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Anna G. Larson, Published September 02 2012

InDepth: Bullying | The mechanics of bullying

About the "InDepth: Bullying" series

Bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere.

With more attention on the issue nationally, people are stepping up to prevent bullying in schools, workplaces and beyond.

Today and tomorrow, SheSays looks at the effects of bullying, what causes bullying and how to deal with the behavior.

FARGO – A bully is not a person.

Bullying is a behavior, said Wendy Troop-Gordon, assistant professor of psychology at North Dakota State University.

“An essential misconception is that there is a type of kid or adult who is a bully,” she said. “We need to move away from the idea of targeting people as bullies – it isn’t productive.”

BULLYING PROFILES

Children who engage in bullying behavior have different profiles, Troop-Gordon said. The more widely known profile is that of the emotionally deregulated child – the stereotypical social outcast bully – who can’t control emotions and acts out against anybody who angers them. They often come from high-conflict households where negative outlooks are common, she said.

One of the newest areas of research regarding bullying looks at “popular” children, or kids who have a lot of social capital, who bully, Troop-Gordon said.

“The popular children who bully are a completely different story,” she said. “They’re highly competent youth that may not be on peoples’ radars because they’re the head cheerleader or the captain of the football team.”

Children or adolescents with this type of bullying profile seem very well adjusted and pleasant, and have adult-like characteristics, Troop-Gordon said.

“And yet, they are bullying,” she said. “They tend to benefit socially from their bullying. That has really changed our understanding of bullying a lot.”

WHY THEY BULLY

People bully due to a lack of self-esteem and a loss of control within their own life, said John Altendorf of Altendorf Counseling in Fargo.

“Bullying is the result of several things that have happened in someone’s life,” he said. “They feel better when they can control things. Bullying is something they use as a tool to feel good about themselves.”

Bullying can be a result of experiencing a traumatic event, such as a parent leaving or dying; academic or social struggles; chronic low self-image due to physical differences or financial differences; and possibly a feeling of powerlessness over a number of things in their life for any reason, Altendorf said.

Troop-Gordon said the socially skilled popular children who bully use it as a tool to get what they want – social capital.

The higher a child or adolescent rises on the social scale, the more aggressive their behavior becomes, according to a 2010 study by University of California-Davis. Social centrality increases the capacity for aggression, and the competition to gain or maintain social status motivates its use.

WHO THEY TARGET

Bullies typically target peers who appear weaker than themselves and have vulnerabilities, Troop-Gordon said. Physical weaknesses, like children who are small for their age, and children with learning disabilities or those who are rejected by their peers are commonly bullied.

“They are targeted because it works on them,” Troop-Gordon said. “It’s not going to work on a kid who has a lot of social capital or a child who can assert themselves. They pick on kids where they’re going to get submission.”

Bullying behavior can occur in all stages of life, from preschool to the nursing home. There is no age limit for bullying, Altendorf said.

Adults commonly bully people they feel threatened by or people who they perceive to have a lower economic status, he said.

The reasons for which children are bullied haven’t changed over the years, Troop-Gordon said. Children are bullied for anything that appears outwardly different, such as hair color, clothing, having braces or wearing glasses.

Adolescents are commonly bullied more for body-image related traits like weight and height. They may also be bullied for how they interact with others. Adults can be bullied for their career choices, economic status and materialistic things like house size, Altendorf said.

People aren’t bullied because of their traits. Vulnerabilities, Troop-Gordon said, attract bullies.

“A person might call someone fat and bully them, but an overweight person won’t get bullied if they don’t have other vulnerabilities,” she said. “People who bully find faults to prey on.”

LATER IN LIFE RISKS

The research studies Troop-Gordon has read suggest that adolescents who once bullied seem to be happy.

“They’re not upset by it at all, but they do tend to continue to use relational aggression,” she said.

The adolescents who bullied others tend to engage in risky behavior like drug use and alcohol abuse.

“In terms of huge life problems, we’re not sure yet,” she said. “They don’t seem to as adolescents.”

Depending on the profile of the person bullying, they might need social skills training or one-on-one counseling to shift their behavior.

“Kids need to learn that being aggressive doesn’t make you cool,” Troop-Gordon said.

Altendorf counsels people who are actively bullying. He said that although they never come in to specifically “quit” bullying, working on their other issues can often stop the behavior

“Bullying is something they use as a tool to feel good about themselves,” he said. “Once they don’t rely on others to feel good about themselves, that bullying behavior usually subsides.”

It can be difficult for parents of children who bullied to admit their child has a behavioral issue, said Julie Hertzog, the director of the PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center.

“It’s important for parents to know that bullying is not who their child is, it’s what they’re doing,” she said.

Finding out why your child was bullying and what is causing the behavior are crucial to helping them.

“Know that you’re not alone, and your child is not alone,” Hertzog said. “There are solutions.”