By John S. Tamerin, M.D.
Bullying is a pervasive, serious problem with long lasting consequences; it’s not just a natural part of growing up. The American Medical Association (AMA) and its partners on the Commission for the Prevention of Youth Violence have identified bullying and being bullied as warning signs for violence. Major medical associations have made bullying a significant focus of concern.
Simply stated, bullying is aggressive behavior that is intended to cause harm or distress and which occurs repeatedly over time. Traditionally, people think of bullying as being physical. However, bullying also may involve words. Verbal bullying involves taunting, teasing and name calling, and in today’s world is widespread on the internet.
What are the distinguishing features of bullies? Researchers have identified several general characteristics of children or adolescents who bully their peers regularly. These children tend to have impulsive, hot-headed, dominant personalities; are easily frustrated; have difficulty conforming to rules; and view violence in a positive light. Bullies have an extraordinary inability to empathize with their victims. Indeed they enjoy inflicting pain on others.
Amateur psychologists may wish to believe that bullies are merely insecure individuals with low self-esteem. Research suggests the opposite. Bullies have at least average and often above average self-esteem. In addition, researchers have found bullying behavior is related to other antisocial behaviors such as lying and stealing. Emerging research on the victims of bullying reveals that children with disabilities are the most likely targets of bullying.
A common myth is that “children who bully are loners.” In fact, research indicates that children who bully are not socially isolated and have an easier time making friends than their peers. They tend to have a circle of friends (a.k.a. “henchmen”) who support their bullying behavior.
These findings suggest that effective interventions must focus not only on bullies but on bystanders who support the bullying (either actively or passively). Bullies feel encouraged by other students watching and laughing when they pick on their victims; therefore, we need to get students and adults to stop being passive bystanders.
Bullying tends to thrive in schools where teachers, other staff, and students have indifferent or accepting attitudes toward bullying. Bullies require an audience. There isn’t much satisfaction in bullying unless the bully has an audience to see what he is doing and to give him some of the gratification he seeks. There is no question that an audience facilitates the bullying, whether they cheer the bully on or merely turn a blind eye.
Does any of this sound familiar? In addition, bullying promotes intense grandiosity with heightened feelings of personal power, and bystanders enjoy it vicariously. It is rather like Romans going to the Colosseum to be entertained by watching slaves and early Christians literally eaten by lions. This practice was known as “damnatio ad bestias.” The victims were wrapped in animal skins and thrown to dogs but later, larger animals provided greater entertainment. Those who survived the first animal attacks were either brought back out for further exposure to the beasts or executed in public by a gladiator.
In 2010 The US Department of Education declared the goal of eliminating bullying from schools. In many states, schools will be denied No Child Left Behind funding if they fail to demonstrate that they have guaranteed student safety from bullying.
All of this makes a great deal of sense in a country committed to protecting the innocent from the vicious. But as Hamlet famously said: “aye, there’s the rub!” We may be about to elect as the President of the United States a man who embodies all of the characteristics of a bully.
We are not only condoning his behavior but encouraging it by enjoying the spectacle of Trump ridiculing his opponents. Whether we are actively attending a rally or more passively enjoying watching a television debate where Trump humiliates his opponents with a sarcastic comment or a vicious “one liner” we are validating his behavior.
If we condone, or are amused and even stimulated and excited by this behavior like spectators at a prize fight or dog fight then why should we expect our children and high school students to adhere to a higher standard? Indeed it is hypocritical of us to decry bullying behavior in children as we applaud it in a Presidential candidate.
It is a rather bitter irony that Americans may soon elect as president a man whose daily bullying behavior manifests and is the antithesis of what we claim to want in our schools. How can we possibly expect bullying to stop among children and adolescents when we as adults seem not only attracted to in on TV but eager to vote for this man to lead our nation in times of war and peace.
I guess this is the lesson people will be teaching their children when they vote to elect Citizen Trump President of these United States! Perhaps before voting for Trump we might consider the words of Thomas Jefferson author of our Declaration of Independence who said “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance” or “In matters of style, swim with the current. In matters of principle, stand like a rock.”
Yes, Trump has a huge personality and is very entertaining like many caustic comedians, but personality is far different from character. Perhaps if he is going to be our next president he should begin by working on his character by taming his animal instincts rather than exalting in them. Perhaps a little humility might be relevant or to quote Jefferson again: “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”
Dr. John S. Tamerin lives and practices psychiatry in Greenwich. He is a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the Cornell/ Weill School of Medicine.