Lately the weather has been hot and we are in the middle of a heat wave, those dedicated children that have been still coming into class have been trained in the warrior mindset. What is this mystical mindset? Well in truth its nothing out of the ordinary, when applied to children it’s teaching them to use their heads when confronted with that age-old problem the “bully” and you know that there is always one out there somewhere!
Why is it that there is always someone wanting to steal your money, take your lunch or just pick on you because they feel they can, of course there are always those that have experienced success in fighting and then want to prove how big they are by inflicting pain on the geek, or socially timid child? As a child, experiencing the torment either mentally or physically inflicted on you by a bully, can be a very frightening event, leading to that child becoming withdrawn and socially excluded, everything will suffer, their school work, confidence, relationships with their parents and within themselves, with feelings of low self-esteem and a lack of confidence, all of this could ultimately lead to long-term transference of anxiety into adulthood. There are ways to fight back, but first we must understand this age-old problem if we want to give these children a fighting chance.
Lets face it, haven’t our schools known that bullying exists, yet it has still continued generation after generation? I know that there are bullying strategies in most schools, so why over such a long time have we not been able to eradicate this behaviour? Bullying is a distinctive behaviour pattern, which involves individuals deliberately harming and humiliating others creating an asymmetrical in-balance between individuals or groups. This type of behaviour is intended to harm or inflict psychological advantage, it occurs repeatedly over time, resulting in an imbalance of power. There are views around that believe that bullies are not born, instead they believe that they are moulded through their early developmental stage in life, through bad parenting and aggression traits starting as early as the terrible twos! Is it simply the case that if there were no victims, then bullies couldn’t exist? As we all know, they don’t pick on just anyone, they single out children with a certain lack of confidence, they give off a sense of fear long before they ever come into the bully’s crosshairs, and let us never forget the fact that once a bully always a bully right? Well that’s not the case, if it were, what you are saying is that no individual can learn, change, adapt and that they are pre-programmed from birth with no chance of any volitional choice. Adult bullies have a very destructive character and will bring fear and intimidation to groups, whole societies as well as the isolated wife, manipulated, controlled and abused behind closed doors.
The reasons why children become a bully
The first task here is to explore when and why children begin to develop the bullying trait or behaviour, and is this behaviour culturally and socially specific to regions or countries? If bullying is a universal global problem set across all types of countries and societies, then we have to entertain the fact that this could be a hard-wired human mechanism, left over from our cave man past. To answer this question, we can look at research conducted “this international cross-sectional survey included 123,227 students 11, 13 and 15 years of age from a nationally representative sample of schools in 28 countries in Europe and North America in 1997–98. The main outcome measures were physical and psychological symptoms. Results: The proportion of students being bullied varied enormously across countries. The lowest prevalence was observed among girls in Sweden (6.3%, 95% CI: 5.2–7.4), the highest among boys in Lithuania (41.4%, 95% CI 39.4–43.5). Due. (2005). What this research tells us, is that bullying is not contained to any particular culture, society or country, every country surveyed contained instances of bullying from European countries, to America and Japan, providing solid evidence that bullying is ubiquitous across human cultures. It does not take long to find instances of bullying in every country around the world, so does this all stem from aggression problems in children that start around two years old? and if so why? What is clear is that bullies are born and they are not made. Every single person on the planet may well have the capacity to become a bully or to a lesser degree may already be one. Not a thought that some may wish to entertain, if this is indeed the case, then humans have a capacity for this very distinctive behaviour, it is therefore genetic, inheritable and passed down through the generations and not as some may argue moulded from the parental nurture or rather the lack of it, instead it seems that this behaviour has its origins in stone age man, one thing is for sure we have no way of telling what behaviour was like at that time, did pre historic cave men’s children bully the more vulnerable among them to gain power and in achieving this give them access to more resources, attracting a mate in later life? No amount of research into our fossil history will provide an answer, but, could we find an answer in our closest relatives? If primates and other non human related animals have the same type of behavioral patterns this would help answer the question and provide humans with a far greater understanding of the nature of bullying. The problem here is the evidence used to show intent, how would we know that a primate has made a volitional decision to inflict harm to another primate in order to gain power over them? If Primates have these same behaviour tendencies then this would effectively pre date the dawn of Homo sapiens.
