There is no one face that portrays children who bully.
But those who do come with their own set of problems, says a Halifax researcher who studies the disturbing and harmful behaviour.
“They do have higher rates of school dropout, of depression, of forming poor relationships as adults; so in that sense, you could say there’s a psychological profile,” Dr. John LeBlanc, an IWK Health Centre pediatrician and associate professor at Dalhousie medical school, said in an interview.
“They have things in their lives that are, on average, different from other kids. But you couldn’t go into a classroom and and say ‘He’s a bully, she’s not.’ There’s no profile like that.”
While bullies come from all walks of life, they often come from families that are more dysfunctional, research shows.
“There’s often anger in them and they are exposed to domestic violence at home and anger directed towards them so they’re basically acting out a lot of what’s being acted out on them,” LeBlanc said.
“For the most part, the vast majority of children and youth are not psychopaths. They’re not out to get you; they’re not callous. They are reacting themselves to what’s happening to them.”
In bullying, LeBlanc points out, there’s an intent to harm, a power imbalance and repetition.
Bullying manifests itself through physical assaults, social exclusion, name calling and gossipping.
“And that kind of bullying is very painful and very difficult to stop,” LeBlanc said.
Many studies done on children who physically bully also show that these children often have difficulty later on with mental illness and are also at risk of becoming involved in alcohol, drugs and violent crime. But other research with children who bully relationally, through isolation or exclusion of a person from a social group, shows these children can be well adjusted.
“They do quite well and they can do quite well in life. Unfortunately, that kind of manipulation of other people can get you ahead,” LeBlanc said.
“So it’s kind of a more sinister story for the children who bully in a relational way as opposed to physical bullies.”
The bullies who most worry experts are the ones who feel no empathy or remorse, LeBlanc said.
“There are the very, very, very small number of what are called callous, unemotional children and youth who don’t care. Those are the worrisome ones.”
Experts say the time to act to prevent bullying is in early childhood.
Parents and other adults who witness children with aggressive behaviour early on need to help them develop social skills before the behaviour is entrenched.
“And it means that parents have to have open lines of communication with their kids,” LeBlanc said.
Unlike a victim, it can be difficult to detect a bully unless someone reports them. They rarely bully in front of an adult.
“Even then, children who bully can be so good at getting along with adults that they’re shocked when they learn that these kids are bullies,” LeBlanc said.
On the other hand, children who cyberbully can be anybody, “including the most timid person in the class,” LeBlanc said.
“They can do quite well. But when they get behind the keyboard, they get this sense of power so they will do things online they will never do face to face.
Cyberbullying is described as aggressive, intentional acts carried out by a group or individual using electronic forms of contact repeatedly and over time against a defenceless victim.
Cyberbullying has the familiar elements of a power imbalance in which one person tries to overpower somebody else and the bully is intentionally and wilfully trying to dominate that person.
“It’s 24-7 and once you post something, it’s there forever. So this has been clearly where cyberbullying is kind of a terrible new evolution of what bullying is because it can be so hard to turn off.”
In his recent research study, Cyberbullying and Suicide (A Restrospective Analysis of 41 Cases), LeBlanc found that for a lot of the 41 kids, cyberbullying was only a minor factor and there were a lot of things going on before they took their own lives.
“And yet we often see people talking about cyberbullying and suicide as if it’s this new link, this new cause of suicide. And, in a sense, it is because cyberbullying is relatively new, but it’s not different from the many suicides that we’ve had in the past that are related to bullying.”
Of the 41 cases from 2003 to April 2012, 26 happened in the United States, six in Australia, five in the United Kingdom and four in Canada. Twenty-four were girls and 17 were boys, aged 13-18. Thirty-two per cent had reported a diagnosis of mood disorder and 15 per cent had reported depression symptoms but no formal diagnosis of depression.
Seventy-eight per cent of the cases involved both cyberbullying and traditional bullying (face-to-face, by telephone or through exclusion and other means). In seven cases, cyberbullying alone was reported.
Karisa Parkington, an undergraduate psychology student at Dalhousie University, and Tanya Bilsbury, a graduate student in community health and epidemiology at Dalhousie, co-authored the study.
Kathleen Richard, Nova Scotia’s anti-bullying co-ordinator, warns against putting negative labels on youth.
“Instead, we focus our efforts on addressing behaviours and helping students understand how their behaviour impacts others,” Richard said in an interview.
“Poor choices can be the result of misunderstanding, an individual’s personal circumstances, lack of maturity. Sometimes they are even unaware that they harming somebody else by their words or by their actions.
“Behaviours are learned. And because they are learned, they can be taught. We need to be there to support both those that are involved in severely disruptive behaviours and those that are victims of severely disruptive behaviours.”
LeBlanc said it’s just as important for schools to emphasize social and emotional learning as it is to emphasize math and literacy.
“Another key principle is that families and schools have to work together on this,” LeBlanc said. “They’re both on the same side even though sometimes to parents it seems like the schools aren’t doing enough.
“They have to really sit down and meet with the principal and the teacher openly and honestly and say, ‘OK, we’ve got a problem here; what are we going to do about it?’”
The Province of Nova Scotia is working on an action plan to address the root causes of bullying and cyberbullying.
SEE THE SIGNS
Last month, Education Minister Ramona Jennex introduced amendments to the Education Act to help clarify, update and define the role of all school staff in reporting and dealing with incidents of severely disruptive behaviour.
Children and youth who bully may show behaviours or emotional signs that they are using power aggressively:
Little concern for others’ feelings
Does not recognize impact of his/her behaviour on others
Aggressive with siblings, parents, teachers, friends, and animals
Bossy and manipulative to get own way
Possessing unexplained objects and/or extra money
Secretive about possessions, activities and whereabouts
Holds a positive attitude toward aggression
Easily frustrated and quick to anger