Bullying and social learning

Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat
01 Jan 2022 01:08am
Photo for illustrative purposes. (Source: 123rf)
Photo for illustrative purposes. (Source: 123rf)
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Bullying is a crime as it involves threat or actual abuse, intimidation to the extent of causing fear and changes in the psychology of a person (self-esteem, self-worth, identity, etc) and causes harm to a) a victim, b) bystanders or c) witnesses to the bullying incident.

Bully is purposive in nature, and is mostly planned. Elements that constitute a crime are present in bullying activities. There is a perpetrator(s), an actual event, a victim(s), and a negative outcome as experienced by the victim - in the form of psychological distress, physical harm, or both. The effects of bullying are both short term and long term.

Bullies often lack empathy, disregard the rights of others, want instant gratification for their needs and demands, are willing to act aggressively or violently at the slightest perceived provocation. They seek to control and have power over others. Acts of bullying are learned, by observing bullying or being a victim of bullying. This means that bullying needs to be addressed holistically so that all possible elements that shape and maintain the bullying attitude, perception and behaviours are considered.

Basically, individuals bully because they think and believe that they can, due to one or more personal justifications linked to anti-social attitudes and behaviours. The personal justifications include: no one will or can stop them, other people are also bullying, and it is something that they can do without any ill effect on themselves.

The essence of bullying is about power and control. Via verbal, non-verbal or a mix of both verbal and non-verbal actions; a bully seeks to assert power or control in order to a) force compliance from the victim, regardless of the level of harm suffered and/or b) garner support from his/her peers.

By resorting to bullying, the perpetrator feeds his or her own feeling of importance, power, or superiority in interconnected circles of influence, that being the victim and peers. In addition, belittling, intimidating, harming or ostracizing victims provides both tangible and intangible rewards for the perpetrator and further perpetuates bullying behaviour.

Bystanders or peers may prolong the actions of the bully by either verbally supporting the bully, or by omission of any action to stop the bully.

Why are parents so often the last to know?

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Some parents view their children through rose-tinted glasses, denying or not believing their child is a bully. Such parents fail to realise or rather deny that the bullying nature was first nurtured from the home environment through unintentional, intentional, or accidental exposure to verbal and/or physical abuse growing from poor parenting skills. Some children witness parents arguing and being verbally abusive. These negative role models in the home prepares children to behave similarly; especially when the bully appears to be rewarded in the form of compliance to demands, coercion to give way, etc. When at home, these children portray completely different behaviours, which may contribute to parental lack of knowledge about child bullies in their midst.

This however does not apply to all bullies. The onset behaviour of some bullies is in secondary school when there is a loosening of family bonds and protection as the child transits into adulthood and explores a wider social world. In many instances, the child has mixed with the wrong crowd and becomes a bully by association. Parents don’t know who their children’s friends are. Left unchecked, bully behaviour predisposes an individual to develop pro-criminal attitudes which may trigger involvement in actual criminal acts. In fact, it is known in criminology that the attributes shown by bullies are also shown in most violent offenders.

With regards to bullying victimisation, parents or guardians may be the last to know for many reasons. These include: resignation of being a victim, pride, have been threatened with more violence if the incident is reported, fear of retaliation, fear of distressing the family, fear of reprisal from the family, acts of bullying victimisation have been normalised, honour, shame, protecting others, feeling of deservedness, perceived as a rite of passage.

If a parent suspects their child is a bully, what should they do?

First, a parent or guardian should be familiar with the signs of bullying. Having done so, the second step is to reduce vulnerability and reduce opportunities for bullying to occur. It is also important to understand how and why their children bully.

Bullies target those who are perceived to be weaker. It may be in terms of perceived ability, difference, aptitude, personality, physical characteristics, and a whole range of other factors presented by the potential victim.

Common traits of bullies include lack of empathy, aggressive, selfishness, has a positive view of violence, are quick tempered and impulsive, and intolerant of differences.

Punishment alone like physical discipline, being expelled from the school or transferred to another school, won’t work. The roots of the behaviours are not addressed. Expelling bullies means they are free to wreak havoc on the wider society, they self-justify continued violence, and they do not learn skills to improve themselves for the better. Moving to another school gives them a new place to bully and more potential victims to target.

Since bullying is a learned behaviour, it can be unlearned and replaced with neutral or positive behaviour. Firstly, perpetrators need to stop blaming victims and stop denying their own actions. Secondly, perpetrators must be willing to change their negative behaviours. Thirdly, concrete efforts to change must be evidenced.

In some cases, maturity and having responsibilities resolve many of the common traits. However, in other cases, bullying behaviour evolves to either become more subtle, evident, or worse. As such it is important that bullies are stopped early before their actions develop into habits and they believe that using violence is the way to solve problems.

Assoc Prof Dr Geshina Ayu Mat Saat is a psychologist and criminologist under the Forensic Science Programme, School of Health Sciences at Universiti Sains Malaysia Health Campus. She is also a columnist with Sinar Daily.

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