Bullying is a public health crisis in the United States, with as many as one in four children suffering at the hands of a bully every year. Like any health problem, the first step to treating it is to discover what is causing it. A team of researchers at Yale University has been working for over a year to understand the environmental and biological forces that give rise to bullying behavior in an effort to counteract it and redirect it in more positive ways. Their studies have yielded results that are sometimes surprising.
In a Bullying Situation, Nobody Wins
The study confirms what anyone who’s been bullied, or has a child who’s been bullied, already knows firsthand: kids who are bullied have a higher risk of adverse health effects, both mental and physical. However, the study has also determined that bullies themselves often suffer negative effects from their behavior, and in many cases, the effects are similar to those often experienced by the bully’s victims:
- Low self-esteem
- Social isolation
If bullies don’t benefit from their behavior, and in fact suffer on account of it, why do they continue to do it? The answer is complicated, but essentially, bullies either do not understand that their behavior is wrong or they do not know any other way to behave.
Surprisingly…. Not So Different
The study discovered that there are often striking similarities between the situations of the children targeted for bullying and the bullies themselves.
Both tend to exhibit social awkwardness and an inability to understand the consequences of their actions or the effect their behavior has on others. Both bullies and their victims may have mental health challenges, such as attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or autism spectrum disorder, that cause them to behave impulsively or prevent them from empathizing easily with others. Because of the similarities, the roles of bully and victim may fluctuate depending on the situation, so that today’s bully may be tomorrow’s victim, and vice versa.
Reasons a Child Becomes a Bully
Bullying is largely a learned behavior which means that, with the proper intervention, it can be corrected. The following is Parentology’s list of five reasons a child may become a bully and strategies parents, educators, and mental health professionals may employ to try to reverse the behavior.
When children are socially isolated from one another, it creates an ideal environment for bullying behavior to flourish. Adults can help prevent bullying by encouraging friendships and positive social interactions among children. For example, an adult in authority may recognize a child who is competent in social situations and team them up with another child who might be experiencing social challenges for one reason or another. The first child can serve as a mentor to the other, providing a good model from which to learn appropriate ways to behave.
2. Lack of Empathy
Young children often go through a stage of egocentrism; autism and other mental health conditions can make it difficult even for an older child to see past his or her own situation and empathize with others. Adults need to explain how the child’s behavior makes others feel. One way of doing this is by asking, “How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you?”
3. Poor Modeling
Sometimes children bully because that’s the behavior they learn at home from parents and/or older siblings. Family counseling may be effective at helping everyone learn to relate to one another in a more constructive way.
4. Negative or Inaccurate Thinking
Psychiatric conditions can sometimes cause inaccurate or negative thinking, but these can occur even when no such condition is present. In either case, a specific type of talk therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy is often very effective at correcting negative and/or inaccurate thinking and can usually be completed successfully in 10 to 20 sessions.
5. Low Self-Esteem
Some children don’t feel good about themselves. So, they believe they can lift themselves up by putting others down. It’s important to encourage the kind of behavior you want to see in a child even while adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying.
Pay attention. No child misbehaves 24 hours a day; parents and teachers can find something praiseworthy in the most enigmatic child.
Once you’ve identified the root cause of the bullying behavior, the next step is to redirect it. Do this by being assertive, calm, and consistent at all times.