Simon Battensby / Getty Images from Time Magazine
What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?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.
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.
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.