Why Do Kids Bully?


Bullying is at the forefront of parents' minds this year, as numerous bullying-related suicides have been reported. And bullying isn't just happening on the playground. Thanks to social media, kids can be bullied 24/7! It's a scary time for parents. Why do kids do it?

We sat down with Dr. Andrea Weiner, who will be presenting a talk at this year's Big Tent Conference entitled, "Making Our Children Socially and Emotionally Smarter." Here's what she had to say about bullying...

momlogic: Why do kids bully?

Andrea Weiner: First, let's state the three major characteristics of bullying: One, it's characterized by a power differential between someone who has an unfair advantage over someone else who is victimized. Two, it is an intentional act; someone has the intent to want to harm the victim. And three, it is not generally a random act or single incident and is characterized by repeated occurrences.

A child who is a bully does it for the power. Research shows that children who bully may be learning to use power and aggression as their way to deal with others, and often this gets carried over into later relationships (dating aggression, spousal abuse or workplace harassment). Bullies also process social information inaccurately. For example, the common line they often use -- "What are you looking at?" -- is an incorrect perception of provocation where it doesn't exist to serve as justification for aggressive behavior.

ml: What are the typical forms of bullying?

AW: One is physical aggression -- hitting, shoving, kicking. Boys tend to be more physical in their approach to bullying. Then there's social aggression, which is more subtle and indirect, usually in the form of alienation, ostracism, deliberate exclusions and spreading untrue rumors. Researchers call this relational aggression that intentionally goes after another person's self-esteem, friendships or social status in a group. Social aggression is more common among girls. The movie "Mean Girls" is a perfect example of this. And lastly, there's cyberbullying. This form occurs with the Internet, most commonly on social-media platforms such as MySpace or Facebook, where unkind, harassing comments are made to others anonymously and are intended to embarrass and hurt someone else.

ml: Who are the typical bullies and victims?

AW: Typically, one thinks of a bully as someone who is the biggest and strongest kid. That is not necessary true. Bullies come in all shapes, colors and genders. Often they can be the popular kids who use power to control others. They certainly aren't characterized by empathy or having a loving nature. Although they seem to have a strong self-image, [the truth] is usually the opposite. They use fear because underneath it, they are scared and do not think highly of themselves. The victims who are bullied are often the loners who are socially withdrawn, those who dress, look or act differently than their peers, those who are passive and let others be in control. They may also have problems that would make them targets of abuse. 

ml: How can parents tell whether or not their child is being bullied? 

AW: Signs of being bullied may include a reluctance to go to school, sleep disturbances and vague physical complaints, such as stomach pains or headaches. Look for belongings that are missing without explanation or clothes that are ripped. If parents suspect that their child is being bullied, it is best not to ask directly. Most children are afraid to report bullying for fear of being called a tattletale. Use indirect questions that aren't too personal, like, "How do you spend your recess time?" "What's it like walking to school/being on the school bus" or "Are there are any children at school who are bullies?"

ml: What should you do if you think they are being bullied?

AW: If parents suspect their child is being bullied, they need to talk to the teacher to determine if their suspicions are correct. Ask the teacher to observe the child to determine their peer interactions. Often, parents are the last to know when their child has been bullied or is the bully.

ml: What do you do if your child is the bully?

AW: Most of the time when parents hear that their child is a bully, it comes as a shock. It is very upsetting to hear that your child could have inflicted any harm to another. A parent needs to get all the facts before they can decide on the best course of action with their child. Send a very clear message to the child that bullying or any type of aggression will not be accepted, and discuss the consequences of any future bullying behavior. Discuss alternative approaches to aggression that the child can use when he or she feels angry or hurt. It is important not to get uncontrollably angry or use physical punishment. If bullying behavior keeps occurring, parents should seek professional help for their child.


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