Big Bad Bully
Bullies aim to inflict pain. But eventually, the one most hurt by bullying is the bully himself.
By Hara Estroff Marano published September 1, 1995 - last reviewed on January 15, 2019
No, it's not just boys being boys. It takes a special breed of person to cause pain to others. But the one most hurt by bullying is the bully himself—though that's not at first obvious and the effects worsen over the life cycle. Yes, females can be bullies too. They just favor a different means of mean.
On the first day of spring in 1993, honor student Curtis Taylor took his seat in the eighth-grade classroom he had grown to hate in the Oak Street Middle School in Burlington, Iowa. For three years other boys had been tripping him in the hallways, knocking things out of his hands. They'd even taken his head in their hands and banged it into a locker. Things were now intensifying. The name-calling was harsher. Some beloved books were taken. His bicycle was vandalized twice. Kids even kicked the cast that covered his broken ankle. And in front of his classmates, some guys poured chocolate milk down the front of his sweatshirt. Curtis was so upset he went to see a school counselor. He blamed himself for the other kids not liking him.
That night, Curtis went into a family bedroom, took out a gun, and shot himself to death. The community was stunned. The television cameras rolled, at least for a few days. Chicago journalist Bob Greene lingered over the events in his column, and then he printed letters from folks for whom the episode served largely as a reminder of their own childhood humiliations at the hands of bullies.
Months later, in Cherokee County, Georgia, 15-year-old Brian Head grew tired of the same teasing and deeds. The denouement was only slightly more remarkable. He shot himself to death—in front of his classmates. He walked to the front of the classroom and pulled the trigger. The Georgia death came on the heels of five bullying-related suicides in a small town in New Hampshire. Within days, the story got lost in the cacophony of breaking events.
Just over a decade earlier, in late 1982, a nearly identical series of events unfolded in the northern reaches of Norway. Three boys between the ages of 10 and 14 killed themselves, one newspaper reported, to avoid continued severe bullying from schoolmates. But the story would not die. Nor would it shrivel into self-pity. An entire nation erupted. The following fall, scarcely nine months later, a campaign against bullying was in full swing in all of Norway's primary and junior high schools, launched by the minister of education. And its architect, Dan Olweus, Ph.D., a psychologist who, in 1970, had pioneered the systematic study of bullying, became something of a national hero.
The difference between the American and the Scandinavian experience could arguably be summed up in four words: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A nation whose toys are given to slashing robots in half seems to have more tolerance for violence as a solution to problems. Most Americans do not take bullying very seriously—not even school personnel, a surprising finding given that most bullying takes place in schools. If Americans think at all about it, they tend to think that bullying is a given of childhood, at most a passing stage, one inhabited largely by boys who will, simply, inevitably, be boys.
"They even encourage it in boys," observes Gary W. Ladd, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois and one of a growing cadre of Americans studying the phenomenon. "That's what parents always ask me," says psychologist David Schwartz, Ph.D., of Vanderbilt University, "isn't it just a case of boys being boys?" The same parents harbor the belief that kids should somehow always be able to defend themselves—to "stand up for themselves," "fight back," "not be pushed around by anyone"—and those who don't or can't almost deserve what they get. Bullying is just good old boyhood in a land of aggressive individualists.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
First in Scandinavia, then in England, Japan, the Netherlands, Canada, and finally, the United States, researchers have begun scrutinizing the phenomenon of bullying. What they are finding is as sad as it is alarming:
- Bullies are a special breed of children. The vast majority of children (60 to 70 percent) are never involved in bullying, either as perpetrators or victims. Early in development, most children acquire internal restraints against such behavior. But those who bully do it consistently.
- Their aggression starts at an early age.
- It takes a very specific set of conditions to produce a child who can start fights, threaten or intimidate a peer ("Give me the jump rope or I'll kill you"), and actively inflict pain upon others.
- Bullying causes a great deal of misery to others, and its effects on victims last for decades, perhaps even a lifetime.
- The person hurt most by bullying is the bully himself, though that's not at first obvious, and the negative effects increase over time.
- Most bullies have a downwardly spiraling course through life, their behavior interfering with learning, friendships, work, intimate relationships, income, and mental health.
- Bullies turn into antisocial adults, and are far more likely than non aggressive kids to commit crimes, batter their wives, abuse their children—and produce another generation of bullies.
- Oh yes, girls can be bullies too. The aggression of girls has been vastly underestimated because it takes a different form. It is a far more subtle and complex means of meanness than the overt physical aggression boys engage in.
To understand the behavior of bullies is to see how aggression is learned and how well the lesson is taken to heart. The existence of bullies tells us that the social needs of human beings are vastly undervalued, at least in Western culture. For the social life of kids, often thought as an accessory to childhood, turns out to be crucial to healthy development. In the long run, bullying can be a way—a desperate and damaging way—for some people to maintain a circle of human contacts.
And bullying always has a very long run. Bullying may begin in childhood, but it continues into adulthood; it is among the most stable of human behavior styles.
What's a Bully and Who Is It.
There is no standard definition of a bully, but Dan Olweus has honed the definition to three core elements—bullying involves a pattern of repeated aggressive behavior with negative intent directed from one child to another where there is a power difference. There's either a larger child or several children picking on one, or a child who is clearly more dominant (as opposed to garden-variety aggression, where there may be similar acts but between two people of equal status). By definition, the bully's target has difficulty defending him- or herself, and the bully's aggressive behavior is intended to cause distress, observes Olweus, professor of psychology at the University of Bergen.
The chronicity of bullying is one of its more intriguing features. It is the most obvious clue that there comes to be some kind of a social relationship between a bully and his victims—and most bullies are boys, while victims are equally girls and boys. And it suggests that, contrary to parents' beliefs, bullying is not a problem that sorts itself out naturally.
The aggression can be physical—pushes and shoves and hitting, kicking, and punching. Or it can be verbal—name-calling, taunts, threats, ridicule, and insults. Bullies not only say mean things to you, they say mean things about you to others. Often enough, the intimidation that starts with a fist is later accomplished with no more than a nasty glance. The older bullies get, the more their aggression takes the form of verbal threats and abuse.
