We’ve always had them with us. Every child in every school has felt the pain of being bullied. Every child has also watched as the bully tortures another victim. About one-in-four students in the US are bullied on a regular basis.
Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior, in which someone repeatedly and intentionally causes another person discomfort or injury. Bullying can take the form of verbal attacks, subtle gestures or physical aggression. The victim usually does nothing to cause the bullying and can do nothing to defend himself or herself.
The bully often performs the aggressive actions in front of others in order to create a “mob” mentality. Others will sometimes join in on the bullying to boost their own social position or at least divert any attacks from themselves. Bullying behaviors can often boost popularity. In fact, research shows that bullies are often perceived as the “cool kids.”
About 77 percent of bullying is verbal. It can take the form of spreading rumors, making derogatory remarks, calling names or teasing. About 14 percent of victims have more severe reactions to being bullied, including lowered self-esteem, depression, anxiety about going to school, and suicidal thoughts. Bullying victims are 2 to 9 times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims. A British study found that at least half of suicides among young people were related to having been bullied.
So, why do some people become bullies? For years, the prevailing belief was that bullies really suffered from a low self-esteem. More recent research concludes that most bullies actually have a high self-esteem, seeing themselves as superior to their victims. They do, however, seem to have a higher vulnerability to feeling shame, or being shame-prone. A person can have problems with shame and still have a high self-esteem, and this is what makes the person act like a bully. These kids disown their own shame and try to place that shame on other kids. These kids are also skilled at triggering the emotion of shame in others.
Research shows that the frequency of bullying behaviors decreases as children grow up, with most bullying incidents occurring between sixth and tenth grades. As we mature, most of us learn more healthy ways to interact, and finally realize the destructive power of bullying.
Unfortunately, not all bullies grow out of the behavior. We see, all too often, bullying behaviors in adults. We see adults spreading rumors, making derogatory remarks, name calling or teasing. We see adults exhibiting aggressive behaviors toward people who have lesser power, and have trouble defending themselves. We see adults exhibiting bullying behaviors in public, apparently trying to generate the mob mentality noted above.
Regardless of age, bullying is wrong. It is destructive and damaging and has no redeeming value. It reflects our most primitive nature. When we ignore, tolerate, or worse, praise the bully, we risk sinking to the same level. When bullying behaviors are recognized for what they are and are no longer tolerated, they lose their power. In schools, as in adult life, we need to demonstrate an attitude of intolerance for all forms of bullying behavior.