Research has been conducted into primate behaviour, with interesting results “Bullying-like behaviors are found in every major group of primates, and can sometimes be severe. Among baboons, one of the best-known non-human primates in the world, bullying-like behaviors are common” Altmann, 1980). cited by Hogan & Sherrow (2011). Later in the same article they go on to say “Chimpanzees live in communities with many males and females and males live in the groups they’re born into their entire lives. Males also form dominance relationships with each other based on physical power and friendships, which they use in competition over mates”. This provides us with strong evidence that bullying or to rephrase the word behavior designed to achieve dominance, is universal throughout both human and primate species, making this behaviour a trait that is hard-wired into our genetic makeup. This behaviour is designed to ensure that dominance over social groups and individuals is achieved and in doing so the dominant individuals gain popularity, access to resources enabling them to survive longer and reproduce, in Darwin’s term it’s survival of the “fittest”, therefore transferring their genes to future generations, ensures the survival of the fittest. Evolution has a large part to play in the majority of human behaviours, it’s finding that evidence that leads to a greater understanding of why we humans, sometimes do what we do.
Other species also display such behaviour, take a litter of dogs for example, out of a large litter there is always one runt of the family, the small one that is always last to get its chance to suckle mum’s milk, if the runt is fortunate to survive this early stage it can then be observed being group bullied into leaving the food alone until the pack has had its not so fair share and there is usually a dominant one or two that lead this behaviour. This behaviour is no different to humans or primates, there is a hard-wired mechanism that says, get more food and you will benefit above the others, even if they are members of your own family.
Humans today are fundamentally different from our past ancestors, we live in a very different world, one in which global communication happens in a heart beat, we celebrate an event post it on Facebook or twitter and a moment later someone reads that in a different country the other side of the planet, what would have taken a great deal of effort is achieved at the click of a button. We communicate via language that, to our cave man relatives would probably sound like an alien dialect. Now assume that this internal mechanism that creates our behaviour, designed initially to allow for dominance and more survival opportunities is suddenly transported to 2013, the need to fight and use behaviour such as aggression to obtain resources to survive has now no real destination or outlet, it now manifests itself in today’s children as bullying behaviour, what we were initially hard-wired for has nowhere to go. Communication has heightened our ability to transfer aggression, to speak words that cut like sun rays through the sky, humiliating and harming the subjects of our discourse and all this from the mouths of our most treasured possessions our children. Not only do we have the medium of language, we also have a plethora of other channels in which to convey our hatred to our intended target and all with a certain amount of annominity. The use of text messages, social media sites on the web, all allow easy access to intimidate, spread gossip and lies about our victim, while at the same time maintaining distance, it’s no wonder that the behaviour once designed in our evolutionary history has now been distorted beyond all recognition, allowing for this behaviour not only to maintain itself, but also to change and become more intensified than it ever was in our past history, this being the case the age-old problem seems destined to be with us for some time to come.
Culture has also helped mould behaviour that further supports bullying, in today’s environment violence is seen almost every day, it may be the local news broadcasting images of police dealing with local criminals, television series portraying family violence, the local newspaper, internet headings, sport events like boxing, games that encourage children interacting with high-end violence, the list goes on, all of this helps support the view that what is termed social violence is acceptable behaviour “the murder rate in America today is six per 100,000 per year. If six more out of 100,000 people were convinced to kill, the murder rate would double, remember, murder is just the tip of the iceberg because for every homicide there are tens of thousands of injury assaults, hundreds of thousands of thefts, millions of acts of bullying, and an untold amount who live their life in fear. The June 10, 1992, issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), the world’s most prestigious medical journal, reported that violence depicted on television “caused” (caused is a powerful scientific word) a subsequent doubling of the homicide rate in the United States 15 years later. The AMA is so convinced of the impact of violent media, that they said if television technology had never been developed in the United States (or if we had kept our kids away from it) there would today be 10,000 fewer homicides each year, 70,000 fewer rapes and 700,000 fewer injurious assaults” Grossman (2004). This is damming evidence that media based violence has had a significant effect on our children, changing the way that they view the consequences of such acts and in doing so developing a behaviour pattern that accepts social violence as a society norm! When will parents realise this simple fact, it’s not enough that all too often children have to be witness to extreme levels of violence within the family unit, they are then subjected to a near constant stream of aggression and violence, which 1,000 years ago would give a natural fitness advantage to those children that progressed through adolescence to adulthood, giving them a far better chance of survival, procuring a mate and distributing their gene for inheritance into their children. In today’s society there is no requirement for this aggressive behaviour which has nowhere to go.