Figures differ from study to study, from country to country, and especially from school to school, but from 15 to 20 percent of children are involved in bullying more than once or twice a term, either as bullies or victims. In one Canadian study, 15 percent of students reported that they bullied others more than once or twice during the term. According to large-scale studies Olweus conducted in Norway in 1983, 7 percent of students bullied others "with some regularity" But since then, bully problems have increased. By 1991, they had gone up a whopping 30 percent.
Bullies, for the most part, are different from you and me. Studies reliably show that they have a distinctive cognitive make-up—a hostile attributional bias, a kind of paranoia. They perpetually attribute hostile intentions to others. The trouble is, they perceive provocation where it does not exist. That comes to justify their aggressive behavior. Say someone bumps them and they drop a book. Bullies don't see it as an accident; they see it as a call to arms. These children act aggressively because they process social information inaccurately. They endorse revenge.
That allows them a favorable attitude toward violence and the use of violence to solve problems. Whether they start out there or get there along the way, bullies come to believe that aggression is the best solution to conflicts. They also have a strong need to dominate, and derive satisfaction from injuring others. Bullies lack what psychologists call prosocial behavior—they do not know how to relate to others. No prosocial attitudes hold them in check; they do not understand the feelings of others and thus come to deny others' suffering.
Bullies are also untroubled by anxiety, an emotion disabling in its extreme form but in milder form the root of human restraint. What may be most surprising is that bullies see themselves quite positively—which may be because they are so little aware of what others truly think of them. Indeed, a blindness to the feelings of others permeates their behavioral style and outlook.
Every attempt to trace aggression to its roots indicates that it starts in the preschool years and thrives in elementary and middle school. Up to grade six, Olweus reports, bullies are of average popularity. They tend to have two or three friends—largely other aggressive kids. And it's their physical strength other kids admire. As they get older, though, their popularity with classmates wanes; by high school they are hanging out only with other toughs. They may get what they want through aggression, and be looked up to for being tough, but they are not liked.
If their self-confidence survives increasing rejection by peers, it may be because bullies are unable to perceive themselves correctly in social situations, a part of their social blindness. Reports child psychologist Melissa DeRosier, Ph.D., of the University of North Carolina: "Bullies are clueless as to how little they are liked. They are out of touch with what kids think." As something of a threat to others, they are not likely to learn just exactly how other kids feel about them. And with their deficits in social cognition, they certainly don't see the impact of their own behavior on others.
It's possible that bullying is not the same in all the world's cultures and that American children suffer more severely at the hands of bullies—a suggestion borne out by the fact that bullies register less popular with peers here, especially as they get older, than they do in Scandinavia. There may be an intensity to bullying here that does not exist elsewhere. Dominance may be more valued; competition more accepted. Victimization may be more extreme. This intensity has many observers worried because violence is worsening in the U.S. and other countries. While that doesn't necessarily mean bullying is getting worse, there are disturbing signals. "Clinically, I see an increment in the aggressive fantasies kids now bring to therapy," confides Schwartz. "They talk about their dolls tearing the skin off each other."
Bullying exists, to greater or lesser degrees, in virtually every Westernized culture. It is a serious problem in Japan. It happens in China. No one knows for sure, because the same methodology has not been applied in every country, but there may be more bullies per capita in the U.S., England, Canada, and Ireland than in other countries. And bullyings not partial to cities; if anything, its more common in the one-room schoolhouse than in urban settings.
But no matter where they live, bullies find one place especially congenial to their nefarious activities: school. Most bullying occurs on the school playground, especially its unsupervised corners, and in the long and crowded corridors of most schools. Above all else, says Dan Olweus, bullying is a school problem.
It's not that bullying worsens at adolescence; in fact, it tends to lessen. But that's when sensitivity to rejection by peers takes a painful leap forward. Curtis Taylor probably could have told you that.
They Don't Pick on Just Anyone
Up until about age seven, studies suggest, bullies pick on anyone. After that, they single out specific kids to prey on. And those bullied at one age tend to be bullied later on. Olweus calls them "whipping boys." Even the term is searing. Between ages eight and 16, about 8 or 9 percent of kids are the consistent targets of bullies.
And, says Illinois's Gary Ladd, bullies engage in a "shopping process" to find them. At the beginning of the school year, when children do not know each other well, about 22 percent of children report having a victimization experience on more than a moderate level, Ladd finds. But by the end of the school year, only 8 percent of kids wind up being regularly singled out by bullies. About half of all kids are victimized at least once a year.
Moreover, the younger a child, the more likely he or she is to experience aggression at the hands of peers. For if there's one thing bullies do, it's pick on children who are younger and smaller than they are. And weaker. Most bullies are physically strong and they specifically seek out kids who are ill-equipped to fight back.
Those who become targets also bear a particular set of psychological characteristics. They are more sensitive, cautious, and quiet than other kids, Olweus finds, and more anxious. They also have a negative view of violence. It's not just that they're non aggressive, for lots of kids are non aggressive. But these kids withdraw from confrontations of any kind and cry when attacked. They radiate what one researcher calls "an anxious vulnerability." Faced with conflict, they are gripped with fear. Their fearfulness and physical weakness probably set them up.
"The big question," says Ladd, "is where does victimization start. Do kids emit signals for others to test them? Or is it that bullies pick out those they see they can dominate?" He finds clues in the fact that some kids are victimized later in the school year but not early on. "Something increases their likelihood of being picked on—probably, vulnerabilities revealed in a class environment. Maybe they don't do well in gym, or fumble a reading task."
And they easily acquiesce to the demands of bullies: They cry and assume defensive postures. Not only do they not fight back, they hand over their possessions—handsomely rewarding their attackers psychologically and materially—powerfully reinforcing them. The reinforcement is double: Bullies are unlikely to be punished by retaliation.
