Bullying Behavior in Children and Adults

Bullying Behavior in Children and Adults

Aggressive behavior by adults that could result in police action (assault, for example) is viewed differently when carried out by a child. For example, if a driver involved in a two-car accident punches the other driver, he or she may well be arrested and charged with "assault" or "assault and battery," whereas a twelve-year-old who punches another student during a playground baseball game will only be reprimanded by a teacher if the action is witnessed.

For boys, bullying behavior can range from hitting smaller or younger children to simply threatening to do so. For girls, bullying behavior might be somewhat more subtle-starting vicious rumors about another girl, for example, or habitually excluding someone from group activities and encouraging other girls to do the same. While bullying may start at any age, it becomes most apparent in children entering pre-adolescence and in adolescence, any time after age nine or ten for most children. The physical and emotional differences between children at the beginning of adolescence can give rise to problems when children at different stages of development are in school together. Some boys, for example, begin a growth spurt earlier than others, which places them at an advantage in physical confrontations. The physical changes associated with adolescence are also accompanied by changes in psychology. Adolescents begin feeling more independent of adults, parents and teachers alike. Adolescents often feel a new level of self-awareness. By age ten or twelve, for example, it becomes obvious that some children are more gifted athletes than others, or have artistic talent. Adolescents are also beginning to gain a sexual awareness due to a change in hormone levels, which often manifests itself in a new pattern of group behavior. This complex set of changes typically produces feelings of uncertainty or insecurity. Adolescents may seek relief from these feelings by becoming withdrawn, argumentative, or by bullying. Belittling or intimidating another child, either physically or psychologically, might give a boost to an insecure adolescent's self-esteem.

Some victims of bullying may suffer from learning disabilities, or Asperger syndrome, a developmental disorder in the autism spectrum usually marked by normal development of intelligence and language, but less developed social and communication skills than their peers. Victims of bullying behavior may be slightly behind the curve in physical growth, or they may have developed feelings of insecurity in childhood. In some cases, they may come from a different social, ethnic or financial background that makes it harder to fit in with other children in their school. Psychologists realize that children (and adults) have a way of communicating insecurity to others, unconsciously signaling that they would be easy to intimidate.

The phenomenon of bullying involves three players: the bully; his/her victim; and the larger peer group of children who are neither bullies nor victims, but who witness the bullying. The reaction of the peer group can have an important impact on both the bully and the victim. If other children behave in ways that boost the bully's ego at the expense of the victim, the bully receives positive reinforcement that may encourage more bullying. If the peer group comes to the rescue of the victim by confronting the bully, the victim is protected (and may avoid feeling that he/she has been singled out as a victim) and the bully gets negative feedback which may discourage future instances of bullying.

Traditionally, the approach of teachers in dealing with bullying has been driven by commonsense: try to prevent the bully's behavior; if that fails, counsel the victim and involve the peer group by convincing them that bullying is unacceptable. Although these methods do nothing to address the underlying issues, they can make a difficult situation more acceptable. Dealing with the bully falls at first into prevention, to make sure the bully is not given a chance to behave badly. If and when a bully is found, the actions can be punished by separating him/her from the larger group, by detaining him/her after school, or by excluding him/her altogether by expulsion. When schools are able to provide psychological counseling, bullies can be treated in an effort to discourage their behavior.

Dealing with the victim falls into several different categories: advising him or her to deny that something has happened ("ignore it" is the usual form of this advice); advising the victim to run away ("stay away from the bully," which may also result in social isolation for the victim); or to fight back ("stand up for your rights"). If a victim is unable to fight back, either physically or because he/she has truly been intimidated, these treatments may well simply reinforce the message of the bully.

Dealing with the peer group involves raising awareness of how not to behave in a group, and to encourage children to counter bullies by taking steps to make the victim feel welcome and safe within the group, while isolating the bully. The downside to this approach is that the peer group may have dissolved (after lunch break, for example), leaving the bully and victim as the easiest to identify and to counsel.

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