Results from a new study may change the way we think about bullying. Researchers from Simon Fraser University found that adolescent bullies had higher self-esteem, fewer depressive symptoms, and higher social status than their non-bully peers. Based on these findings, the researchers proposed that bullying might be adaptive (rather than maladaptive) and that there may be genetic links to bullying behavior.
Bullying has become quite the hot topic over the past decade and millions of dollars have been invested in trying to understand and prevent it. However, research on bullying has yielded mixed findings and programs aimed at reducing bullying have been largely ineffective. So, what should we do about bullying?
First, I think it is important to remember that bullying is an umbrella term that encompasses any kind of abuse that is targeted and repeated. It can include physically hurting another individual, being verbally abusive, excluding an individual, or spreading rumors about someone behind their back. Different forms of bullying require different approaches and strategies. There are also likely to be many causes for bullying. Stating that bullying is due to one’s genetics is a big generalization.
Second, I agree with the authors on the study that some degree of bullying behavior may be “hard-wired” or developmentally normative. As children develop into adolescents, it is normal for them to seek out ways to be independent, have power, and be in control. This is also a time when children begin to experiment socially and test out the limits of their power in social situations. However, saying that some amount of bullying is normative for children and adolescents is not the same as saying that its okay and that we should just accept it in all of its forms. Instead, understanding the underlying need that bullying may be fulfilling can help us figure out better strategies for reducing it as well as preventing negative long-term outcomes associated with it.
What can parents, teachers, educators, and camp counselors do?
Although each bullying incident is different and may require different approaches, here are three general strategies that can be useful when trying to prevent bullying, stop bullying before it comes extreme, or prevent negative long-term outcomes associated with peer victimization.
- Support the victims
Studies on bullying have shown that high quality friendships can help protect victims from negative long-term outcomes. This can be difficult if an entire classroom or cabin is picking on or excluding one child. Perhaps this child could be given opportunities to interact and bond with children in a different setting or with children of a different age? Figure out something that this child is interested in and see if you can use that to help them form a connection with a peer who has similar interests.
- Create opportunities for bullies to be leaders
This is not just true for bullies, but for all children and adolescents who are popular have social power. Support them in using their power and influence in a positive way. Put them in charge of a group activity or class project. If there is something they are good at (other than bullying), have them teach it to others.
- Promote social-emotional learning and development!
This includes teaching and modeling prosocial behavior, empathy, perspective-taking, self-awareness, self-regulation, and responsible decision-making. This also means providing opportunities for children and adolescents to think about themselves, their behavior, and the effect that is has on others. Social-emotional learning may not prevent all bullying from occurring but the hope is that it can give children a foundation of skills so that they are more likely to stop and think before they act, put themselves in someone else’s shoes, and develop and maintain positive relationships.