1 Children, Families, 0 & Schools Practice Update from the National Association of Social Workers Volume 2, Number 5 July 2002 National Association of Social Workers 750 First Street NE Suite 700 Washington, DC Phone: TTD: Fax: Web: BULLYING AMONG SCHOOL-AGE YOUTHS (Part II): UNDERSTANDING YOUTHS WHO BULLY INTRODUCTION Contrary to media and public perception, schools are one of the safest places for youths. Nonetheless, bullying behaviors are still quite common in the daily lives and routines of school-age children and adolescents. In a recent study of the prevalence of bullying among youths in the United States, nearly 30 percent of students surveyed reported modest to frequent involvement in bullying, either as the bully, the bullied, or the bystander (Nansel et al., 2001). Parents, school administrators and other school personnel, and communities can no longer afford to accept or tolerate the sentiment that bullying is a normal part of youth development. To do so fosters the cycle of violence in schools where the occurrence of bullying among children and adolescents is most prevalent. The best way for schools and communities to begin safeguarding against bullying behaviors is to be informed of the problem, including the roles of the bully, the bullied, and the bystander; its short- and long-term consequences, and successful interventions. CHARACTERISTICS OF YOUTHS WHO BULLY Bullying is a form of harassment and victimization that involves an imbalance of power between the bully and the bullied (Ross, 1996). Youths who bully their peers often experience a need to dominate others, in part because they lack a sense of internal control and balance. These youths may also have underlying issues such as abuse, neglect, anger, low self-esteem, and depression that incite their bullying behaviors. Contrary to popular perceptions of bullying, youths who bully others are not necessarily more prevalent in lower socioeconomic groups or communities. Rather, they can also be found in families and communities of higher socioeconomic status. Children and adolescents who bully others are both male and female and represent all racial and ethnic groups. The Nansel et al. (2001) study had the following findings: Males were more likely than females to bully their peers. Males who bullied others tended to be physically weaker than males in general. For male youths, physical and verbal bullying were more common. For female youths, verbal bullying (taunting and teasing) and spreading rumors were more common. Bullying behaviors were highest among students in grades 6 through 8. Youths who bullied others demonstrated poorer psychosocial functioning than their noninvolved peers. Youths who bullied others demonstrated higher levels of conduct problems and dislike for school. Youths who bullied others were more likely to be involved in other problem behaviors such as drinking alcohol and smoking. It is essential that school social workers and social workers in community-based and other relevant practice settings evaluate and define their role in intervening with youths who bully, within the scope and context of their respective practice settings. The Power of Social Work NASW July 2002 La Voyce B. Reid, MSW, LCSW Senior Staff Associate for Children, Families, and Schools
2 Children, Families, and Schools Page 2 Youths who bullied others demonstrated poorer school adjustment in terms of academic achievement and perceived school climate. Youths who bullied others reported greater ease of making friends, which may indicate that bullies are not necessarily socially isolated. Hispanic youths reported marginally higher involvement in moderate and frequent bullying of others than other racial or ethnic groups. In general, the following traits are common among all youths who bully their peers, irrespective of age, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status: They are concerned with their own pleasure rather than thinking about others. They want power. They are willing to use other people to get what they want. They feel hurt inside. They find it difficult to see things from others perspectives (National Crime Prevention Council, cited in National Parent Teacher Association, 2001). Types of Bullies The most prominent image of a bully is a child or adolescent of an aggressive nature or demeanor, whether verbal or physical. However, Olweus (1993), renowned for his research on bullying, distinguished among three separate types of bullies. He termed them the aggressive bully, the passive bully, and the bully-victim. The aggressive bully is the most typical. Ross (1996) summarized Olweus s typology as follows: The aggressive bully is characterized as belligerent, fearless, coercive, confident, tough, impulsive, and having a low tolerance for frustration with a stronger inclination toward using violence than that of children in general (Ross, 1996, p. 42). Olweus offered some distinction between the aggressive bully and the aggressive child. The aggressive child does not discriminate among targets, whereas the aggressive bully is more selective of the children he or she chooses to victimize. Olweus also found that aggressive bullies tend to be more popular in the elementary grades, but less popular in the upper grades (Ross), likely because the admiration from peers in the early school years diminishes as children mature and become more discriminate of the peers they select. Finally, aggressive bullies are less likely than the other types of bullies to feel remorse, and they have little empathy for their targets (Ross). Passive bullies seldom initiate the bullying, but rather instigate the aggressive bully once the bullying has begun and then join in (Ross, 1996). The passive bully demonstrates a sense of loyalty to the aggressive bully. He or she often receives the blame and will accept full punishment without implicating the aggressive bully (Ross). The passive bully is less popular than the aggressive bully, often has a low self-esteem, is more likely to have temper outbursts, and has been found to have greater difficulty concentrating at school (Ross). As the name suggests, bully victims target peers who are physically weaker than they are, but are also the target of bullying by stronger, more aggressive peers. The bully victim provokes others, is easily aroused, and is usually not well liked by his or her peers (Ross, 1996). The above typology is based primarily on a population of boys. Boys who bully their peers are actually more likely than girls to target acquaintances or strangers. They are generally motivated by power and dominance over weaker peers (Wachtel, 1973). Physical dominance and prestige are more important to boys who bully, and as such, their bullying tends to be more direct, physically aggressive, and intimidating (Ross, 1996).