It's one thing to be submissive when challenged, but researchers now know that the children who become bully victims are submissive even before they're picked on. At Vanderbilt University, where he is a research associate, child psychologist David Schwartz conducted a novel study of children, none of whom knew each other at the outset. He silently monitored and videotaped them in a series of play sessions. "Even in the first two sessions, before bully-victim situations develop, these kids behaved submissively," Schwartz reports.
In nonconfrontational situations they showed themselves to be "pervasively nonassertive." Schwartz catalogues the ways. They didn't make overtures to others, didn't initiate conversation. They made no attempts to verbally persuade their peers—no demands, requests, or even suggestions. They were thoroughly socially incompetent, spending time in passive play, playing parallel to their peers, rather than with them.
Being submissive in non aggressive contexts kicks off a dizzying downward spiral of events. It sets them up as easy targets. "It seems to mark these kids for later victimization," says Schwartz. "And that only made them more submissive." Here's the catch—being victimized leads to feeling bad, feeling anxious, which then increases vulnerability to further victimization. This is the spiral Curtis Taylor couldn't—and shouldn't have been expected to—untangle by himself.
To say that victims are socially incompetent is not to say that they are to blame for the aggressive behavior of bullies. It is simply to recognize that certain patterns of social behavior make some children vulnerable, say investigators. After all, even the most passive child isn't victimized unless there's a bully in the room.
Just as certain as there will always be a bully around, victimization can lead to a host of social-psychological difficulties. No one likes a bully, but no one likes a victim either. The failure—or inability—of victims to stick up for themselves seems to make other kids highly uncomfortable. After all, says Ladd, "part of growing up is learning how to stick up for yourself." Gradually, whipping boys become more and more isolated from their peers. While bullying is painful, it is the social isolation that probably is most damaging to victims. An emerging body of research shows that social isolation, to say nothing of active rejection, is a severe form of stress for humans to endure. And rejection deprives these kids of the very opportunities they need to acquire and practice social competence.
Victims are rejected not only by the bullies but typically by other peers as well. Few children like them; many dislike them. In answering questionnaires they confide they are very lonely. They typically develop a negative view of school and hate going. They suffer headaches, stomachaches, and other somatic complaints. "We ask them how they feel in school," Ladd reports. "It's clear they're pretty unhappy. They want to get away from that environment." Eventually, achievement suffers. Regardless of their grades, a disproportionate number of rejected kids drop out of school. These children internalize the very negative views of themselves others hold of them, Olweus finds.
"There are lots of kids in schools who are being victimized and, as a result, are not living up to their potential, not getting as much out of the school experience as they could," says Ladd. "They get very negative views of themselves and their abilities. That's a waste of human beings, and a threat to the health and wealth of the country."
Olweus, who has followed thousands of Norwegian children into adulthood, finds that by age 23, some "normalization" takes place. By then, those who once were victims are free to choose or create their own social and physical environments. However, they are still susceptible to depression and to negative feelings about themselves.
Victimization, everyone agrees, is bad for kids. But it sometimes has effects that are not entirely negative. It can prod children into finding a way to salvage a sense of self-respect. There are those whom victimization by bullies drives deeper into the world of books and to excel in schoolwork—both activities with long-term payoffs—although it's scarcely a predictable outcome and a terribly aversive route to excellence.
In Olweus's studies, victims have close relationships with their parents and tend to come from overprotective families. As a result, they get no practice in handling conflict, one of the basic facts of social life, and no confidence in their ability to negotiate the world on their own. Overprotection prevents them from learning the skills necessary to avoid exploitation by others.
Increasingly, researchers are coming to see bullying and victimization less as the products of individual characteristics and more as an outgrowth of unique interactive chemistry. Over time, bullies and their victims become a twosome—a dyad, in the lingo of social science. Like husbands and wives, mothers and infants, and other lovers, they come to have an ongoing relationship, they interact frequently, and there is a special dynamic operating.
What makes normal dyadic relationships so enthralling for both parties—and for infants is the medium in which growth takes place—is the intricate pattern of mutual responsiveness, of action and response, the synchrony of give and take that gets established. It sets up its own gravitational field; it draws the two together and validates each as a special person. If that's not quite how it goes with bullies and their victims, still these children develop a history with each other, and the behavior of each reinforces the other. Call it the bully-victim dance.
That's how Toronto psychologist Debra Pepler, Ph.D., sees it. "There is a relationship. There is a repeatedness over time. Then a glance or comment can work, setting up a whole terrifying sequence of emotions, such as anxiety," where once there was the verbal threat of aggression, or even the real thing. Then the submissiveness signals to the bully that his aggression is working. Once selected for aggression, victims seem to reward their attackers with submission.
Other researchers describe victims who actually pester the bully. There is, for example, the kid who runs after the bully: "Aren't you going to tease me today? I won't get mad." Both bullies and victims are disliked by their peers. They may be seeking each other for social contact—just because no one else will.
An Underground Activity
Bullying inhabits a covert kids-only world—right under the noses of adults. "Teachers tell us it doesn't happen in their school or classroom," reports Ladd, "when in fact it does,"—a point he teases out by giving separate questionnaires to students and teachers. "To some degree the teachers simply don't want to admit it. But there is also evidence that kids know just how antisocial their behavior is and often choose corners out of the ken of their teachers."
Nor do most parents know about it when their kids are victimized. Like Curtis Taylor, kids often think it is their own fault. So there is deep shame and humiliation. Moreover, the fear of reprisals keeps kids from saying a word. And tragically, says Ladd, the pace of parenting today doesn't leave a whole lot of room for parents to sit down every evening with their children and find out how their day went, to talk about how they are being treated by their peers.
He wishes they would, because when he asks, he hears. "We ask kids to tell us something fun that happened at school. Then we ask, 'Tell us about something that happened that was nasty.' Out pour stories about harassment, exclusion, rejection, victimization. A lot of the parents look like they're hearing about it for the first time."
