Dr. Susan G. Weinberger

Why are so many young people at earlier ages then ever bullying others in their schools and neighborhood? Given the enormous harm bullying causes, why do youth bully others, lie, engage in name calling and often express hate? I recently had a conversation with a Pediatrician that said little kids often bully others for many reasons. For example, they are learning, by trial and error to navigate their social world and many want to gain attention.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the term bullying is problematic. Bullying for research purposes is defined as repeated negative behavior by one or more individuals aimed at a person who is perceived as being weaker or more vulnerable. Bullying may include physical threats, verbal humiliation, malicious rumors, and social ostracism. The results can be dangerous and deadly.

When I was a kid growing up, I remember the famous phrase, “sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I am not sure that is true. The more I think of it, bullying often begins with name calling which really hurts another, followed by stalking and serious bullying through notes, social media and other methods.  Bullies hurt others both physically and emotionally.

According to StopBullying,gov, one in five teenagers today reports being bullied. Bullying has widespread and adverse effects and for some, can even lead to suicide caused by trauma and desperation. Bullying can take many forms. Whether verbal, physical or digital, social media has opened a new platform for bullying to take place. Those who bully others are looking to gain a feeling of power, purpose and control over another.

A recent Ditch the Label study spoke to 8,850 people about bullying. They asked respondents to define bullying and then later asked if, based on their own definition, they had ever bullied anybody. 14% of the overall sample, translated as 1,239 people, said yes. What the study then did, something that had never been done on this scale before was to go a step further and ask the same respondents intimate questions about their lives, exploring things like stress and trauma, home lives, relationships and how they feel about themselves. The fascinating study asked all 8,850 respondents the same questions and then compared the answers from those who had never bullied, those who had bullied at least once and those who bully others daily.

This provided data to identify the real reasons why people bully others. It also stated scientific proof that the reason people get bullied is never, contrary to popular belief, because of the unique characteristics of the person experiencing the bullying. The data showed that those who bully are far more likely than average to have experienced a stressful or traumatic situation in the past 5 years. Examples include their parents/guardians splitting up, the death of a relative or the gaining of a little brother or sister. It makes sense because we all respond to stress and trauma in very different ways. Some of us use positive behaviors, such as meditation, exercise and talking therapy designed to relieve the stress. Others use negative behaviors such as bullying, violence and alcohol abuse, which temporarily mask the issues but usually make them worse in the long-term. The research indicated that some people simply do not know how to positively respond to stress and so default to bullying others as a coping mechanism.

Can a mentor working with a mentee prevent or reduce bullying behavior? We must be reminded that mentors are not health professionals but rather, committed volunteers that simply care and want to help. I recommend that mentors first deepen their understanding about the effects of bullying. It is important to learn the signs of someone who is bullying or has been bullied.

The AAP suggests that children who are physically aggressive tend to lack both social skills and empathy. A mentor can engage in discussions with their mentee about being empathetic, how to be compassionate, kind, accepting, respectful, caring and inclusive. A mentor can practice manners and etiquette with their mentee and discuss how to build strong and meaningful peer relationships. They can role play and talk through some of the traumatic situations that a mentee is experiencing. They can set realistic goals around improving negative behavior and celebrating success. Since a mentor is not a professional, they should seek advice and help from their mentor program staff.

We are making some progress with bullying prevention but there is substantial ground to cover. There is a dearth of research about the role of mentors in working with mentees that have experienced bullying or are bullies. However, there is some good news. Research indicates that peer mentors – that is, high school mentors mentoring younger students or college students mentoring high school students have been effective. This is promising news. Perhaps success with this population has basis in a question I ask frequently “Did you ever notice that most kids today would much rather talk to anyone else than their own parents?”  Youth look up to those who are older and often, those who are not too much older than themselves.