Psychologist: You can’t ignore bullying

Bullying in adolescence may be a common experience, but one that can leave lifelong scars on its victims.

“Bullying is a very significant issue all over the world, even more so in the United States, because the research suggests that more of that happens here than in anyplace else,” said Richard Schere, Ph.D., a La Jolla-based psychologist with extensive experience with adolescents.

And, he said, it’s something that requires intervention by parents and school officials.

Schere said research indicates 70 percent of boys and 80 percent of girls have experienced bullying, and as many as 10 percent of children are chronic victims.

Bullying, Schere said, begins in elementary school, increases in junior high, peaks in high school and dissipates as adolescents enter adulthood.

As for what causes one to bully, Schere, who has counseled both bullies and victims, said bullies frequently have been victims of bullying, often in the form of harsh parental treatment.

Victims are often children who are physically different from their peers, or those who do not meet traditional standards of masculinity or femininity. Chronic victims can become extremely traumatized, even to the point of believing the stereotypes used against them, Schere said.

Effects on youth

“They often isolate themselves, they become very anxious and depressed, and some of them commit suicide … but the most horrific thing, in some cases the victims build up such a rage that they explode with the need for revenge,” Schere said. He added that the perpetrators of school shootings often have been bullying victims.

Principals at La Jolla High and Muirlands Middle School have said they deal promptly with reports about bullying.

One woman who lives near the school said she has seen many fights and had to call school officials and police when she saw a boy being beaten. The attackers, she said, were videotaping and cheering during the incident.

She called police and school officials, who responded promptly. The teens ran off before they could be apprehended.

But one La Jolla parent, who asked to remain anonymous, talked about her son being harassed and physically bullied at Muirlands Middle School. There were days he missed school because he didn’t feel safe, she said.

Although her son no longer attends the school, she remains unhappy about how the situation was handled.

“He continues to be harassed about the situation, and it’s really affected him academically,” she said. “It’s destroyed his focus, and he’s not enjoying the experience.”

Aside from familiar methods of physical bullying and emotional bullying, new forms of technology can be problematic because bullies can remain anonymous or impersonate others.

Different levels

As for why bullying is more pervasive in our culture than elsewhere, Schere said, “There are two levels of the problem. One has to do with what’s going on inside of kids, especially in adolescence. And the other problem is we have kind of a moral crisis in this country that we’ve had for a while, that feeds bullying behavior.”

According to Schere, American culture highly values machismo and competition. Although the women’s movement has enabled girls to have many more choices and rights, “one of the problems is that the balance is moving toward male behavior,” he said.

While it has become acceptable for women to be strong and assertive, it has not become equally acceptable for men to be sensitive, he explained. As a result, our culture has become lacking in the so-called feminine values such as compassion, empathy and nurturing. The media also emphasizes violence, which desensitizes people to its effects.

Bullying also results from emotional needs teenagers have.

“There is first of all a very strong pull at this stage to achieve what they perceive as the expectations,” Schere said.

For example, he said, in affluent communities like La Jolla, there is pressure to get good grades and get into the “right” colleges, where in more impoverished settings the pressure may be on appearing tough.

Teenagers also want to belong or fit in. “The need to fit into a group, the need to not be excluded, a lot of these things relate to bullying. For example, one negative way that you can get into a group is that you push others out … there’s also a very strong need to hide perceived weaknesses that most teens feel very fragile about,” Schere said.

“In addition, there’s a very strong pressure to meet the presumed gender standards, the boys to be John Wayne and the girls to be hot and sexy and to have boyfriends, and they may do some very inappropriate things to achieve this,” Schere said.

Changing behaviors

Adolescence also marks physiological changes in young people that can affect behavior. Schere said teenagers experience much hormonal activity, which can produce strong sexual feelings that often require a physical outlet. Their prefrontal lobes in the brain are also not fully developed, affecting logical thinking, he noted.

Schere emphasized the need for authority figures like teachers and administrators to intervene.

Youngsters need to understand bullying won’t be tolerated, enabling them to learn right from wrong, he said.

Also, although the victim needs counseling to recover from their trauma and to learn to see their own value, bullies need treatment also to learn appropriate social interaction and anger management skills.