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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, March 27 2017

Newsletter 2

Bullying and Power

This is a follow-up to the first Newsletter and explains the connection between power and bullying.  The vulnerability to be bullied is dependent on how a child or adult perceives their sense of power in relation to others.  In regards to personal power in relationships this can be defined as ‘the ability or perceived right to control people or their environment’.  It is the distinction of ‘rank’ within a set of domains that defines a person’s supremacy.

So in a broad sense it may well be appropriate for the community to invest power onto individuals or onto formal organizations such as the police, judiciary and parliament to adjudicate on disputes that affect community members.  These organizations are intended to make precise decisions when specialist knowledge is required or use their power to protect citizens from exploitation or abuse.

The issue where bullying is concerned is where the distribution of power between individuals and groups allows those in a subordinate position to be hurt, threatened or forced to do something for no other reason than to gratify the bully.  Those who believe they have power-over others are inclined to direct them to do their bidding.

In any dispute the person or group in the superior or one-up position usually takes on an aggressive stance to attack the other’s rights.  Those in the lesser, one-down position are likely to take a passive position and tolerate their loss of ‘rights’.

People as a rule know where they stand in any group; it is the well-known pecking order. During my years teaching kids with behaviour issues I could randomly select about five students and get them to line-up from the most powerful to the least powerful.  Invariably they would line up with only the occasional dispute over who was the least powerful.  I never took this step lightly, I am aware that it is challenging and would be abusive if it was not related to a lesson about power and I will get back to this point later. I know I could also confidently do this with the teachers in the school.

The girls’ ‘Queen Bee’ phenomena described by Sussana Stern is another demonstration of the distribution of power and this is easily seen in most playgrounds with the queen, her lieutenants – second in command, wannabees, etc. all taking up their designated position.

Traditionally the factors that defined what position a person took in a dispute was governed by:

  1. Their position in the family and the influence of their relatives.  This is the class structure we deny having in Australia just like we deny there is racism.  Unless you are on the receiving end you are oblivious to its existence.
  2. The school attended will also define your position.  This is one of the strong drives for people to get their children into ‘good schools’.  It’s also a class issue and the practice and the result is children are becoming more tribal and isolated from their immediate communities.
  3. Gender is still a real concern in the issue of perceived power.  The glass ceiling is not an imagined impediment to women and despite the protests by too many of our powerful community leaders being a female or a member of a gender-diverse group will automatically be seen as a one-down, lesser position.

In recent years another factor has emerged that reinforces perceived power and that is celebrity.  In our modern, connected world just how popular you are is an indication of the power you have.  Celebrities are paid excessive amounts to endorse products or organizations.  Now we have celebrities telling us about bullying, about science and having their opinions sought on all types of issues.  The ultimate outcome of this authorization of celebrity is that a person who had the three traditional advantages described above plus the additional benefit of celebrity has become the president of the USA!

Fortunately there is a way out; power-over in the sense of personal worth is a myth.  This is the lesson I taught the students when I lined them up.  You never gain any power over another; it must be given to you.  I taught the students that everyone is unique; no one was better or worse.  We came with different talents and characteristics.  Comparisons can be about capabilities, I might be able to run faster than you but I will never be better then you.  We give power to institutions because we believe they are there to protect us.  We defer to them but only for issues we accept and we control them through the democratic process.

Teaching kids the idea of real equity is hard when society is saturated with examples of better, or less-then conditioning.  The whole advertising industry exploits our natural fears of not being good enough to convince us into buying their products.  Having a certain car, drinking a certain beer, wearing a brand of clothes, etc. all this will make us powerful.  This is a difficult battle to win because advertising dollars funds the media and unfortunately modern media determines our culture.

The appointment of Trump, now the bully with the biggest arsenal proves that unless we come to terms about power it will be left up to teachers and parents to eliminate bullying by removing the element of unequal power distribution and that will occur when we bring all our children up to equity.