When Toronto's Debra Pepler wanted to get a detailed glimpse into the world of bullies, she planted a video camera in schools and trained it on the playground, where the kids were monitored by remote microphones. In 52 hours of tape, Pepler, of York University, documented over 400 episodes of bullying, from brushes of mild teasing to 37 solid minutes of kicking and punching. The average episode, however, lasted 37 seconds. Teachers noticed and intervened in only one out of 25 episodes. The child in the 37-minute incident, says Pepler, is repeatedly kicked and thrown around by two kids (although in the vast majority of instances, bullying is one-on-one). "What's so strange to me is that he stays in it. There are lots of opportunities for him to get away. At one point a teacher even tries to break it up, and all three of them say, 'Oh no, we're just having fun.' "
"In showing other kids the tapes, I confirmed what I felt—it's so important for children to be members of a social group that to receive negative attention is better than to receive no attention at all. It's actually self-confirming. There's a sense of who I am; I am at least somebody with a role in the group. I have no way of identifying myself if nobody pays attention to me."
Or as one seventh-grade boy said to her about the victim, "It's just like he's getting paid for it to stay a part of that group. It's like being a prostitute. You do something you don't want to do and you get paid a lot of money for it." Some victims "really do silly things that feed into their victimization," she agrees. Olweus sharply disagrees. He contends that the way kids were selected for the study renders the findings "atypical." "In my experience," he insists, "the overwhelming majority of victims derive no satisfaction from victimization."
Nevertheless, Pepler's studies suggest bullying is far more common among kids than most adults either observe or admit. In a mid-sized school it happens once every seven minutes. And 4 percent of bullies are armed, at least in Toronto, an ethnically balanced city. Probably because bullying is such a covert activity, schools seem to have a hard time figuring out what to do about it. There are only scattered efforts in U.S. schools to institute any anti-bully programs, and, unlike in Scandinavia, rarely have they been tested for effectiveness.
Bullying may thrive underground, but it is a psychologically distinctive experience. It's painful. It's scary. Victims feel a great loss of control. Ask anyone who's ever been victimized even once—the memory tends to survive well into adulthood.
Not All Bullies Are Alike
Until recently, a bully was just a bully. But researchers are turning up differences among them that provide strong clues as to how the behavior takes shape. There seem to be two distinct types of bully, distinguished by how often they themselves are bullied.
To make matters slightly more complex, different researchers have different names for them and draw slightly different boundary lines. There are those bullies who are out-and-out aggressive and don't need situations of conflict to set them off, called "proactive aggressors" in some studies, "effectual aggressors" in others. Classic playground bullies fall into this camp. Their behavior is motivated by future reward—like "get me something." It's goal oriented, instrumental. Or perhaps these bullies have high thresholds of arousal and need some increase in arousal level. Hard as it is to believe, these bullies have friends—primarily other bullies. What they don't have at all is empathy; cooperation is a foreign word. They are missing prosocial feelings.
Then there are those bullies who are sometimes aggressors, sometimes victims: "reactive bullies" ,"ineffectual aggressors" or, in Olweus's lexicon, "provocative" victims. Regardless of who starts a fight, these kids prolong the battle, says David Perry, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. They get angry easily and escalate conflict into aggression, but end up losing. Their behavior is motivated by perceived provocation.
Perry claims that half of all bullies are hotheads. Any way the bully pie is sliced, these highly reactive aggressors are the worst off. They engage in the highest levels of conflict—they give it and they get it. And they place great value on controlling their adversaries. But their emotional make-up is distinct: They are easily emotionally aroused and can't handle conflict. "Peers are good at describing their characteristics," Perry reports. "They get emotionally upset, they show distress easily, they are quick to become oppositional and defiant. They are quick to cry. And they are named most likely to lose fights amid exaggerated cries of frustration and distress."
And they are the least liked. Of all children, they are the most rejected in the peer group—which puts them at risk of developing the kinds of externalizing, antisocial problems bullies develop, as well as the internalizing problems, like anxiety and depression, that are common to victims. Whether these bullies have the most trouble in life isn't clear, but they do have the fewest friends.
Why do they keep at it, when they always lose? Most of all, says Perry, they have problems of emotional regulation; they have low thresholds of arousal in the first place, and they can't calm themselves down once conflict starts. They get invested in their fights. Their high level of arousal keeps them from recognizing it's time to get up and walk away when they are clearly losing." Their emotions may be preempting their cognitions, or arousal may be distorting their cognition," Perry says.
Most of all, they are targets because they're fun for other bullies to pick on; they provide lots of theatrical value. They get provoked because they react in ways that are rewarding to bullies—they get a response. Getting a response is the bully's ultimate reward.
These hotheads, says Perry, seem to have a low threshold of irritability. "They seem to exist in a mood state of readiness." They frequently take an oppositional stance in situations.
The ineffectual bullies bear an uncanny resemblance to psychobiologist Gary W. Kraemer's monkeys. Kraemer, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin, and a researcher at the famed Harlow Primate Laboratory, is working with two of the lab's populations of rhesus monkeys. One group is reared from birth by their monkey mothers. The other is nurtured by lab workers for the first month after birth, then reared with their monkey peers.
Human "mothers", Kraemer finds, do a swell job of raising physically robust monkeys. But only the monkey moms raise socially competent ones. The human-reared monkeys are either impulsively aggressive or inordinately reclusive—their behavior varies unpredictably. They have a collage of changes in the way they see the world, deficits in cognitive problem-solving that endure no matter how much social interaction with their peers the monkeys later get.
"Peer-reared monkeys can't anticipate what is going to happen next in social interactions," says Kraemer. "They look like a wild cannon. Something will set them off. And they have no 'off' button. Once in agonistic encounters, they have a hard time stopping." These monkeys not only display unregulated aggression and antisocial behavior, they contribute to the instability of the whole group. They just don't "get" the rhythms of relationships.
In addition to behaving like reactive bullies, they have an array of enduring neurochemical changes in the brain. There is chaos in specific neurotransmitter systems—the serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine pathways. "The norepinephrine system is not developed at all," says Kraemer. "The serotonin system is strange" To Kraemer, these monkeys are proof that social relations—specifically the early care-giver-infant attachment process, the dance of mother and child—actually structures the developing nervous system. It gets incorporated within, becoming the prototype for all social behavior. In the connection between mother and infant lies the pattern and desire for connecting with others.
