October was National Bullying Prevention Month, a time to reflect on the trials and tribulations of childhood, and how early, deep scars can haunt our adult experience. A recent Child Trends blog addressed this issue through the lens of a once bullied boy, now a man reflecting on his own situation and wondering about the plight of his “tormentors.”
The writer has grown up to “lead a normal life,” while one of his bullies is dead. While the dramatic outcome may not be common, it highlights the spectrum of outcomes associated with the labels of victim and bully. For both bullies and victims, some will fit into society as resilient adults, and some will not.
Children on both ends of the bullying spectrum are at developmental risk. While much media attention focuses on the victim, their social isolation, low levels of self-esteem, depression, educational failure, and even suicide; research also shows that the future of bullies is also in jeopardy.
Children who bully are more likely to be involved in the criminal justice system and to experience psychiatric problems and substance abuse. Predictive models of bullying behavior isolate intra-personal, interpersonal, academic, and family risk factors. This research suggests that bullies themselves may also be victims. (1)
While there are no excuses for the devastating behavior that is “bullying,” there are also no benefits to labeling children who may be struggling with their own insecurities and inabilities to effectively navigate their social world. On the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services website devoted to Stop Bullying there is a conscious and careful devotion to terminology. There are no bullies and victims, but rather children who bullied or children who are bullied. This focus reaffirms the power of negative labels. Children who are called “bad” often begin to identify that way, self-fulfilling those roles and behaviors.
While we can’t prevent all the causes and consequences of bullying, we have an obligation to our children to try. Research guides the practice of prevention in schools, as places both where victimization can occur and where preventative curricula can be applied. As states like Massachusetts develop and implement anti-bullying programs, there is an opportunity to include universal (to all children) and primary (early in a child’s life) social development models that re-frame the focus from anti-bullying to the promotion of compassion, empathy and diversity. (2)
One such program is Peace Through Play, a Northeastern University student-led organization working to create a culture of peace and counter the cycle of youth violence that pervades some Boston communities. The student volunteers utilize educational games as an interactive teaching method, integrating direct experiences and student responses from each game to emphasize skill building, socio-emotional learning and self-identity awareness.
While the games are not directly disseminating an “anti-bullying” curriculum, the playful and peaceful focus empowers all youth towards a culture of understanding and compassion. Abandoning negative language and labels, Peace Through Play volunteers work to establish pro-social roles that foster resilience and seek to diminish the chance that any adult will have to reflect on their childhood bully.
Emily Mann is an Associate Academic Specialist in the Human Services Program at Northeastern University. She received a bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the State University of New York at Geneseo, a Master’s of Science in Social Work, and a Ph.D. in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied the effects of early intervention on delinquency prevention. Dr. Mann spent two years as a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Clinical Research Training Program (CRTP) at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education, and was also a National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellow. Dr. Mann’s teaching and research focuses on educational interventions and academic and social functioning.
Nick Pierson is an undergraduate student at Northeastern University, and a candidate for a degree in biochemistry. He is the Director of Program Development and Assessment for Peace-Through Play. In his role as a volunteer, Nick has been in classrooms across the Boston area ranging from Dorchester to Cambridge. He has been involved in education internationally, as well as working as a science Teaching Assistant in the International School of Bremen. While working internationally, he worked in both a high school, teaching science, and in an elementary school, teaching socio-emotional awareness and leadership skills. He hopes to one day find a career researching the genetics and biochemistry of social problems and mental illnesses.
 Cook, C., Williams, K. R., Guerra, N. G., Kim, T., & Sadek, S. (2010). Predictors of childhood bullying and victimization: A meta-analytic review. School Psychology Quarterly, 25, 65-83.http://apa.org/pubs/journals/releases/spq-25-2-65.pdf
 Demaray, M. (2003). Perceptions of the Frequency and Importance of Social Support by Students Classified as Victims, Bullies, and Bully/Victims in an Urban Middle School. School Psychology Review, 32(3), 471-489.