The youth-written stories in Represent give inspiration and information to teens in foster care while offering staff insight into those teens’ struggles.

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Bullying: Vicious Cycles
Miguel Ayala

Growing up, I felt so alone in this world. I never had any friends and I was bullied by just about everyone. My mom abused me at home and I think that kept me from making friends in school. I was afraid of rejection and afraid that my classmates would turn violent toward me.

Kids at school really would pick on me. I used to wear no-frills clothing, and they would say that I was poor and I got my clothing from the Salvation Army. I would think, “Why me? Why won’t they leave me alone?”

Soon I started to be the bully. I started picking on others who were smaller and weaker than I was. I was pissed off and I wanted to see how it felt to pick on someone. I would say, “Hey dweeb!” or “Wassup shrimp?” Sometimes I would push the kid. In the short run I felt good because, being the tormentor, I felt a glimpse of power. But in the long run I didn’t feel much better. I knew I didn’t want to do to other people what my mom did to me.

Living with violence at home and abuse at school, I grew deeply depressed. I stayed to myself and one time I tried to end my life. Eventually I was removed from my mother’s home and put in a group home. That’s when I found out that bullying happens in foster care, too. In fact, in all the group homes I’ve been in, it’s been a serious problem, one that isn’t taken seriously enough.

In group homes, I’ve been bullied about my sexuality, my weight, and the fact that I take medication. Kids have called me names, hit me and put mustard, ketchup, and dish detergent on my bed linens. I have also witnessed other kids who live with me get bullied in the same way. One resident got snuffed in the face for saying something stupid. That was so painful for me to see. It made me feel like my mom was hitting me. All the staff did was say, “Don’t do that.”

Why are group homes full of bullies? I went to Jonathan Cohen, a therapist and the president of the Center for Social Work and Emotional Education in New York City, to answer that question. Cohen said that bullying is a form of abuse, and that too many people assume that it’s harmless and normal behavior for kids, when it is actually very harmful.

Cohen said that many youth who are abused or bullied tend to become bullies themselves. He said that people who are being abused feel small and helpless and ashamed. They might feel like the abuse is their fault. Hurting someone else may make them feel a little less helpless for a while.

“No one likes to feel helpless,” explained Cohen. “Bullying someone smaller than us or someone who has a disadvantage or who is different can make someone feel more powerful in the short run.”

Most kids in group homes have been abused or neglected. As children, many of us were made to feel small and helpless, often by our parents. So it makes sense that a lot of kids in group homes are bullies. By hurting others, they’re trying to feel better about themselves.

image by Stephanie Kunar

Also, some people who have grown up with abuse think abuse is a form of caring. “Repeated, serious abuse can cause a person to develop the upside-down idea that being close to someone else is the same as being bullied by someone else,” said Cohen. “It can make you feel like it’s normal to be bullied.” People who have been abused in the past are more likely to be victims today, he said.

I was abused by my mom for years. I knew I didn’t like being victimized by her, but I also thought it was normal. I began to accept my mother’s abuse as a form of love from her. When she hit me, later she would say, “I’m sorry. I have been through so much and I just wasn’t thinking straight. Please forgive me.” And you know what? I did forgive her. Over and over again.

Like me, many teens who have been abused by their parents or someone else they care about have come to believe that bullying and abuse is a normal way to show love. This may make them feel like hurting the people they love, or it may make them accept abuse from someone they are close to.

Also, when someone hasn’t received much attention in their lifetime—like when someone is neglected by their parents—they might feel that bullying is OK because it’s a form of attention. They may think, “At least the person who’s bullying me is acknowledging my presence.” Victims of abuse may go as far as to seek out people who are likely to bully them.

But bullying is not a good way to feel bigger and better than someone. Nor is it a way to show or receive love from someone. Bullying is not love. It can have serious consequences, like depression, for both the victim and the bully.

“Ongoing bullying can and does make someone feel helpless and that can lead to serious depression,” said Cohen. Research has also shown that children who bully other children are at risk for more violent behavior. That’s why it’s so important that adults pay attention to bullying, and help stop it.

But too often, said Cohen, adults do not intervene when they see or hear bullying. That happens in group homes a lot. Cohen said that if adults just sit aside and do nothing about bullying, they risk putting a child in harm’s way and they risk sending the message that bullying is OK. But bullying is not OK. “Bullying is emotionally and socially toxic,” said Cohen.

When a bully in a group home isn’t stopped, everyone in that group home lives in fear. Especially for kids who have been removed from their homes due to abuse, living in fear of bullies is no way to live.

Miguel interviewed Dr. Cohen as a reporter for Represent magazine.

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