Bullies, Allies and Victims

Ideas and opinions about what constitutes bullying and how it is best addressed remain wide-ranging and emotionally charged. But research shows that the long-term effects of bullying go far beyond bruised or bolstered egos. What can parents do to help break or, better still, prevent the bullying cycle?

Every year when the World Day of Bullying Prevention peeks over the October horizon, the year’s bullying research gets a thorough going-over by school administrators, parents and politicians. It isn’t that no one cares the rest of the year; rather, having an “awareness day” gives everyone a chance to take stock. How far have we come? What have we learned? Are we all on the same page?

The last question is the easiest to answer. In the main, yes, at least if you’re looking at research; there is fairly solid agreement about what is now known and what we have yet to learn about bullying. But when it comes to gut-level opinion, there are some rather disheartening viewpoints to be found.

One surprisingly popular view is that we are making too much of bullying. It’s a normal human instinct, the reasoning goes; let the kids fight it out. This “survival of the fittest” mindset is a natural one, certainly. Never mind whether we understand what it means to be “fittest” or how far our definition of the concept might take us in fulfilling our highest potential.

To some, human potential doesn’t enter into the equation, however. Why not simply accept what we are without trying to be something we’re not? “Instead of preaching kindness,” writes Liel Leibovitz, a senior writer for Tablet magazine, “we should realize, as the Bible did long ago, that we’re all bullies.” The best advice, he says, is to “give in to that reality.” Like many who argue that our basest instincts steer us best, he points to personal experience to support his position—an appeal that never fails to resonate. If it’s “our” experience and we survived, it must be universal. It must be good. It must be right. It must be intended somehow.

Leibovitz learned about bullying at the age of six when an older boy demanded that he surrender a favorite toy or face a fight the next day. That evening, his father gave him what he recalls as “words to live by.”

Without a trace of emotion in his voice,” Leibovitz remembers, “my father instructed me to go to school the following day, face the aggressor, and unleash upon him every bit of terrible violence and holy rage I could muster.” Liel did; he bloodied the bully’s nose and was expelled for his trouble, but that was of little consequence. When he returned to school, he says, he reigned “triumphant” and secured his place forever among those who would never be bullied again.

The takeaway lesson for Leibovitz was that “attempting to make children preternaturally nice to one another is very much like trying to convince puppies to chew with their mouths closed—we may succeed, but we would have ruined what makes them such jolly beasts.” In his view, bullying behaviors are normal, natural; we attempt them to see how far we can go, and if the victim stops it, balance is maintained. If not, well, presumably the victim gets what he (or she) deserves. Survival of the fittest is the highest justice in some quarters, it seems. “Rather than forbid malice,” he concludes, “let us instead teach our kids to strike back. They’ll be much happier if the biblical justice was allowed to prevail, unimpeded, in the schoolyard. After all, they were born this way.”

Unfortunately, current research contradicts the assumption that children’s happiness will be ensured if parents leave them to “fight it out.” But, whether one agrees that humanity was “born this way” or not, or that bullying has anything in common with biblical justice or is part of what makes children such “jolly beasts,” researchers would agree with one implication in Leibovitz’s assessment: bullying is about establishing power and control. In fact, the definition of bullying most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm.

This may sound simple enough on the surface, but each component of this definition is multifaceted.

Persistent Aggression

The recurring nature of the aggressive behavior is important to note. Without considering a persistent pattern of behavior, one would have to conclude with Leibovitz that “we’re all bullies.” We’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives. And the aggressive behavior need not be physical in nature to meet the definition of bullying.

One of the most common stereotypes of bullying portrayed in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. But this is only one way of expressing aggression. Passive aggressive behavior is so called not because it isn’t overt and must therefore be less harmful. It’s still a play for control, but it tends to be used by those who perceive themselves as relatively powerless in comparison to others, or who are afraid that exerting overt control may threaten their status or image. In the classic bullying stereotype usually assigned to girls, groups of “in” girls ostracize “out” girls, inflicting an exquisite form of emotional pain.

