Invisible Bullying Can Look Like Normal Behavior

What appeared to be roughhousing was a boy’s relentless harassment of his brother.

The closeup is not one of the boys mentioned — it’s a stock photo

One evening last summer I was taking a swim in the pool at my condo complex. The only other people in the pool were two brothers. A boy about 10–11 years old and his younger brother who was about 7 or 8 years old.

All I noticed initially was the roughhousing of “boys being boys.”

However, it didn’t take long for me to feel concerned. I knew what I was witnessing would be considered “normal” by most people, but I began to realize that I was watching the older boy bully his younger brother. It wasn’t what most of us think of as bullying. It was more subtle but I don’t think any more tolerable or less harmful.

They Were Nice Kids

These two boys were nice kids who were visiting their grandmother. That’s what made it most disturbing.

It wasn’t particularly cruel or extreme but the older brother (who I will call “Older”) was on the younger boy (who I will call “Younger’) nonstop.

Older was the first to jump in the pool. He was bigger, more experienced, and braver. Older then demanded that Younger also jump in the pool. Younger hesitated, walking along the edge. Older splashed him. Then splashed him again. Older “teased” Younger about not jumping in. (“teased” is what most of us would call it but here it’s a euphemism for mild to moderate harassment)

Once Younger got in the pool, Older immediately grabbed him and started throwing him around (enter the euphemism “roughhousing” which in this case translates to harassing and non-consensual “play”).

Any onlooker would likely say “That’s how boys play — they’re just roughhousing.” The assumption by most (including me until that day) would be that both boys engaged equally in that form of play. A bit aggressive, but typical boy energy that’s considered harmless.

Not true in this situation. The older boy pushed the younger boy around — literally and nonstop. I continued to swim but watched them closely.

Their grandmother wasn’t paying attention and spent her time looking at her smartphone screen.

The Younger Kid Never Got a Break.

The younger brother never got a break from his older brother's harassment. He never had control over what he was doing. He never got to make his own decisions about how he swam or played in the pool. His brother controlled everything.

Older was obsessed and didn’t take his eyes off of his sibling. He spent 99% of the time bugging him.

After about 40 minutes the younger boy went to sit at the table with his grandmother. I heard him tell her he was done swimming. The grandmother acted surprised but called out to the older boy that it was time to go because his brother was done swimming.

The Supervising Adult Didn’t See the Harassment

I was barely in earshot so only heard a bit of it but the grandmother started questioning the younger boy about why he didn’t want to continue swimming.

She was perplexed and getting irritated. It didn’t make sense to her.

It made total sense to me.

The younger boy gave a reason that I couldn’t hear but I’m certain that he didn’t give the real reason. I wondered if he himself knew the real reason?

I wanted to call out “He doesn’t want to keep swimming because he’s getting constantly harassed and that’s not fun.”

Let me share the beginning of the story. With the boys jumping around unpredictably, I eventually said to them “Why don’t we divide up the pool? You can have one half and I’ll take the other half so I can swim my laps. I don’t care if I have the shallow end or the deep end.” They were cordial and even somewhat apologetic but perfectly willing to share the pool in the way I suggested.

I got the shallow end (where I was already), but about ten minutes later the older boy asked if we could switch because his younger brother only wanted to be in the shallow end (or so he thought).

We switched and the older boy thanked me. Five minutes later the older boy said “Well he won’t get in the shallow end either,” as Younger scuttled around the pool deck presumably seeking a safe distance from his brother who stalked him and continued to urge him to get in the pool.

My heart went out to this child, but I kept my mouth shut.

I wanted to rescue the kid but it wasn’t my business and I knew whatever I might say wouldn't be well received by the older boy or his grandmother. I also presumed that the younger boy might feel mortified if I pointed out what I thought was happening. He might even deny it. Not that he would consciously lie but because he might not have been fully aware of it, wouldn’t want others to know he was being bullied, or might be afraid his brother would harass him even more if the truth was publicized.

His Invisible Suffering

Younger was first bullied by his brother, then later scolded by his grandmother.

I heard her say something like “You’re not going to watch any more videos.” She was angry and was going to punish him for the behavior she didn’t understand. She saw him as being difficult and cranky. (anyone familiar with the behavior of abused children knows that they can be cranky, and uncooperative. They act out behaviorally because they don’t understand what has happened to them. Adults are either unaware or don’t perceive it for what it is and the child doesn’t have the skills to explain their trauma).

This kid wanted to leave the pool because he didn’t have a moment of peace.

