Food for Thought: Understanding bullying

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Bullying is physical or psychological intimidation that occurs repeatedly. The purpose is to inflict injury or discomfort on the victim and create an on going pattern of harassment or abuse.

Bullying includes teasing, taunting, threatening, and hitting. It can also mean isolating the victim by intentionally excluding him/ her or spreading rumors about the victim.

Bullying is far more prevalent than most people think. A nationally representative study of 15,686 students in grades six through 10, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 285, No. 16) is among the most recent to document the scope of bullying in U.S. schools.

In the study, psychologist Tonja R. Nansel, Ph.D, and colleagues found that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied “sometimes” or more frequently during the school term. About 19 percent reported bullying others “sometimes” or more often. And six percent reported both bullying and having been bullied.

Nansel and colleagues also found that bullying occurs most frequently from sixth to eighth grade, and extends into high school with little variation between urban, suburban, town and rural areas. Males are more likely to be physically bullied, while females are more likely to be verbally or psychologically bullied.

The bullying relationship is characterized by an imbalance of power. The child who bullies is typically bigger, older, stronger or more popular than the victim. The intent is to exert power over the victim.

Girls who bully through exclusion tend to have more social power than their victims. The bully is aware his or her behavior causes distress, the bully enjoys the victim’s reaction, and the bullying continues and escalates. The bully hurts others in order to feel strong.

There are two types of victims - passive and reactive victims. The passive victim avoids confrontation, turns inward when bullied and withdraws rather than fight back. The reactive victim is aggressive, antagonistic, and fights back when bullied, but sometimes focuses his/her anger on others and bullies them. Thus, they become bullies themselves.

Research from the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on school shootings, including Columbine, found that almost three-quarters of student shooters felt bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others. In fact, several shooters reported experiencing long-term and severe bullying and harassment from their peers.

Bullying is not a normal part of growing up. Victims report greater fear and anxiety, feel less accepted, suffer more health problems and have lower self esteem. Frequently, victims turn their anger inward, which may lead to depression, anxiety and even suicide. Other victims(reactive) often become violent.

Bullies fail to learn how to cope, manage their emotions, and communicate effectively - skills vital to the adult world.

Without intervention, bullies suffer stunted emotional growth and fail to develop empathy.

Child bullies develop into adult bullies who are more likely to have legal problems and be abusive toward their spouses and children; perhaps continuing the cycle of bullying.

In my next article I will discuss some steps to take if your child is being bullied.

— Dr. Leta A. Livoti Ph.D, LCSW, LCPC is a psychotherapist in Thompson Falls.

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