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Bullying Behavior in Boys . . . And What to Do About It
Ty, an eleven-year-old returning camper, is sitting on the porch of your cabin. You have brought him out away from the other boys, just as you were trained to do, because he has been relentlessly annoying another boy in the group named Chad. During staff training, you were told to address bullying behavior as soon as you see it so that you not only stop it before it intensifies, but also send a clear message that such behavior is "not okay" at camp. Ty is just the kind of boy who would influence the rest of the group in the wrong direction. He is popular with the other boys, who see him almost as a kind of brother and leader in the group.
What makes this more complicated for you as Ty's counselor is that you like Ty. After all, he loves camp, excels in most activities, is as cooperative during clean up as an eleven-year-old boy can allow himself to be, and is friendly and engaging. When you start talking with him, he is fuming. He tells you it's not fair that he's being singled out and that Chad is a "jerk." "Why does he have to be in our cabin? Everything would be fine if he wasn't here!" Ty complains.
You find yourself feeling sorry for Chad, a first-year camper who has been struggling to fit in with the other boys. Chad is not as athletic as the other boys in the group and doesn't have the benefit of knowing them from previous summers. It doesn't help that he is always the last one to clean up and that he can be disorganized and messy — a trait that has already cost the cabin first place in cleanup inspection. Nor does it help that he has a knack for saying just the wrong thing at the wrong time to earn the disdain of the other boys — like when he kept asking Eric about his limp. All the other boys know Eric had cancer when he was younger and that his limp has something to do with his radiation treatment, but no one talks about it because they don't want to make Eric feel bad. You find yourself feeling torn because you like Ty and want him to like you, yet you want to stop his abusive behavior of Chad before it gets out of hand. This is a lot more complicated than they said it was during staff training!
The Complexities of Bullying Behavior among Boys
A front page New York Times article from June 2004 (Gross) declared, "Hot Topic at Summer Camps: Ending the Rule of Bullies!" (author note: exclamation point added). The article claims that ". . . seasoned counselors know that camp, the summer home to 10 million of the nation's children . . . can be a breeding ground for bullies if the grownups let them have their way." Seven years later the topic is still a hot one for parents, teachers, and camp professionals. As a cabin or group counselor, you are the "first responder" to bullying behavior. Parents, your superiors, and the campers themselves are counting on you to make camp as emotionally and physically safe as possible. Among other things, that means putting a damper on any bullying behavior that might arise in your group.
One of the things you are told during staff training is that when boys bully other boys, they tend to do one of the following three things:
- Abuse their victims physically by hitting, poking, kicking, or otherwise hurting their victim.
- Intimidate the victim by threatening to physically injure them.
- Shame or humiliate the victim verbally, especially by questioning the masculinity of the targeted boy.
Two examples of physical behaviors at camp that have historically been used to intimidate and embarrass other boys are the so-called "wedgy" and "ocean roar." The wedgy was a well-known "tradition" at many camps. It involves grabbing a boy's underwear from behind and pulling up on it so that it gets bound up in his crotch. In extreme cases, a boy is lifted up by a stronger boy or group of boys and hung by his underwear from a tree limb or hook. Besides being extremely painful, it is an excruciatingly embarrassing way of intimidating another boy at camp. An "ocean roar" is when a small group of campers or a boy significantly larger than another boy lifts him up, turns him upside down and sticks his head in a flushing toilet. Again, besides being frightening, it is an extremely humiliating experience. Though rituals like these have been outlawed at camp, other forms of bullying behavior seem stubbornly to persist.
The Myth of the Good Guys and Bad Guys
It is very easy to think about bullying behavior in boys as the good guys versus bad guys. According to this oversimplification, the bad guys are boys who intimidate or bully other boys and the good guys are the hapless victims. If bullying were as clear-cut as this generalization would have us believe, your response as a counselor would be simple and straightforward: A boy who characteristically and willfully hurts, threatens, or otherwise abuses other boys simply can't be at camp.
If you did have a camper who fit this description, you would need to be a good observer and watch your campers even when they thought you were not around. You would know you needed to do that because you would also learn in staff training that most victims do not come forward and reveal the abuse they are experiencing because they are afraid the adults will ultimately fail to protect them — leaving their tormentor free to retaliate for telling on them. In other words, you would need to catch the bully in the act. Once you did, you would talk with your head counselor, unit director, or other senior staff member, and the boy would be sent home.
