Made, not born

Understanding the psychology of bullying

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People know the clichés. Bullies come from broken homes and bad parenting, and they struggle with insecurities. What many don’t understand is why those factors drive kids of all ages, even including adults, to bully. The psychology of a bully is a complicated thing that has a plethora of complexities. There are several factors and commonalities researchers have found among those who become the attacker rather than the victim. Katie Hurley, a child psychotherapist who has been published in the Washington Post and U.S. News & World Report among others, published an article stating there are several different backgrounds that bullies commonly come from. Strained parental relationships on children at a young age can have enduring negative effects according to a study by Dale Dannefer, a professor at the University of Rochester. Even if a parent treats the child well, they can still inadvertently raise a bully due to poor disciplinary behavior according to Hurley.

Other factors include unsupportive peers, being abused and being a victim of bullies themselves. Bellville native Austin Dornon, a third-year medical student at Texas A&M University whose father has been a child psychiatrist in Houston since 1977, has noticed the turnaround pattern of the bullied becoming the bullies.

“When kids are bullied, it obviously makes them feel bad about themselves and gives them a lot of negative effects so they turn around and do it to someone else so it turns into this really bad chain reaction,” Dornon said.

A joint study by the University of Washington and Indiana University found that 97 percent of the bullies they studied said they were victims of bullying in the past.

The reason for why these factors cause a child to turn to bullying are similar to the factors themselves. Hurley points to one of the things that is found in most bullies: unemotional traits. This is not to say the bullies have no emotion but instead, they simply can’t process the emotions of others. This is in part due to immature social skills which can make a bully identify hostility in a situation where there is none, prompting an aggressive response. Their lack of empathy and lack of compassion also lead to them not seeing the damage they are inflicting on the victim.

Dornon said this could explain why cyberbullying has been on the rise as bullies don’t have to see their victims, pushing the possibility of empathizing with their victims even farther away.

“Cyberbullying is oftentimes anonymous so you don’t even know who it is that is bullying you and it just makes bullying so much easier,” Dornon said.

Parental relationships can have many different effects when it comes to bullying. The University of Washington study found one of the reasons abusive parents, whether it is between the two adults or involves the child, can create bullies is because youth naturally want to follow the example of their parents. Parents are the strongest role models children have and so they mimic what they do and if that is violence, the child may grow up thinking it is natural and inflict it on their peers.

Dr. Gail Gross, a Houston-based expert in family, child development and human behavior, wrote in a Huffington Post piece that children who are bullied and abused at home naturally feel less powerful and need an outlet to express those feelings. Both Gross and Dornon say that outlet is bullying.

“I think the motivation behind bullying is just their need for empowerment and control because kids don’t have a lot of that growing up,” Dornon said. “If they’re seeing essentially bullying at home that can definitely imprint on them and [they] see that as normal and carry out the same acts at school.”

Gross also pointed out bullies act because they feel ignored whether it’sbecause a parent doesn’t pay attention to them because they’re distant or something as innocent having a newborn little sibling. Entitled kids are also known to turn into bullies because they feel they are better and have the right to do it. She also points out that sometimes kids just naturally lack empathy without any outside factors. A study by Canadian researchers suggested bullies are actually made due to genetics because exercising power and aggressiveness historically meant benefits and survival.

Ditch the Label, an international anti-bullying charity, conducted a study with almost 9,000 children that found 66 percent of those who bullied were males. Dornon said this could be an example of traditional “manly” cultural trends that endorses violence and aggression over healthy expression.

“I think the ‘suck it up’ mentality we have isn’t a great one and definitely perpetuates itself,” Dornon said. “As far as females go, they’re more likely to be socially and cyberbullied and I thought that was surprising.”

So the psychology behind bullying is vast and with so many factors that could lead to a child becoming a bully, understanding how to stop it is also important. Hurley wrote some of the most important things a parent can do are praise their child often, help them problem-solve, hold them accountable and teach empathy every day.

“Numbers are showing bullying is increasing across the nation but a school in Maryland saw a decrease in it and they had a program that involved the students, teachers and parents that implemented problem-solving workshops and talks on empathy, perspective and acceptance of differences,” Dornon said. “Nobody wants their kid to be a bully or be bullied and I would say to them I understand that but the reality is this is happening and it’s a real problem and you have to address it and talk with your kids about it.”

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