Friday, September 24, 2010

The School Bully! How to help your Kids overcome; and what if your Kid is the Bully?

Bullying is defined as aggressive words or acts that are repetitively focused towards target individuals creating an unequal power balance (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). The typical bully is stronger physically, socially, and verbally while more aggressive than his or her peers in a negative manner towards target individuals (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). Passive onlookers appear to incite and perseverate the bullying behavior by the aggressor while increasing the humiliation for the victim (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). So, what does all this mean? It means that technically, if a group of children are harassing a child, that is not necessarily the definition of bullying, rather that is a form of "mob action" or discrimination. However, if one child is the instigator and perpetrating the harassment, while the group just encourage or incite, than it could be considered bullying. Why the technicalities? Well, because a close examination of the dynamics of the relationship can allow professionals and parents to intervene by knowing what is driving the behavior. The bully is no longer the big kid in the army green jacket on the sidewalk stealing the first graders lunch money, that is just an icon. The bully is sometimes the one a parent least suspects like the teen on the debate team, or the kid who works at the local McDonald's after school. It is not size or appearance that drives the bully, it is the inner psychological experiences.

Remember when your parents would say, "just stand up to the bully, then they will leave you alone?". In some cases this may be true, but you have to understand the force behind that child's behavior first. Why? Because standing up to the bully may actually lead to ongoing and perpetual torment if the bully is humiliated, they may be driven by a need to regain that perceived social respect, therefore until they can make your child cower, they do not see that they have regained that social presence they once had.

The bully has to be understood as a victim, also.  This may seem like a lot to ask of a parent who watches their child leave for school every morning with true terror in their eyes, but bullying is a social problem and has to be addressed as such in order to cease the aggression.  So, what drives the bully? The bully or aggressor has some universal characteristics such as low self concept, decreased parental supervision, and has decreased problem solving skills (MacNeill & Newell, 2004).   Often, the bully is currently, or has witnessed or suffered from emotional or physical abuse at home (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). Decreased problem solving skills and low self concept may be related to a family structure  that is volatile or lacking in presence.  Most often, the bully’s emotional and social needs are not being met. Social and emotional competence is critical not only for school performance but for life in general (Hymel & Ford, 2003). Bullies are often outcasts themselves or needing to be recognized and admired by peers is the driving force behind the bullying behavior. Bullying is a form of physical and psychological intimidation, thus an intervention needs to address why they feel the need to overpower or assert their power over others (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). This is critical for future academic success as socio emotional behaviors better predict school performance than any other relative factors (Hymel & Ford, 2003).
How does the bully choose the victim?  The victim generally has physical attributes which create a focus for the bully such as decreased physical abilities, weight issues, smaller body, younger or weaker presence, poor social skills, etc. (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). Not all victims have attributes that are deemed as "weakness", but the bully will rarely go after the star quarterback, if you get my point.  Rather the bully may have an innate jealousy at the victim for doing well in academics, when they themselves are struggling.  The bully will look for any weakness that they can exploit, as this helps them feel better about their own attributes. Another aspect that can drive the bully to pick on others is shear frustration and rage with their own life situation.  I think we all know that there is a point when you reach your limit, and then you explode!  As adults, our mature problem solving skills and ability to self regulate allows us to control that "explosion".  For the bully who suffers from inability to cope of utilize strategies to problem solve, this overwhelming displaced aggression will need to find a target- thus the victim emerges.    

Another factor which must be present for these aggressive attacks to occur is opportunity such as a physical environment and time to engage in the act.   How do we eliminate this?  There is no clear cut answer- but as a parent you have to really look at the environment that your child is exposed to.  Are there woods near the school that the kids cut through walking to and from school?  Are there parking lots or alleys near the school?  Are there unsupervised areas in the school itself?  Behind the gym or in corridors and hallways?  Is there a big empty space near the lunchroom?  These are all places that kids will typically migrate towards to get away from watchful teachers, and if these places are in the direct path to or from point A to B, then they offer a great opportunity for children to be victimized. 
Structure needs to be evaluated, decreasing the available opportunities and places for bullying behavior to occur (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). Schools should remove areas that are isolated; supervision should be increased between classes, during breaks, in outside areas and bathrooms, etc. Structured activities need to be available to distract from aggressive opportunities. A negative stigma attached to the aggressors will remove the satisfaction received from the behavior.

