Most of us remember a bullying incident when we were children. I was gangly, pigeon toed, awkward, and wore glasses. It was not the best combination for robust self-esteem. More recent bullying in the news has reported young people who have been bullied and have committed suicide. Seventy-one percent of school shooters felt they were bullied by peers and were seeking revenge on their tormentors. Bullying is based in maintaining a power imbalance using verbal, physical or relational techniques with the intention of bringing pain and suffering on the other person. Sometimes, the victims of bullying become bullies, as well.
To date, 45 states have enacted bullying prevention legislation. Estimates of the prevalence of bullying range from 20 to 77%. Bullying can result in internalizing symptoms, such as depression and loneliness or externalizing behaviors such as behavioral and social adjustment problems. Bullying can be maintained within a school, community, or family that openly or passively supports it.
Bullies vary in characteristics. Some are very popular among classmates in terms of visibility and dominance, but lower levels of acceptance by peers. Bullies usually lack empathy for others and are more likely to drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. Boys are more often bullies than girls. Bullies have cognitive distortions such as, “It’s fine to bully someone.” Similar to violence and delinquency, bullies that begin a career of bullying in adolescence, often stop bullying with minimal intervention by adulthood. Those that begin bullying before adolescence may become adult bullies in the workplace and at home. These children should be referred for family therapy.
It is important to determine the severity of the problems of the bully. If the youth that bullies has multiple or severe problems, multiple interventions will be needed. Those with less severe problems may respond to increasing problem solving, communication, tolerance for differences, and negotiation skills. Teachers and parents need to set good examples of respecting other people and teach children about appropriate relationship skills.
Dr. Kathryn Seifert has had over 30 years experience in mental health, addictions, and criminal justice work. She founded Eastern Shore Psychological Services, a multidisciplinary private practice that specializes in working with high-risk youth and their families. She writes and lectures nationally and internationally on the topics of violence, risk assessment, sex offenders, suicide prevention, school based mental health programs, and stress management. She advocates for the highest quality services for all children needing mental health treatment.