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Should We Rethink Bullying? Bullies, the Bullied and Mean Girls

Posted Oct 05 2011 11:31am
Simon Battensby / Getty Images from Time Magazine
Despite lots of public attention, a profusion of anti-bullying programs, legislation and research, bullying doesn't appear to have stopped or for that matter, waned though it might not have increased depending on who you ask.  But still, it hasn't disappeared. 

Have we gotten something wrong?  

Take a look at this recent unusually(?) clear-eyed article in Time magazine distilling some new angles on bullying.  Rather, some issues that have perplexed educators, psychologists and parents who've spent time thinking about bullying but have too often been neglected in the debate:   
What if bullying is not a cause of poor mental health but is a warning sign that it already exists?

Studies show that kids who are involved in bullying — bullies, victims and a third subgroup of particularly problematic kids who engage in both behaviors and are referred to as bully-victims — are more likely to have started out with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues that predispose them to lashing out and to self-harm.  Should We Re-Think Our Anti-Bullying Strategy, Time, September 28.
It's become a no-brainer to think of bullies as being messed up from a psychological perspective.  It's easy to see bullies as deficient in key social and emotional skills. You know, the bad seed of the preschool and playground.

But what about their targets?

As a mom and a psychologist over the years I can't help but wonder about the traits, especially in younger children, that might make some kids more vulnerable.  I've thought about this since my undergrad days (and some grad involvement) in studies involving survivors of sexual assault and other abuse.  The perps shared traits as did their targets.  To ask this question about victims in no way "blames" these kids but provides a doorway into potentially preventing their abuse. There's some evidence that kids involved in bullying - both as targets, perpetrators and those that become both - show deficits in social competence, self awareness and emotional awareness.  There's also evidence of depression and anxiety preceding the bullying.  Of course there must be traits that separate these groups too. I've not seen much written up about the targets - so much has focused on the profile of the perp and the psychological aftermath for the target- but will check out the review cited in the Time article. 

It's not been politically correct to fixate on the target's prior mental health.

Anyhow, I'm particularly fascinated by the group of kids who are both bullies and bullied.  These kids show up in study after study, survey after survey, birthday party after birthday party (!!!) reminders that not only is this bullying a knotty business, but again, there are likely substantial differences between those targets who become bullies and those who stay targets.

Nor is it clear what constitutes bullying.

Take this related quandary.  Bullying versus disliking someone.  Are they the same? When does simple dislike turn into bullying? What's the difference between having an adversarial relationship and bullying?      

How about this new research finding certain to provide headaches to principals and guidance counselors trying to implement anti-bullying laws and programs:  Having an enemy might indicate better social/emotional adjustment.  Kids who share mutual dislike (i.e. two kids that both dislike each other) are better liked by their peers and better behaved in the classroom according to teachers.  So in fact there's an upside to dislike. 

Also couldn't help but think about typical mean-girl behavior.  Is that bullying or the expression of advanced social development? It's not like those girls show deficits in social skills.  According to one recent study it's the friend of the It Girl, the girl doing the bidding of the Queen Bee. That who's going all mean-girl - trying to find that reference, anyone recall that one?   
If you're interested, the other research is cited in the Time article.  Can't seem to find the cited 2009 article about mutual dislike, at least the cited author's 2009 study in PubMed doesn't seem like the one discussed in the article. Might email the author.  So of course I'm wondering if the mutual dislike findings got put in the paper at all or were merely an interesting aside.

So I'd love to see some fresh material in the anti-bullying programs.  Basically stale right now. anyone have good materials?  My mother remembers the worksheets I got recently - from like twenty years ago.  Is that the outcome of our bullying prevention to date?  Other than throwing down some vague legislation that confuses everyone?

BTW, anyone catch Harvard psychologist   Stephen Pinker on NPR today talking about the decline of violence?  He mentioned our current focus on bullying.  As he put it back in the day "boys were boys" and we accepted bullying as ordinary playground antics.  Today, however, just like violence, we've become sensitized to bullying and cruelty - in a good way - and thus are more aware and disdainful of these acts.  He'd probably argue there's less bullying now then ever.      
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