Monday, 16 April 2012

Bullying Basics

With all the talk about bullying in the media (most recently spawned by the film ‘Bully’) do we really know what it is?

Violence Prevention Works defines bullying as aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power. Most often repeated over time. Bullying can manifest in physical violence (the most obvious acts of bullying), verbal attacks, and non-verbal behavior (i.e. exclusion from activities, being the last student chosen for a sports team at recess) which I consider acts of relational aggression.
All types of bullying are detrimental to a developing child’s sense of self-worth. We know that children who are victims of bullying are:
  • More likely to do poorly in school.
  • More likely to have or develop mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
  • More likely to develop substance abuse issues.
  • More likely to bully themselves.
A subcategory of bullying that I often discuss with students, faculty and parents is the aforementioned relational aggression. Relational aggression is conceptualized as behaviors that harm others by damaging, threatening to damage, manipulating one’s relationships with his/her peers, or by injuring one’s feelings of social acceptance. For purposes of this blog post, when I refer to bullying, I am discussing both bullying and relational aggression. 
Some examples are:
  • Excluding someone from an activity.
  • Purposefully not allowing someone to sit at a lunch table.
  • Ignoring someone.
  • Rumor spreading.
The Ophelia Project has been at the forefront of educating the public at large about relational aggression.
When discussing bullying, I highlight the many roles involved:
  • The bully = the person instigating the act.
  • The victim = the person being target
  • The bystander(s) = the person or people that are witness to the act. They can be active or passive.
What makes bullying such a malignant problem is that the negative mental health effects are not temporary once the behavior ends.While many people who were victimized as children grow up to be healthy and well-adjusted adults, there is growing research that shows depression and low self-esteem stemming from being a victim stays with people into adulthood.
Additionally, victims of bullying are more likely to end up in other relationships in which they are victimized such as dysfunctional and abusive romantic relationships.
Our early relationships from infancy and childhood shape how we think relationships “should be” as adults. Therefore, if a child learns early on that his/her relationships are defined by humiliation, dis-empowerment, aggression and maltreatment then that child can go on to recreate the victim-bully dynamic in all their relationships well into adulthood.
At Freedom Institute where I am a counselor, we conduct workshops with students, faculty, and parents on how to identify bullying, what to do when it is observed, and how to foster a safe school environment. We work to empower bystanders to be upstanders, people that stand up to the bully and ally themselves with the victim. The less a young person feels isolated, the less impact the bully has on the victim’s well-being.
While our focus at Freedom Institute has been on substance abuse prevention, the impact that bullying has on young people is not mutually exclusive to the choices they make regarding substance use.
In my private practice with adults, the way in which being bullied as a child shapes one’s self concept is never lost on me. I cannot forget one of my first patients – a young man in his mid-twenties who struggled with severe depression. He sought therapy to address his self-confidence at work and felt angry all the time. When I asked him when he could remember feeling this way for the first time, he recalled being bullied so often that he would write self-described hate letters to the students that targeted him while in school to cope.
During treatment, we often discussed how feeling victimized and angry interfered with effectively communicating with colleagues while making friendships and any potential romantic relationships difficult. Simultaneously, we explored his adolescence but with me in the role of an upstander. I empathized with him and helped the younger version of himself that was still reeling from the pain begin to heal.
Since the blog went live last week I’ve gotten messages from friends, colleagues and even a comment on a post sharing how bullying has affected them. It’s a testament to how important it is to keep this topic in our consciousness! The more we explore bullying with our young people, the more empowered they will be.
We want our children to stand up for themselves and be upstanders for each other. Bullies need other kids to buy in to the dynamic for it to continue. Upstanders have the most power to change the dynamic between a bully and a target. Keep your eyes open for my next post on how to help our kids be upstanders.

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