They can be stopped, but it takes a village.
Posted Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2009, at 12:47 PM
Let's say you find out that your child is being bullied by a schoolmate. Naturally, you want to do something right now to make it stop. Depending on your temperament and experience, one or more of four widely attempted common-sense solutions will occur to you: telling your child to stand up to the bully, telling your child to try to ignore and avoid the bully, taking matters into your own hands by calling the bully's parents or confronting the bully yourself, or asking your child's teacher to put a stop to it.
These responses share three features:
1) They all express genuine caring, concern, and good intentions.
2) You will feel better for taking action.
3) They are likely to be ineffective.
In order to understand why, let's focus on two aspects of bullying: It arises from a differential in power, and it's heavily contextual.
Bullying is not just two children arguing or even hitting each other. Rather, one exploits a power differential—in strength or audacity—to repeatedly intimidate the other. Usually that takes the form of repeated attacks that can range from physical assault to verbal insults, threats, social aggression (like excluding the victim from activities), and the newer-order variants grouped under the heading "cyber bullying": offensive and threatening text messages or messages posted on blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and the like. Bullying is fairly common: In one large-scale national study of elementary and middle school students, 17 percent reported having been bullied, 19 percent said they bullied others, and 6 percent reported bullying and being bullied.
We know a few things about bullies as a group. They often have an impulsive temperament, don't get enough parental supervision, and have had significant exposure to models of aggressive behavior in the home (harsh punishment, domestic violence) and media (TV and video games that model bullying). Most bullies are boys, and male bullies use physical violence more often than female ones, but girls do it, too. Bullies are often more confident, fearless, and socially astute than we tend to assume (the old notion of a bully as a cowardly cretin with low self-esteem seems to be inaccurate), and they are often quite popular in the lower grades. But they tend to lose popularity as school progresses, become socially isolated, and have poor academic outcomes. They are more likely to smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol as they enter adolescence and to engage in criminal behavior in later years. But knowing all that has not helped much in coming up with ways to reduce or eliminate bullying.
Context, not the individual attributes of bullies or their victims, is the key to prevention. Bullying between children happens in places where adults cannot easily detect it—in the halls, at recess, at the bus stop, waiting in lines. Adults typically do not know about such bullying unless there are flagrant and very frequent episodes or they happen to see it with their own eyes, which is relatively rare (teachers detect only about 4 percent of all incidents), since a competent bully chooses opportunities precisely to exploit a lack of adult supervision.
When students see bullying, they tend not to report it. Surveys indicate that they usually believe nothing would be done if they did tell about what they saw. Bear in mind that about 85 percent of bullying happens in front of others, usually peers. The event is institutionally invisible, but there are typically witnesses. These peers intervene only about 10 percent to 20 percent of the time, but when they do, they can stop bullying. Even when the child who steps in is considered weak in the group's hierarchy of power, the bullying stops within 10 seconds in more than half the instances of intervention by peers. The extensive body of research on bullying has led to a new appreciation of the power of bystanders to enable or disable bullying.
Because a bully's success depends heavily on context, attempts to prevent bullying should concentrate primarily on changing the context rather than directly addressing the victim's or the bully's behavior. With that in mind, let's consider why those four common-sense responses won't help much:
Stand up to a bully. The time-honored assumption is that if your child cleans a bully's clock once, or merely shows himself willing to try, the display of bravery will activate the bully's innate cowardice or possibly his latent capacity to respect a worthy opponent. Either way, he'll leave your child alone. It would be nice if life worked this way—that is, if it were like a movie starring Harrison Ford as your child—but it usually doesn't. Generally, urging your child to stand up to a bully is not an effective strategy. (Some readers will now be eager to share stirring success stories that prove standing up to a bully really does work—either personal experiences or friend-of-a-friend urban legends or wholly imaginary elegies for a lost golden age of American pluck that is even now receding into the romantic mists of time. Those already getting up steam for such a post in the Fray can view a handy template to work from.)
One hallmark of a bully is a sophisticated ability to pick victims who won't put up a fight. When you urge your child to stand up to a bully, you're asking him to do something that the bully already figured out he was unlikely to do. That's why the bully picked him in the first place. Bullies tend to choose victims who are socially withdrawn, seem anxious or fearful, are nervous in new situations, or have some physical characteristic that might make them more vulnerable. (But not all victims are physically vulnerable. Some are not likely to resort to physical retaliation for other reasons—because they find violence distasteful, for instance, or regard Kwai Chang Caine as a role model.) By the time you're finding out about it, the bullying has probably gone on long enough to reinforce the roles of bully and victim through repetition. You're asking your child to buck very long odds. You might be right—your child might be the exceptional victim who proves the bully's judgment wrong and pushes back against the grain of the reinforced pattern of victimization—but chances are you're not.
Just ignore it. Some parents try to impress upon their child that there will always be a bully of one kind or another in life, and one might as well learn to cope with that fact. The best thing one can do, they say, is avoid and ignore him. If it worked, this would be a simple solution, but bullies are hard to avoid. They show a kind of genius for catching their victims in unsupervised settings, and they are at least as clever in seeking and finding their victims as the victims may be in hiding. And bullying should not be ignored. In fact, one condition that allows it to continue is that bystanders ignore it or choose not to report it. In any case, bullies typically don't allow victims to ignore them. The gratification they derive from the victim's submissiveness is so great that they'll escalate their attacks to elicit it. By asking your child to ignore a bully, you're asking her to consent to a lot more reinforcement in the role of being the victim. The research tells us that nothing good can come of that: Victims are lonelier than their peers, have higher anxiety and depression, feel vengeful, have more physical (somatic) symptoms, and are at increased risk for suicide after being bullied.
Alan E. Kazdin, who was president of the American Psychological Association in 2008, is John M. Musser professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.