New ideas to stop bullying

Submitted by Jerry Halberstadt on Wed, 05/29/2013 - 02:13

Our group, the Stop Bullying Coalition, has great people with resources and ideas. Here are the ideas and experiences reported by two women who have chosen different responses to bullying. Eileen presents an analysis of bullying across the life cycle; Marian tells how her gift of music protects her. Thank you for sharing!

Eileen's perspective

Eileen defends her mother, who lives in subsidized housing, from constant bullying by residents and staff. She brings a broad array of experience to her thinking about bullying including nursing, government, and public policy.

Bullying as a problem in all stages of life

Clearly, bullying is not just a playground issue affecting children. Children who are playground bullies become adults who are workplace bullies and elder adults continue their dysfunctional behavior becoming bullies in senior housing. Moreover, an individual’s basic character traits do not change as they age; hence, a young bully becomes an old bully.

Belonging to social groups is a fundamental human need, and people strive to maintain rewarding social relationships with others; however, peer bullying poses a barrier and acts as a social stressor which influences one’s physical and mental health. We experience developmental changes our entire lives and late adulthood has the longest span of any developmental period with a significant phase of adjustment to social roles as well as changes in physical and cognitive health and strength.

Bullying is not a new problem, but it is becoming recognized. It involves repeated and intentional aggressive actions of one or more peers designed to intimidate or physically harm another person who is perceived to be unable to defend him/herself—common behavior in elderly housing. This type of victimization does not include an isolated episode of equal status peers arguing or fighting with one another, nor does it include individuals who are teasing each other in a good-natured manner. Instead, victimization requires that the peer harassment or abuse (direct or indirect, relational, physical or verbal) happen repeatedly, and can be considered as a continuum from no abuse to being the target of severe peer abuse. Being bullied has been shown to be a stable phenomenon over extended time frames—childhood, young adulthood, adulthood and late adulthood.

Just as bullied adolescents perform more poorly in school, the bullied elderly may perform more poorly in their environment given that chronic stress can lead to changes in the brain. Chronic stress can lead to changes in brain volume affecting memory and learning. Peer bullying, a social stressor, has the potential to affect individuals on many levels leading to physical, cognitive, or psychological problems.

Clearly, along with age changes, the terms of victimization also change across the lifespan. What was once considered teasing in kindergarten grows into bullying during adolescence, harassment in adulthood (bullying or mobbing in the workplace), and social isolation or elder abuse (aggression) for older individuals. Aggression like bullying can take the form of physical, relational, direct or indirect actions and may well have the same outcomes as adolescent and younger adult bullying.

Adults (like children) will use physical and relational aggression in calculated and systematic ways to gain control over those they perceive to be weaker. In order to manipulate and control individuals within their social circles, indirect aggression has been found to be prevalent in older adults when they are involved in large and loosely connected networks of acquaintances.

Bullying and indirect aggression in a housing authority

In the housing authority where my mother lives, the bullies generally employ indirect aggression (don’t talk to this one, don’t talk to that one, gossiping and spreading false hurtful rumors).

Poor management in senior housing can exacerbate the bullying problem by not addressing it head on or intentionally fueling the problem through supporters who hang out in the office. Executive directors use their supporters to isolate and shut down perceived “troublemakers.”

Rachel's Challenge, a model solution

In addressing bullying, Rachel’s Challenge geared toward the elderly population should be part of the mix.

Rachel’s Impact is the middle school version of the inspiring story of Rachel Scott whose example of kindness and acceptance was brought to light when she became the first victim in the Columbine High School tragedy. Conveyed through stories from Rachel’s life and writings, Rachel’s Impact shows the profound positive impact we have on those around us. Rachel’s Impact demonstrates to the listener the power of deliberately reaching out in word and action to others to start what Rachel called a “chain reaction of kindness and compassion”. It encourages participants to examine their own lives in the light of the following 5 challenges.


  • Look for the Best in Others – Eliminate Prejudice
  • Treat Others the way You Want to be Treated
  • Choose Positive Influences
  • Speak Words of Kindness – Words Can Hurt, Words Can Heal
  • Forgive Yourself and Others


Rachel’s Impact motivates the individual to consider where they are personally in relation to the five challenges. It also, prompts the listener to reflect on their relationship with and impact on the people around them. I believe Rachel’s Challenge can be adapted for use in the elderly population.

