Fending Off Bullies

Confidence, most would agree, makes social life a lot smoother. It also makes it a lot safer.

It's the single best shield against bullying, says David Perry, Ph.D. His studies show that kids who lack confidence in their standing with peers meet a vicious cycle of victimization.

Most kids are picked on by a bully at some point; only about 10 percent are repeatedly abused. "No one before has gone inside a child's mind to see how he thinks," says Perry, professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University. "Our work re-centers the locus of victimization in a child's self-concept."

Perry tracked 187 kids, 11 years old, from the fall to the spring. Among those increasingly picked on, all lacked confidence in their social competence.

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By spring, he reports in Developmental Psychology, their poor sense of social self-efficacy had devastated their entire self-worth. In addition, they now had less confidence in their ability to stand up for themselves.

Having poor social skills and -- especially -- lacking agreeableness lead children to a self-deprecating identity, which makes them hesitate to assert their needs. It also broadcasts poor self-regard, which invites abuse and further wrecks self-confidence.

Agreeableness is particularly powerful; through it, children communicate to others that they like them. Other kids are then inclined to reciprocate the liking. Social confidence isn't just kid stuff. Peer relations not only shape development but are also rehearsals for adult relationships.

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