Understand Bullying: Sad Kids

John Bailey
4 min readJun 8, 2021


It’s time to understand Bullying and the role of sadness and how that emotion activates the three actions of the bullying system:

  • taking Advantage of power
  • using Aggression
  • and Accepting mistreatment

It might seem that sadness would only influence the third action of bullying — acceptance of mistreatment. But, according to the Motivational Literacy™ model, shame and surrender both tend to lead into sadness.

That model also asks us to notice anger is a common exit from sadness. Anger is also one of the five stages of grieving, and can easily find expression through the other actions of the bullying system: taking advantage of power or using aggression.

So, although our first guess about a child showing sadness may be that they’re more vulnerable to being a target, we have to allow that they may also be prone to bullying behaviors — as part of their coping with sadness or grief.

Sadness is a normal emotion, attached to normal experiences of life. And, as a culture, we love to be sad about things — partly because it sells. I really said that: “sadness sells”. People get misty and they’re more vulnerable to a sales pitch that offers to perk them up — or to justify the D-word: “deserve”. That’s another pathway for the person who starts out feeling sad to navigate into abuse or aggression: “I deserve…” they say to themselves. And, off they go.

Back to Bully Culture:

This may seem counter-intuitive at first, but look at the way our culture celebrates victim status — and suspends the normal rules of conduct and merit around those who have suffered misfortune. The messages from culture — and maybe from us —is that “victims deserve” something more or different from the average person.

Combine this entitlement with the natural navigation from sadness to anger — and you’ve got immediate rationalization for bullying behaviors.

We can “give people a break” for misbehaving once. But, it’s important is to prevent such behavior from becoming a strategy — a consistent way to meet their needs. That sort of pattern will look disturbingly like the anger-and-blame vortex I described in the post on bullying and anger.

What Can I Do?

Sadness is a risk emotion for potential targets — and a warning emotion that someone may be getting bullied. Sadness is also, a risk emotion for potential bullies. If a youngster you know is displaying sadness (and especially if they’re trying to hide it) — consider deepening your conversation with them — or seeking professional help for them.

The change you want to see is waiting — for you to make it happen.

…by modeling healthy ways to cope with sadness and grief.

It’s important for adults NOT to hide their own sadness — as if having or feeling or expressing sadness were something to be ashamed of. Vulnerability — and the ability to have it — is the opposite of weakness. Vulnerability is courage and strength. These are the anti-shame emotions — therefore the anti-bully ones.

Vulnerability is also fact: No normal person escapes sadness and grief.

It is important to model that sadness is temporary — and that the other emotions around sadness are also temporary and expected (including anger). We must model that anger is also normal and not shameful — when expressed in acceptable ways. Modeling — and accepting expressions of emotion in “safe places” and times can be very useful for navigating past sadness and back into normal life.

When dealing with loss, it’s useful to realize that memories last forever — becoming resources to inform and enrich our future. Modeling this way of thinking — and acting — is the best way to invite children to also build effective strategies around sadness.

Remember the debriefing technique: Talk about experiences and emotions. Do that openly yourself and encourage children to learn this skill of open self expression. It becomes the skill of self-awareness and self-examination. It will pay dividends throughout their life in both self-growth and building strong relationships.

If a youngster you know displays, or tries to hide, sadness over an extended period of time — or at very intense levels — seek professional assistance to help with the issue. Protracted sadness may be a sign of abuse or other problems that should be uncovered.

It is always easier to identify emotions and emotional patterns — and to learn skills for operating the emotional tool kit we are given — than to clean up messes created through poor operation of that took kit.

In the next installment I’m going to reveal the most powerful and significant emotion in the bullying system: Shame. I’m going to show how it interacts with the other emotions; how it can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system; and what you can do about it.