The topic of bullying is one that has garnered a lot of attention in the last few years. Events like the shooting at Columbine High School, and the tragedies that were the deaths of Pheobe Prince and Tyler Clementi certainly helped move the topic to the front page as opposed to page six. Bullying is violence; a violence that is pervasive, painful, and that negatively impacts all involved, not just the victims. For many individuals, their more traumatic memories of childhood are those of being victimized, or bullied, in school. While bullying can occur throughout age ranges, it is the bullying that transpires during childhood and adolescence that will be the focus of this article.
But what really is bullying? Every time you turn on the television, or read an article in the paper, it seems that someone else is creating a definition of what bullying is and what it can do to individuals. So, let’s break it down. Bullying is a form of aggression that is directed toward the dominance of another person. A person is considered to be the victim of bullying when he or she is repeatedly and over time exposed to negative actions (the intentional infliction of injury or discomfort) by one or more other people. As we know bullying is an aggressive behavior, but it is important to truly understand what an aggressive behavior is and how it does not only mean pushing a kid down in the playground. Aggressive behaviors can be either direct (e.g. open attacks, both physical and verbal) or indirect and psychological (e.g., intentional exclusion from a group, starting rumors, etc.). Indirect bullying centers more on impacting social relationships than direct bullying. Cyber bullying can fit into either category, depending on the form and content of the act.
Now that we know what bullying is, we have to understand the players. We used to believe that there was a bully, there was a victim and that was that. More recently (late 1980’s early 90’s) we realized that there was more to the story. In reality, there are the people that are “pure” victims; those that are only the victims of bullying. There are also those that are “pure” bullies; those that only bully others. Also discovered were people who can fall into both the victim and bully camp, depending on the day, the situation and those they are around. Those people get called bully/victims customarily. Finally, we have the bystanders. There are several types of bystanders, but in general, they are the people who are around when the bullying happens and are engaged in the act in one way or another (all the way from helping the bully to standing up for the victim). While as a community we are highly aware of the impact of bullying on the victims, we must remember that bullying has negative consequences for the victims, the bullies, and the bystanders and therefore it must be understood and taken seriously by all of us.
In the mental health world, we have long been aware of the negative impact of bullying on those that are victimized. The largest impact, and the one so often portrayed on TV falls onto the so called “passive victims.” The characteristics of these passive victims are that they tend to be submissive, nonassertive, socially isolated, physical weak and have low levels of self-esteem. When such individuals are the victims of bullies, the results can be anxiety, depression, loneliness, truancy and dropping out of school. Such consequences do not end when the bullying does, but rather can remain with an individual for most of their lives. As I mentioned earlier, though, the lasting impact is not only on the victims.
Bullies across the world are characterized by three distinct features. For one, they tend to have little control of their emotional and behavioral responses. Secondly, bullies typically have an aggressive personality pattern, coupled with a tendency to act aggressively in many situations. Finally, they have both an accepting and promotional attitude towards violence. Bullies tend to display the need for dominance and self-assertion as well as having a propensity to be impulsive in their actions. For the bullies, the value in their behavior lies within the control over others that they receive. While it would be very easy to villainize a bully and wish for their downfall, as many reality TV shows do, we must remember that there may also be negative consequences for those that bully. Overall, being labeled as a bully when younger may be a significant predictor of dropping out of school, increased engagement in criminal activity, as well as having an increased likelihood of substance abuse. As for the bystanders, the negative consequences they may face depends on the type of bystander that they were.
While the outcomes of bullying behavior can be quite scary, it is not set in stone that this must occur. Everyone plays a role in what direction bullying takes. Schools, parents, children, mental health workers, and really all humans must take a stand against bullying if we are to make real headway into solving this epidemic.
The responsibility of the schools (administrator, teachers, etc.) is to provide a safe school environment in which teachers can teach and students can learn. There are many ways by which schools can create a safe environment. However, some of the most important traits are that the entire school staff is committed to the anti-bullying campaign and that there is a strong declaration (with clear definitions and rules) in the school that opposes bullying and harassment in any form. Coming up with such declarations can be very difficult; therefore, it is often useful to employ a consultant to help determine the individual needs of each school and each district.
Parental responsibility can begin with being aware of not adopting the “kids will be kids” attitude and thereby inadvertently condoning bullying behaviors. Talking to your children about bullying and helping them understand why it can be so destructive may also play an important preventive factor, as well as teaching children to stand up for themselves in prosocial ways. Additionally, taking actions if and when your child has been identified as a bully, victim or a bystander and assisting them in “doing the right thing.” Learning that your child is involved in bullying, regardless of the manner in which they are involved, can be a very disconcerting thing. Know that it is ok to feel overwhelmed and ask for help from those who can guide you in the best responses. When in need, involve mental health workers who can help you and your child navigate the vicious world that is bullying.
The world of bullying can be cruel and complex. Many have questioned if anything can be done to prevent the tragedies that seem to be all over the place. The great thing, however, is that it only takes one person who will stand up for another, one person who will look at their own behavior or one person who will say no more for themselves to make a local difference. Just imagine what could happen if we all did it.