It was invisible bullying because the roughhousing was merciless, always instigated by the older sibling, and always perpetrated on the younger.

It was painful to watch.

The Powerlessness of the Young

Sadly I don’t think the younger boy would have been able to name it (at least not unless he was physically injured). Even if he could name it his brother and family might downplay it, call him a sissy, or place the blame on both boys.

Bullies Get You to Do What They Want

The older boy was trying to get his younger brother to do what he wanted him to do. Younger complied with some of the demands initially but soon resisted by making excuses. He was unable to put his foot down and say no.

The older boy reminded me of someone with an obsessive crush — he wanted his little brother’s full attention. He didn’t try to get it by being nice or catering to him. He did it by bossing him around.

He didn’t latch onto him, but the pursuit was the same with a compulsive need for his brother’s attention.

Older held his brother hostage the way a jealous husband controls his wife in a domestic abuse situation. These kids will likely be fine but if something doesn’t jolt the older boy out of his compulsion he might take that bullying behavior into adulthood.

Is it a Natural Human Trait to Harass Those Weaker Than Us?

This is the question that haunted me. Are human beings just wired this way? Is this about the survival of the fittest? Or simply learned behavior in a dysfunctional culture?

My theory is that kids do this because they see so many examples of bullying behavior around them. They emulate it, then get hooked on the power they have. That power is intoxicating and they can’t stop once it’s become a habit — a vicious cycle. They are too young to have the conscious awareness of what they are doing and why. They don’t know that they have choices. They don’t know that it could be different and that different might feel better.

A boy doesn’t know how to treat his younger sibling as an equal if he has no role models of equality. (a parent(s) who models it and teaches him how).

When my oldest nieces were children I saw them only once or twice a year since I lived far away. But I remember them getting into struggles with each other. They got a bit scrappy at times, wrestling over something. I don’t remember my older niece bullying her younger sister but they squabbled and even though the younger was disadvantaged being smaller and weaker she was pretty good at holding her own.

Thinking about that makes me wonder if the younger boy at the pool will learn how to stand up for himself against his brother’s aggression? That may be his only way to break the cycle. I’m not sure he had it in him. My younger niece was tough, but this kid might not ever muster the courage to play the power game and learn to hold his own.

All siblings experience some version of this power struggle. It’s a natural part of their development, but if it gets out of balance it can be damaging for both.

Roughhousing Itself is Not a Bad Thing or to Be Avoided

Psychologists have found that mutual, consensual, physical play is beneficial for both boys and girls. With ground rules and parental participation roughhousing can teach valuable lessons for interpersonal relationships.

“Roughhousing is a great way to release aggression and teach children about boundaries,” says Catherine Pearlman, a licensed clinical social worker.”

Psychologist Lawrence Cohen, co-author of The Art of Roughhousing, states “When children wrestle, they’re displaying their inner power, not power over others. Accessing that feeling of inner power is essentialIt teaches them that they have the power to control their impulses, speak their mind and set healthy boundaries.”

Girls often get the message not to be aggressive or angry, but when they roughhouse, they can access a forcefulness they’re usually told not to have. “That sense of power is healthy,” Cohen says. “It’s not male or female.”

A Similar Dynamic in Some Couples

We’ve all witnessed it and have likely been on one end or the other of this dynamic as a teen or adult. The guy throws his girlfriend into the pool and everyone thinks it’s funny. He splashes her and she tolerates it. He says he’s just playing, but those of us who have been on the receiving end of that “play,” know it’s not fun. Most of us don’t want to be thrown into the pool and we don’t like that our protest is ignored.

But the worst part is that we never get to switch roles — we don’t have the option of being the “pool thrower.” (at least not with that person). Many of us find someone less powerful who we can “throw into the pool” even if just figuratively. Thus the societal cycle continues.

The men who do this may never take it to a higher level of non-consensual control or abuse but it’s still unkind. It’s still unequal.

Siblings will likely have difficulty with equality unless they grew up watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood, the public television program that taught children social skills, emotional management, and kindness.

While high-intensity bullying is frowned upon and given much anti-bullying attention, what most children see around them are the more powerful people pushing around the less powerful people. Invisible bullying.

This is the Power-Over System

In this so-called child’s play, are the seeds of the power-over model that is commonplace and when unchecked can be destructive. We see an extreme of this dynamic in the world today, fueled by messages that can make us fear the “others” and the escalation of the culture of domination.

It’s the norm that someone always has power over someone else. In both children and adults that power is often used to one’s advantage, even if ever so slightly. If we increase our awareness we can be equality ambassadors.