"To the degree that caregivers are unpredictable, random, and asynchronous, then social behavior is not likely to be internally regulated," Kraemer says. "Social activity is not an accessory in life; it's reproduced in your brain." That's one reason, he believes, that aggression begins early and winds up such a durable approach to life.
Of the human-reared monkeys, he says, "You can give them all the Prozac in the world but you can never get them back on the usual trajectory. It will reduce the duration and frequency of repetitive behaviors, but it doesn't increase the proportion of social behavior. The entire system is dysregulated. You can make a symptom go away, but that doesn't restore normalcy."
In the normal course of events, says Kraemer, human children develop dominance hierarchies, although they are not very rigid. But in bullies, the process becomes supervening. Even when failure is evident, they continue. "There is certainly a dysregulation of something. Bullies and victims are breaking the normal harmony. Theirs is a different dance."
If his studies suggest that aggression begins in the early caregiver-child interaction, there's an arsenal of human research making the very same case.
Aw, C'mon—Isn't It Just Boys Being Boys?
Sure lots of boys engage in all kinds of competition and rough-and-tumble play; those are non-threatening physical ways of establishing dominance hierarchies, a goal that actually promotes social stability.
But the line between fun and fisticuffs gets erased only when there's a bully in the pack; the bully may misconstrue some borderline gesture or movement as intentionally hostile. When push turns to shove, when meanness intrudes on play—when someone selects a target and inflicts pain and the payoff is someone else's humiliation—then it's outright bullying.
And that's not a healthy way of interacting, not for the victims, but especially not for the bullies. There are huge costs to them. It is the first and perhaps most identifiable stop on a trajectory that leads almost directly to criminal behavior. Bullying is just another word for antisocial behavior, and it's part of a more general rule-breaking stance. According to long-term studies conducted by Olweus, 60 percent of boys who were named as bullies in grades six to nine have at least one court conviction by age 24.
Kids who are aggressive in childhood tend to be aggressive in adolescence and later. In a decades-long look at boys in London, those who were bullies at age 14 were largely bullies at age 18—and at 32. In a classic long-term study that is still ongoing, University of Michigan psychologist Leonard Eron, Ph.D., and colleagues have been following 518 children in upstate New York from the age of eight. All are now in their 40s. The most astonishing finding is that the kids who were named by their peers—at age eight—as most aggressive commit more crimes, and more serious crimes, as adults. They have more driving offenses. More court convictions. More alcoholism. More antisocial personality disorder. More use of mental health services.
When young, says Eron, these kids have intelligence levels equal to those of their normal peers. But by age 19, aggressive behavior gets in the way of developing intellectual skills. At age 30, they and their spouses were interviewed. "There is significantly more abusive behavior," says Eron, who's girding for another round of assessment. "They don't achieve socially, economically, or professionally. They never learned prosocial behavior, and that interferes with every activity." Their work histories are erratic, at best—the behaviors that make them troublesome among peers make them disruptive among co-workers. The longer the haul, the more the bully suffers.
"Parents should be concerned about bullying," Eton adds. "These kids are not just harming others; they're harming themselves."
"Over time, aggression is a marker of every negative outcome that there is," adds Vanderbilt's Schwartz. Bullies get locked into patterns of aggressive and hostile response that are very rewarding to them—but that sharply circumscribe who they get to hang out with. As they go through high school, increasingly their behavior is acceptable only to others like themselves; fortified with their hostile cognitive style and growing contempt for the values of others, they spin their way to outcast lifestyle.
There's sex, drugs, and booze to keep them busy—and they take up with all of them earlier than most other kids, studies show. They drop out of school, hang out with aggressive peers, and that drives further deviance; the link with others like them may be what turns a bully into a criminal. However criminals are made, the point can not be clearer—bullies' social style drives their downward drift through life.
If bullying is bad for those who give it as well as those who get it, then just exactly why do kids do it? "It's a great strategy for getting what you want," says Illinois's Gary Ladd. You push the little girl off the tricycle, you get the tricycle. "A lot of aggressive kids think aggression works. They think about one outcome, but not about the others."
People do have a need to control their environment, and perhaps some enter life with differences in that need, as occurs with other traits. The great psychological benefit to bullying, says Ladd, is that bullies feel powerful, in control. "They've picked a little microcosm in which to exert control." But it's a helluva way to get your own way.
"These kids are experts at using short-term payoffs," says psychologist Gerald R. Patterson, Ph.D., a founder of the Oregon Social Learning Center in Eugene, and a pioneer in family studies of aggression. "They're not very good at long-range things that are in their best interest."
For all those boys who engage in bullying as a way of gaining status, the last laugh is on them. Their trophy is a sham. What looks like power and status turns out not to be that at all. The proof is in their testosterone levels.
Richard E. Tremblay, Ph.D., is a psychologist at the University of Montreal who has been conducting long-term studies of over a thousand bullies and other aggressive kids. Among one group of 178 kids that has passed the threshold of adolescence, Tremblay checked out hormone-behavior links by measuring the boys's levels of testosterone. What he found set him on his ear. The boys who were rated (by peers and teachers) most physically aggressive at ages six to 12 had lower testosterone levels at age 13 than ordinary peers. The "multiproblem fighters," or hothead bullies, proved to have the lowest testosterone levels of all.
How could these consistently aggressive boys register so low on testosterone? Tremblay admits to having been puzzled. The mistake, he realized, is all those direct extrapolations from animal studies of dominance in which testosterone equals aggression. He has come to believe that testosterone does not reflect brute force but is a barometer of social success. "Physical aggression that is not accompanied by social well-being and social success—being designated a leader by peers—is not associated with high testicular activity."
Among humans, he says, physical aggression leads increasingly to rejection by peers, parents, even the school system. By the end of elementary school, half of bullies are not in their age-appropriate grade.
"They are losers," he states emphatically. "Their testosterone status at puberty reflects the fact that they are not dominating their environment. The human behaviors of dominance are not the same as animal ones," he insists. In humans, even in beefy boys, social dominance has less and less to do with physical aggression—and more and more with language. "While aggression is important for attaining high social status," says Tremblay, "it is not the only strategy. And when sustained, it is not decisive at all." And that is precisely where bullies are weak. Their general intelligence starts out about on a par with that of other kids, but their verbal intelligence is low.
