Bullying is a hot-button issue. High-profile lawsuits and suicides have thrust bullying into the national spotlight. More schools are implementing policies designed to protect victims and crack down on perpetrators. In some schools, however, these efforts are outpacing education about bullying and the conditions that compel youth to engage in it. For the sake of all students, the time has come to look closely at two questions: Why do kids bully? How can we help them stop?
Why do kids bully?
Bullying is a behavior, not an identity. For behavior to qualify as bullying, two conditions must exist:
- The aggressor must intend to hurt or intimidate someone less powerful.
- The behavior must be repeated.
Jaana Juvonen, a professor of developmental psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, explores the motives of power and control in her research on bullying. “We’re talking about strategic behavior that is there for a particular purpose … to fill a need. And the need is being able to control others,” says Juvonen. “These are kids who are very deliberately, intentionally trying to hurt another kid. They want to dominate and feel powerful … Then the question in terms of how to help [a child who] bullies is to ask, 'Why do they have this need for control and power?'"
While attempting to answer this question, Juvonen has noticed that bullying behavior spikes during transition years, particularly the transition from elementary to middle school.
“It is during these times of social uncertainty where some kids resort to … primitive means to establish a social hierarchy,” she says. “When you get into a new social environment you really don’t have a sense of where you fit in, where you rank, who are your friends versus foes. It is helpful to have this dominance hierarchy.”
Why some kids take this path and others don’t isn’t well established. What is clear is that aggressive kids often perceive ambiguous interactions—and even facial expressions—as negative or threatening. Kara Penniman, a school-based social worker in Columbus, Ohio, notes that students who bully often think their behavior is justified because others are “out to get them,” and this belief touches off a cycle of negative interactions.
“Many kids who exhibit bullying behavior … don’t see themselves often as being particularly powerful,” Penniman explains. “Sometimes they themselves are experiencing intimidation, threats, power and control problems with other people, so it can be really common for them to see themselves as the victim.”
Ultimately, though, all youth who exhibit bullying behavior—victims of aggression or not—are using bullying as a tool to meet a strong need, says Juvonen.
“[There are] these incredibly powerful cyclical pathways,” she says. “Kids learn that there’s this unmet need to feel powerful, to be able to control others, then you act in certain ways and you get rewarded for it.” These rewards, however, exist in the short term only.
According to bullying experts Dan Olweus, Sue Limber and Sharon F. Mahalic, 60 percent of boys who bullied others in middle school had at least one criminal conviction by the age of 24; 40 percent had three or more convictions. A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that youth who bully are at increased risk for depression, conduct disorders, substance abuse and suicide.
How can we help?
The painful effects of bullying lead many educators to focus on justice and safety for students who are targeted and to feel contempt for those responsible for the pain—an approach that often results in harsh disciplinary measures, such as suspensions and expulsions from school.
These zero-tolerance measures may appear responsive, but Juvonen and most experts who study school discipline warn against policies that make school a threatening, uncertain place. Juvonen notes that in addition to not addressing the root causes of bullying, such harsh tactics fuel the perception that youth have no choice but to fight for themselves.
The most effective bullying interventions don’t focus on only one category of kids, but rather acknowledge that all students benefit when schools empower youth and teach them about healthy relationships.
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