Can A Teen Bully Change?

Can a teen bully change?

Yes, of this I have no doubt.

But how do we know if the bully has changed?  How do we know if the words, “I’ve changed,” really hold meaning? When is a stupid teen no longer a stupid teen?

In all the research I have done, through all the interviews I have conducted with former bullies and their victims, I have learned a pretty reliable way to discern who has changed.

It is a simple assessment of accountability and restoration.

If the former bully takes true ownership of the behavior, if he deserves our wholehearted support in letting go of that part of himself, we will know, because he will say, "Yes, I did that.”

He will say, “I was a stupid kid.  And I am ashamed to say that I did that terrible thing.  I didn’t think it was so terrible at the time.  I thought it was okay, but I learned that it was not.  I caused others real pain by treating them as if they mattered less than I do, and I am sorry.  Not only am I sorry, but I plan to make amends.  I want to ask how I can make it better.

If the former bully acknowledges what he has done and tries to restore the harm caused by his or her actions, chances are strong that the teen bully no longer exists.

But if the former teen bully says he has changed but does not demonstrate true regret for his actions, and if he does not express genuine empathy for his specific victims, then chances are he is now a grown-up bully.

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  • People do not change; they just get older and fatter and have gray hair, but the personality is branded by seven or eight.

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    In reply to Richard Davis:

    People don't change- but they can grow :D

  • "Once a Bully, Always a Bully": The Life of Mitt Romney.

  • I disagree with previous comments although I would understand their perspective especially if they were ever victims of a bully.

    When I was in junior high I was a bit of a mean girl, in clique of other mean girls. We didn't particularly target anyone but were often most cruel to one another - regardless, I know whether by the mean things we did to one another or the exclusion of those not in our group, we were bullies.

    By the time I got to high school I had already had enough of that behavior by myself and my friends. I found a group of friends who liked to be kind to one another, focused on school and sports. I also became a bit of an ally for those who were being bullied. I invited new people to sit with me at lunch; I choose to ask the singled out person to join my group of friends in class projects and I felt a bit of relief to be so comfortable making new friends instead of so insecure that I had to bully those I didn't even know.

    And now, as an adult, I've actually made an effort to go back to those I knew when I was that mean girl bully and apologize. I don't know it has brought them any comfort to hear and maybe it's unfair that I can have to satisfaction of apologizing where they cannot get back the years that I hurt them and I don't think I'll ever get over that guilt. Especially when I hear the effects of bullying being played out more than 15 years later.

    I once heard someone say: people rarely change but when they do it's almost always for the better.

    You have to give people the opportunity to change instead of being so certain it's not possible. Everyone deserves a chance to be their best.
    I like to believe every bully can change and be genuinely sorry because I believe every bully is just too insecure to be their best selves.

  • Elle, what a heartwarming personal story - thanks for sharing. I have been giving some thought to this very issue, ever since the Mitt Romney bullying (or, depending on whom you ask, "hijinks") incident made the news. Speaking intuitively (and not by virtue of research), I don't think people change at their core. While this means that "you are who you are," beginning at a very young age and carrying through to the rest of your life, this does not mean that your actions, such as bullying, cannot be modified.

    I think bullies change when one of two possible virtues manifest in them: empathy or tolerance. Empathy is innate to your core - in my opinion, it is rare when it is cultivated, you either have it or you don't. Elle, for example, seems empathetic at the core and realized on her own that the "mean girl" was not who she wanted to be. Empathetic former bullies have the capacity to embrace and feel their former victims' pain and perhaps even want to try and repair the damage caused, if possible.

    Other bullies modify their behavior when someone or something makes them decide to be more tolerant and accepting of differences. They don't feel their victims' pain (no empathy), they may not even agree with their former victims' life choices, but they feel that showing tolerance gets them in less trouble, or gets them where they need to go, or makes for a smoother existence, etc. In a pinch, I'd settle for tolerance if it will reduce instances of bullying!

    This brings me to Mitt Romney: his quotes in relation to the bullying incident in high school definitely are not indicative of empathy. What concerns me is I am not sure he has become more tolerant either, since those high school days. I hope I am wrong, but he minimizes the "baiting" in a way that suggests he might, in the workplace, not be very tolerant of people who do not fit his mold of success, wealth, attractiveness, intelligence, etc.

  • P.S. Carrie, I know I have said this before and I'll say it again: I can't wait to read your book that explores bullying - these little "teases" of information kill me :)

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