There is no gesture more devastating than the back turning away,” observes Rachel Simmons, educator and founder of the Girls Leadership Institute. UCLA researchers reported on this phenomenon in 2003, finding that social exclusion registers much like physical pain in brain imaging with fMRI. More than one recent study corroborates this. In 2011, University of Michigan researchers traced the pain of betrayal and physical pain to the same sensory regions in the brain, and in February 2014, researchers in Trieste, Italy, reported that not only do social pain and physical pain affect some of the same brain circuitry, but this is true whether the pain is experienced personally or vicariously (through empathy with another victim).

Nevertheless, writes Eric Jaffe for the Association for Psychological Science, “it’s not quite accurate to say that physical and social pain are exactly the same. As other research suggests, social pain may actually be much worse in the long run. A kick to the groin might feel just as bad as a breakup in the moment, but while the physical aching goes away, the memory of lost love can linger forever.”

Balance of Power

It isn’t always the biggest brain or baddest brawn that rules the roost in bullying dynamics. Power imbalances may be real or perceived, and when they exist among children they may not be easily recognized by adults. In a 2004 study published in the journal Children & Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children considered by adults to be friends and equals.

Some imbalances may even be a by-product of unconscious parental favoritism. For instance, in their efforts to prevent a potential power imbalance, parents may actually create one by consistently favoring the youngest sibling in the family. Or we may align ourselves with and thus give power to that child who is most like us—or who is least like us, if that makes it easier to get along with him or her.

Power imbalances may also arise from inequities embedded in a culture. In fact, according to one interesting piece of research, there is a correlation between a nation’s bullying problem and the gap between rich and poor in that country.

No Harm Intended?

Perhaps the greyest area of all in defining bullying is the phrase intent to harm. Intentions may not always be easy to determine, and harm may be physical or emotional. Further, intent to favor may be almost as detrimental as intent to harm; for example, new research tells us that racism is often prompted by favoritism to one’s own group rather than outright hostility toward outsiders, but it causes effects similar to those of bullying in its victims. If exclusion can be used as a form of aggression, certainly favoritism becomes suspect, because it is nothing if not exclusionary. Like a schoolgirl turning her back on an outcast to giggle with her “besties,” or a parent playing favorites among offspring, we effectively bully the underdog when we show partiality to an in-group, to those who help us establish or maintain our power, status or control.

Whether bullying occurs through partiality to the in-group or malice toward the out-group, its effects can be devastating and long-lasting for everyone involved. As one might expect, the lion’s share of the harm is visited on victims and on those who have been on both sides of the equation—as bully and victim, or bully-victim. In terms of physical health and job success, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, “pure bullies, who don’t get victimized themselves, tend to fare pretty well.”

Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives.”

Dieter Wolke et al., “Impact of Bullying in Childhood on Adult Health, Wealth, Crime, and Social Outcomes”

Nevertheless, in one recent study Wolke found that those who are pure bullies in childhood do face an increased risk of psychotic experiences as adults. And even if they don’t suffer mental or physical health problems, bullies may never know what they’re missing in terms of relationship quality. Those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

For victims and bully-victims the effects are wide-ranging: not only do they suffer higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the risk of self-harm in late adolescence.” The effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression. Victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder.

Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Rite of Passage

When considered as a whole, the evidence contradicts the idea that children might be happier if parents were to let them duke it out in the schoolyard. It also contradicts the popular idea that bullying is a rite of passage, a harmless and necessary part of growing up that helps kids learn how to deal with life in the real world.

Everything that is known about the competencies that prepare children for success, for physical and mental health—for dealing with life in the “real world”—points to the importance of teaching them prosocial behavior. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, onlookers—not only adults but also peers—should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can and should be taught constructive problem-solving skills, whether they interact on a bus, on a playground, at school or online, but aggressive, controlling behavior should not be ignored. Bullying is far from harmless and can impede rather than encourage the process of growing up.

But “it’s very important to make a difference between bullying and conflict,” points out Wolke. “Bullying is done with the intention of doing harm; it’s done repeatedly, and it’s usually done to someone who is weaker or thinks that they’re weaker.” On the other hand, he says, conflict is a difference of opinion that can arise between children, between friends, and also with parents, and parents should be using these experiences to teach children where the limits are.

The inescapable truth is that if children aren’t taught positive conflict-resolution skills, leaving them to work it out is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to migrate from conflict to bullying.