Finally, an audience or bystanders seem to fuel the aggression and purposeful perpetration of humiliation on the victim, thus removing this component may decrease the instances of bullying behavior. The bully is attempting to gain social recognition, and if the social component is removed, there is nothing to gain by the act.  Again, these bully's are not after the kid's lunch money like we used to see on Leave it to Beaver. These children and teens are suffering from some form of psychological pain and are attempting to alleviate it by distraction, release of anger, gaining some sort of social power, or to "balance the scales" in an atypical fashion (i.e. there life is so miserable, so someone else is going to suffer the same unpleasantness).

Once you understand the dynamics, how do you recognize that your child is a victim?  Often kids and teens will hide this from their parents because of shame or fear of parents interfering.  Rarely do these children ask for help from the school personnel.  Some indicators that a child is being victimized include anxiety about school,  inability to concentrate or enjoy school environment, will often develop psychosomatic illnesses, etc in an avoidance response to the school environment (MacNeill & Newell, 2004). Individuals who feel rejected or friendless are at risk for academic performance, absenteeism, truancy and other school failures (Hymel & Ford, 2003). During the adolescent years, peer relationships become critical to adolescent development (Berk, 2008). Therefore, to have a positive sense of identity and positive self esteem, the adolescent needs fulfilling and rewarding relationships during adolescents. Feelings of inadequacy when comparing self to peers, and perceptions of how others observe them may lead to feelings of worthlessness and depression.

It is imperative that an intervention focus on the aggressor and not the victim.  Never should the victim be told that if they rid themselves of those characteristics the bully is targeting, it will all be fine (i.e. if the bully is picking on a child who has glasses, is shy or withdrawn, etc.)  Too often parents tell the child to "just stand up for yourself and he will leave you alone", again, this may not be true and cause the behavior to escalate.   School personnel may tell the child or teen to make friends or become more social and then the bully will leave them alone, yet for a shy child this prospect can be as terrifying as the bully.  However, the idea of having the victim find social allies is a key factor in preventing bullying, but the victim may not be able to achieve this on their own.

One way to promote a positive sense of self with victims is to have peers intervene in the bullying. Creating a climate where students intervene, assist and support victims will ultimately decrease instances of bullying behavior by removing the audience that feeds the aggressor. Awareness and empathy exercises or programs should be implemented to teach understanding of other’s social and emotional needs. Adolescence is a time of perspective taking and increased ability to recognize and understand other’s feelings, thus, it is a prime time to instill these values.  So, how do parents and the schools promote a bully deterrent environment?  Some schools have tried programs like Peer Advocates where teens or children receive special trainings and attend programs to help them recognize and observe negative behaviors amongst their peers.  These advocates then intervene and decrease the "cool" factor related to the bullying actions.  Other interventions should include ongoing social skills trainings for youth in the schools, provided by the schools, which teach kids to recognize and understand the psychological trauma of the victim and even the pain of the bully.  The school and social climate must become one that attaches a negative stigma to bullying behaviors.  The peer population have the power to cease bullying behaviors by not feeding into them, intervening, and denouncing the aggression.  Similar to "stop the violence", "just say no to drugs", etc. an initiative that is adopted by the school population that does not accept bullying behavior will decrease the incidents.

Ultimately, a negative stigma attached to the aggressors will remove the satisfaction received from the bullying behavior.

Now that we have talked about bullying in the physical environment, how do we keep our kids safe from the cyber bullying?  We will talk about this next time!  I welcome your comments and look forward to hearing about your experiences and situations- share a story and help someone who may be going through the same thing! 

Valerie Poling


Berk, L. E. (2008). Infants, Children, and Adolescents. Boston: Pearson Publishing.

Hymel, S., & Ford, L. (2003). School Completion and Academic Success- Impact of Early Social Emotional Competence. Encyclopedia on Early Childhood Development .

MacNeill, G. A., & Newell, J. M. (2004). School Bullying: Who, Why, and What to Do. Prevention Researcher , 15-22.

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