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Utica writer offers insight on bullying


Cover photo: Image by jcomp on Freepik 

Article content is property of Erika Lowenkopf. Published with permission.

We may be tempted to think “bullying” is nothing more than unpleasant but ultimately harmless taunts and teasing that occasionally happens between children and teens. But those who have experienced it know this is far from the truth. Utica writer Erika Lowenkopf is currently in the process of finishing and publishing a memoir about her experiences as the target of bullying. Her memoir, titled “Missing the Boat” is currently in the process of being published and will be released at a date to be announced in the near future. 

 The memoir tells the story of Lowenkopf’s journey through the experience of being bullied from a young age, a series of incidents that included having her hair deliberately set on fire in school in front of a classroom full of witnesses. With the publishing and release of the book comes the hope that it will help dispel some myths about bullying and those involved in it. 

Perhaps the most insidious myth about bullying is that those who abuse their classmates, coworkers, or other community members in this fashion suffer from low self-esteem. In reality, bullies generally have very high self-esteem. Their self-esteem is often too high. They think so highly of themselves, they believe that whatever desire their bullying is fulfilling for them, whether that is to be part of a crowd, to feel powerful, to gain attention, or to feel superior to their victim in some other way, is more important than the target’s right to simply exist in safety and peace. 

“Someone who has genuine low self-esteem is not going to be the bully,” Lowenkopt explained. “Someone with low self-esteem is going to be too busy worrying about how they’re going to look to focus their attention on somebody else.” 

Another dangerous myth about bullying is that the victim can end the bullying simply by making an effort to meet the standards of the peer group populated by the bullies. This myth is often portrayed in teen movies, in which the target of bullying undergoes a fashion and beauty makeover, emerges as someone considered attractive by the bully’s social circle, and is immediately embraced and accepted. While this almost always makes for a charming and heartwarming film, in real life, the bullies would likely either use the person’s efforts as an excuse to continue bullying them, or choose a different detail to bully them over. 

“The makeover myth is dangerous because it places the responsibility for the behavior on the victim,” Lowenkopf explained. “If someone makes up their mind that they’re going to bully you, nothing is going to stop them. You don’t just do something, get away with it, then suddenly have a shift in your consciousness and stop.”

Well-meaning parents, teachers, supervisors, and others in the bullying victim’s life often advise them to “just ignore them and they’ll stop.” But what those offering this piece of advice fail to understand is that the bully’s goal is not to get attention from their victim. Bullies use their victims as  tools to achieve some other social goal, and as long as that goal is either being met or is in sight, they’re going to continue bullying. If a bully is tormenting a classmate in order to feel like an important member of the most powerful social circle at their school, the bully is going to continue the behavior as long as it impresses other members of that social circle, regardless of the reaction of the target. In situations where the target’s reaction is part of the reward, where making the target flinch or cry or run away is part of the entertainment for the peers the bully hopes to please, being ignored will only cause them to escalate their behavior until they reach their goal. 

“If they’re that determined, they’re going to keep trying,” Lowenkopf said. “Some bullies do stop under the right circumstances, but that is never a guarantee.” 

In some cases, it is not misconceptions about bullies, but about those who are singled out for bullying that exacerbates the problem. 

Perhaps the most dangerous of these myths is that all bullying victims wish to lash out violently at their bullies. This carries with it the excuse that the bullying victim was not such a good person anyway, and perhaps deserved to be ostracized on some level. It also serves to minimize the bullying, as it of course pales in comparison to the often shocking and devastating acts of violence that make the news. But according to the writings of Dr. Peter Langman, a counseling psychologist and expert on school shootings, slightly less than half of school shooters are bullying victims, while as of a 2014 study, just over half were reported to have been the bullies themselves. 

Although less devastating than the myth that the victim brings on their own bullying by being the type of person who responds violently to not getting their way, the misconception that bullying victims cause their own bullying by “trying too hard” or being overly eager to belong is also harmful. 

“The victim is portrayed as desperate,” Lowenkopf said. “They’re thought to have an attitude of ‘just be my friend.’ That may be, but is not always, the case.” 

Most real victims simply want to be left alone to live their own lives in peace, and are perfectly happy to allow those who bully them to do the same. Bullying behavior is the sole responsibility of the bully and those who participate in it, not the person or people they choose as the unfortunate recipient of their behavior. 

Adults supervising children may feel that bullying should just be allowed to play out. They may believe that kids need to learn to work things out and solve their own problems. When the situation involves only adults, it is often assumed that everyone should already know how to handle things on their own. However, adults supervising kids and teens have a legal responsibility to keep them safe. Managers and business owners are responsible for the working conditions at their place of business. Bullying will not end if teachers, parents, bosses, and clients just ignore it. 

“The most helpful response to seeing bullying happen around you is careful observation,” Lowenkopf advised. “Step in as soon as you see something odd, somebody getting away with behavior they shouldn’t be getting away with.” 

She stressed that the way bystanders step in is also important. Lowenkopf warned that the common “zero tolerance” policies in which the target is urged to report the situation, and the target and the bullies are brought into the school office or the personnel department to address the situation typically results in increased bullying. 

“Instead, take the bully aside alone,” she said. “Emphasize that the target did not report them, but that you have observed the bullying behavior yourself, and that it needs to stop.” Teachers and adults’ supervisors might remind the bully that further behavior of this nature can result in expulsion/termination. If you’re a member of the social group the bully is trying to impress in some way, let them know that the behavior is not having the desired effect. 

Although you should never let the bully know their target has said anything against them, if someone being bullied does confide in you, listen to them and believe them. 

“Parents, stop telling kids that none of this will matter in a few years. Kids can’t think that far ahead. And anyone is going through the experience now. Don’t change the subject. Listen to what they have to say,” Lowenkopf said. “And don’t make excuses for the bully. Never insist the bully is behaving that way because they’re jealous.You may be trying to make the target feel better, but it isn’t going to work to solve the problem.” 


Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo
Jess Szabo' is a novelist, writing teacher, and content writer for Utica area artists. Her online workspace can be found at

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