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools and other institutions calls for a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. One growing movement, for example, calls on students to become “allies” (of the bully’s target) rather than “bystanders” (those who watch but do nothing). Because most bullies perform in front of an audience, this is a logical place to begin.

And while it’s not easy for children—or even adults—to change overnight from bystanders to allies, the good news is that prevention efforts like these really can help. Institutionally, they work best when there are clear guidelines about what to do and which authority figures to consult when bullying occurs. To be effective, antibullying efforts must be aimed at the culture as a whole: programs that focus only on individual bullies don’t fare as well. And school administrators and community leaders need to be consistent in promoting positive social behaviors while refusing to tolerate bullying. But as a growing body of research is beginning to tell us, successful bullying prevention is not just a topic for schools and communities. Parents also have a part to play in laying the groundwork for bullying prevention—long before their children ever turn up on the school playground.

It’s pretty clear that parenting behavior is related to the likelihood that you become a victim, particularly if you had harsh parenting.”

Dieter Wolke, Vision Interview

One 2013 study, for instance, found that when parents give their children opportunities to learn how to solve problems constructively in a warm, supportive atmosphere with clear boundaries (known as authoritative parenting), the likelihood of becoming either a victim or a perpetrator of bullying is reduced. In contrast, authoritarian parenting (characterized by harsh, negative parenting practices, including neglect) was associated with increases in bullying experiences.

The effects of harsh parenting were associated with not only the victims but also the perpetrators of bullying. Nevertheless, children who are exposed to negative parenting—including abuse and neglect but also overprotection—are more likely to become victims.

The role of overprotection isn’t as clear as it might seem on the surface. Certainly it could be that children who are overprotected fail to develop autonomy and confidence. But it may also be that parents become overprotective in response to children who are less assertive. Either way, children can be taught constructive social skills at home that will support organized bullying prevention efforts in the wider community.

How can parents work toward this? Besides making sure they model empathy and cooperation in their own relationships, there are many ways to actively encourage children to develop prosocial skills. But there are three basic prerequisites:

Children need fairly regular access to one another. If they have no playmates to practice with, the principles parents teach are simply an academic exercise. Playmates can be siblings, or they can be friends who share their interests and skill levels.

Children need recreational time for creative play. Playtime is a prime training ground for learning how to interact in supportive ways. Having fun together cements relationships and offers rich opportunities to develop social skills and behavioral and emotional regulation.

Children need supervision appropriate to their age level and interpersonal skills. When conflicts arise, adults can use them as a teaching tool to demonstrate the principles behind resolution strategies and how to apply them. Those providing supervision should also establish clear consequences for behavior that demonstrates disrespect for others. It should go without saying that violent, abusive or humiliating treatment should never be tolerated between children, nor should it be demonstrated by parents.

Don’t walk on the poor just because they’re poor, and don’t use your position to crush the weak.”

Proverbs 22:22, The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language

Children learn a great deal about conflict resolution as they interact with peers, but these skills aren’t instinctive. Adults must set clear expectations and intervene appropriately to prevent “ordinary” conflict from developing into chronic aggression.

The same principles apply for children in their sibling relationships. Siblings offer children their earliest peer experiences and may be the wellspring for patterns that underlie bullying behavior. If these relationships are rife with bickering, sarcasm, rivalry and competition, parents may want to ask themselves some searching questions: Do I model the behavior I want to see in my children? Do I encourage competition through unintentional preferential treatment or by comparing one child to another? Do I help my children identify and appreciate their unique strengths? Do I notice and acknowledge their effort when they try to do well, even if they don’t succeed perfectly? Do I use positive reinforcement more often than punishment in my childrearing? Discipline may include consequences for bad behavior, but if reacting to bad behavior is the main tool in our parenting arsenal, we are missing some of our best opportunities to teach prosocial behavior.

We learn best from those we love, and we look for feedback that tells us we are succeeding in their expectations of us. As parents learn to love and appreciate each child uniquely and respond to his or her needs without partiality, they are likely to find that children will mirror their outlook, reflecting it in relationships with siblings, playmates and classmates. We may not be able to completely bully-proof our children, but we can raise a generation that values empathy and compassion and refuses to accept bullying as a necessary part of growing up.