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The Bullying Problem and What to do About It

by Alan Brandis, Ph.D.

When I went to school, it was generally accepted that - just as in adult society - there was a sort of stratification of children's social world. Adults separate themselves through varying amounts of money or group themselves by profession (white vs. blue collar, etc.). Kids separated themselves by groups, too - older vs. younger, popular vs. not popular, skilled-in-sports vs. not-skilled, etc.

It was also generally accepted that some kids would get "picked on" and some kids would do the "picking." Older kids often picked on younger ones, and since it mirrored the kinds of interactions that took place at home between siblings, it was not seen as fundamentally different than sibling rivalry, which almost everyone survives OK.

Polite behavior and most social interaction have rules which govern the way people interact with each other, so that toes do not get stepped on. Rules of hierarchy are not violated, or else feelings get hurt and the violator is seen as rude or is retaliated against. For example, if I go into a store and the clerk does not notice me, I might eventually get angry because noticing me is his "social obligation." To ignore another is rude and is seen as an insult. Then, if the clerk talks to me in a less-than-respectful way, or criticizes me, I might become angry because I, as the customer, am supposed to be "on top" of the interaction.

Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues of the Mental Research Institute of Palo Alto, California, state in their book, Pragmatics of Human Communication, that most communication between animals, including humans, has as one of its purposes the definition of the type of relationship it is, and the relative social position of the sender and receiver. You can test this for yourself by telling a police officer what is wrong with his or her manners, the next time you are stopped for speeding. This is a situation in which the officer is dominant and expects submissive behavior from you. Or, the next time your child tells you what you are going to serve for dinner, when he or she is going to bed, or when he or she is going to use the car, you can see how comfortable you might be living in a world with no regard for social hierarchy.

Groups of kids also have a sort of "pecking order" or (in social science terms) a dominance hierarchy which it is important to be aware of. They observe the difference in roles between themselves and adults, and although there are often inner psychological reasons given for why kids bully other kids, one reason might just be that bullying reinforces or redefines the dominance hierarchy of kids' social order. Who is "on top" and who makes way for whom is just as important for kids as it is for adults.

Kids will often "try on" role behavior to see if it fits, or how it feels to be in a particular role. Dominant behavior is often used on younger or smaller peers. Research has shown that bullies do not tend to have low self-esteem; to the contrary, their self-esteem is often quite good. This may be because they are successfully using their bullying behavior to reinforce their status in the hierarchy. Bullying children often have the personalities which could make them, with a little redirection, positive leaders within the peer group.

Bullying behavior puts everyone on notice - the victim as well as all of the observers - that the bully is in the dominant position. In order to discourage bullying it is helpful to set up the environment to accomplish two things: the respect or admiration that was previously given for "negatively dominant" behavior needs to be reduced or eliminated; and the bullying child needs to be shown (and then guided towards) a way to garner the social status he or she desires without using harassment or intimidation.

A variety of curriculum materials are now available that can begin this process by helping children to think about bullying behavior and the need for empathy and compassion, and gives them a clear message that their peers will not support bullying behavior.

The next stage in the process is the implementation of a "positive peer culture" in the school, in which recognition is given for prosocial behavior such as helpfulness, friendliness, positive leadership roles and the building-up of others' self-esteem. There are a variety of approaches to shaping this behavior. We can be of help to schools and oganzations in developing and implementing the most effective approach.