Why do people bully?

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This week is anti-bullying week here in the UK and Jobbing Teacher thought it would be a good idea in light of recent posts  to explore in more depth why people bully others. We tend to focus on bullying as a school issue but if the truth be known bullying does not stop when we leave school

Conventional wisdom  tells us that children and young people who bully others may be doing it for a variety of reasons but often they may be experiencing unhappiness, anger or feelings of powerlessness.

  • They may have experienced bullying or abuse at home or in another situation, and be inflicting this on others in turn
  • They may be feeling stressed, depressed, or rejected by family or friends, and using the bullying to make up for these feelings.
  • They may have low self-esteem and use the bullying to give them a sense of power – they may enjoy the attention the bullying gives them from friends and those they bully.
  • They may not understand the effect of their actions on those they bully, for example if they have learning or behavioural difficulties

However, There are deeper cultural and social issues within the above reasons that need to be explored if we are to understand the true nature of bullying;

Much of our modern 21st century culture is fascinated with winning, power, and violence.  Some experts suggest that because of this, it is unrealistic to expect that people will not be influenced to seek power through violence in their own lives. Researchers in the USA point to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) for example as glorification of bullies in the name of entertainment and also point out that the high rate of domestic violence in the US means that many young people grow up expecting that violence is an acceptable way to get what one wants.

The fact that one gets more social recognition for negative behaviours than for positive ones can also contribute to reasons why people bully. Premiership football, Situation Comedies and Reality Television, as well as real life situations in schools, for example, show that acting out is more likely to get noticed than behaving oneself civilly and courteously. Jealousy or envy and a lack of personal and social skills to deal with such feelings can also be reasons why people bully.

Some research  indicates that the very fact of having power may make some people wish to wield it in a noticeable way, but it is also true that people may be given power without being trained in the leadership skills that will help them wield it wisely. Either situation can contribute to reasons for why people bully others.

Families that are not warm and loving and in which feelings are not shared are more likely to have children who bully, either within the family home or in other locations in which the children meet others. Another home environment that is prone to producing bullies is one in which discipline and monitoring are inconsistent and/or a punitive atmosphere exists

However, Serge and Carmen Sognonvi  have written about bullying from a different perspective and it is well worth considering their views if we are to develop our thinking about why people bully others;

 They say that much of the conventional wisdom we hear about the causes of bullying is wrong!

They talk about ‘common myths’ and discuss for example, the myth that bullies victimize others because they are “loners who suffer from low self-esteem”

The Sognonvi’s maintain that in reality, researchers have found that people who bully others often have average or even above-average levels of self-esteem. Bullies often have good leadership skills, have an easy time making friends, and therefore have large friendship networks.

If as Sognonvi claims, bullying can’t be explained by low self-esteem, then why do people bully others? Sognonvi details five major reasons;

1.      Bullies have a strong need to be in control and exert their dominance over others

2.      Bullies are rewarded for their bullying behaviors

3.      Bullies lack empathy, and may even get pleasure out of other people’s pain

4.      Bullies lack the ability to self-regulate emotions

5.      Bullies are heavily influenced by their family backgrounds

Children who bully others are often driven by the desire for power. They can be impulsive, hot-headed, and dominant, and they enjoy being able to subdue others.

When children are involved in bullying as the aggressors,” explains Debra Pepler, Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University, “they are experiencing regular lessons in how effective it can be to use their power aggressively to control and distress others.”

It may seem counter-intuitive, but the fact is that children often receive positive reinforcement when they bully others, which only makes them continue their behavior.

The rewards could be material, such as when a bully forces his victim to give up lunch money. But the rewards could also be less tangible. Bullies often enjoy status and prestige because others fear them. They also command a lot of attention for their behavior.

One recent large-scale study found that children who bullied others did so because they wanted to increase their popularity. To avoid losing social status, they deliberately selected victims who were unpopular.

Studies have also shown that bullies score low on tests of empathic reactivity, and have also found that bullies can be more likely to develop anti-social personality disorder. This is a condition that causes people to ignore the rights and feelings of those around them.

One study scanned the brains of young people who had exhibited bullying behaviors in the past, while they were watching videos that showed people experiencing pain. The researchers noticed a great deal of activity in the areas of the brain devoted to reward and pleasure.

This suggests that it’s not just a lack of empathy that’s the problem. Some bullies may actually derive pleasure out of seeing other people’s pain.

The same researchers who conducted the brain scan study made another surprising discovery: the parts of the bullies’ brains that allows them to self-regulate their emotions were inactive.

This suggests that bullies simply don’t have a way to control their anger and frustration, which may result in severe overreactions to small provocations.

It’s impossible to predict who will become a bully and who won’t, but researchers have found some patterns in the types of families bullies have. North Dakota State University professor Laura DeHaan sums up the findings as follows:

“Bullies tend to come from families that are characterized as having little warmth or affection. These families also report trouble sharing their feelings and usually rate themselves as feeling less close to each other. Parents of bullies also tend to use inconsistent discipline and little monitoring of where their children are throughout the day. Sometimes parents of bullies have very punitive and rigid discipline styles, with physical punishment being very common. Bullies also report less feelings of closeness to their siblings.”

All in all a pretty depressing picture. What the above research does emphasize though, is a critical need for parents to be aware that the home environment shapes our children lives more than we can ever imagine. Also, schools need to be much savvier about the motivations of children who bully, as do the workplaces where adult bullies ply their trade.

Bullying is unacceptable and should be dealt with quickly, but we all need to be mindful of the fact that the causes are complex and therefore need a considered and principled approach built around the need to both protect the victim but also to develop in the bully the self-control they will need to modify their own internal needs and frustrations.in the future.

What do you think?

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