Indeed, there are times when a boy at camp targets other boys in a way that fits the myth. Classic bullies tend to be solo operators whom the other boys regard with a mixture of awe and fear. Research tells us that up to 80 percent of boys like this have themselves been physically or sexually abused by other males (Cowan Johnson, 1992). Boys who have been abused often do what psychologists call "identifying with the aggressor." That is, they turn the tables psychologically and mimic the person doing the hurting rather than being the person getting hurt. Being the aggressor is perceived by boys as being powerful; whereas, being the victim is seen as being weak and helpless. A term first used by Anna Freud (1936), identification with the aggressor is a typically male defense against the pain, helplessness, and shame of being abused. In the experience of a boy, after all, to be shamed is to feel annihilated.
More Typical, More Complex
While the stereotypic bully does sometimes show up at camp, most bullying situations at camp are more complex. It often happens that the victim unwittingly has a hand in his own fate in that he acts in ways that provoke or otherwise annoy the other boys. Boys who become victims are often less mature than the other boys or have characteristics that make it harder for the other boys to accept them. Let me be clear that by pointing this out, I am not blaming the victim or saying that the abusive behavior of the other boy or boys is therefore justified. I am merely saying that the solution to a situation like the one involving Ty and Chad is not as simple as sending Ty home. More often than not, the boys who end up abusing or attacking the victim are presented with a situation where their coping skills are tested and strained. They need help and guidance to develop the patience and tolerance in dealing with a frustrating peer in a way that is not abusive or vengeful.
In the case of Ty and Chad, for example, Ty is exasperated with Chad's immaturity and social awkwardness. He is probably also speaking for many of the other boys in the group. The fact that Chad is new to camp and this group of boys doesn't help his cause. However, his social awkwardness and personal habits would probably test the patience of most boys. For a situation like Chad and Ty to be resolved, you need a three-pronged approach that addresses the behavior of the lead offender (Ty), the victim (Chad), and the other boys in the cabin all at once.
Part 1: Guiding the Victim
Counselors who have jumped in to defend boys like Chad have found out the hard way that the more they try to protect him, the more upset the other boys become. Even though he may mean well, Chad's clumsy behavior is a challenge for these boys who are themselves trying hard to assert their independence and manage their impulses. Chad's behavior is like an unkind reminder of their worst nightmare about themselves! When boys are confronted with what they perceive as a lack of mastery and independence in another boy, it is almost as if they need to stamp it out for fear that it will become infectious.
Chad needs help finding a foothold in the group in a way that doesn't give the other boys the feeling that you are babying him. Were you to do so, you would make them feel secretly jealous and openly disdainful. They want Chad to "grow up!" The more you help Chad figure out better ways to make friends and fit into the group, the more you, as his counselor, will reduce the risk that he will escalate the very behaviors that get him into trouble with the other boys. If the other boys continue to reject him and refuse to see him as an "equal" (cool enough, mature enough, in-control-of-his-impulses enough), Chad will be tempted to get even with them the only way he knows how: by being as annoying as he can possibly be, even if it means sacrificing himself in the process. Up to this point, the only way Chad feels he has any power in the group is by annoying the other boys.
To derail this downward spiral you need to do three things: 1) Take Chad on a "play date at camp"; 2) Help Chad develop a skill or ability he can use to help him connect with at least some of the other boys in the group; and 3) Help him manage his personal habits. Let's take a quick look at each of these strategies.
Play Date at Camp
Described in my book, Summer Camp Rules, a play date at camp is when you help a camper gain a foothold in the group by taking him and one or two other campers for one period to an activity that is loads of fun and where they can just play with you and one another. Boys like Chad often have trouble navigating the dynamics of larger groups. They have a better chance of becoming friends with another camper one-on-one or in a small group. A play date is also a good way for a camper like Chad to get some special attention from you in a way that doesn't annoy the other boys. Sure, the boys who didn't go will want to know why they were left out. (Simple answer: Maybe sometime you will go!) But by and large I have found that pairing up a camper who doesn't fit into a group with one or two other more tolerant boys for an occasional play date lowers the victim's sense of rejection while helping him gain a foothold in the group.
