This paper was published in the March 2017 issue of the Pennsylvania Psychologist:
There is evidence of bullying occurring in ancient times, if we believe our myths and literature to be reflective of actual experience. In Homer’s great work, The Odyssey, Telemachos appears as a pitiful figure—as a boy, prior to receiving Athena’s support, he is repeatedly humiliated and shamed by the coarse suitors of Penelope, who slaughter his family’s livestock, grow drunk on wine, and curse him with impetuous threats. He is left powerless, isolated, and distressed.
Let’s imagine three more modern scenarios: 1) an unemployed woman rages at her recently laid off husband in a moment of frustrated fury, as she has entreated him to empty the overflowing trash bins for the past three days, yet he has spent the days in a self-pitying stupor, 2) a popular third grade child, June, is able to direct four other children to not play with Julie, an extremely shy and self-conscious girl, or even interact with her, whenever the children are present on the school yard, and 3) a first grade boy, Iver, strikes his older brother, a fourth grader, after the older brother steals a piece of Iver’s Halloween candy.
I will attempt, in this short paper, to define bullying and briefly discuss the effects of bullying and risk factors for one who bullies. Further, I will briefly touch upon why one may bully another and ways to address bullying.
What is Bullying?
In the extensive research on bullying, bullying typically must contain the following components: a) a power differential between the bully and the one who is bullied, b) the bullying encounter occurs repeatedly and over a period of time as opposed to isolated incidents, and c) the bullying act is intentional.
If we consider these factors, the second of the three scenarios, noted above, exemplifies bullying, as the other scenarios lack the power differential and repeated actions inherent in bullying. The early figure of Telemachos also incorporates these elements of bullying.
When these three factors are not present, we are seeing something other than bullying, perhaps a violent act, an episode of aggression, reactive aggression, or mobbing behavior, to name some alternatives. It is beyond the scope of this small paper to differentiate bullying from related terms.
Factors of Bullying and Being Bullied:
The CDC has compiled very useful information regarding the factors associated with one who bullies and the effects of being bullied. Regarding one who bullies, he or she is at greater risk of experiencing family conflict, substance abuse, learning disorders, exposure to violence, lack of a connection or belongingness to school, and emotional distress.
Children who bully others, according to the ongoing research project by C. Bradshaw at the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention of Youth Violence in Baltimore, are more likely to engage in delinquent activity, including carrying a firearm, exhibiting truancy, and belonging to a gang. W. Copeland et. al, found that children who bully are four to five times at increased risk of antisocial personality disorder, have more relational and employment difficulties, are at risk of substance abuse, and are more likely to be involved with the police.
There are also several negative outcomes associated for one who is bullied, according to the CDC, including depression, anxiety, aggression, substance abuse issues, poor school performance, and interpersonal issues.
Dan Olweus is often considered the primary researcher of bullying. In his work, he characterizes the typical victim as follows: “The typical victims are more anxious and insecure than other students in general. Further, they are often cautious, sensitive, and quiet. When attacked by other students, they commonly react by crying (at least in the lower grades) and withdrawal. Also, victims suffer from low self-esteem, they have a negative view of themselves and their situation; they often look upon themselves as failures and feel stupid, ashamed and unattractive.” (p. 1178)
According to a study by Kim and Leventhal, victims of bullying are two to nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims of bullying. In a study in the United Kingdom, half of suicides among young persons was associated to bullying. Copeland et. al, found that being bullied places one at five times greater risk for depression and three to five times greater risk for psychological problems.
We have research, noted above, that references risk factors associated for persons who bully. Still, this leads us to a question that has not been sufficiently researched: Why does the presentation of vulnerability in another influence some children to respond with malice (bullying) instead of empathy?
In my clinical experience of working with children and families for approximately 20 years, I have arrived at the following hypotheses. There is an assumption that victims of bullying are passive and unobtrusive, yet to the one who bullies, there is an allure to this passivity. Psychological projects of humiliation and domination, for the bully, are much easier to attain within this dynamic of passivity—it is much safer for the one who bullies when the object of bullying does not strike back. There is clearly a reciprocity between the aggressor and victim, which is something that Freud articulated in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I’ve often found an interplay between the bully’s previously experienced powerlessness or vulnerability (via exposure to violence, abuse, or a significant learning disorder, for example) and his or her psychological projects of dominance and power, and the focal point of this interplay is the passive other. In a sense, the bully possesses limitations to his or her psychological freedom precisely because the other’s passivity is so visible and obtrusive, as the bully is given back himself/herself on different levels of vulnerability—there is subsequently something of a compulsion to dominate this passive other. In the transformation that occurs in the bullying encounter, the weakness of the other that is preyed upon and exploited gives to the bully, who is often responding to a threatening world, his or her comparative strength.
What Can be Done?
There are a variety of bullying prevention programs that exist, and these programs attempt to assess the level of bullying that is occurring, educate parents, teachers, and students about bullying behaviors, and monitor subsequent bullying activity. Bystander training is very helpful in addressing bullying, as this can shift power differentials and provide a unified response to bullying acts.
In my experience, it is foundationally important to examine the intentionality of the bullying behavior, to view the bullying act as communication about the projects that are psychologically necessary and relevant for the one who bullies. As children who bully are often victims themselves in other arenas, it is counter-indicated to blame, shame, and criminalize the bullying behavior, although it is simultaneously important to set limits with regard to this behavior. Bullying behaviors are possibilities of all of us, whether we are researchers, clinicians, or parents, given the right combination of experiences, and it is important, in my opinion, to emphasize an approach of understanding and empathy in the face of the bullying encounter.
I advocate for bullies and victims to participate in comprehensive evaluations to articulate treatment needs and for family members, teachers, and school counselors to be involved in these interventions. Victims of bullying can often benefit from treatment by skilled clinicians.
For bullies, it is essential to determine what he or she is getting from bullying and examine ways to discover this power, control, esteem, etc. in another manner. For victims, it is essential to increase assertiveness, communication, and esteem. Increasing one’s sense of belonging to a school or group is also essential, for both bullies and children who are bullied.
1) Homer. The Odyssey, translated by S.H. Butcher and A. Lang. Vol. XXII. The Harvard Classics. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909-14; bartleby.com, 2001.
2) Olweus, D. (1994). Annotation: Bullying at school: Basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. Journal of Child Psychiatry, 35, 7, 1171-1190.
3) W. Copeland et. al. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013; 70(4): 419-426.
4) Y-S. Kim and B. Leventhal. Bullying and suicide. A review. Int J Adolesc Med Health, 20 (2), 2008.
5) Freud, Sigmund. Beyond the Pleasure Principle; Trans. by C.J.M. Hubback. London, Vienna: International Psycho-Analytical, 1922; bartleby.com, 2010.