What’s the Link Between Bullying and Self-Esteem?

Whether you’re the bully’s parent or the victim’s parent – you need to know that bullying and self-esteem have a long-standing relationship and it needs to be addressed. There’s a reason why certain children are exposed to bullying while others go their whole lives without much social conflict at all.

Charlotte’s story

While walking down the school corridor one morning, Charlotte could feel her arms being weighed down by the massive pile of books she was carrying. She was working on a school project, but since no one wanted to buddy up with her, she ended up working on it alone. The project required a lot of research, so she had to check out a bunch of heavy books from the library by herself. As she walked closer to the study hall, she started to get light-headed and could feel her palms sweating profusely. Not only were the books ridiculously heavy to carry, but her crippling anxiety made her think she was going to slip, drop everything and make a fool of herself.

The link between anxiety and self-esteem

Charlotte’s anxiety made every interaction at school hard. For the most part, she kept quiet and stuck to herself. Whenever she was around ‘the cool kids’, she would start stumbling as she wouldn’t know what to say. In her mind, she would overthink every word she wanted to say before she even said it. Eventually, after taking so long to get one sentence out, her knee-jerk reaction often kicked in and she’d just blurt out whatever gibberish came to mind first. Every time this happened, she’d be left mortified at the other kids’ callous responses. Most of the time, her classmates mocked her and call her a freak. 


bullying and self-esteem | The Bully Shield

Now as she was trying to get to the study hall as discreetly as possible, she realised that she could no longer hold the books, and everyone would be there to see it when she fell. One of the kids from her class saw this was about to happen and decided to spill some water on the floor. In their mind, this would make the accident even funnier. Charlotte was completely unaware of what was happening, and it only took her one more step before she slipped and collapsed under the books. At this point, everyone in the school hall was laughing and she could feel her throat closing up as she verged on a panic attack. As she tried to get back up and get her stuff so she could run away, she felt a searing pain coming from her leg – she had twisted her ankle. To make matters worse, the water on the floor that she had slipped on made it look like she had wet herself.

“You’re a disgusting freak, Charlotte! I can’t believe you peed in your pants over this. It’s just a joke – learn to lighten up, weirdo!”

No words could come out of Charlotte’s mouth at this point, she was overwhelmed, dropped her books and just ran away, fighting the pain. It was on that day that she told her parents that she needed to move schools because she would never be going back there. 

The research behind bullying and self-esteem

Up until recently, we’ve predominantly thought of bullies as having low self-esteem and who use belittling forms of abuse to make themselves feel better. While this definitely is the case for many bullies, it’s not always true. Some kids are extremely self-confident by nature and bully others nonetheless.

Over the last 10 years, Jaana Juvonen, Professor of Developmental Psychology at UCLA, has done substantial research on bullying and self-esteem. Her studies have shown that, in many cases, bullies are likely to have high levels of self-esteem and to be idealised at school by their peers. And a victim is almost always going to have low self-esteem and be less popular.

Without adding emotionally-challenging situations for kids into the equation, you can already see why this combination of personalities could be a bad match. While someone with high self-esteem can verge on being arrogant when provoked, someone with low self-esteem will tend to become more subservient. Now, if you put these two personalities to the test by throwing them into a tricky situation, it’s even easier for them to spark an abusive relationship.

self esteem | The Bully Shield

Why the connection between bullying and self-esteem is a big issue with teens 

One particularly difficult time for kids is from when they hit puberty and have to change schools (usually from the age of 12 or 13). At this stage, everyone braces for some turbulent teenage transition years ahead. Almost every child will be a bit unsure about where they will fit in within their new and bigger school’s social dynamics. Not to mention they will have to go through some pretty hectic physical transitions at the same time.

While most people will experience the social fear of rejection from their peers or colleagues at some point, this fear is extremely heightened for developing teens, and it is why they often rely on subconscious dominance behaviours to sort out their social hierarchy. If you’ve ever read Lord of the Flies, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about here.

Bullying and self-esteem become a big problem when bully victims who are submissive and insecure don't know how to defend themselves or how to tell the bullies to back off and stop it. Whereas self-confident bullies will try to get a handle on as much power as they can within a social hierarchy so that they can improve their status. Often, building that power involves pushing others down. Unfortunately, such insecurity from the victim can also trigger them to believe that they are being attacked because there is something fundamentally wrong with them, and not because the scales of power are out balance.

Why conflict resolution strategies for youth are so important?

Conflict resolution strategies for youth are an essential set of skills that need to be taught from as early an age as possible during the school years so that children can learn how to resolve any issues that they have in a healthy way. Not all bullies have to be bullies for the rest of their lives, just as victims don’t have to feel victimised for the rest of their lives either. By teaching healthier interaction skills, bullying and self-esteem no longer have to be an issue.

conflict resolution | The Bully Shield

Anyone can change the way they treat others and mend old conflicts that they were involved in. If your child is victimised by bullies at school, it means they don’t feel confident enough within themselves to fight back. Be it physical, verbal or emotional bullying, the bottom line is that they have subconsciously placed themselves at the bottom of their social hierarchy at school and it really can be due to so many reasons, for example: insecurity, unhappiness, self-doubt, anxiety, or depression.

Now, if this is the situation your child is currently facing, then conflict management strategies and styles can help your child feel more confident in their ability to protect themselves when put in potentially harmful situations. Of course, there’s debate as to what kind of conflict management techniques are best. And while there are many good options out there, the most important thing to remember when choosing one is that a non-violent approach is essential.

