They're Not Just A Schoolyard Problem
During the past decade an alarming increase in school shootings around the country put the spotlight on bullying and violence in our nation's schools. But in reality, the act of bullying is as old as human nature.
According to one statistic, nearly 30 % of American children are either bullies or the target of bullying (1). This problem is not limited to children alone; not surprisingly, millions of adults admit that they are the targets of bullying at work (2). One report found that 54 million workers have been harassed in the workplace (3). Bullying is counterproductive to a healthy lifestyle.
Without positive intervention, bullying may have long term effects on the health and well-being of the targets of this behavior and even the bullies themselves. In this article I will discuss some of the underlying reasons behind bullying and provide suggestions for preventing it.
In light of recent media events about bullying in K-12 schools and college campuses, this is the best and most appropriate time to publish an article on this topic. So I want to hear from you, in the comments section immediately following this article, post your ideas and suggestions for what we as a people can do to prevent bullying.
What Causes Bullying?
People are often targeted because of race, gender, socioeconomic status, physical/mental condition, age or religion. There is never any specific reason why some people choose to harass others.
But some of the most common reasons are that sometimes bullies have problems at home and lash out at others to relieve their own pain; or the bully may suffer from low self - esteem and the only way to feel better about himself/herself is to make fun of someone else; the bullying is acting on peer pressure (making someone else a target of harassment in order to make one's own life easier); envy i.e. harassing others because the bully wants what he/she does not have.
One explanation that is often not mentioned is actually the worst reason of all: simply taking pleasure in the suffering of others. However, none of these reasons matter to a person who is on the receiving end of mistreatment at the hands of someone else. This often leaves people to wonder why some people are more easily targeted for harassment than others? That is what I will discuss in the next section.
Humans Can Sense Fear In Others
Most human communication is nonverbal; body posture and facial expression are two of the greatest indicators of mood. Various research data shows that humans can sense fear in others (4,5,6). We are able to recognize the facial expressions of others and fear is more easily picked up on than happiness or even neutral faces (4).
What this means is that if you are afraid, oftentimes it's going to be written all over your face. Moreover, when a person is unhappy or lacking confidence he/she tends to hunch over, slump his/her shoulders and/or avoid eye contact. Any of these nonverbal cues can be picked up by bullies who will then seek to exploit them.
What happens next is that the bully will bring attention to whatever it is that the target of their harassment is feeling at the time. Because people experiencing high stress maybe more anxious or sensitive than others, the bullying can have an immediate effect on the targeted person. The result is that the person who is being bullied is likely to feel even more afraid, and/or self conscious than he/she already was. They would show it, and the bully would then continue the harassment thus creating an ongoing cycle that will continue until it is broken.
Bearing all of this in mind, since there are non-verbal cues that some people use to mistreat others, it also stands to reason that there are nonverbal behaviors that can be used to ascertain if a person is being harassed. That is what I will discuss in the next section.
Tell Tale Signs Of Bullying
In the previous section I pointed out that humans communicate non-verbally; nonverbal communication will convey more information than one could provide verbally. Therefore, if we know what to look for it is possible to recognize when a person maybe getting bullied. Some signs include:
- sudden reluctance to go to school or work
- lack of enthusiasm for participating in activities
- sudden change in mood or behavior
- negative and/or berating talk
- not wanting to be left by himself/herself
- avoid going to the restroom
- changes in sleep pattern
- decline in work performance
Kidscape (7) offers a number of warning signs to watch out for including:
- doing poorly in school
- have nightmares/cry themselves to sleep
- attempt or express feelings of suicide
- ask for money (paying extortion to the bully)
- begin to bully others
- become unresponsive when asked what is wrong
- become anxious or distressed and stop eating
- regularly coming home with damaged clothing, and school supplies
And there are signs that your child, co worker or someone you know maybe a bully. Some of the warning signs that About.com (8) suggests we watch for are:
- obsession with violent themes
- preoccupation with firearms
- lack of remorse for others
- act superior to others and justify their behavior toward others
- make violent threats
- quick to anger
Bullying pays a physical and emotional toll on the target of harassment. Medical studies have found that bullying can lead to abdominal pain, anxiety, depression, sleeping problems, feelings of insecurity, etc. (9).
Bullying, which is a negative stressor, will activate the body's "fight or flight" response. "Fight or flight" is a complex series of neurophysiological reactions that protect the body from dangers in the environment.
For example, stress activates the hypothalamus to release adrenocorticotropic hormone which signals the release of adrenaline and cortisol (10). Prolonged exposure to bullying will have an adverse effect on many systems of the body including higher brain centers such as the hippocampus, a component of the brain that is involved in long term memory (11).
Damage to the hippocampal region would impair higher cognitive functions which would hinder a person's ability to perform optimally at school or at work. Bearing all of this in mind, it becomes that much more difficult to dismiss bullying as a trivial problem.
Now that we know some of the causes and warning signs of bullying behavior, we need to know what can be done to prevent it. The rest of this article will focus on defense against bullying.
Defense Against Bullying
Some people offer up band aid solutions to the problem of bullying such as "ignore the bullying and he/she will go away", "go tell your boss or teacher", "make friends with the bully" but in truth these suggestions are not always practical or effective especially if teachers and/or employers are unable to or unwilling to help.
Another popular solution to protecting yourself or a loved one against a bully is to join a gym and become big and strong. The reasoning behind this is that a display of strength will likely be more than enough to deter a bully because when push comes to shove, most people prefer to avoid confrontation-especially when the opponent is larger or stronger than they are. Depending on the situation, this could actually solve the problem.