When writing as a correspondent, I covered a story about Rachel's Challenge for the paper. The program was held at a Vocational Technical High School in southeastern Massachusetts. Apparently, the school was experiencing serious issues with bullying. The program was valuable, most effective and thought provoking. Few students and faculty left the room with a dry eye, and no one showed the same macho aggressive and oppressive attitude leaving the room as they did upon entering the room. Students seemed kinder and gentler and seemed to better understand the consequences of their befhavior. It is time to adapt and implement the Rachel's Challenge program for senior citizens. This cohort has so little time left on Earth; they should spend all their remaining time living in peace and harmony.—Eileen

Marian: Giving music to soothe

Marian has found a way to use her musical talents to overcome initial hostility and bullying to become an integral part of her community. Her experience seems to demonstrate the truth of these lines by William Congreve: "Music hath charms to soothe the savage breast, To soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." While no one should have to overcome bullying, Marian shows that personal growth and being a contributing member of the community can make a difference.

I live in a Section 8 building for seniors in Portland, Oregon. The previous two rentals I was in, I was bullied.

The second building, a 4-plex which was subsidized housing, the bully was downstairs. We had a beautiful yard and his windows on three sides could see everywhere in the yard. He would yell at me and make aggressive and strange noises when I was in the yard. I quit going out in the yard. Management, which was always getting positive press for what a wonderful charitable organization they were, would not help me. When I complained, they threatened to kick us both out. This despite the fact that I had specifically written in my application that I had an accommodation need that I could not be harassed by the neighbors. And also, this man had harassed our manager when she was new! She told me that, and it was she who would not help me and threatened to kick me out.

I think that a friend of mine and I have found a way to protect ourselves from the rampant bullying that goes on in our respective buildings. I'm a musician. I had a band, which I brought to the building to play for the community here. I don't have my band at the moment, but I do have a jam session and have lots of good friends who are musicians. Now, people here invite me to bring musicians to various organizations they belong to. I think the service I am able to provide to the community is so appreciated that nobody wants to mess with me.

My friend also shares. She is a retired hair dresser, and she gives free haircuts to people in her building. She told me the other day that one of the "meanest women" in the building asked her for a hair cut. Nobody bullies her, either. She was physically, emotionally, and sexually bullied in her previous building. While the building she is in now is not immune from bullying—she is.

So one way to protect oneself is to give to the community in any way you are able. This gives you personal strength and confidence, and gains you respect from others, which again gives you even more strength and confidence. Get to know your neighbors—but not intimately. Not too well. I keep my neighbors at arms' length. We are too close together to become good friends, and I develop friendships around common interests outside of the building. It's important to have a good support network away from the building and away from management, who likely will not support you. Stay on good terms with management, but don't expect much from them.

I have also had a lot of excellent talk therapy around the subject of bullying. I used to have great fear of bullies, but for the past 10 years nobody has messed with me. I don't know how the therapist made me bully-proof, but I feel that I am.

I think that people who are being bullied could do well to find a good therapist; people who are in subsidized housing who get Medicare and maybe Medicaid, likely can find therapy they can afford. What many people do not understand is that therapists don't "shrink your head." A good therapist simply has a conversation with you, in which you talk about the problem and find ways around it.

There is also an excellent book which has helped me in several bullying situations: Coping With Difificult People, by Robert Bramson, PhD. Another excellent book is The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso.I wrote an article called "Don't be a bystander to bullying." That's another way to help solve the problem of being bullied oneself: stand up for others! Speak up and out when you witness it in your building.

Here are some other thoughts from my sister, a retired elementary school teacher.

She says she told the kids to have another person with you and never to be in the company of the bully alone. Of course, we know that some people are so isolated that they don't have anyone to stand by and with them. So she also explained to the kids that to be a bystander to bullying, you are as bad as the bully, and to speak up to the bully if you see someone being bullied. "If you are afraid to speak up to the bully," she said, "Take someone with you, and both of you speak up to the bully and call the bully on their behavior."

If we can get the movement strong enough to get the "speak up" ethos into these buildings, we'll be far ahead. In my building, I am fairly sure there is bullying going on. I don't know who the perps are, and I don't want to know, but one thing I do know is that most people here (172 units) are too afraid to speak up to the bully, even as a bystander.

I hope some of these ideas are helpful.—Marian

Everyone can help free people from bullying

Our plan: educate and enlist Beacon Hill lawmakers

We need the help of all citizens living in subsidized housing in the Commonwealth to identify trouble spots, housing which is free of bullying that can serve as models, and to witness and advocate. Wherever you live, you can advocate for change in HUD policies through your elected federal officials.

Please sign the petition now (no donation expected)