Tremblay pauses to register his bemusement. "I started out studying aggression in adult criminals. Then I found I had to look at adolescents. Now I'm looking at young children. If you had told me I was going to be studying two-year-olds, I would have said that you were crazy."
But he has come to believe that the lifestyle of aggression is pretty much a done deal by age two. And with that, the Terrible Twos just got a lot worse. "Physical aggression is normal at that age. It builds up from nine months and reaches its highest frequency at age two. And then you learn that it hurts when aggressed. Adults intervene and indicate that it is the wrong behavior. Language skills increase, and physical aggression decreases. If you don't get it by age two, then you become aggressive. There's something about language." It may be that language skills are socially acquired in the caregiver-child interaction. And some kids get more of that than others.
Hey — What About the Girls?
Bullying has been studied largely in boys because they are so much more overtly aggressive. The problem, contends psychologist Nicki R. Crick, Ph.D., is that aggression has always been defined strictly in terms of what boys do that's mean. And that's just one more instance of male bias distorting the way things really are. She and her colleagues now know that "girls are just as capable of being mean as boys are."
"The research shows that boys engage in physical aggression such as kicking, hitting, pushing, shoving, and verbal aggression like name-calling and making fun of kids more than girls do," notes Crick. "The interpretation is that boys are just a lot more aggressive than girls are. But if you go back to the textbook definition of aggression, it's 'the intent to hurt or harm.' "
"For the past three years we've been looking at the ways girls try to harm others. We've identified a form of aggression unique to females, what we call relational aggression, hurting others through damaging or manipulating their relationships in aversive ways." Like:
- Spreading vicious rumors in the peer group to get even with someone so that other people will reject that person.
- Telling others to stop liking someone in order to get even with him or her.
- Trying to control or dominate a person by using social exclusion as a form of retaliation: "You can't come to my birthday party if you don't do x, y, and z."
- Threatening to withdraw friendship in order to get one's way, control another's behavior, or hurt someone: "I won't be your friend if... "
- Giving someone the silent treatment and making sure that they know they're being excluded as a form of retaliation.
It makes intuitive sense to Crick. "If you want to hurt someone and you want it to be effective, shouldn't it be something they really value? Numerous studies have shown that women and girls really value relationships, establishing intimacy and dyadic relations with other girls. That led us to looking at the use of relationships as the vehicle for harm, because if you take that away from a girl, you're really getting at her." Similarly, boys' aggression, plays into goals shown to be important to boys in the face of their peers—physical dominance and having things, or instrumentality.
In studies of children ranging from three years of age to 12, she has determined that parents, teachers, and kids themselves see these behaviors as problematic. They regard them as mean and manipulative. "This behavior cuts across all socioeconomic and all age groups. Adults do these things too." In fact, Crick's studies show that relational aggression becomes a more normative angry behavior for girls the older they get. Particularly as girls move into adolescence, themes of social exclusion increase in frequency in girls's conflicts with their peers.
While Crick's studies show that 27 percent of aggressive kids, mostly boys, engage in both overt and relational aggression, the majority of aggressive kids—73 percent—engage in one or the other, not both. Relational aggression is far more characteristic of girls, at least throughout the school years. Taking relational aggression into account leads to a startling conclusion: Girls (22 percent) and boys (27 percent) are aggressive in almost equal numbers.
Just as in the case with physical aggression, neither relational bullies nor their victims do well in the short or long haul. They're unhappy with their relationships. They feel emotionally upset and are at risk for social and emotional problems. Being the target of such aggression leaves victims subject to anxiety when meeting people and set on a path to avoiding others.
Being the social bully puts girls at risk of being increasingly rejected over time. Others grow tired of their behavior, weary of being manipulated. While most relationally aggressive kids are rejected by most others, a few are "controversial"—that is, they are well-liked by some kids and actively disliked by others. Either way, their own behavior brings them problems because it strictly limits the pool of potential friends.
Being the friend of a relationally aggressive girl and 75 percent of them have at least one friend—is no picnic. Their friendships are hotbeds of conflict and betrayal. While there's more intimacy in their friendships—more self-disclosure, telling secrets, talking about their feelings—there's also more negativity and aggression. Such girls don't buffer their friends from their aggressiveness; they do it to them, too.
They also construct coalitions and demand exclusivity, getting jealous when a friend pays attention to anyone else. "We think that intimacy is for them a medium of control," says Crick. "They want to be intimate because that is how they get information to use to control others."
Only rarely do relational bullies form a friendship with one of their own kind; they typically choose a very non aggressive peer. Normally, friendship is a highly positive experience and buffers people from a host of ills. But friendship with a relational bully can be a passage to psychopathology.
If other researchers have missed such behaviors, it's because they are subtle and sophisticated, and far less visible than the black-eyed bullying of boys. They also create fewer problems for society; these behaviors may be harmful, but relational bullies don't wind up in the criminal justice system.
Of Peers and Cheers
So you or your kid is not a bully or a victim. There's still no room for smugness. Even observing aggression from the sidelines is not a neutral activity.
The nature of bullying is such that even kids who aren't antisocial get drawn into it. "I no longer think of bullying as something that happens just between two people," says Toronto's Debra Pepler, even though over 90 percent of episodes involve a single bully and victim. "Peers are so often present when we observe it on the playground. It's really in some sense an interaction that unfolds in a context rather than in isolation. I hesitate to say this, but there's the entertainment and the theater value of it. The other kids may feel a part of that. They may feel anxious, excited, afraid but that feeds into the interaction."
In 85 percent of the episodes of bullying, says Pepler, other children are involved in some capacity or as audience. "If you're going to establish dominance, the only way to do it is with other children around. In the longer episodes, there's a tremendous building of excitement and arousal."