But what about those who are physically disabled e.g. wheelchair bound, visually impaired, severely obese or underweight, neuromuscular impairments, etc.- people who maybe targets of bullying because of their uniqueness? (Conversely, what if the bully happens to be a person of one of the aforementioned groups?) A person does not have to be physically strong to be strong.
In other words, it is strength of character and strength of spirit which are the greatest defenses against bullying and intimidation. If you display genuine confidence then it is virtually impossible for a bully to defeat you.
Genuine confidence comes from a deep rooted and unwavering sense of worth. This worth comes from a belief in God's love for you and that He has plans for your future. When you have this, bullies maybe less inclined to harass you because they will not be able to arouse you to fear.
That being said, some people will still pick on you or attempt to gradually increase the level and degree of harassment. Such is the case when dealing with persons who want to break you. These people do not go away so easily but that doesn't mean that they can not be defeated.
Occasionally the media will present the remarkable ordeals of prisoners of war. These men and women endured incredible mental and physical hardship at the hands of captors who sought to break their spirit. How did these people survive? They held onto hope and their worth. You see, once a person breaks you, they have won.
The key to defeating a bully is to always remember that your life is valuable, it is the single most precious gift that you will ever receive and as such you have a responsibility to develop your life to its fullest potential. Your life belongs to God, it doesn't belong to the bully or anyone else. God made you just a little lower than the angels which means you have incredible value in God's eyes. Therefore, think about the things you want to accomplish in the service of God, and make a promise to Him asking that He empower you to fulfill those plans.
The reason why you have those goals is because you already know that your life is important and that you deserve to succeed. So when you focus on what God wants you to do- always remaining cognizant of your worth to Him - you know that you have what it takes to overcome any obstacle. The bully is unhappy in his/her life, even if they may appear to be popular in school or at work something is missing in their lives and character.
You defeat them every time you do something positive for yourself, every time you return to school, every time you earn a good grade on a test, make a sale, sing a song, create a beautiful drawing in art class or tool in wood/metal shop. Never give up on wholesome things that you enjoy as these are expressions of your personality and value to God. When you continue to do your best you will have already beaten the bully. Finally, always remember that bad things don't necessarily last, you can surpass them if you really have the determination and the drive to do so.
No person is superior or inferior to another person, no one is better or worse than another. No matter how bad things get, no matter what names you are called or how you are treated, you must always remember you are loved. You were not created to be the constant brunt of harassment. Instead, all people are born to life, to know, to feel and to lead wondrous lives in the service of God. That is why you are you.
In addition to the above, there are additional ways that you can do to protect yourself:
- keep a detailed record of your performance at school or work as this may come in handy should you decide to pursue civil litigation against the bully, employer or school district
- notify a teacher or superior about the bullying
- keep any and all written correspondence or items pertaining to the incident of harassment for possible future litigation
- do not engage the bully in an argument as it only fuels the situation
Most larger employers will have employee conduct handbooks which contain information about what is expected of the employees of the company. Keep a current copy of the handbook for your reference, and adhere to the rules found therein.
If you are later challenged on your behavior or work performance as a result of harassment, you can refer to it when preparing a defense against the accusation as well as when bringing a complaint against your employer.
You should also be aware that reporting a grievance to your human resources department may or may not be resolved in your favor. This is because employers are first and foremost concerned about productivity and earnings.
If they deem an employee(s) to be interfering with this, they will seek to protect themselves. That is why it is important to keep a record of what happens at the workplace.
All employers must adhere to state and federal regulations regarding conduct of employees, so even if you work for a small company, you and your employer are legally bound by the rules of your state and the federal government. Get a copy of these regulations from your state department of labor or the US Department of Labor.
What You Can Do About
I'm concluding this article with an invitation to everyone including teachers, health care professionals, attorneys, caregivers, workers, concerned citizens, etc. to get involved in the discussion. Bullying is a problem that affects most of us in one way or another because either we or someone whom we know has experienced it.
That is why you're reading this article. So post your comments and opinions about the matter of bullying and how you feel it can be combated. Tell us what works and what doesn't.
There must be no place or tolerance for bullying behavior anywhere in the world.
By opening up a dialogue that brings together people from so many diverse backgrounds and experiences we can do much to curtail this problem. With so many other things happening in the world, another major headline about school or workplace violence is one the world does not need.
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2. "When The Bully Sits in the Next Cubicle". http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/25/health/25well.html
3. "Business Insight: Bullying thrives in the workplace, especially in a downturn." http://www.workplacebullying.org/2009/08/17/sltrib/#more-1484
4. "Humans perceive others' fear faster than other emotions". http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2007-10/vu-hpo101007.php#
5. "Humans Can Sense 'Smell Of Fear' In Sweat, Psychologist Says". ScienceDaily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090306142536.htm
6. "Humans Respond to Scent of Fear". http://www.livescience.com/health/090310-fear-scent.html
7. "Possible Signs of Bullying." http://www.kidscape.org.uk/parents/signsof.shtml
8. "Bullying in Schools - Recognizing School Bullying." http://learningdisabilities.about.com/od/instructionalmaterials/p/serousbullies.htm
9. "Physical and Emotional Impact of Schoolyard Bullies." http://www.drgreene.com/21_262.html
10. Dickson, W.H. and Klemm,W.R. 1993. Dukes' Physiology of Domestic Animals. Cornell University.
11. Hippocampus. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hippocampus
"Bullies: They're Not Just A Schoolyard Problem" copyright © 2009, 2010 Living Fit, Healthy and Happy(SM). All Rights Reserved.