Mind Matters — Bullies Are Made Not Born

Lady Gaga recently sang a tribute to a bullied fan. Fourteen-year-old Jamie Rodemeyer took his life this past September after years of having been bullied. Harassed because of his sexuality, Rodemeyer is reported to have found some amount of solace in Lady Gaga’s message of self-acceptance. Unfortunately, it was not enough to counter the negativity aimed at him at school.

Bullying, reports the American Psychological Association, “is a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort. Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words, or more subtle actions. The bullied individual typically has trouble defending him or herself and does nothing to cause the bullying.”

Bullying, says psychologist Susan Swearer, Ph.D., is a mental health problem. Often bullies, victims, and bully-victims (those who both bully and are bullied) experience depression and anxiety. It has also been observed that children who find that their bullying gets them what they want will continue their behavior into adulthood. And, I would enjoin that adult bullies are on the sociopathic spectrum of people without conscience, though they may very well be financially or professionally successful. In fact, young bullies are often quite popular.

Dr. Swearer reports that certain environments are supportive of bullying. That is, in those families, cultures, environs, where verbal putdowns or physical intimidation is allowed, the cancer of bullying flourishes.

The reactive internet responses to Lady Gaga’s indictment against bullying indicate to me that we may still be stuck in a culture where victims are blamed for the bully’s behavior.

However, there is hope. Dan Olweus,Ph.D., among others, has developed a bullying prevention program. He outlines four key principles for school (and home, ideally) that underpin his interventions:

  1. warm, positive involvement and care from adults
  2. firm limits regarding behaviors
  3. non-punitive, non-physical disciplining of violations of rules
  4. adults that act as role models as well as authorities.

Of course, Dr. Olweus’ model implies that adults themselves not be bullies and be neither physically nor verbally abusive. Our children are watching us. What will we do?