NPR just ran a story about a study published by researchers from Duke University and University of Warwick in England. It looked at what happens over a long period to people who were bullied as kids. According to the authors of the study, the results suggested that
“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage but throws a long shadow over affected people’s lives.”
The study found that children who had been involved with bullying developed more problems with physical, mental, and financial health, than those who had not. They also had more trouble holding on to a job, were more likely to develop problems with substance abuse and to be involved with the criminal justice system. The authors controlled for variables such as family background and childhood psychiatric issues, suggesting that bullying in and of itself is a major contributor to all those unfortunate outcomes. While subjects who had been involved in both the giving and receiving end of bullying showed elevated risks of problems, it was those people who had been the victims of bullying who had the worst time of it.
Being bullied can be an agonizing experience. As someone who leads social skills groups, it’s my role to help children become aware of the behavior patterns they fall into that can serve to set them up as victims. On the other hand, some of our kids are seen by their peers as being bullies but they have no idea why they’re being seen that way. One of the strengths of working with kids in groups is that it affords many opportunities to help point out the natural consequences of their actions, in the moment, and then to suggest new strategies when it’s possible.
My feelings and experiences with bullying are not limited to my work as a counselor though. From the beginning of middle school through the middle of high school, I became intimately acquainted with the receiving end of bullying. My personal experience with it left me with some ideas that are not always consistent with conventional human service wisdom.
The bullying that I went through started in sixth grade. It stemmed from some health problems I had that had started back in second grade. Until then I had been developing along a pretty normal path, both physically and psychologically. When I was 7, I just stopped growing. From the time I was 7 to the time I was 11, I grew less than an inch and blimped up pretty substantially. Up until sixth grade, I had been able to manage things and compensate pretty well. I was a good student without having to try very hard, an accomplished piano player, and I made friends pretty easily. Early on in sixth grade, my doctors started to think that maybe – just maybe – there was some medical reason that my growth had stopped. Before long, they figured out that my thyroid gland had stopped working and they started me on medication. The medication started working right away but it took me a good 5 years or so to catch up.
So, despite finishing 5th grade feeling successful and accepted, 6th grade was very different. I had a much harder time making friends. Some of my friends turned on me and other kids felt like they were entitled to just run me ragged. I never really got beaten up but I was stuffed into garbage cans and I caught a steady stream of verbal abuse that didn’t let up until about midway through high school. It was a miserable experience that made me feel helpless, weak, and insignificant. It changed my perceptions of my peers and shaped my development and attitudes for a long time to come. My experiences were certainly not as bad as others’ but I’m not at all surprised that the study that NPR reported on this week found such pronounced long term effects.
The medication I take for my thyroid problem created some changes in my ability to focus when I first started taking it- there’s a reason I feel so comfortable with kids who have ADHD – but by and large, I was the same kid in sixth grade that I’d been the year before. So why did things change so dramatically?
The easy answer is what I’ll call the Trey Parker answer. He’s one of the creators of the Comedy Central show South Park. In an interview, he explained the series’ occasionally dark portrayal of kids by saying
“There’s this whole thing out there about how kids are so innocent and pure. That’s Bulls**t, man. Kids are malicious little f****ers. They totally jump on any bandwagon and rip the weak guy at any chance.”
“There’s this whole thing out there about how kids are so innocent and pure”
Perhaps that’s a bit extreme, but back in sixth grade, I would have agreed with that sentiment wholeheartedly. I try to take a more nuanced approach to things now. Wearing my counselor hat, I often come back to Erik Erikson. For those unfamiliar with him, Erikson was a post-Freudian psychoanalyst, whose psychosocial theory of development has been hugely influential in the field. Unlike Freud, who wrote that almost all of our important psychological development takes place before age 5, Erikson viewed psychological development as a process that continues throughout the course of our lifetimes. The field of psychology is lousy with stage theories but Erikson’s is one of the best. His theory divides the lifespan into 8 stages, each of which is defined by an internal conflict that needs to be resolved before one advances to the next stage. The stage that is most applicable to bullying is the identity versus role confusion stage that most often occurs during adolescence. Erikson stated that the primary psychological task of adolescence is the development of an individual identity. Our existence centers on figuring out who we are – creating and presenting our own unique, independent, personalities to the world. This striving often centers on teenagers’ eternal quests to distinguish and separate themselves from their parents but it has a number of different social ramifications as well.
Teenagers often define themselves, at least in part, by the crowd they hang out with. Identification with a group is one way adolescents determine who they are. Bullying and victimization can be seen as the flip side of that observation. Identifying with a peer group or clique is not only a way of showing yourself and everyone else who you ARE, it’s also a way of showing yourself and everyone else who you’re NOT. What better way to demonstrate just who you’re not than by finding others to belittle and victimize? Even when kids are not bullied, this is one of those dynamics that make middle school and high school so challenging.
Quirky kids are particularly prone to this type of victimization. Children who have trouble reading social cues or who act in ways that are seen as strange or unexpected are frequent targets of bullying and social ostracism. There are skills that kids can learn to help them respond to bullying with a sense of assuredness and competence that can help to take a lot of pressure off. Services like Stand Up to Bullying can help with those skills and can help parents and teachers help their kids respond to bullying more effectively. It’s also important to help kids develop the resilience they need to make it through the experience of bullying with their self-image intact. This can be pursued through counseling as well as encouraging kids to become involved in activities and relationships in which they feel successful and happy. What I’ve found is that often, when kids are about midway through with high school, bullying can diminish as they begin to find their niche and those who have done the bullying move on and lose interest.