It must also be remembered that bullying tactics are not just the sole preserve of the individual, groups, organisations and whole countries can become susceptible to the power struggle, resorting in all types of underhanded and big brother bullying tactics. These groups will target others with tactics designed to intimidate, coerce or harm them, all designed to ensure that the group achieve what a minority perceive to be, what the majority want! Political groups and leaders of countries use bullying tactics to maintain social order or to suppress uprising, even though the mainstay of the population may disagree with the pattern of behaviour, they are usually powerless in the face of such power.
Above we spoke about the inability for some parents to cope with early aggression in children and that this could start as early as two years old, the behaviour of children at this early age, seems to be hard-wired into the child from birth, as most parents would attest to experiencing this type of behaviour in their two or three-year old children, up to the age of two a child has usually had no real input as to aggressive behaviour patterns, is this the age when these evolutionary traits begin to reveal themselves? Or is it the parents fault for mis-treating the child at home, causing feelings of insecurity, which leads to aggression? Observed behaviours that children witness may well play a role in supporting the inbuilt behaviour patterns, that society now refers to, as bullying.
The terrible two’s
Every parent gets to hear about the terrible twos and how behavior during this time can be a testing one for any parent, it’s the beginning of a new era when the unassuming smiling, crying, loving baby begins to show patterns of behaviour that are testing to a great many parents, some say they never experience this, but those that have are often unprepared for the change from cooperative baby, to nothing is right! This change is not timed exactly with the age of two it can start before two, or later, up to the age of three. During this stage cooperative behaviour changes, as a parent you may notice a new level of NO! doing the opposite of what you have told them “don’t throw your cup on the floor” and guess what it ends up on the floor so many times you eventually take it away, tantrums are common place and can occur out of the blue and for apparently no reason, at least to the parent, you suddenly have on your hands a more assertive bundle of joy.
At around this age the brain is going through a massive amount of development, the mind is beginning to have an influence on what the child perceives to be what they want and not what you want for them, they think for themselves and begin to demand attention, they want things that are important to them and no amount of logic from the parent can persuade them otherwise. Feelings, language and increased mobility, all start to occur around this time, bringing with them the ability to communicate, express emotions and independently move. The stage prior to communication, via the medium of words is termed presymbolic, when the child has the ability to speak its called the symbolic stage. During this time they are having to deal with a fantastic amount of in-coming stimuli, their brains are undergoing neurobiological and psychological changes, resulting in self-awareness and a sense of understanding of self.
What impact on behaviour in later life does this stage of development have and can this early transformation, if handled badly by the parent, result in a natural tendency for bullying? One of the traits displayed is that of an unwillingness to share, they are possessive of food or toys, this in itself could be a very early indicator that what they have they need to retain, in order for them to nourish themselves and have tools to explore. Learning to interact with other children also becomes a key skill throughout this time, as up to now the majority of contact has happened with immediate family, they now begin to mix and interact with other children, this time of early interaction is crucial to learning acceptable social skills “researchers have found emotional development and social skills are essential for school readiness. Examples of such abilities include paying attention to adult figures, transitioning easily from one activity to the next, and cooperating with other kids” Cherry, (2013). These points are key if we are to find any link between this stage of developing behavior and patterns of behavior in later childhood and the point that is of great interest is “paying attention” It ca not be overestimated how the importance of volitional attention impacts on our ability to wire the neurological pathways within the brain, how paying attention is a key aspect in the way the mind learns, for an early child paying attention, has the benefit of clear and unrestricted access to the brain, imagine an empty piece of paper just before you begin to draw, you are free to create whatever image you want! and that is what paying attention to parental behaviour does for the young child, they begin to recognise how to express feelings and interact socially, all through observation of the people they see the most their parents. These observations imprint neurological pathways within the young developing brian and in doing so create patterns of behaviour.
