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What motivates the cruelty of bullies? An expert in youth psychology elucidates the underlying factors driving their harmful actions

Experiencing bullying can cast a dark shadow on one’s life, and extensive research spanning decades underscores this reality. Children and teenagers subjected to bullying face heightened risks of anxiety, depression, academic disengagement, social rejection, isolation, and self-harm. It’s important to note that adults can also be victims of bullying, often in professional settings, where the emotional toll can be just as severe as in childhood. As a professor specializing in child and adolescent development, my focus extends to understanding the origins of bullying behavior and exploring strategies for prevention.

To establish a foundation, it’s crucial to define bullying as malicious and harmful conduct perpetrated by an individual possessing more power or status, such as a popular student at school or a supervisor at work. This person consistently targets, harasses, irritates, or harms someone with less power or status. Bullying manifests in various forms, ranging from physical acts like pushing and hitting to relational tactics such as spreading rumors, exclusion from social circles, or verbal insults. Sexual harassment and stalking behaviors also fall under the umbrella of bullying. In some instances, individuals become targets due to factors like race, religion, sexual orientation, or appearance, leading to a heightened risk of mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and self-harm. The LGBTQ+ community, overweight individuals, or those with physical or developmental disabilities are particularly vulnerable to bullying, resulting in severe emotional consequences.

Understanding the motives behind bullying involves recognizing early influences through psychological processes like modeling and social learning. Bullies often emulate aggressive behavior observed in their surroundings, a phenomenon exacerbated by media portrayals of mean or violent actions in music, video games, TV shows, and movies. The glamorization and gamification of such behavior contribute to the replication of aggression, especially when it is perceived as cool or rewarded. Family dynamics also play a pivotal role; children raised in environments lacking kindness and closeness but steeped in physical punishment and conflict may adopt bullying as an acceptable form of interaction. Similarly, joining a peer group characterized by bullying tendencies can lead individuals to engage in such behavior to gain social approval.

Various reasons drive individuals to become bullies. Some derive a sense of superiority by belittling others, finding validation in putting people down. For others, past experiences have taught them that force and intimidation yield results, making these strategies their default approach. Some individuals struggle to manage their emotions, reacting with aggression when angered. Additionally, for certain bullies, it serves as a means of advancement, as seen when an adult in the workplace spreads rumors to undermine a colleague’s chances of promotion. Ultimately, comprehending the multifaceted motivations behind bullying is crucial for developing effective strategies to counteract this harmful behavior.

Navigating and addressing bullying situations can be challenging, but there are numerous effective strategies to put an end to such behavior.

For children and teenagers facing bullying, initiating a conversation with a trusted adult – be it a parent, teacher, principal, or counselor – is a crucial first step. These individuals can provide valuable guidance to help determine the best course of action. Schools are well-equipped to handle such issues and have established policies to safeguard victims of bullying.

Adults who encounter workplace bullying can seek assistance from their human resources department or approach a neutral supervisor for advice on the appropriate steps to take. Legal protection is also in place, as employment laws prohibit harassment and discriminatory conduct.

Regardless of age, seeking support from friends or family members not directly involved in the incident can offer valuable encouragement. Engaging in coping activities, such as exercise or a leisurely walk, can contribute to emotional well-being.

Several helplines are available for those dealing with bullying. The Crisis Text Line, accessible 24/7, can be reached by texting 741741. The Stop Bullying Now Hotline at 1-800-273-8255, along with international numbers provided on their website, offers assistance. For the national Suicide & Crisis Lifeline, dial 988.

It is crucial to emphasize that bullying is unacceptable. It is not simply dismissed as “kids being kids” or attributed to being “too sensitive.” If confronted by a bully, seeking help is the most effective way to overcome the situation. Remember, you don’t have to face it alone.

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