Should We Rethink Bullying? Bullies, the Bullied and Mean Girls

Simon Battensby / Getty Images from Time Magazine
Despite lots of public attention, a profusion of anti-bullying programs, legislation and research, bullying doesn't appear to have stopped or for that matter, waned though it might not have increased depending on who you ask.  But still, it hasn't disappeared. 

Have we gotten something wrong?  

Take a look at this recent unusually(?) clear-eyed article in Time magazine distilling some new angles on bullying.  Rather, some issues that have perplexed educators, psychologists and parents who've spent time thinking about bullying but have too often been neglected in the debate:   

What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?

Studies show that kids who are involved in bullying — bullies, victims and a third subgroup of particularly problematic kids who engage in both behaviors and are referred to as bully-victims — are more likely to have started out with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that predispose them to lashing out and to self-harm.  Should We Re-Think Our Anti-Bullying Strategy, Time, September 28.
It's become a no-brainer to think of bullies as being messed up from a psychological perspective.  It's easy to see bullies as deficient in key social and emotional skills. You know, the bad seed of the preschool and playground.

But what about their targets?

As a mom and a psychologist over the years I can't help but wonder about the traits, especially in younger children, that might make some kids more vulnerable.  I've thought about this since my undergrad days (and some grad involvement) in studies involving survivors of sexual assault and other abuse.  The perps shared traits as did their targets.  To ask this question about victims in no way "blames" these kids but provides a doorway into potentially preventing their abuse. There's some evidence that kids involved in bullying - both as targets, perpetrators and those that become both - show deficits in social competence, self awareness and emotional awareness.  There's also evidence of depression and anxiety preceding the bullying.  Of course there must be traits that separate these groups too. I've not seen much written up about the targets - so much has focused on the profile of the perp and the psychological aftermath for the target- but will check out the review cited in the Time article. 

It's not been politically correct to fixate on the target's prior mental health.

Anyhow, I'm particularly fascinated by the group of kids who are both bullies and bullied.  These kids show up in study after study, survey after survey, birthday party after birthday party (!!!) reminders that not only is this bullying a knotty business, but again, there are likely substantial differences between those targets who become bullies and those who stay targets.

Nor is it clear what constitutes bullying.

Take this related quandary.  Bullying versus disliking someone.  Are they the same? When does simple dislike turn into bullying? What's the difference between having an adversarial relationship and bullying?      

How about this new research finding certain to provide headaches to principals and guidance counselors trying to implement anti-bullying laws and programs:  Having an enemy might indicate better social/emotional adjustment.  Kids who share mutual dislike (i.e. two kids that both dislike each other) are better liked by their peers and better behaved in the classroom according to teachers.  So in fact there's an upside to dislike. 

Also couldn't help but think about typical mean-girl behavior.  Is that bullying or the expression of advanced social development? It's not like those girls show deficits in social skills.  According to one recent study it's the friend of the It Girl, the girl doing the bidding of the Queen Bee. That who's going all mean-girl - trying to find that reference, anyone recall that one? 
If you're interested, the other research is cited in the Time article.  Can't seem to find the cited 2009 article about mutual dislike, at least the cited author's 2009 study in PubMed doesn't seem like the one discussed in the article. Might email the author.  So of course I'm wondering if the mutual dislike findings got put in the paper at all or were merely an interesting aside.

So I'd love to see some fresh material in the anti-bullying programs.  Basically stale right now. anyone have good materials?  My mother remembers the worksheets I got recently - from like twenty years ago.  Is that the outcome of our bullying prevention to date?  Other than throwing down some vague legislation that confuses everyone?

BTW, anyone catch Harvard psychologist  Stephen Pinker on NPR today talking about the decline of violence?  He mentioned our current focus on bullying.  As he put it back in the day "boys were boys" and we accepted bullying as ordinary playground antics.  Today, however, just like violence, we've become sensitized to bullying and cruelty - in a good way - and thus are more aware and disdainful of these acts.  He'd probably argue there's less bullying now then ever.      


Anonymous said...

In my experience kids know which kids to pick on. As a teacher I can pick them out too.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Anony! That suggests indeed there is something recognizable in the children who end up as targets. Any guess what those traits are?

TherExtras said...

I'd like to see some descriptive data on adult bullies. Micromanagers and gossipers who undermine coworkers. Manipulative relatives and domineering in-laws. Boys will be boys. yea.


Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Barbara! As usual, you've pointed out the inherent contradiction. It does seem odd to think of all the bullying laws and such when we have adults behaving badly in so many arenas. Of course children are more vulnerable and all but still...reality tv, exhibit 1, 2 and 255...

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Oh, and women, women....

MrPopularSentiment said...

I was bullied as a kid. I don't mean a little teasing, but full on alternating between wanting to commit suicide and fearing for my life kind of bullying.

And yes, I was a "victim." It didn't matter how many times my parents put me in different schools, I'd barely last the day before I had attracted every bully in my new environment.

I think that it started for two reasons. The first is that we lived out in the country while I came from a family of PhDs. My vocabulary was totally different from that of my classmates, my family's politics were different, I reeked of oddity. The second factor is that I'm an introvert. I love being around people and I'm very chatty, but I can only take so much before I need some quiet time to "recharge my batteries." Eight hours of school was too long. By about midday, I'd start to feel very nervous/anxious, I'd be withdrawn, I'd even lash out physically if anyone tried too hard to interact with me. All I needed was 20 minutes in a quiet room, but there was no way a public school was able to accommodate that.

Once the bullying started, I developed what I refer to as a "victim complex." I would interpret ordinary playground banter as threats, I would assume negative motives where none may have been meant. I was conditioned to do so. And I reacted it. And my reactions were, apparently, hilarious to my classmates.

I maintain that all of this would have been nipped in the bud had my parents understood what was going on and taken me out of school for a few months while focusing on teaching me coping strategies. As it is, they just wrung their hands asking themselves why their daughter couldn't be "normal" and kept moving me around from school to school.

It took me a long time to learn how to interact with people again. It wasn't until I was in my 20s that I finally stopped assuming that everyone was making fun of me or about to hit me.

I agree completely that anti-bullying programs cannot focus only on the bullies. Without blaming victims, these kids do need to be taught how not to victimize themselves. They need to be taught how to interact normally so that they don't make themselves targets.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thank you, MrPop for sharing your story. It puts bullying into perspective in a way that no study could. Several children I knew and know came to mind reading and it suggests we should and could do much more to identify and help children who might be bulllied ("at risk").

Goodness knows we haven't had much success trying to change the bullies (who sometimes turn out to be victims too).

Thank you and I'm very sorry you had to experience it all first hand.