03/08/2012 11:22 am ET Updated May 08, 2012

Bullies: Who Has the Power?

Bullying is a topic that appears in the news media almost daily. And although many books have been written, speeches given, and programs instituted, it does not seem to abate. Is it because there is more bullying now than in the past, or is it because we are so inundated with information? In either case, what can we do to get control of bullying?

It's not likely we can rid the world of bullies. Throughout history there have been bullies like Hitler and others like the kid next door. Some babies come out of the womb with genes that make them angry and belligerent towards the world. Others become bullies because of the situation they are born into, abusive caretakers, or lack of positive and engaged role models. Nature and nurture play their part and there's not much we can do about either.

And bullies are not just the bane of children. Many adults have a neighbor, boss, or work colleague who intimidates them. For others it's the person they married, or are in a relationship with. It could be a friend, or the guy in the car next to us. It can even be an institution forcing people to comply through social pressure. Bullies don't disappear as we get older. They are everywhere.

Children and adults react much the same when confronted with bullies. It's difficult to summon the courage to stand up to them, because they are often popular, powerful, and sometimes have accomplices. We all fear retribution if we try to thwart them, and we worry about being cut out in some way whether it's a job or becoming a social pariah.

While reading the book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso, it was the role of bystanders that I found most interesting. Bystanders are the people who stand by watching the bullying happen. They are also guilty because their silence condones it. The message they send is clear -- do what you will, we are all afraid. The bully is emboldened.

But how might such a situation change if bystanders made it known to the bully that their behavior is unacceptable? Some schools have actually worked with children on this approach and studies have found it does have some impact on changing the culture of bullying in the school. But the truth is, schools alone can't fix the problem.

The larger issue is that children don't live at school. They only spend six hours a day, five days a week there. So, even if schools have an anti-bullying policy, it's not enough. Schools can't take the place of parental attitudes. Schools can't compete with the cultural messages children are bombarded with daily from news media, TV programs, sports, movies, songs, etc.

Our larger society celebrates people with power. We admire people who win no matter what the cost and people who survive by getting rid of anyone in their way. We feel sorry for victims and we certainly don't want to be one.

Only when the vast majority of us acknowledge bullies in all their form, for what they are -- only when enough of us take a stance against them, will things change. We have empowered them. We need to take that power away by standing up together and saying this behavior must stop.