When children are bullied, parents or teachers used to help them cope by explaining that bullies have their own emotional issues that lead to their negative behaviour. This coping strategy probably isn’t as common as it once was, with good reason: Not all bullies feel bad. In fact, some kinds of bullying seems to buffer against emotional problems, making it harder to address the behaviour!
A study in the May issue of Developmental Psychology examined the “internalizing problems” (symptoms related to sadness and worry) of popular bullies. Amanda Rose and Lance Swenson asked over 400 7th and 9th grade students to rate the classmates who they liked the most and the least in order to determine which students were more popular. They also asked for ratings of verbal and physical aggression as well as relational aggression, and then had all of the students complete questionnaires rating their depressive and anxious symptoms.
The results showed a difference between the teens who engaged in “relational aggression” and those whose bullying was more overt. Popular relational aggressors – those who hurt others by ignoring, excluding, or spreading rumours about them – didn’t report emotional problems. Relational bullies who were less popular did. The researchers suspected that popular bullies are protected from the negative consequences of their behaviour – peers may be hesitant to retaliate because of the bully’s social power, and the popular bullies’ behaviour may be subtle enough that most adults don’t notice it. In other words, bullies who use relational aggression to control their social world are no more likely than anyone else to experience feelings of sadness and worry. The overt, physical/verbal bullies were more likely to report internalizing symptoms, but a close analysis revealed that their behaviour seemed to contribute to problems with their peer relationships, which appeared to be linked to “broader adjustment difficulties.”
These findings have implications for intervention with popular relational bullies. Most people are willing to change their behaviour when they become aware that it leads to negative consequences, but popular relational aggressors seem to be protected from the negative impact of their actions. So what can parents and teachers do to protect kids from bullies, and to reduce the occurrence of these covert forms of relationship aggression? The creators of the documentary “It’s a Girl’s World” believe that three factors are necessary to reduce social bullying: empathy, awareness of the seriousness of the behaviour, and problem-solving. They have several recommendations for parents on their website, including:
- Let your kids know of your awareness and disapproval of the behaviour.
- Empathize with the victim. Being the target of relational aggression isn’t a necessary part of growing up.
- Be aware of the example you set with regard to social aggression.
- Encourage your child to be assertive in social situations without resorting to aggression.
It’s also important to help the victims of bullying bolster their self-esteem, which sometimes reduces their attractiveness as a target for bullies. Encouraging participation in activities in areas of strength can be powerful!
Have your kids been exposed to social aggression? How did you handle it?
Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.