Posted by: Frew Consultants Group AT 02:30 pm   |  Permalink   |  Email
Tuesday, March 21 2017

We have just completed a week where our national focus has been on bullying.  Our ABC has certainly placed a good deal of emphasis on this problem and has featured two of our great celebrities Ian Thorpe and Tara Moss to deal with this important issue.  They both make strong cases against bullying including direct bullying and the modern dangers of cyber bullying.  However, after years of combating this problem the simplistic approach presented fails to explain the complexity faced by those who have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis.

There are some particular points that need to be made regarding this problem. These are to remember bullying is a specific form of aggression.  It is selective, uninvited, repetitive oppression of one person or group by another.  It involves three elements – intent to hurt or harm; power imbalance; and repetition over time.  It takes many forms and guises including physical aggression; verbal abuse; emotional aggression (or blackmail); intimidation; harassment and exclusion.  The NSW Department of Education defines bullying as “repeated verbal, social or psychological behaviour that is harmful and involves the misuse of power by individuals or groups towards one or more persons”. 

The simple solution to the problem is that we just stop the practice of bullying but the simple answer, like all simple answers ignores an insidious component that underpins the act of bullying.  The complex factor schools deal with is mentioned in the definition above and that is the element of power.  The failure to understand the importance of power in the practice of bullying has led to the huge problem we now face.

First look at the dynamics of a power tussle, there are three positions that will be taken in any clash.  These are:

1. The Perpetrator

The perpetrator is the ‘obvious’ overt aggressor in the dispute.  The perpetrator assumes the domination over his/her opponents and feels confident that they will not be damaged by some counter attack.

2. The Victim

The victim becomes the ‘obvious’ casualty in the dispute.  They will not obviously retaliate at their opponent because it is assumed they will only receive more damage.  When people do retaliate we are dealing with a dispute, a different problem.

3. The Rescuer

This is the ‘agent’ who is called on to protect the victim.  In our modern system, for children this becomes the school staff.  Of course schools do and have always acted to protect kids from bullies.  Apart from some well-publicised cases in the past the vast majority of schools don’t need to be told of their responsibilities by celebrities.  But it is the rescuer that holds the key to the complexity.

Now these three power positions interact in a way that makes what appears to be a simple issue complicated.  In the first instance the aggressor has the one-up position.  He/she has power over the victim.  This is easily understood and reported on by the press.

The second phase is more complex.  When the victim is identified they call on the rescuer to make the bullying stop.  This act, in a sense means the victim exerts power over the rescuer to force them to act.  Before we jump to any conclusion this is appropriate and should occur. 

So we move to the third phase where the rescuer, through some position authority exercises power over the initial aggressor and in a sense the rescuer takes a one-up, power-over position.  The aggressor becomes the victim and rightly receives the consequences of their initial action.

Now we address what can be a subtle manipulation of power.  In some cases and schools will know of many such cases a student who appears to be vulnerable will covertly annoy a seemingly more confident child until that child reacts and asserts their rights to be left alone.  When this occurs the action of the ‘professional victim’ will immediately call on their rescuer to punish the confident child.  In the first instance this will be through the school but the professional victim will complain to their parents who go to the school and sort things out.  The parent arrives at the school and demands the apparent aggressor be punished.  The parent becomes the aggressor and the principal becomes the victim.

So now we have to look at the real power in this scenario.  Sometimes the parent certainly does attack the school by taking a one-up position making the school the victim, the target of their aggression.  This form of interaction underpins the problem of increasing teacher abuse.  But, the real power lies in in the hands of the professional victim.  They have asserted power over the initial child, the parent and through the parent the school.

The dynamics of the power triangle illustrates the complexity involved in dealing with bullying.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously. But we also need to be discerning about bullying behaviours.  They are always underpinned by people’s need to have power over their lives.  Until we learn that we can only have real power over ourselves and we should not attempt to get our power needs met at the expense of others will the issue of bullying be solved.  The real solution is to teach the victim to assert their own power when confronted by bullies.

On the other hand when we observe the unhealthy distribution of power across the world is it any wonder kids continue to bully each other.

Posted by: Frew Consultants Group AT 02:10 pm   |  Permalink   |  0 Comments  |  Email
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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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