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When the Bullied Becomes the Bully

Submitted by Wayne Parsons on June 21, 2013 – 6:29 pm

Dad and mom noticed their 11-year-old son was less energetic than usual for the last week or two and was not eating as well—even when it was something he really liked.

He was getting behind in school work and seemed troubled. Dad finally sat down in a quiet place and asked what was going on.

Eventually, his son told him about a boy at school who was making fun of him and occasionally would grab him and threaten or slap him.

Dad told his son that the next day at school, as soon as he got the chance, he should walk directly up to his tormentor and without saying anything punch him in the face a couple of times, hard. He made his son promise to do that, stating, “That’s the best way to stop a bully.”

That night, the boy didn’t sleep much. When he got to school, he did what his dad told him to do, and the bully was shocked. And it “worked”—his tormentor didn’t bother him again.

But as the boy threw the punches at his tormentor, the seed was planted in him that would later lead to him becoming the abuser, the bully. Those seeds of aggression and violence would predispose this young victim to a life with serious psychological deficits. Whoever came up with the idea that the best way to stop bullying is to fight back?

Bullying is serious and complex. Just as abusive parents often were abused as children, bullying has a cycle of repetition where the victim becomes a bully. The victim of bullying, as well as the bully, is at high risk of suffering long-term psychiatric disorders if the situation is not addressed promptly and properly.

A recent study of bullying in JAMA Psychiatry, “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence,” shows conclusive evidence that a bullied child often becomes a bully to someone else. The cycle continues.

Kids who are bullied have a higher rate of childhood psychiatric disorders. They are 4.6 times more likely to suffer agoraphobia, 2.7 times more likely to suffer generalized anxiety and 3.1 times more likely to suffer panic disorder, according to the study. And these psychiatric disorders continue as the child reaches young adulthood and even into their adult lives.

When a child who has been bullied becomes a bully to others they have a 4.8 times great risk of young adult depression, a 14.5 times greater risk of panic disorder. Females suffer a 26.7 times greater risk of agoraphobia and males suffer a 18.5 times greater risk of suicidal thoughts.

Agoraphobia is intense fear and anxiety, often associated with fear of being trapped someplace. Bullies alone have a 4.1 times greater risk of antisocial personality disorder. These high rates of childhood psychiatric were determined after removing the effects childhood psychiatric problems or family hardships. A group of 1420 students were followed from the age of 9 to 26 constituting one of the more carefully controlled studies on bullying.

The study concludes that “[t]he effects of being bullied are direct, pleiotropic [have multiple effects], and long-lasting, with the worst effects for those who are both victims and bullies.”

Catherine Bradshaw, deputy director at the Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence at Johns Hopkins University, said of the results of the study that, “[t]he experience of bullying in childhood can have profound effects on mental health in adulthood, particularly among youths involved in bullying as both a perpetrator and a victim.”

Telling a child who is being bullied to hit back sends the wrong message that abuse solves abuse. Most victims aren’t able to fight back. They are often less physical and outnumbered, and on the case of cyberbullying how would a child strike back?

The child who is incapable of fighting back can feel even more inadequate, exacerbating the psychological injuries suffered. School officials and/or parents also tolerate and ignore the behavior make matters worse.

The bully should be stopped and an effort made to understand the source of the bullying behavior. If it is simply showing off to peers, developing awareness in the school about the seriousness of the injuries caused by bullying behavior will create peer pressure to refrain from bullying.

At the same time, teachers and parents should talk to the perpetrator and find out what is motivating the behavior and if other problems exist that are contributing to the behavior. Questions about what they were feeling before, during and after an incident will give insight.

Likewise, the victim should see that others, particularly their role models, parents and teachers, support them and are treating the bullying with the seriousness it deserves. Without that immediate and significant response the victim can feel helpless and that hopelessness can in some cases lead to suicide.

Lecturing, scolding and admonishing will not work alone. Ask the children questions about their feelings and motivations and listen to their answers. Don’t argue with them but try to understand them and let them know that what they feel matters to you. And consider involving a psychologist who understands bullying who can communicate more effectively with the bully as well as the victim. Let a professional help the kids avoid a lifetime of psychological problems.