The most accessible stereotype of a bully would outline someone who indulges in physically aggressive behaviour, which can be traced back to potential self-esteem issues of the child. Bullying in school is more of a systemic problem. A lot has been written about the ways in which we can deal with it, but little is known about how a child becomes a bully. Moreover, it’s important to realise that the nature of aggressive behaviour has also changed over time. Hence, it’s not sufficient only to look out for actions that indicate physical violence, but also for implicit behaviour including manipulation and emotional violence.
One of the reasons why people bully is self-esteem issues, which drives students to exert control elsewhere in an attempt to compensate for their feelings of low self-worth. The idea of what makes a child become a bully, however, is more nuanced than that. It has been argued that children are blank slates and that their behaviour and actions are a reflection of their observations. Thus, children who may be growing up in an environment which legitimises aggressive behaviour such as domestic violence are more likely to physically or mentally harm others for their selfish needs. Moreover, the internalization of the fact that their victims do not always have the power to check their aggression further legitimizes bullying.
More recently, attention has shifted from the blunt and open aggressor to another more Machiavellian kind of bully, who manipulates people emotionally or mentally, to get their way. Children who fall into this category tend to have better social skills and interpersonal skills, which enables them to ‘turn off and turn on’ their bullying behaviour to suit their needs. These students attempt to create positive narratives about themselves even if it comes at the cost of pushing their peers down. This behaviour stems from students’ needs to be at the centre of attention and the lack of empathy for other people.The same tendency may also stem from students having a high need for achievement and power; which manifests in them being motivated to be better than their peers, irrespective of the cost. This has also been reflected in the representations of bullies in popular culture. Blair Waldorf from ‘Gossip Girls’, and Regina George in ‘Mean Girls’ climb their way to social power by putting others down, usually through blackmails and threats. They are seldom openly aggressive, and their subtle manipulation tactics differ from conventional understandings of bullying, despite having similar negative impacts on the victim.
Our education system often encourages this problematic behaviour by putting a premium on competition. It asks students to be the best at any cost, it acknowledges achievement without focusing on the means and fails to emphasise the importance of empathy and cooperation.
Dealing with bullying in schools requires interventions which seek to trace students’ motivations for engaging in bullying. Asking questions like “What are you getting from that? Why are you doing this?” would help educators understand internal conflicts that promote aggression. Secondarily, school systems should promote harmonious behaviour by encouraging cooperative learning, group work, and conflict resolution. Research suggests that schools which pay attention to connectedness and ensure that children feel a sense of belonging to their learning environment report fewer instances of bullying.
Therefore, bullying has both internal (need for achievement and power, weakening of physiological systems, lack of empathy) and external causes (observing aggressive role models or growing up in a hostile environment) and the behavior is often implicitly legitimized by school systems. It must be noted that aggression often progresses from bullying to homophobic name-calling, and even sexual violence. Given that aggressive impulses always find new manifestations and sources of channelization, it is extremely important for educational institutions to understand the causes of such behaviour and promote interventions for the same.