Both gun violence and bullying have been in the news recently, particularly when either has resulted in fatalities. Although both are expressions of destructive aggression, bullying at times is portrayed as a more usual part of development in childhood and adolescence. It receives more attention these days because of its appearance in the social media, which not only makes it more widespread, but also opens the victim to greater exposure and humiliation.
A book on this subject by Emily Bazelon was recently published, as was an interesting article by her in the N.Y. Times. She refers to the psychologists’ definition of bullying as “physical or verbal abuse repeated over time, and involving a powerful imbalance”, meaning “one person with more social status lording it over another person, over and over again, to make him miserable.” Bazelon believes that the word is being overused, encompassing both appalling violence or harassment as well as a few mean words. She writes that if every act of aggression counts as bullying it then begins to seem impossible to stop – and leads to the idea that it is just a childhood rite of passage.
Bazelon describes other kinds of fallout for parents, schools, and youngsters themselves from identifying everything as bullying. It does seem clear that labeling all forms of conflict with this shorthand term tends to obscure the true nature of some social interactions, failing to distinguish among them. This not only makes it more difficult to understand better what causes them, but to help children resolve them in a better way.
The difficulty in separating serious harassment from behavior reflected in the childhood refrain, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me,” may reflect our ambivalence generally about aggression. Parents often express the fear that a child who seems to be striking out at others may become a bully. We have a tendency to read adult meaning into the behavior of very young children. But young children who have not yet mastered appropriate social interaction may strike out if their own feelings have been hurt, or at times even when they have trouble if others in a group are too close. Also, when children have not yet developed control of their impulses, their anger or frustration may be expressed in striking out at others.
Observing in nursery schools, one can often see that a child who is struggling with these issues begins to be perceived by other children – and at times even by adults – as a bully, and as someone to be avoided. Such a child then starts to feel rejected and isolated, which may in turn intensify an aggressive approach to others. His self-image is then affected by the perception of others, and this, too, serves to reinforce the problem behavior.
The other side of this is our response to those who may seem to be the victims of the child who has been labeled a bully. This is where dual messages sometimes come into play. We teach children not to hit, or to be aggressive in other ways, such as taking things from others. Yet we also encourage them to stand up for themselves, and even to fight back if they are hit. Parents often are concerned if a child seems too passive in the face of another child’s aggressive behavior. So we worry if a child seems too aggressive, or not aggressive enough.
In addition, aspects of individual temperament also come into play here in regard to the way one interacts with others. Some children are more direct and outgoing generally, while others are more reserved or even withdrawn. These traits may serve to shape, or reinforce, bully-victim behavior as children develop. In her article, Bazelon examines some of the specific cases that have been in the news, and points out the situations in which the personality and/or life situation of the victims may play a role in their vulnerability to being bullied. Her point is that often these situations are more complex than they seem on the surface, and are not helped by applying easy labels.
The important point here is that understanding this complexity can enable more useful intervention. Such intervention can begin when children are very young and behaving in ways that lead to destructive labeling. Often our instinct is to protect the “victim” of aggressive behavior when in fact, the “bully” needs equal protection from his or her own impulses. Rather than scolding or punishment, both children need clarification about what has happened, and what the feelings of each were in the situation. They also both need adult support in learning appropriate social approaches, and in responding to inappropriate ones.
The early years, in which children are developing their capacity for empathy, provide the best opportunity to promote that development. And it is empathy that can ultimately serve to restrain the potential bully and those who may join, or encourage the bullying taking place. A child I know chose to write about bullying in response to a school assignment, accompanying her own illustrations with these words: “You could be the person who stands by and watches it happen. Well don’t be that person. Be the person who stands up. Don’t stand down. Stand up now. Everybody’s different, don’t make fun of it.”
Our job as parents and teachers is to help children develop that capacity to “stand up.”