7 Ways Bullies Minimize Their Actions

How to recognize their tactics and hold them accountable

upset boy talking with principal

When it comes to bullying, it is rare that a bully will immediately take responsibility for his actions. Instead he will often engage in victim-blaming and attempt to minimize his actions. The goal is to downplay the significance of the bullying and discount the impact it had on the victim.

Minimizing bullying is manipulative and controlling and just as damaging to the victim as the actual bullying because it undermines the victim’s perceptions.

If you are a school administrator, a counselor or a parent confronting a bully, you need to be aware of minimization techniques and address them right away. Here are seven ways a bully will attempt to minimize a situation.

Insisting it was a joke. In this situation, the bully avoids acknowledging and dealing with negative emotions caused by his name-calling or bullying indicating that he was just joking and did not mean any harm. He also never acknowledges that what he said or did was wrong. By claiming it was all a joke, he expects the victim and others to accept his actions and let him off the hook. In other words, he is trivializing his bullying. Point out that “joking” is not acceptable and does not give him a free pass. He is still responsible for hurting another person.

Engaging in blame-shifting. Bullies often try to shift the blame for their actions onto the victim. The goal is to make the victim and those questioning him believe that he was either provoked or that the victim did something to cause the bullying.

Bullies and mean girls love to falsely accuse the victim as "deserving to be treated that way." If successful, the victim will end up blaming herself for the bullying and believe that she is inadequate and needs to change. And adults addressing the issue may be tempted to engage in victim-blaming as well.

If this happens, the bully has escaped all responsibility for his actions. Remember, a bully has a choice when it comes to bullying. He should never be allowed to place the blame for those choices on another person.

Feigning innocence.  Bullies sometimes suggest that any harm they caused was unintentional. Other times the bully will lie or deny that he bullied another person at all. As a result, the bully may have a look of surprise or indignation when confronted about the bullying. This tactic makes the victim question her judgment and her perceptions. It also may cause adults addressing the bullying to question the accuracy of the information. Be sure you do not try to “convince” or “remind” the bully of what he did. Instead, continue forward with the disciplining the bully.

Pretending to be confused. In this situation, the bully tries to play dumb by pretending he does not know what the victim is talking about. The goal is to intentionally confuse the victim of bullying and the adults in order to create doubt about the accuracy of the facts.

Do not allow bullies to use this tactic to get off the hook. Remember, the bully is attempting to distract you from holding him accountable.

Shaming the victim. It is not uncommon for bullies to use sarcasm, name-calling and put-downs when referring to the victim. This tactic is used to create an unfavorable picture of the victim. The hope is that the person holding him responsible will agree with him and not hold him responsible for his actions. When holding a bully accountable, never agree with the negative remarks he makes about the victim. Doing so, only justifies his actions in his mind. Keep the focus on the bully and what he did wrong.

Playing the victim. Bullies sometimes portray themselves as victims of circumstance or of someone else's behavior. For instance, the bully may start talking about a difficult home life or his mom’s illness. The goal is to gain sympathy or compassion from the person confronting him. And it often works. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and a bully often finds it easy to play on this sympathy to get out of stiffer consequences. Remember, empathy is important but the bully’s circumstances do not excuse his behavior. You can be compassionate and still hold a bully accountable.

Vilifying the victim. This occurs when the bully accuses the victim of being the bully. The goal is to mask his actions by accusing the victim of starting it. This is another example of blame-shifting, but instead of indicating that the victim deserved to be bullied, the bully is trying to switch roles with the victim and get everyone to believe that they have the story all wrong – he was just defending himself not bullying another person. The goal here is to completely deny what actually happened in order to escape all responsibility. Do not entertain this option at all when addressing bullying. Stick to the facts at hand.  

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