Recognize Subtle Bullying, Apply Consequences & Offer Guidance

Some children will have difficulty breaking their habit of harassing a younger sibling. The child is likely unaware of what they are doing. That’s why an adult must recognize invisible bullying.

A parent, teacher, or coach can gently pull the child aside in the moment and persuade them to stop what they were doing. Consequences may need to be applied to get the child to discontinue the behavior. Guidance can be offered if time allows or later when the heat of the moment has passed and the adult can talk privately with the child.

Ideally, the behavior will be addressed with the child when the adult has time to describe what they observed and explain why that behavior is unacceptable. The child then needs to be offered alternatives and given the guidance that will help them learn more mature ways of interacting— ways that they will find more effective and will result in more satisfying relationships with their peers.

Our communities will benefit if we have more adults with the social maturity and relational skills to model healthy dynamics, and effectively guide children. Most of us could use a refresher or would like to learn the basics of these skills.

Assertiveness is the Antidote for Bullying

But don’t these kids need to be less assertive?

Nope. Assertiveness is the ability to communicate directly, honestly, and with compassion. When that skill is demonstrated, it uplifts others because it is a model of communication, based on the concept of equality. Assertive behavior helps level the playing field.

Certainly, those who get bullied will benefit from learning assertiveness. They can practice speaking up and can hopefully find ways to stop tolerating it (which is not always possible if the imbalance is too extreme).

Children will benefit from learning assertiveness, but because of where they are developmentally they will need guidance as they learn to understand their feelings and express them responsibly.

Don’t Forget Personal Boundaries

A related essential skill is healthy boundaries. The two skills complement each other. As we learn assertiveness we will gain the ability to set limits and strengthen our personal boundaries. Weak boundaries leave us vulnerable to bullies.

Society’s Blind Spots

We tolerate bullies far too often, and erroneously believe that only children need anti-bullying programs. But adults do too. We are often blind to microaggressions even when they are directed at us. Here’s a piece I wrote for adults: Aggression and BlameBullying in Organizations.

This disturbing quote is from the Psychology Today bullying resource page:

“Experts explain that schools are where most bullying takes place but they are not where attitudes about power and aggression, skills of emotion regulation, or social skills — the key influences on bullying — are learned.

If schools don’t teach children about power and aggression and emotional self-management, who does?

We Don’t Teach These Skills

Many adults don’t have assertiveness skills or healthy boundaries and therefore aren’t qualified to teach them. It’s not book learning. Developing these skills requires guidance and practice.

Another reason we don’t teach assertiveness to children is that many adults want children to be compliant — to listen to authority figures and behave properly. Adults might balk at the idea of teaching assertiveness to children because they fear the kids will get out of control.

But if we teach these skills effectively, children not only won’t turn into tyrants but they will be more respectful of others. Assertiveness and boundary skills also help children protect themselves from adults with bad intentions, helping kids speak up and steer clear of dangerous people.

Assertive kids may speak up about things we adults would rather they didn’t, but they won’t be out of control unless we have weak boundaries and don’t set appropriate limits. We are the adults and (should) have the ability to keep the kids in line simply by developing and enforcing consequences if they act out. If you’re a pushover as a parent, you may want to strengthen your own boundaries.

Assertiveness is Not Aggression— Assertiveness is the Peacemaker

Assertive kids are not aggressive kids. They are the kids who act more maturely, who know how to communicate directly but with kindness.

Only insecure people bully others and don’t know how to manage themselves. They behave aggressively toward others because it’s the only way they know to feel better about themselves. But their aggression never helps them gain confidence (or friends). Learning assertiveness and other relational skills will help them increase their confidence and become a grownup.

Both the Victim & the Bully Benefit from Assertiveness Training

This is what’s so interesting. Both the victim and the bully will benefit because assertive communication is straightforward. It’s honest in a compassionate way. Most of all it’s simple and that simplicity keeps it clean and clear.

A Teachable Bully Can Transform

If a bully is teachable, they can learn how to get their needs met in a different way, a more effective way that will be more satisfying. Once they realize that, they will likely use a different approach.

It will take time, patience, and practice to give up their old habits. But as these skills are refined, the recovering bully will experience the gratification of easier interactions. Their confidence will increase, and if they continue on the path of practice, they will likely no longer feel the need to bully others. When they stop bullying they will obtain what they’ve been seeking all along — the love and acceptance of those around them.

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Christine Green

Christine Green

Relational & Procedural Skills Coach. Web Design. Unbridled perspectives on almost everything. https://christinegreen.com/coaching/