Sometimes the roles peers play in promoting bullying is less marginal. Two bullies kick a kid to the ground and bystander peers, through a process of social contagion, join in, particularly if it's a kid they dislike. The group is empowered by the numbers, their individual responsibility diluted to the vanishing point.
Take the "slam book" that circulated in one Toronto classroom. Each page bore a heading: who's the stupidest, who's the ugliest, who's the most unpopular, and so on. "Almost all the girls in the class nominated someone," says Pepler. "It had a huge negative impact on the kids being named. Most of the girls in this class were really nice kids. Eight of the 10 involved would never have done it on their own. But because of the importance of being part of a group, they engaged in antisocial behavior that just wasn't a part of their person."
Antonius Cillessen, Ph.D., calls group dynamics "the hidden purpose" of much bullying. A psychologist at the University of Connecticut, he finds that peer groups fan the flames of bullying by conferring reputations that keep bullies and victims frozen in their roles. They especially reinforce victimization. "When children have negative expectations of another child, they act more negatively to that child. This negative behavior then seems to trigger a reciprocally negative reaction from the target child," thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
No matter what victims do, even if they change their behavior, their peers filter observations of them through their negative expectations—and still give a negative interpretation to those kids's actions. As peers see them, they can't do anything right.
Cillessen is concerned. The power of reputational factors among peers is so strong that what look like obvious remedies will not solve bullying problems. For example, teaching victims social skills—more assertive and socially competent ways of interacting—is necessary but not sufficient. Their peers' perceptions still remain the same, and they act accordingly. His studies furnish proof that bullying can be tackled only with a school-wide program.
How They Get That Way
Most kids try aggression in the course of growing up. And most give it up. But some, says David Perry, "are encouraged by parental behaviors or by neglect." In other words, bullies are made, not born.
There is no big bang, no one crisis of development. It's largely in the nuances of parent-child interaction. And so unexceptional, so mundane is the process that it's taken Gerald Patterson over 20 years of observing parents and children together to nail it down. But he distills it into four words: the coercion parenting model. It gets played out in relatively trivial—but frequent bouts of disobedience.
Marginally skilled parents—many parents are, he says, and their numbers are increasing—come up against an active, willful, "difficult" child. The mother says something reasonable to the child: "Would you close the door, please." The child doesn't do it; he is noncompliant. "The core of aggressive behavior in children and adults is noncompliance," Patterson says.
The child goes over to the TV set and turns it on. Five minutes later, the mother asks again: Please close the door. The kid ignores her again. Then the parent shouts and threatens, "If you don't close the door, I'm going to spank you." At some point, the kid may get up and close the door, says Patterson, but he has the mother reduced to four or five minutes of yelling. "The child is controlling the mother by his noncompliance. Then the mother gets so upset at the back talk and noncompliance that she strikes out and hits the child. These are not crazy parents. They get caught in a process that is controlling their behavior."
The basic problem with their parenting is that it's noncontingent. The noncompliance (say, a two-year-old hits his sister) goes unpunished until the parent is so full of hostility she lashes out unpredictably. "Instead of being contingent, these parents natter and scold. They threaten but don't follow through and say, 'Okay, that misbehavior will cost you... ' and name some chore. And if the child still doesn't do it, 'I'm going to lock up your bicycle'—and really do it. And start the process all over again the next day. They don't do that" The inconsistent use of ineffective punishment winds up intermittently rewarding defiance.
Given the lack of a consistent adult response, a child cannot develop trust in a caregiver, sowing the seeds for a hostile view of the world. Noncontingent parenting breeds in kids the expectation that others will treat them unfairly and unpredictably.
The use of physical punishment as a solution to aggression only teaches the child the same solution—and fosters resentment. Their experiences may leave them overwhelmed with intense retaliatory feelings.
But it isn't just the discipline. In between the inconsistent parenting there's a lack of parental monitoring of children's behavior. And that comes across as uncaring. Children of parents who use such a discipline style may become more worried about how to get their own way, meet their own needs. They don't—can't—think about other people very much.
Here's the kicker: Bullies are more aggressive as kids, so they often receive harsh punishment from parents, which teaches them how to be even more aggressive.
"Noncontingent parenting is unable to stop, deviant or aggressive behavior," Patterson emphasizes. "What goes along with it that makes it a Greek tragedy is that the families that get swept up in it not only inadvertently reinforce antisocial behavior, they fail to reinforce prosocial behavior. They don't sit down with their kid, give him a nod, a hug—the kinds of things good parents normally do hundreds of times a day." They don't engage in the dance.
That dance is "extremely important to foster growth" Patterson says. "These kids get slowed in language development. The child doesn't learn to ask for things; he takes things," living on the edge of his impulses.
To cite parenting practices as "the primary proximal cause" for the earliest form of antagonistic behavior, as Patterson does, is not to rerun blame-more views of what's wrong with people. It's a meticulous analysis of the ways that children learn to join the society of others, to curb their impulses. All that's needed, says Patterson, are nonhostile, nonthreatening, nonphysical sanctions for rule-breaking applied consistently.
Patterson admits that the reams of data he and others have collected show that the coercion-parenting model doesn't fit for girls unless they are overtly aggressive. Relational aggression begins differently.
Starting this fall, Nicki Crick is looking into the family relationships of relationally aggressive children. "We think that these behaviors may get modeled for kids. Say mom doesn't speak to dad when she's mad at him. She punishes him by giving him the silent treatment, or she may withdraw love. There are family variables that might increase a kid's need to control, or need to have affection, such as discipline."
She also thinks parents may be directly teaching kids to make hostile attributions. Kids learn a worldview from their parents: Is the world a nice or a mean place?
No matter how bullies get that way, there is ultimately only one way to stop bullying: to establish a climate in which aggressive behavior is not tolerated—and enforce it. As a nation, Sweden is leading the way. As of July 1994, it outlawed bullying, following a suggestion of Olweus, himself a Swede. Norway may soon do it, too.
What do bullies do when they grow up? In one sense, they never grow up; they are locked in an infantile pattern of non-compliance, frozen into one way of handling problems. Lacking social skills, and especially the ability to handle conflict, their relationships are likely to be unstable and short-lived. But when they do take partners, they often become spouse abusers.