It is not hard at this point to understand that if your child sees two parents at odds with each other, not sharing, or not correcting behaviour when the child does not share, that this will develop within the child an understanding that this is acceptable behaviour, if the innate hard wiring suggest that food needs to be kept, parents sharing food help suppress a heightening of this behavior. Parent interaction between themselves will also be attended to by the child and parents who argue, create tensions, do not show gratitude, or worse still shout, argue or fight will imprint this onto the child, who will then continue with this behaviour in a great many cases when they begin their interactions with other children. If there is an underlying tendency for a child to dominate due to evolutionary adaptive mechanisms, they will learn that aggressive behaviour is the way to achieve this. Therefore modeling appropriate behaviours that are socially acceptable are essential at this stage. A well known method of learning is operant conditioning, this type of learning involves either positive or negative reinforcement. This is where behaviour is rewarded, this type of learning also has to be considered carefully as reinforcing a maladaptive behaviour could be disastrous, that is why it is so important that when a child demonstrates positive behaviour that they are emotionally rewarded, which in turn reinforces the behaviour. Cherry (2013), goes on to say that “parents can also boost empathy and build emotional intelligence by encouraging their children to think about how other people feel. Start by inquiring about your child’s own feelings, asking questions about events in your child’s life. “How did you feel when you lost your toy?” “How did that story make you feel?” Once children become skilled at expressing their own emotional reactions, begin asking questions about how other people may feel. “How do you think Nadia felt when you took away the toy she was playing with?” By posing such questions, children can begin to think about how their own actions might impact the emotions of those around them” emotional intelligence is a key factor in ensuring that any child begins to understand feelings, this also includes the natural feelings of fear and aggression, as it is these feelings that lead a child ultimately down the path of a bully, this is not to say that feelings of fear and aggression are bad, they are not, its managing these feeling and coping with them, while interacting within a social group that is important. As we discovered above evolution plays an important hand in providing adaptive behaviour that in our caveman past was absolutely necessary, there were no child play groups available to these ancestral children, where they could learn in a controlled environment, with this in mind it’s no wonder today’s children sometimes have a hard job finding the boundaries of what is acceptable behaviour.
Now that we have began to understand the behavior that we label “bullying” it’s time to explore what we as parents or martial artist can do to help a child deal with this pattern of behaviour. It has become evident that a bully is born and that they are also moulded through two very powerful influences, evolutionary adaptive behaviour and parental guidance, learning how to fight back is where I now turn my attention to, however it’s really important that we learn from the evidence above that bullying is another word for aggressive natural behavior designed to achieve dominance and fitness over others, we will never eradicate it from our schools or our social lives, as adults, what we must plan for, is education, helping both children and adults manage these types of behaviour, in doing so understand our evolutionary history and the reasons that Humans behave the way we do.
Cherry, K. (213). About.Com Psychology. Social and Emotional Development in Early Childhood. accessed on 31-07-2013 @ http://psychology.about.com/od/early-child-development/a/Social-And-Emotional-Development-In-Early-Childhood.htm
Due, Pernille, Dr. (2005). bullying and symptoms among school-aged children:international comparative cross section study in 28 counties. European journal of public heath. accessed on 28/07/2013 @ http://eurpub.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/2/128.short
Grossman, D. Lt. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. Millstadt, Il: PPCT research publications.
Hogan, M. and Sherrow. Phd. (2011) The Origins of Bullying. Originally published in Scientific American, December, 2011