Nonviolent conflict resolution strategies 

Conflict resolution strategies for youth are about more than just building up your child’s confidence at school and making them feel protected. They are actually there to help kids build on their social skills and improve their relationships with other children.

Now, it’s understandable that you want to do whatever it takes to protect your child from bullies, but by trying to empower them through violence and aggression – what can you really achieve?

A few years ago, mother Chelisa Grimes decided to give her 17-year-old son a stun gun to take to school after he had told her that he was being violently bullied by other guys in his class for being gay. He no longer felt safe at school and his mother wanted to protect him, especially since the school did not want to get involved.

bullying and self-esteem | The Bully SHield

Not long after, the teen was cornered by six other students who threatened to beat him up. He grabbed the gun from his backpack and raised it into the air, upon which it set off an electrical charge. This was enough to scare the group of bullies away, but it also meant that this innocent teen was expelled from school for aggressive behaviour. 

This is a sad case where an innocent teen was given the wrong conflict resolution strategy so that he could try to resolve his bullying problem. Yes, the situation was serious, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been handled in a non-violent way. Ultimately, your goal is to get any bully to gain respect for your child so that the unhealthy relationship comes to an end. By responding to the bully with more violence, all you do is create fear and make the relationship more hostile.

Why is martial arts training a good option? 

I know what you’re thinking right now… it’s probably something along the lines of, “But you’ve just said that violence is not a good way to handle bullying. So, what on earth makes martial arts training a good option for my kid?” And your confusion is completely justified right now, but let me explain. Martial arts is known to be about combat; however, there are two predominant misconceptions about it that need to be clarified first:

  • Not all forms of martial arts are designed as proactive fighting styles - many are purely focused on clearly-defined self-defence strategies.

  • Martial arts, as a whole, covers both physical and psychological health benefits as it is a good form of exercise and it helps to build your confidence, self-awareness, focus and altruistic values.

martial arts | The Bully Shield

So, what is martial arts exactly? 

Before we dive into this topic, ask yourself this: In a situation of conflict where your child is exposed to danger and left vulnerable, what skills do you think they would ultimately need in order to diffuse the situation properly? 

If self-esteem is the core reason behind this bully-victim dynamic, then the answer is pretty simple - they would need the confidence and skill to defend themselves. It doesn’t need to be extensive, just enough to prove they have the strength and intelligence to shut down a violent situation without inflicting pain on others.

Here’s why martial arts training is a good skill to have:   

The fundamentals of martial arts as a practice are excellent at dealing with bullying and self-esteem as an issue, because it teaches children how to protect themselves in a safe way. Some of the core benefits of martial arts include:

  • It gives you a full-body workout, keeps you fit, and builds your muscle strength. As discussed earlier, one of the core issues that teens face is subconscious dominance behaviour. A self-confident bully is less likely to try and attack someone who they know is physically as strong if not stronger than them.

  • It helps you understand others’ body language better and improve your reflexes as well as your reactions. This is an incredibly important skill to have when you are in a compromising and dangerous situation. When realising that someone is aiming to start an attack, you can use your agility and discipline to get out of the vicinity before it escalates.

  • It teaches you to be focused and calm so that you can learn more about your own weaknesses. By doing this, your child can learn to prepare for any attack, be it physical or verbal, because they are emotionally aware of their ‘soft spots’ that a bully may want to use against them in a confrontation.

children meditating | The Bully SHield
  • Not only does it teach your child how to protect themselves, but it also makes them feel empowered and in control of any situation. Everything is based off of avoiding and diffusing violence – not creating it. This builds an incredible amount of self-confidence and reassurance, and allows those feelings of insecurity to slowly fade.

  • It gives you a good grounding in morals and ethics. Once again, each form of martial arts has its own code of conduct that trains you to become less aggressive and rash. Each one is different, but for example, Kung Fu teaches you that without calmness, insight and patience, you won’t be able to master the skill.

What is the best martial arts for kids?

The reason as to why we're getting you to consider martial arts if your kid is struggling with bullying and self-esteem, is because it fits in well with the four core beliefs of The Bully Shield, and what we consider to be the most important skills needed for any bully victim to learn when it comes to managing bullies, include:

Bully Awareness - Bully Shield Core
  • Controlling your own emotions, anger, aggression and coping skills.
  • Talking to your peers and communicating efficiently with those close to you. 
  • Doing whatever you physically can in order to resolve the discord peacefully and assertively.
  • Knowing that by improving your own emotional intelligence, and understanding more about yourself, you’ll feel empowered enough to react to bully behaviour in a more constructive way.

This is not really a question of which bully management technique should you choose. It's more about encouraging a holistic approach to solving your child's bullying and self-esteem concern, where you use practical activities along with a guided programme to achieve the best results. If you’re struggling to choose a style, here are some pointers to remember. Any well-established self-defence classes for kids should:

mom and child | The Bully Shield
  • Always focus on building a sense of community. It may not be as group orientated as a sport like basketball, but you should learn to work with others from the start.  
  • Teach students to treat others with respect, even the opponent. This is important as it sews in the understanding that all people deserve to be treated with respect, no matter who they are.
  • Encourage children to stand up for others. One of the wonderful things about this is that through skill improvement, your child will also feel more confident in their abilities and will begin standing up for other children who are being bullied and cannot protect themselves. 

Self-defence is not designed to be aggressive or vengeful. Instead, it is a practice that helps you develop your own natural humanitarian instincts including helpfulness, confidence, communication with peers and respect – which is exactly what you need when trying to end a bully cycle that feeds off self-esteem concerns.

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