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Some Bullies Just Want to Be Loved

As society gets more punitive in dealing with bullies, psychologists are trying to figure out what drives them to aggression.

Bullies have been an accepted, if unpleasant, part of childhood for generations. Although anti-bullying laws are increasingly common, and schools often have programs for dealing with bullies, this adolescent tyranny is traditionally left to resolve itself.

The resolution isn't always pretty, as in a recent Massachusetts case where nine students were charged with a teen's death in what has been called "bullycide." This week, Massachusetts became the 42nd state to sign anti-bullying legislation into law.

But why do some people feel compelled to act so aggressively in the first place? Two new studies find all bullies are not created equal.

A study from the Netherlands reported that some bullies are motivated by a need for affection and to gain status in the eyes of others.

The Dutch researchers also zeroed in on the bullies' targets and found that the weakest and least-liked classmates were easy victims for bullies. Researchers said the bullies saw those victims as a safe choice and would not offend the other students or diminish the bullies' personal status.

Meanwhile, a study in the journal Current Directions in Psychological Science focused on bullies who are afflicted with intense and painful shyness, a condition called "social anxiety disorder," or SAD. Instead of withdrawing and staying away from others, this subset of SAD sufferers was prone to aggression and high-risk behavior.

Study co-author Todd Kashdan, a George Mason University psychology professor, explained the characteristics of a bully with SAD. "If a bully fears being evaluated by other people, uncomfortable starting or maintaining conversations, lacks adequate skills for forming or retaining relationships and is anxious around other people for those reasons, these thoughts feelings and motives might explain why they are hostile, aggressive and defiant.

"If you think about it, a great strategy to avoid being rejected is to reject everyone else first. This allows for the illusion of being accepted, of being in control, of being the king lion or queen bee."

For treatment, Kashdan said the key is determining what motivates the bully.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

"If they have antisocial tendencies, where they lack empathy and remorse, we would proceed very differently in attempting to help the perpetrator change their behavior than if they were socially anxious, where they lash out at other people to avoid being rejected themselves.

"Bullies are not a homogeneous group of people with the same goals. If we can help them satisfy their need to belong and feel connected, their need for bullying will decline."

There is a difference in the way boys and girls behave as bullies. Female bullies focus on social isolation and constant denigration of the victim's clothes or family or ethnicity. Gossip, rumor-spreading, and pressuring others to avoid the victim are commonly used to cause pain.

For boys, the characteristics are a need to feel powerful and in control, enjoyment at the suffering of others, absence of empathy and blaming the victim. Also noted were antisocial behaviors such as quickness to anger, a need to continue to be aggressive, presuming the actions of others to be hostile and a preoccupation with self-image.

Dealing effectively with bullies in the school setting can be a matter of understanding what benefit the bullies derive from their behavior. "Bullies are often looking for reactions," Kashdan said. "Make it the norm that bullying is 'uncool.' It helps to look at the situation from the bully's perspective. Bullies are no different than other people. They have a basic need to belong and fit in."

But there are definite limits to what can and should be tolerated by the adults.

"Sometimes victims are being tortured, psychologically or physically," Kashdan said. "There are no excuses for this behavior and victims need to remember that it is unacceptable for adults to ignore or discount these behaviors."

Sometimes, the adults make a bad situation much worse for the victim by failing to intervene. "I have seen parents laugh bullying off ('boys will be boys'), I have seen teachers tell me they don't have the resources to pay attention to what goes on between kids, and I have seen school administrators say that it builds character."

Watching a friend become the target of a bully is a disturbing experience. Children who see someone else being bullied can be traumatized too, sometimes more than the direct victim. Witnesses were more likely to report greater distress than the bully or the victim and were more likely to turn to substance abuse.

Kashdan said that witnesses should not be passive in the face of bullying. "This is a testing ground for character and virtue. Courage is about standing up to wrongdoing even if it makes you uncomfortable. Everyone has some degree of responsibility. By not doing something, you are letting violence take precedence over tolerance, compassion and kindness. Few people want to live in a world with these convoluted values."