is a symptom of a bigger problem, never the root of the problem. And those big emotions didn’t start with them.

There’s no such thing as a bully. There is only a kid who is hurting and needs support. When we label a child a “bully,” we make their behavior define who they are. We start to look at and interact with them as if THEY are the problem, instead of addressing the behavior and where it’s really coming from. Changing how we view the behavior is one of the ways we can stop bullying at its roots. We can give kids tools, time and space to manage their emotions. We can show them how to listen to and have empathy for one another.

Our Free To Be assembly is a great way to introduce these practices into schools. Educators who want to deepen their anti-bullying and community-building practices can get a few ideas here. And finally, check out Soul Shoppe founder Vicki Abadesco’s Tedx Talk to find out what happened when one class “bully” was given a chance to be heard.