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September/ October 1999 - Volume 2 - Issue 7

Surviving the Back To School Blues

Part I: School Bullies
By Holly Martinac

The schoolyard bully has a colorful image in our folklore. It has traditionally been viewed as some malicious sort of child's play, usually evoking the common phrase, "Kids will be kids." Even considered an inevitable fact of school life.

I can remember being bullied. Unfortunately on more than one occasion. I remember one horrible afternoon in the sixth grade. It was the end of the day and I beat the "popular" kids to the "cool seat" on the bus, you know, the second to last seat by the window. I was soon to find out it was the worst mistake I could have made. I distinctly remember watching Scott (the popular kid) walk toward me scowling, "That's my seat, move it!" Standing up for myself very matter of fact, "I was here first." "Move it!" he spat, "No, I wa...." he hit me so hard that my head hit the window and I ended up with a bloody nose. I bled all the way home, which was the last stop of the afternoon. The only action the bus driver took was to give me some ratty old shorts for my bloody nose. No one said or did anything else.

Today, bullying is rightfully being recognized for what it is: an abusive behavior that often leads to greater and prolonged violent behavior. This phenomenon is more accurately termed "peer child abuse." Schoolyard bullying, which occurs in kindergarten through 12th grade, spans many different behaviors -- from what some may call minor offenses to the more serious criminal acts. Name calling, fistfights, purposeful ostracism, extortion, character assassination, repeated physical attacks, and sexual harassment all are bullying tactics.

Bullying demands special attention by parents, educators and all those concerned with violence prevention. The are two specific reasons why: 1) bullying and the harm that it causes are incredibly under estimated by children and adults. 2) bullying does not necessarily respond to many of the same interventions such as conflict resolution and mediation.

Recent research in the United States reports about one in ten children experience bullying on a regular basis. In addition with children's learning and desire to go to school, victims can continue suffering from anxiety, low self-esteem and depression as adults. Research findings also show a strong link between bullying and later delinquent and criminal behavior later in life. Current studies show the bullies don't feel the pain they cause. Instead they learn how to disconnect from the pain. (1)

What is Bullying?

It is defined as inflicting physical, verbal or emotional abuse on another individual or individuals. Bullying behavior among children include intimidation as the main weapon used by bullies. Then there is the persistent teasing or taunting, poking, hitting, kicking, or extorting money, food or toys from another child. It may involve indirect actions such as manipulating friends to hide weapons or drugs in their school lockers, and then threatening them with violence if they tell.

Bullying can range from mild to severe. The power imbalance, real or perceived, between the more powerful children and the children they target over and over agin is what experts say is the essence of bullying. (3)

Where Do Bullies Come From and Why do They Bully?

Most of the research on those who engage in bullying behavior has focused on personality characteristics of bullies or their victims. A new study, presented at the APA Annual Convention, looks instead at the familial and environmental factors that may contribute to bullying behavior. Researchers from the Center for Adolescent Studies at Indiana University, Bloomington, gathered data from 558 6th, 7th and 8th graders at a Midwestern middle school. Based on their responses to a questionnaire designed to assess the frequency of bullying behavior, the researchers divided the students into three groups: those who engaged in little or no bullying behavior (228), those who reported a moderate level of bullying (243) and those who reported excessive amounts of bullying behaviors (87). (2)

Those who reported the highest bullying behavior were also most likely to report "significantly greater levels of forceful parental discipline, viewing of TV violence, misconduct at home and in the community, and fighting" the researchers concluded. They also spent less time with adults, had fewer adult role models and fewer positive peer influences. Thirty-two percent of them lived in a step-family household and 36 percent lived in a single parent household. They also had a higher level of exposure to gang activity and easier access to guns. (2)

This research is generally telling us something we already know, the crime and violence committed by youth in this country is rising drastically. The newspapers and television are plastered with horrifying details of criminal acts and we desperately are searching for the answer to the question, WHY? The most obvious and common scapegoat are that of poverty and race. But that is just too simple of an answer to such a complex problem.

Severe neglect and abuse in early childhood play a crucial and significant role in how children are biologically capable of withstanding any level and form of stress. Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence, by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, address a serious analysis of the familial, environmental and biological roles on the development of the brain during infancy and early toddler-hood.

Research done in 1989 by criminologist, Dorothy Lewis, found that higher exposure to early violence not internal factors alone predicts adults violence. Lewis found that criminal violence resulted from the interaction of two or more internal factors (cognitive and or neuropsychiatric deficits) with early negative family circumstances. The parts of the brain responsible for judgement impulse control and reality testing are disproportionately impaired, along with the capacity for empathy and the ability to accurately interpret the actions and intent of other people. (4) There has also been Research has been done relating to the theory of an individual being predisposed to criminal acts. There is some evidence of inherited "genes" playing a part in the criminals committing crimes such as burglary, but there is yet no evidence showing any genetic tendency towards violent crimes such as murder.

Consequences of Bullying

Studies of bullying suggest that there are short- and long-term consequences for both the perpetrators and victims of bullying. Students who are chronic victims of bullying experience more physical and psychological problems than their peers who are not harassed by other children and they tend not to grow out of the victim role. Longitudinal studies have found that victims of bullying in early grades also reported being bullied several years later. Studies also suggest that chronically victimized students may as adults be at increased risk for depression, poor self-esteem, and other mental health problems.(4)

What Can We Do?

Recognizing bullying for what it is has become essential for surviving those "back to school blues". It is an every day occurrence for our children. Foster child or biological child. If your not already, be aware that bullying is not only in our schools, but it is likely in our homes. Look back on our own childhoods and remember what it was like to be bullied or even witness the bullying. Remember how much more difficult it made it for the one being bullied to go to school much less participate in any activities? We have to take action now to help our children to overcome the fear of being bullied and to help change that power imbalance. Talk to your kids, don't make accusations. Their self-esteem and self-confidence needs a booster from you, not more bullying. Listen to them and take their concerns and problems seriously. Supervise your child's behavior more closely. Encourage other friendships. Stay in the vicinity as much as possible when your child is playing with others. Notice and reward good play and good negotiation. Children who are aggressive and bullying when young are at high risk for social problems later in life. Take the issue of bullying seriously.

(1) Sticks and Stones: Bullies By Dawn Sinclair-Shapiro MSNBC, Dateline NBC - 
(2) "New Studies of Attitudes and Behaviors and School Violence: Family Environment And Bullies" The Monitor - a publication of the American Psychological Association, 
(3) "Bullying Among Children and Youth" By Susan P. Limber and Maury M. Nation, Juvenile Justice Bulletin, April 1998.  
(4) "Ghosts from the Nursery, Tracing the Roots of Violence", by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley; Atlantic Monthly Press 1997.

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