Taking a look at what drives bullies, and what can be done about it.
FIFTEEN-year-old Lee (not his real name) is familiar with school bullies – he was once a victim.
Lee, who was previously in charge of his school bookshop used to get harassed by several other students who would enter the bookshop and “mess things around”.
After several weeks, Lee reported the bullying to a teacher. The students were given penalty points, and they were not happy about it.
“They got angry, and started picking on me. Once I was with a friend, when we got surrounded by a group of them. They said they wanted me to pay.
“That day, when school was over, a big group of boys wanted to attack me while I was walking to my transport van. I was lucky the other students protected me,” says Lee, a student in Klang.
His parents lodged a police report.
The police went to the school to meet both parties and settled the issue.
While Lee has been fortunate to have his problem dealt with, many other students often suffer bullying in silence.
Why do bullies bully?
According to clinical psychologist Dr Ng Wai Sheng, bullying is essentially using one’s power or ability to intimidate and control another by fear.
“The bullying behaviour is not a new phenomenon, whether in human society or in the animal kingdom.
“In fact, it’s a real temptation to not bully when we have the opportunity to do so to a seemingly ‘weaker’ party, without consequence,” says Dr Ng, in an email interview.
She adds that it is interesting to note that while bullying can be a pre-meditated behaviour with malicious intent for some, it is more often an opportunistic behaviour, where one finds an “easy target” and somehow thinks that he can get away with it.
“Once this behaviour is rewarded by him seeing the target’s hurt or fearful reactions, the bully is reinforced to repeat the same behaviour, expecting to see a similar response. Gradually, this can become one’s pattern of functioning, where he learns that he can get what he wants by intimidating and controlling others by fear,” she explains.
The inclination to bully, she says, can be seen among children as young as those in primary schools, and can happen among both boys and girls.
Bullying among boys is usually more physical, and it may often appear as though only boys engage in bullying behaviour, as cuts and bruises are more easily recognisable.
However, bullying among girls is in fact more vicious, but more covert.
“Girls tend to employ relational and emotional bullying, aimed at hurting someone’s feelings, reputation and social relationships. They can do this by spreading rumours, writing offensive remarks or socially embarrassing or isolating someone. With the ease of using social media like Facebook and YouTube, cyber bullying is also becoming more prevalent.
“This type of bullying is subtler but has greater adverse effects to the social-emotional development of a child or adolescent,” says Dr Ng, who has served in various settings including academic, social services, community health, and inpatient and outpatient psychiatric settings.
She adds that bullies are not born overnight, and to understand why a child bullies, there are two things to consider.
“We need to consider their two primary contexts - home and school. Who is the ‘bully’ at home? Very often, particularly in cases of severe bullying, we would find someone in the family who acts like a ‘bully’ at home (such as a grandparent, parent, or a sibling).
“As a result, the child learns to model after such behaviour to get his way. Or he channels his hurt and frustration on the weaker children in school,” she says.
As for schools, overemphasis on students who are academically stronger, while neglecting the weaker ones, could unknowingly promote bullying behaviour.
“School authorities who choose to tolerate, or even cover up, bullying and extortion practices in or just outside the school compound can lead to students feeling unsafe and unprotected when going to school.
“Some may resort to using bullying behaviours to fend for themselves against any perceived threats, while those who have been victimised in the past may also use violence to retaliate,” Dr Ng says.
According to Childline project director Michelle Wong, of the total 5,803 contacts (calls and e-mail) Childline received last year, she says, about 70% were made by those under 18 years. A total of 123 contacts were about bullying.
So what can be done about it?
Two things that can help determine whether bullying stops or continues, depends very much on what happens during and after bullying, Dr Ng says.
“Whenever a bystander takes some action to object to the bullying, at least 50% of the time the bullying stops. In other words, every bystander has the power to either promote (or allow) the bullying to continue, or to potentially stop the bullying, and even influence the other bystanders to object as well.
It is also important that children feel safe enough to disclose to their parents, guardians, or teachers, if they have been bullied in school. Those who are unable to do so, for whatever reason, are at a greater risk of being bullied.”
The response towards the bully is also critical.
“Ideally, parents are to remain calm and supportive to the victim, as well as treat the bully fairly.
“The teachers’ response can be potentially healing or hazardous towards the situation. Public shaming or physical punishment of the bully may stop the bullying temporarily, but often, these methods only serve to anger the bully and make him better at covering his track. On the other hand, when teachers are able to intervene appropriately, both to help the victim and the bully, the other students would also feel safer,” says Dr Ng.
Wong adds that in every bullying case, it’s not the just victim who needs help, but the bully as well.
“People forget that in these cases, the bully himself is also a child, and he likely has more issues to deal with the victim. He also needs help,” she says.
Crime Watch is an initiative by The Star in partnership with PDRM, supported by the Government Transformation Programme.
By LISA GOH firstname.lastname@example.org