Bullying: What we Know and what we can Do

A shortened version of this post can be found on my Yahoo Health Expert Page.

When I was about 10 years old, my friends and I would play football on the side yard of my house. On the street, a slightly older, much bigger boy and his friends rode their bikes back and forth, past my house, commenting on our game. It was almost always negative statements, to the point that my friends and I became far too self-conscious about dropping a pass or missing a tackle.

One day a pass was overthrown and the ball flew into the street. The larger boy picked it up and wouldn’t give it back upon request. Having been annoyed by these kids for weeks for reasons that I still can’t identify, I decided to do what most American boys were encouraged to do: stand up for myself.

“If you don’t give me my ball back, I’ll punch you in the face,” I said. Now one could easily argue that might not exactly qualify as “asserting himself,” but there it was.

The boy looked surprised, but didn’t relent. “Go ahead,” he said.

I fancy myself a man of my word, and my actions at that time suggested I follow through on my statements. Almost mindlessly, I simply threw out my arm and popped him, right across the cheek. His head jerked to the right, the ball hit the ground, and off I took with it. He didn’t chase after me; he didn’t need to, as we went to the same school. And for months after that, I had problems.

About a week after the incident, my new enemy found me walking home from school and pushed me to the ground. I got up and he smacked me across the face. His friends laughed and they walked away. I considered telling my mother or teacher, but thought that would just make the bully retaliate even more strongly. It also didn’t help my case that I was the one who became violent first.

A week after the first encounter, the same event occurred, and this was followed with another dose of Push and Slap one week later. After about 2 months of this dynamic, though, it simply stopped. To this day I don’t know exactly what happened: did he get enough revenge? Had he found a new person to pick on? Was my face now too ugly from all the slapping? At that point in my life I didn’t care, I was simply happy to be left alone.

Somehow, my experience with bullying didn’t cause many tangible or severe psychological consequences. While I experienced a fair amount of anxiety leaving school, that dissipated after the bully moved on to other things. In that way, I was very fortunate. Others are not so lucky.

A colleague of mine recently referred to bullying as “all the rage.” “With the internet, the increasing narcissism and self-absorbtion in the world, the publicly announced suicides connected to Cyber-bullying, this is the new phenomenon for us to focus on,” he said. While some argue that bullying is nothing new to society, there is little debate that bullying has received increased attention in the media. It is, in fact, worthy of more professional study and intervention than previously given.

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines bullying as “aggressive behavior that is intended to cause harm or distress, occurs repeatedly over time, and occurs in a relationship in which there is am imbalance of power or strength.” It can take many forms, such as physical violence, name-calling, teasing, Cyber-bullying, intimidation and social exclusion. And while bullying can occur in settings such as the home, workplace or higher education (e.g., hazing in fraternities and sororities), here we will focus on children and their peer relationships. And it is worth noting that some researchers have suggested twice as many children are bullied in school than in any other location. And, according to the National Center of Educational Statistics, bullying occurs more in middle/junior high schools than in high school.

Most people have some idea of who bullies and the victims are, as well as the psychological effects of bullying. And many theorists have ideas as to why bullying occurs. But what do we really know about this phenomenon? I shall summarize the literature as concisely as possible. Please note that, unless otherwise stated, this information has been reported by the APA.

– 90% of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of some form of bullying. Boys are more physically aggressive, while girls tend to use verbal or emotional forming of bullying. The APA estimates that one in four boys who bully will have a criminal record by age 30.

– Bullies tend to be impulsive, easily frustrated and dominant. They view violence positively and often have friends who are also bullies. Children are more likely to bully if there is a lack of warmth and personal involvement at home, and in homes with harsh physical discipline.

– In 1993, Dan Olweus, Ph.D. reported that although envy and resentment may be motives for bullying, there is little evidence to suggest that bullies have low self-esteem. However, bullying can be used as a tool to conceal and boost self-esteem: by demeaning others, the abuser feels empowered. Surprisingly, bullies have little trouble making friends, and these friends often share pro-violence attitudes and problematic behaviors.

– Victims of bullying are often cautious, sensitive, insecure and have difficulty with assertion. Victims of abuse, whether it be neglect, physical, emotional or sexual abuse, are more likely to be bullied by peers.

– Bullying psychologically impacts both parties. Bullying behavior has been linked to other anti-social behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, truancy and substance abuse. Victims often suffer humiliation, low self-esteem, mood/anxiety issues and thoughts of suicide. It can also impact learning in school, and I’ve noted in my own practice a ‘replay’ of the dynamic between bully and victim well into adulthood. In other words, this isn’t an experience that a child necessarily ‘gets over’ as he or she grows up. In fact, a study by Dr. Kivimaki in 2000 of more than 5,000 hospital staff showed those that had been bullied had 26% more certified sickness absences than those who were not bullied. This suggests a physical/health-related component to bullying.

Unfortunately, we seem to know much more about bullies and their victims than we do about intervention and treatment. That said, all is not lost, and some helpful steps forward have been taken.

– Much of the literature around bullying suggests that the most success can be found at the school-level, using preventative techniques that are utilized by the entire school community. The American Psychological Association (APA) suggests schools develop a very specific code of conduct, citing that awareness by any and all parties can decrease the act. A school with a strong social norm against bullying, and one with adult supervision during breaks, often has much less bullying on campus. In other words, the climate of the school needs to be one of intolerance and specific follow-through on bullying behavior, rather than an approach that simply attempts to work with individual bullies and isolated incidents.

– The APA encourages that students report incidents of bullying with promises of anonymity. Student watch programs with trained student volunteers are also promoted. Students who are trained in conflict resolution and assertiveness may be less victimized by bullying.

– There are many general treatment options for bullies and their victims, but these don’t appear to have a strong research backing. For example, Multisystemic Therapy – which is a family-based approach to promote positive social behavior – has been effective for certain conduct disorders, but has not been thoroughly tested for bullying. Also, Cognitive-Behavior Therapy is often used to treat the low mood and poor self-esteem found in victims of bullying, but is not considered a clearly effective treatment to help children against being bullied per se.

What this currently means, then, is that prevention is far more likely to be effective than treatment. School leaders need to be on the same page and consistent with their approach to bullying. Researchers and therapists need to be developing therapeutic techniques for both bullies and the victims. Parents must be supportive, encourage communication and educate their kids on the effects of bullying to decrease the likelihood they become either victims or perpetrators. No one person or entity will hold the solution here. We all need to be involved.

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One Response to “Bullying: What we Know and what we can Do”

  1. Dr. Rob, the female bullying you described above is often known as relational aggression. The premise of relational aggression is to inflict emotional/social harm, not physical harm, on the victim through the systemic destruction of a peer’s relationships with other peers/people. The result of this aggression is often the ostricization of the victim from his/her peer group. The Ophelia Project (http://www.opheliaproject.org/) is a great resource for those interested in this type of bullying.