Encourage a Skill
Another strategy to use simultaneously with a boy like Chad is to find out one thing he seems to be good at or wants to get better at and help him develop his skill in that area or use it to connect with the other boys. I can think of several examples of boys at camp who have benefitted from their counselor taking a little extra time to help them learn how to catch a ball, ride a bike, or get better at chess in a way that helps build that boy's confidence. Helping a boy develop a skill gives him more "currency" in the group. A boy who can throw a little better can now play catch with his cabin mates; a boy who can ride a bike can ride a trail with his group; and so on.
One final thing to consider with a boy like Chad is helping him manage his personal belongings in such a way that he doesn't incur the wrath of the other boys. In the case of Chad, for example, help him with clean up by getting him started earlier, making a chart for him to follow, keeping him on task, and giving him some help once in a while. The more Chad can manage himself, the less he will annoy the other boys.
Working with the Bully
Ty needs two things simultaneously. First, he needs to know that no matter how annoying or frustrating Chad is, he cannot resort to physical or verbal abuse. He needs to know that if he continues to assault or threaten Chad verbally or otherwise, he will suffer the consequences. He might have to speak with one of his parents, sit out of a favorite activity, or spend part of a day with another group. The specific consequences are ones you will need to work out with your supervisor. The point is that Ty needs to know that you and the camp are serious about not tolerating his verbal or physical attacks.
That said, Ty also needs some coaching on how to redirect or channel his frustration. He may need encouragement to talk to you about Chad rather than letting his feelings get the best of him. He may need help learning how to ignore some of Chad's more annoying behaviors and be given incentives for trying. I find that rewarding boys like Ty for making positive changes in their behavior, like ignoring Chad when he's being "annoying" or even inviting him to play cards at rest hour, is far more successful than taking things away from them when they act up. Take the time to cultivate a closer relationship with Ty. Doing so might give you more influence with him. You just might find that by having a closer relationship with him, you are better able to prevail upon him to lighten up with Chad. Point out that whenever he gets upset with Chad, he's putting a "weapon" in Chad's hand because he is telling Chad exactly what he can do to drive him crazy.
You and Ty might even consider creating a "cooling-off spot" for Ty to go to when he is finding Chad to be especially difficult — a place where he can go for just a few minutes to get a grip on his temper and perhaps avoid doing or saying something that would hurt Chad and get him (Ty) into trouble. Ty needs to know that going there is a good thing — a credit to him in that he is making an effort to keep from losing his temper.
Helping the Other Boys
The plan is not complete unless you do some work with the other boys. After all, their patience is probably also being tested by Chad. First, acknowledge their frustration. Give them credit when they help Chad out or when they don't react to the things that he says or does that annoy them. Encourage them to invite Chad to play in ways they can tolerate, like card or board games at rest hour and other ways that might help Chad feel more like part of the group. Explain to them that the more they help Chad feel a bit more accepted, the more he will learn how to act in their group. I often say to boys that while I understand yelling at Chad is how they are trying to get him to grow up and toughen up, it's not working. By saying this to the boys, they are less likely to feel blamed for the troubles in the cabin and will be better encouraged to help you by controlling their outbursts and doing more to invite Chad into the group.
It's important to understand the how's and why's of boys' bullying, as you will most likely encounter it in some form at camp. Bullying is unacceptable, and as a counselor, you must combat it in a way that is proactive for all those involved — the offender, the victim, and the group. By working with the victim, pairing him up with one or two other boys in the group, engineering some small group activities, and working with the lead bully and the boys as a whole, your chances of tempering the situation are greatly enhanced. It will be work — but then no one ever said camp was all just fun and games!
Cowan Johnson, B. (1992). For their sake: Recognizing, responding to, and reporting child abuse. Martinsville, IN: American Camping Association, Inc.
Ditter, B. (2011). Summer camp rules: Thirty years of practical wisdom from Bob Ditter. Monterey, CA: Healthy Learning.
Freud, A. (1936). The ego and the mechanisms of defense, (Baines, C. Trans.). London: Hogarth.
Gross, J. (2004 June 28). Hot topic at summer camps: Ending the rule of the bullies. The New York Times, CLIII(52,894).
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.