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Wednesday June 22, 2011

School bullying

Bullies dominate, blame and use others. But the good thing is, they are not born that way.

SHE was dumped in a rubbish bin on a street corner by a group of boys from her class while the girls laughed mercilessly at her. She was mortified, and at the tender age of 14 was left feeling worthless.

She was the future Lady Gaga.

The world-famous American pop star isn’t the first – nor will she be the last – celebrity to publicly admit to being a victim of bullies at school.

Feeling the pain: Having been a victim herself, Lady Gaga empathises with children who have been bullied.

Indeed, school bullying is rampant. Students in the United States are not spared. When he was young, superstar Tom Cruise, too, was bullied because he was dyslexic. Megan Fox was teased and called names because she wanted to be an actress. Olympic swimming champion Michael Phelps, despite his big built, was also victimised. Ironically, he was mocked because of his tall, gangly form and the fact that he was a swimmer instead of a footballer!

Closer to home, there was the recent saga involving four teenage girls of a secondary school in Kepong, Kuala Lumpur, whose humiliating bullying of their classmate created an uproar when it was filmed and uploaded on YouTube. A 14-day suspension imposed on the perpetrators, a cup of tea and a word of apology may have provided some form of closure but many are still asking, “How can such a thing happen?”

Let’s examine the scourge.

Bullying is when a person’s behaviour is purposely meant to harm or disturb another person. It is not the same as “aggression” or “violence”, although elements of these may be present when bullying occurs.

It is not simply a desire to hurt. Bullying is actual hurtful behaviour directed by more powerful individuals or groups against those who are less powerful. It is typically repeated, often enjoyed by the bully or bullies, never justified. It is experienced as oppression.

Types of bullying include verbal belittling regarding religion, race, looks, or speech; hitting, pushing or slapping; rumours; and sexual comments or gestures. An indirect way of bullying prevalent among teens is forming their own cliques and intentionally isolating the “outcast”.

Psychologists used to believe that bullies have low self-esteem, and thus, tend to put down other people to feel better about themselves. While many bullies are themselves bullied at home or at school, new research shows that most bullies actually have excellent self-esteem. Bullies usually have a sense of entitlement and superiority over others. They lack compassion, impulse control and social skills. They enjoy being cruel to others and sometimes use bullying as an anger management tool, the way a normally angry person would punch a pillow.

All bullies have certain attitudes and behaviours in common. Bullies dominate, blame and use others. They have contempt for the weak and view them as their prey. They lack empathy and foresight, and do not accept responsibility for their actions. They are concerned only about themselves and crave attention.

The good thing is, bullies are not born that way, although certain traits such as impulsiveness and aggression may be predisposing factors. But this does not mean that they will automatically become a bully. Bullying is a learned behaviour, not a character trait.

Bullies can learn new ways to curb their aggression and handle conflicts. Bullies come from all backgrounds, and girls are just as likely as boys to bully and abuse others verbally, although boys are three times more likely to be physically abusive.

Different homes, different bullies

Interestingly, author Susan Coloraso suggests that there are different types of bullies produced in different homes:

> The hyperactive bully who does not understand social cues and therefore reacts inappropriately and often physically.

> The detached bully plans his attacks and is charming to everyone but his victims.

> The social bully has a poor sense of self and manipulates others through gossip and meanness.

> The bullied bully gets relief from his own sense of helplessness by overpowering others.

Family upbringing and parenting have a big part to play. A bully’s parents may be permissive and unable to set limits on their child’s behaviour. His parents may themselves have been abused as children and view disciplinary measures as a form of child abuse. As a result, the child never internalises rules of conduct or respect for authority.

On the other hand, self-centred, neglectful parents can create a cold, calculating bully. Since no one takes an interest in his life, he abuses others to get attention. His bullying can be planned and relentless, as he constantly humiliates his victim, often getting other children to join him. As if the act of bullying is not enough, the bully uploads it onto social media to “show off” his “achievements”, thereby getting maximum attention and bringing ultimate shame to his victims.

There are yet others who are from relatively healthy families who participate in the act of bullying due to peer pressure and in the name of fun, without realising the serious implication.

Indeed, there are many reasons for bullying. The key is that in understanding it, we hope to prevent it. Lady Gaga has expressed empathy with teenagers who are bullied at school. “Bullying really stays with you your whole life, and it really, really never goes away,” she has said.

When you listen to her songs and watch her performances – beyond her fame, popularity and eccentricity – one cannot help but wonder if she is still hurting....

Charis Patrick is a trainer and family life educator who is married with four children.

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