Tuesday, July 17, 2012

The Bully Continuum

There is a stigma when it comes to bullying. Those who are bullied (pretty much everyone on Earth at one point or another) remember the pain, shame and humiliation it caused us. Therefore, when we hear or read the word "bully", all of those negative emotions are conjured up and associated to the present child/person/situation. When a parent hears that their child is a bully, it's understandable where their defensiveness comes from. But although many of us would like to look back on those who bullied us as being heartless, devoid of normal emotion and abnormally cruel, the fact is, bullies usually aren't any of those things. They are just normal kids, and what's important to understand is that the roles in a bully relationship can easily be switched if the circumstances surrounding it were but a little different.

Dorothy L. Espalage, Ph.D. is a noted psychologist who specializes in early childhood. She maintains that we should look at bullying as a continuum of behaviors rather than label any child as such. To that regard, as we explore bullying at multiple age groups, it's clear to see that what motivates bully behavior typically changes as the child ages, even though each child is unique and their circumstances and traits should always be considered when exploring their behavior patterns. It's also quite clear that bullying behavior can follow a child through adolescence and into adulthood.

Early Childhood 0-5

Early childhood is defined as years from birth, up to five years old. These are considered the formative years, and a time when children typically learn mannerisms and develop social skills. Carol B. Hillman, Author of "Before the Bell Rings" says that, "Play is the way children learn to be in charge. Through play, young children gain a sense of power."

According to SuEllen Fried, "Bullying has a profound effect at all stages of life, but particularly in the early years."

And according again to Dr. Espalage, "In the fifteen years that I have studied bullying and other forms of youth aggression, the children have gotten younger and younger in their manifestations of these behaviors. The behavior we saw in fifth graders, we are now seeing in preschool playgroups."(1)

The importance of teaching manners and helping children learn social skills in early childhood is notable. Many parents choose not to teach their children to say please and thank you, or to encourage them to play well with others out of fear that they will somehow be programming their children to "tow the line" and push them into conformity. But many experts counter that children are not born knowing politeness or how to associate with others. Children are not born with social skills, and manners are something that is taught through example and expectation. In fact, many cultures around the world have completely different expectations when it comes to social graces and it's impossible for children to automatically know them.

Montessori schools are schools who are specifically child-led and is characterized by "an emphasis on independence, freedom within limits, and respect for a child's natural psychological development, as well as technological advancements in society(2). Montessori schools worldwide employ the "Peace Table" to prevent bullying. Children who are in a disagreement may go to the peace table to discuss and solve their problem.

In many cases, children who are not taught by their parents or teachers to be respectful toward others will learn to do so the hard way, as they find themselves frequently put off by their peers - or else they will not learn and will continue to find it difficult to get along with others as they continue to be perceived as rude or adverse.
It's important for children to learn that people will judge them by how they make others feel, over anything else. A child who is polite and shows respect for others will make real friends much more easily than a child who consistently makes other feel bad. As the child is off-putting, they find themselves feeling contrary and the rudeness/isolation cycle continues until the child either develops better social skills or gives up on trying to have or make friends altogether.
Middle Childhood 6-12

According to Aletha Huston and Marika Ripke, authors of Development Contexts in Middle Childhood, "By the time a child passes through middle childhood, their developmental characteristics have a great impact on the adolescent and adult they will become."

This is the age when many children develop a sense of their personality and how it is perceived by others. Children who displayed bullying attributes in early childhood and did not change their behavior often become more intentional in their bullying at this age. According to Huston, middle childhood is the blooming of cognitive awareness for such things as ones ability, experience and a sense of inferiority: "This is a time children really build a foundation of being able to relate to peers."

By the time children are eight years old, they can easily identify specific children who are bullies and can tell you which children are more popular than others. According to the ground-breaking Eron Study that began in 1960 by Dr. Leonard Eron, which interviewed 875 third graders and then continued to question them throughout childhood and even into their middle age; the study concluded that children who were bullies at eight were considerably more likely to have a criminal record as an adult than non-bullies, many with multiple convictions. The children who were labeled as bullies by their peers were also considerably more likely to become abusive husbands, wives and parents and form dysfunctional relationships, even lack success in their careers and abuse drugs and alcohol. It is apparent to psychologists, educators and sociologists who have closely examined the Eron Study and others like it, that a childs social behavior as early as eight years old can be a large predictor of their behavior in adolescence and that has a large impact on their educational status. There is a growing consensus among psychologists, educators and policy makers that the way a child behaves or is treated in middle childhood has a much greater impact on who they become as adults than was previously believed.

These studies are growing concern for the need of early bully intervention, not simply for the children who are targets, but for the children who are bullying them.

Middle School 12-14

Middle School tends to be the peak of bullying, according to most experts. One child, quoted in "Banishing Bullying Behavior" by SuEllen Fried and Blanche Sosland put it perfectly: Middle School is senselessly evil.

