Bullying is form of aggression, not rite of passage
By Brenda-Lee Duartes
One’s dignity may be assaulted, vandalized and cruelly mocked, but it can never be taken away unless it is surrendered. — Michael J. Fox
There has been some discussion in recent press as to what constitutes bullying and whether or not certain much publicized incidences occurred as a result of bullying. The definition of bullying adopted by psychologists is physical or verbal abuse, repeated over time, and involving a power imbalance. Bullying is a particular form of harmful aggression, linked to real psychological damage, both short and long term. It involves intentional aggressive behavior designed to cause harm, distress or humiliation, an imbalance of power or strength, and difficulty defending oneself.
There are two types of bullying: direct and indirect. Direct bullying involves relatively open attacks on a victim, both verbal and physical. Indirect bullying involves social isolation, spreading rumors, deliberately excluding someone and cyberbullying. The consequences of bullying include children having a lower self-esteem, with higher rates of depression, loneliness and social anxiety.
Although peer bullying has increasingly become a recognized problem and the focus of preventive efforts, sibling bullying has historically been viewed as a normal part of a child’s social development. However, sibling bullying can be hurtful and it has been linked to worse mental health. Bullying and aggressive behavior by a sibling can be as damaging as bullying by a classmate, neighbor or other peer, and may be linked to increased depression, anxiety and anger among victimized children. A sibling relationship is troubled when aggressive interactions are repeatedly being done in one direction, and one sibling is consistently the victim.
There are many ways in which bullying can be addressed — and they all begin with changing our thinking so that bullying moves from being seen as a rite of passage to being treated as unacceptable. The key to better identifying real bullying is to listen to how children and adolescents themselves describe their interpersonal conflicts. Most can identify bullying, but they can also distinguish it from what they often call “drama.” In fact, it is the word drama that describes most of the ordinary skirmishes that mark children and adolescents’ lives.
Understanding what bullying means to children is the key to the success of any bullying prevention effort, because it harnesses the power of the majority. It is also crucial for adults to set the tone by understanding what bullying is and responding appropriately when they see a domineering child going after a victim. An adult’s response can foster the strong ties with children that make all the difference for their sense of belonging and decisions about where to turn when they need help. Adults can do more good by asking questions that encourage children to come up with their own strategies. Bullying victims need sympathy, but they also need help learning to be resilient. Teaching children to overcome the obstacles associated with bullying helps them to develop coping skills to face adversity in their lives, it helps them to be victims no more.
Brenda-Lee Duartes, executive director at LifeLine Counseling Center, 1033 W. Broadway Ave., Maryville, 981-7400, is a licensed professional counselor and therapist. She and Megan Rapien, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist, will contribute columns on mental health issues the first Sunday of each month in the Sunday Life section.