3 Page 3 Girls Who Bully Girls who bully are less identified and represented in the research because they are traditionally viewed as being less aggressive than their male peers. However, girls who bully are more indirect and tend to be subtler with their aggressive behaviors. Their behaviors may be overlooked or not viewed as bullying by adults because they fall outside the traditional male image of bullying. Unlike boys, girls who bully are more likely to target other girls with whom they share or have shared a close affiliation. Girls bullying behaviors are typically more verbal in nature and often involve teasing and spreading rumors. Girls are less concerned with physical dominance and more concerned with developing peer relationships with other girls. Crick and Grotpeter (1996) coined the term relational aggression to describe the pattern of bullying behaviors demonstrated by girls wherein they fight with friendships and relationships. Girls who are friends one day and exchange secrets and other intimate details about each other may be rivals the following day and will use those same intimate details to spread rumors and destroy peer relationships with other girls. Girls are also more likely to bully other girls by way of social isolation and exclusion. Contributing Factors Bullying is a learned behavior and as such is reinforced over time by a myriad of causative factors. Understanding these factors is essential to prevention and intervention efforts. Ross (1996) identified three major factors associated with youths who bully: (1) child-rearing influences, (2) characteristics of the child, and (3) factors in the environment. Negative child-rearing influences such as power assertive disciplinary methods that are geared towards control and coercion (Ross, 1996, p. 62) are conducive to the development of bullying behaviors in children. This method of parenting may involve loud, emotional outbursts on the part of the parent and child; yelling; and the use of physical or corporal punishment by the parent. Ross maintained that power-assertive disciplinary methods are characterized by inconsistencies wherein the child does not receive regular and predictable (positive and negative) reinforcement. Ross denoted two additional child-rearing influences or characteristics identified by Olweus in his research, which is based primarily on his studies of boys who bully. The first is a pervasive negative attitude on the part of the parents, particularly the mother, toward parenting (Ross, p. 61). This attitude can be characterized by an inability to properly comfort and nurture the child with positive regard and attention. It can affect the manner in which the child bonds to his or her parents, as well as with other significant adults and peers. A second influence involves the failure of parents, particularly the mother, to set adequate limits for the child s behavior; an excessive tolerance is shown for inappropriate aggression toward siblings, other family members, and peers (Ross, p. 61). By failing to set adequate limits and demonstrating a tolerance for aggressive behaviors, parents, in essence, give permission for or justification to their child s bullying behaviors. Some parents may not only demonstrate a tolerance for aggressive behaviors, but also may, in fact, encourage their child, particularly a male child, to be aggressive and fight back when picked on by peers. Constitutional factors such as testosterone level, activity level, and temperament are all characteristics of the child that may contribute or predispose a child to aggressive behaviors (Ross, 1996), although the actual influence and role of testosterone is inconclusive. As Ross has noted, evidence suggests that boys, when grouped with other boys, are more overactive and hyperactive than girls, and that this may, in fact, influence bullying behaviors in boys. Finally, a child s temperament is believed to be determined in the early months of life, if not prior to birth itself. It represents the interaction between biologically anchored predispositions and environmental demands (Ross, p. 64). Ross found in her research that certain temperaments such as difficulty adjusting to new situations, irregular eating and sleep patterns, negative moods, and unpredictable behavior were associated with higher levels of aggressive behaviors.