As each childs development can vary greatly from one to the next, added to a deep but undeveloped sense of social hierarchy, onset of puberty for most, Middle School can be an absolute battlefield. At this age, kids struggle with their sense of identity and will jockey for position on the social totem pole. There is a lot at stake, and the kids sense this even if they're not fully aware of it.

While one kid may be popular in seventh grade, they may be dethroned by eighth grade and even if they lack the language to define what is happening, they can very clearly see that popularity and power have great rewards. They will go to great lengths to try and get it, even if it means to be mean to someone else. Jr.High turns most kids - even previously sweet and loving kids - into tyrants.

Even though they can be cruel to each other, and even their parents at home can find them difficult to deal with, it's important to realize that these kids are going through a lot. They are beginning to detach more notably from their parents and family, which often causes a great deal of friction as they assert their independence. They leave the comforting predictability of elementary school where they are each often celebrated and made to feel special on a regular basis, for the hustle and chaos of 45 minute classes with teachers who remain strangers; shunted from class to class in a sea of anonymity. It can be jarring and isolating. Add to that the confusion of hormones, early interest in sex and the pressure to keep up with or outdo their peers in every regard, and it's easy to see how they can become overwhelmed. They may act like little demons, but inside is still a child who is often pretty much terrified and feels completely alone.

High School 15 - 19

High School is a special time in most peoples lives. Those who were popular and had a successful (by most accounts) high school career will reflect on it with reverence whereas those who were "losers or outcasts" look back on those days with a grimace of discomfort. Most experts agree that bullying slackens off at this time, compared to Middle School. Part of the reason for this is that within the school environment, the social hierarchy is set and there is no longer any need to fight for position. Usually, by the time teens finish their ninth grade year, they have developed a strong enough sense of security that they no longer feel the need to put others down - and those who seek to put them down effect them much less.

But while incidents themselves seem to decrease, it is believed that it becomes more violent or verbally intense. It also is more easily hidden. Studies show that the majority of High School kids do not feel physically safe in their schools. The consensus is that teachers for the most part are unaware of how much bullying goes on. As teenagers cross this bridge into adulthood, for most, bully relationships have a greater impact on ones success in the real world whether academic, social, even marital.

At this age, many teens feel a great deal of pressure to conform, however, they also feel the need to assert their individuality and will take greater risks to gain attention than they would have dared in Middle School. This can go well, or it can have disastrous consequences. As the fear of rejection from their peers, the need to be respected and earn credibility can cause many kids to bully. They may take on a "kill or be killed" mentality, socially speaking, and even though we wish it wouldn't - bullying tends to earn them some respect. Beating up a classmate, publicly humiliating someone, even "knowing" ones own importance can go a long way to gain positive attention.

We can install as many anti-bully programs as we like. We can lecture and preach, hone and guide, but the fact is most teenagers at this age couldn't care less what adults think of them, and it's not going to do much good. Adults telling them how uncool it is to put someone down only gives them another reason to do it. As teens are naturally rebellious, harsh penalties do little to deter their behavior. Bully programs are laughed at and shrugged off and targets become less and less likely to report a bullies behavior as along beside fear of retribution, comes a new desire to handle the problem themselves as a way of asserting their own independence - or rather, gaining a little self respect.

Often, one peer who is being picked on will take it out on a lesser peer. This hierarchy, chain of command, or social totem pole, is established earlier on - usually in Middle School and ninth grade. As the pecking order goes, one person at the top will bully a person "beneath" them. That person, in kind, will bully the next one down, and so on and so forth. Those at the bottom of the hierarchy often go home and take their pain out on their younger siblings or smaller family members, their parents, or even themselves as they may practice cutting or even attempt or succeed in suicide. They may go to other groups where they find themselves at or near the top of the social chain and begin bullying there.

As we look at bullying as a continuum of behaviors, we can see that there is an obvious cause and effect behind it. I don't believe children or adults bully simply because they are mean or selfish people. Often, bullies are very troubled or are experiencing strong emotions that they don't know how to handle. Very often, we find that a bully is having severe problems they are incapable of coping with and they often feel as miserable inside as they are trying to make others feel. While it seems practical to simply hand out punishments as a recourse for bullying behavior, this often only exacerbates the problem and does nothing whatsoever to rectify the situation. In order to bring about proper reform, we need to put programs in place that address each individual for what and who they are - people.


1 Banishing Bully Behavior, by SuEllen Fried and Blanche Sosland
2 http://en.m.widkipedia.org.wiki/Montessori_mothod

Do you feel that kids who show agression early in childhood are more likely to become or remain a bully as an adult? How has your experiences with or as a bully when you were a child impacted you as an adult?

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