January 1st, 2013

Social aggressors: examining those who engage in bullying behavior

PHOTO BY Tom Croke
Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., attributes the increase in bullying in part to digital communications and the absence of creative play. She is the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Education Center and professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University

For decades, aggression in schools has presented a challenge to parents, educators, researchers and psychologists and the problem continues to escalate. Much attention has justifiably been given to the victims in hopes of creating programs to effectively address the issue. Lately, researchers have turned their efforts on the perpetrators of socially aggressive behavior, attempting to untangle the mystery that prompts bullying.

A recent study out of Brown University suggests that children with mental illness are three times more likely to act in a bullying manner. Steven Barreto, Ph.D., of the Pediatric Partial Hospitalization Program at Bradley Children’s Hospital in Providence, R.I. and clinical assistant professor in the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, agrees, calling it a “hidden element to the problem of bullying,” although he adds that aggressive behavior is not always associated with a mental disorder. He says, “At the same time, we must remember that social aggression is also strongly influenced by peer group norms and social ecological factors, for example, school transitions and peer group instability.”

Analyzing the individual who engages in socially aggressive behavior can be complicated, according to Barreto, who cites at least two types of children that perpetrate bullying. “One group are socially marginalized, more likely to be low in social competence and to have externalizing and internalizing disorders as well as academic problems; hold negative attitudes and beliefs about others; [are] reactive to perceived slights and may be rejected by peers,” he says. “Another group has been termed the socially integrated aggressors. These individuals are networked with social skills; they may rectify with targets after the conflict and once dominance is established, they may be athletic[ally] and physically appealing to their peers, and they may be modestly or extremely popular.”

As a researcher on youth victimization, Lisa M. Jones, Ph.D., research associate professor of psychology, Stoneleigh Foundation Fellow, Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, finds that those who are quick to anger and have self-esteem issues may try to improve their social status with peers through aggressive actions. Additionally, youth from families without good modeling and where physical punishment and minimal monitoring exists may tend to engage in bullying behavior.

In other cases, the school environment might set the stage for aggression. “If the youth is in a school without a positive climate, overstressed and with no clear policy on peer aggression, the school can play a role,” says Jones. “Peer influences can amplify this behavior.”

Additionally, Jones believes semantics may influence thinking. The use of the word “bully” suggests a certain stereotype and limits our understanding of harmful behavior. “I caution people to challenge the word,” she says, making a distinction between bullying, which she believes peaks in middle school and peer victimization, which tends to occur in high school.

Elizabeth K. Englander, Ph.D., director of the Massachusetts Aggression Education Center and professor of psychology at Bridgewater State University, attributes the increase in bullying behavior to a “perfect storm:” ubiquitous digital communications, the disappearance of child-directed play and the decrease in physical altercations. “We are just learning how communication changes in a digital environment. We are using this widely without a clue of the issues involved,” she says.

She adds that adults have undercut a child’s ability to handle unpleasant situations by leading social situations. “Creatively playing with each other is where kids build the skills they need to handle situations,” Englander says and adds that more subtle behavior, such as eye-rolling, whispering and laughing in front of others – which may or may not constitute bullying – has replaced obvious physical altercations.

Englander reports that in her research study subjects view bullying incidents as “power fights.” She says, “It’s difficult to teach kids that bullying is bad. So many pursue bullying to get social status. If that is made not cool, kids won’t do it.”

According to Barreto, a “whole school” approach to the problem of bullying, rather than a one-time training or presentation, holds the most promise for success. “These are programs that sustain changes in the school climate through developing comprehensive policies about citizenship, including children in the development of these policies, posting clear expectations in public locations, having well understood procedures for reporting and investigating complaints and clear consequences for rule violations,” he says.

While changing the school climate is difficult, “anything you do is better than nothing,” says Englander. She points out, however, that the strongest emphasis to date has been on punishing the bully. “I wouldn’t suggest that bad behavior have no consequences. Overall, it’s better to avoid having a problem. But if we think about why kids do these things and then figure out a way to deal with it, we’d gain more traction,” she says. “Schools are not wellness centers; they are educational institutions and have limited ability. The schools implement programs to change general attitudes of people toward bullying behavior. But instead of normalizing it, we should have programs to make people aware of how hurtful this can be.”

School psychologist Israel C. Kalman, M.S., director of Bullies to Buddies, Inc. in New York, takes issue with the push for legislation. “The only purpose of anti-bullying laws is to criminalize things that have not been illegal before: hurting people’s feelings. But laws cannot get rid of hurt feelings because feelings are in our control, not anyone else’s,” he says. “Another problem with these laws is that they hold the school responsible for the bullying that goes on. It is inevitable that we are going to encounter people treating us in ways we don’t like. We need to learn to deal with them on our own. If schools are going to do anything to prevent kids from getting upset, it should be to teach them how to handle hostility.”

“Furthermore, the research has shown unequivocally that programs that treat bullying like a crime rarely produce more than a minor reduction in bullying and often lead to an increase,” Kalman adds.

Englander suggests pediatricians, school personnel and the wider communities join forces to create an environment in which parents are not blamed or judged and children with problem behavior are dealt with one-on-one. “We need to get to know the child well enough and bring together all the resources,” she says.

By Phyllis Hanlon

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