4 Page 4 Crowded conditions in schools and poor supervision by adults are both factors in the environment that influence or facilitate bullying behaviors among school-age youths. Ross (1996) also identified bystanders who observe the bullying and later share in discussing the bully s exploits also contribute to an environment conducive to bullying. Finally, the popular sentiment that bullying is a normal part of growing up further perpetuates an environment favorable to bullying. INTERVENING WITH YOUTHS WHO BULLY Bullying represents the culmination of an array of variables associated with home, school, community, and even media and entertainment. Intervention efforts aimed at preventing, reducing, or eliminating bullying behaviors in and around the school setting should be comprehensive and target all variables. Efforts should involve all levels of school personnel, as well as target all students youths who bully, youths who are bullied, youths who observe the bullying, and others. Such efforts should also include of community and parent family partnerships and media influences. Although influenced by the earlier-mentioned variables, many youths who bully often experience a sense of disconnect with their surroundings, including home, school, and the community. Therefore, a primary goal or focus of prevention and intervention with these youths should be to aid in developing a sense of cohesion and connection to the school environment, and, when appropriate, to the home setting and community. Until recently, many school administrators and personnel failed to recognize the extent of the problem of bullying in their schools, consistent with the prevailing sentiment that bullying is a normal part of growing up. Traditionally, school administrators and personnel have been more focused or concerned with such issues as educational testing, truancy, and cheating, and less concerned with bullying failing to recognize or understand the impact of bullying on academic success. Nationally profiled incidents of (targeted) school violence and subsequent related reports and findings (U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Department of Education, 2000) have demonstrated a strong correlation between school violence and bullying, forcing many schools to develop anti-bullying programs, some more effective than others. Typical interventions targeted toward youths who bully have primarily maintained a psychological perspective and included such strategies as anger management, conflict resolution, and peer counseling (Ross, 1996). The traditional psychological perspective does not adequately recognize the social context or social dynamics surrounding youths who bully their peers, but rather is primarily focused on the cognitive aspects of why a particular student bullies others. Strategies such as anger management designed to target youths who bully are most effective when administered in a social context. Intervention with the Aggressive Bully The aggressive bully tends to view the world with uncertainty. Ambiguous actions by others, which most children would consider inconsequential, often are rapidly appraised by the bully as stressors that are threatening and controllable, a combination that within the bully s frame of reference merits direct aggressive action (Ross, 1996, p. 45). The bully s aggressive reaction to such ambiguous events is often rewarded by a sense of control over the targeted victim, as well as praise or positive reinforcement from peers and bystanders. Intervention efforts with the aggressive bully should focus primarily on two factors. The first of which is changing the bully s speed and content of the appraisal of ambiguous events (Ross), which involves some level of cognitive intervention, as well as negative reinforcement for the aggressive response, and positive reinforcement for nonaggressive responses. Such efforts aimed at aggressive youths who bully must consider both micro and macro levels of intervention. The second factor involves helping youths who bully develop an alternative perspective and response to ambiguous events, without the use of force (Ross). Ross
5 Page 5 added that helping aggressive youths who bully develop a sense of empathy (when possible) toward their target(s) can facilitate change by providing the bully with some logic or reason for altering their behavior. Intervention with the Passive Bully Intervention efforts with the passive bully may actually be more challenging given the passive bully s admiration for the aggressive bully. The passive bully tends to develop a strong affiliation with the aggressive bully and strives to imitate him or her (Ross, 1996). By affiliation with the aggressive bully, the passive bully may also come to view the world with uncertainty and may misinterpret events or situations as threatening. Efforts that facilitate self-acceptance and peer acceptance are key for intervening with the passive bully. Strategies may include building self-confidence and improving self-esteem, developing social skills, improving academic performance and athletic ability, and participating in assertiveness training (Ross). The probability of success increases with parental involvement and as the passive bully s admiration for the aggressive bully diminishes (Ross). Helping the passive bully develop positive role models and influences should also be considered. Intervention with the Bully Victim Intervention with the bully victim should begin with a thorough assessment of the home environment to determine whether there are bully victim patterns or etiological factors (Ross, 1996) that contribute to bullying behaviors demonstrated at school. An individual plan that focuses on helping the child or adolescent to eliminate their academic and cognitive shortcomings and to develop social skills (Ross, p. 79) may be a useful strategy. School social workers intervening with this type of bully may need to consider referring the student and family for community-based services, especially if the home assessment reveals bully victim etiological factors. Simultaneous intervention efforts with all types of bullies should target youths who are bullied, bystanders, and parents.
6 Page 6 References Crick, N. R., & Grotpeter, T. K. (1996). Relational aggression, gender, and social-psychological adjustment. Child Development, 66, Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simon-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behavior among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. JAMA, 285, National Parent-Teacher Association. (2001). Safeguarding your child at school: Helping children deal with a school bully [Online]. Available: Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying in schools: What we know and can do. Cambridge, MA: Blackwells. Ross, D. M. (1996). Childhood bullying and teasing: What school personnel, other professionals, and parents can do. Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association. U.S. Secret Service & U.S. Department of Education. (2000). U.S.S.S. safe school initiative: An interim report on the prevention of targeted violence in schools. Washington, DC: U.S. Secret Service, National Threat Assessment Center. Wachtel, P. L. (1973). Psychodynamics, behavior therapy and the implacable experimenter: An inquiry into the consistency of personality. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 83, Resources Clark, S. (2001, July). What social workers should know about gender-based violence and the health of adolescent girls. Adolescent Health:, 2(3). Available: Reid, L. B. (2002, May). Bullying among school-age youths. Children, Families, and Schools: NASW Practice Update, 2(4). Available: Reid, L. B. (2002, January). The social context of creating safe schools for students. Children, Families, and Schools:, 2(3). Available: Doc #963