Bullying is virtually a sine qua non of domestic violence. Battered wives commonly describe what their husbands do as bullying, reports University of Washington psychologist Neil Jacobson, Ph.D. Bullying and battering share a dark mission. "Battering is using violence or the threat of violence to control another's behavior," says Jacobson. "That is the essence of bullying—it's just directed to one's significant other"
While no one has directly observed bullying transforming itself into battering, the evidence points to a direct convergence of bullying and battering behavior across the life cycle. The life histories of adult batterers parallel the course bullies' lives take as development unfolds. Batterers are likely to have been delinquent as adolescents.
There is an even more remarkable suggestion that bullying and spouse abuse are two stops along the same dead-end street. Batterers and bullies both sort themselves into distinct types that share certain peculiarities of behavior and biology. Jacobson observes two batterer types among adult men: calculating cobras and reactive hot-heads. In a kind of disharmonic convergence, they resemble proactive and reactive bullies, and Kraemer's motherless monkeys.
Like batterers, bullies tend to minimize their own aggressive actions. They make identical cognitive distortions, and attribute hostility to others where it doesn't exist. This misinterpretation gives bullies and batterers alike a way to justify violence. It is the greasy gear with which they typically shift onto others the blame for their own misdeeds.
But as if bullies aren't bad enough, they tend to have children who are bullies. Not only do they model aggression as a solution to conflict, but they are likely to lash out at their children, use physical means—and so hand-feed to the next generation a belief that the world is an uncaring place, an excuse for another go at hostility.
Power, Yes. Persecution, No.
Bullying is a conflict in which aggression is used to demonstrate power. But aggression and power are not synonyms. "I don't think we want our children to learn lessons about aggression and violence when they have power," says Pepler. "Aggression is the wrong way to use power. There are wonderful ways to be leaders without being aggressive."
Tremblay points to what he defines as "tough leaders." These are boys who are aggressive but have prosocial skills. They don't get their way by physical aggression or verbal abuse. In new situations they quickly take over and establish dominance by verbal fluency. In his studies, they are the most socially successful, the best-liked—and have the highest testosterone levels of all.
Bullies wind up being very costly to society, says Gerald Patterson: "We're talking about the production of marginally skilled adults who will be at the margins of society even if they don't commit crimes. They cost the rest of us a lot." They have more accidents; more illness; shorter, less productive lives; pay less in taxes; and use more welfare services. In school they tended to get lots of services, things that were not very effective.
But the most profound case against bullying is made by Dan Olweus. He sees it as a blow to the very soul of freedom. "Bullying violates fundamental democratic principles," he argues. If two kids were merely to challenge each other, they'd fight fair, one would win and the other lose, they'd shake hands, and that would be the end of that. Like our Presidential elections. "But the problem is that bullies seek out the victims and persecute them. They follow them up, wait for them in order to harass them. It is a basic democratic right for a child to feel safe in school and to be spared the oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation implied in bullying."
HOW TO HANDLE A BULLY
What Children Can Do:
- A wise line of defense is avoidance. Know when to walk away. It is thoroughly adaptive behavior to avoid a bully. Being picked on is not character-building.
- Use humor to defuse a bully who may be about to attack. Make a joke: "Look, Johnny, lay off. I don't want you to be late for school."
- Or tell the bully assertively, "Get a life. Leave me alone." And walk away. This may be the best defense for girls.
- Recruit a friend. Observers find that having a friend on the playground is one of the most powerful protectives, especially for boys.
- In general, seek out the friendly children and build friendships with them.
What Parents Can Do:
- See that your child has a grounding in assertive behavior. The real first line of defense against a bully is self-confidence.
- Spread the word that bullying is bad for bullies.
- Ask your children how peers treat them. Children often are ashamed to bring up the subject. Parents must.
- Enroll your child in a social-skills group where children learn and practice skills in different situations.
- Model good relationships at home. Help siblings get along.
- Increase the social opportunities of all kids, but especially victimized ones. Invite other children, and groups of children, over to the house. Encourage sleepovers. This is your job; parents are social engineers.
- Enroll your child in classes or groups that develop competencies in activities that are valued by peers. Even kids who don't love sports may like karate, tae kwon do, and similar activities.
- Shut off the TV: much programming reinforces the idea that aggression is the only way to deal with conflicts.
- Empathy helps. Instill in all kids a sense of the distress that a victim experiences.
- Help your child come up with a set of clever verbal comebacks to be used in the event of victimization by verbally abusive peers.
- See that kids in groups have plenty of things to do. Provide play materials. Buy a soccer ball. Paint a hopscotch pattern on the sidewalk. Bullying flourishes when kids are together and have nothing else to do.
- Do not tell or teach a kid to fight back. Fighting back is the worst defense. In most instances, victimized children really are weaker and smaller than the bully—thus their fears of losing there fights may be quite real. Besides, not all bullying takes the form of physical aggression. Counter-aggression to any form of bullying actually increases the likelihood of continued victimization.
- Do not expect kids to work it out on their own. Bullying is not a simply a problem of individuals. Given the influence of the peer groups and reputational factors in maintaining the behavior of bullies and victims, it is extremely unrealistic to expect kids to alter the dynamics of bullying by themselves.
- Always intervene. Adults have a crucial role to play in the socialization of children. And consistency counts. Any time adults do not intervene they are essentially training others to solve problems through aggression.
- Intervene at the level of the group. Let all kids know bullying is not OK. Declare emphatically: "This is not acceptable behavior. You can't do this here."
- Talk to your child's teachers to find out what is normal behavior for children of that age group and to find out what the class atmosphere is like.
- Talk to other parents; where there's one victimized child there are likely to be others.
- Get the school involved. At the very least, ask that the school declare bullying off-limits. A change in the atmosphere of the school is not only possible, but helpful in reducing bullying.
- Go to the school administration and demand that bullies be transferred to other classes or schools. Every child has the right to a safe school environment.
- If all else fails, see that your child is transferred to another school. The same child may thrive in a different school with a group of children having different values.