Being Bullied, Or Being the Bully?

Experts say the characteristics of bullies and the victims of bullies are strikingly similar.

By Christiane Cordero
|  Tuesday, May 13, 2014  |  Updated 11:55 PM EDT
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The line between bullying and being bullied can become very blurry. The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters examine how students and schools view this issue. Len Besthoff reports...

The line between bullying and being bullied can become very blurry. The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters examine how students and schools view this issue. Len Besthoff reports...

While many adults talk to kids about how to handle bullies, many don't acknowledge which kids have characteristics of potential bullies.

Justin is an 18-year-old high school senior and knows firsthand the damage kids face against bullies. He has triumphed from his past, but his unmistakably shaggy hair and bright red lipstick suggest he’s struggled getting to this point.

“I’ve always been targeted, because I’m different” Justin said.

Justin represents less than five percent of the U.S. population in the LGBT community. However, his story resonates with many kids who also feel different and have felt victimized by peers in and out of the classroom.

Another student, who wanted to remain anonymous, shares the same feeling of victimization, although her story differs from Justin’s. Her problems started with a misunderstanding on the athletic field. That conflict eventually spiraled out of control.

“It was a lot of words and name-calling,” she said. “Rumors also, between kids in the class I don’t even talk to.”

Her situation and Justin’s journey of self-acceptance show there are different types of bullying.

Dr. Laura Saunders works as a child psychologist at Hartford Hospital. She says conflicts with peers are in our instincts, but often times kids don’t realize they’ve taken it too far.

“All individuals, starting with children, get involved with conflicts,” Saunders said. “The difference is, is the intent to just win someone’s favor or is it really to harm someone in that you’re taking over a power differential?”

People thrive on climbing the social ladder, according to Saunders. Because of that, bullies and victims have more similarities than we might think.

“There’s actually a sub-category called the bullying victim,” Saunders said. “It’s not uncommon that someone who has been bullied in the past then goes on to become a bully.”

Signs to look for in both bullies and victims include mood swings, a change in grades and a sense of insecurity.

Since kids don’t react the same way adults do when they lack power and control, they’re more likely to overcompensate, Saunders says. If a kid takes out frustration on others at home, chances are, they do the same at school.

Devin is a high school freshman and although he doesn’t consider himself a bully, he admits he’s gotten in trouble for something he has said to someone.

“We’ll go back and forth with each other with something we’re wearing or something,” said Devin.

Although his conflicts start out small, they escalate quickly and sometimes turn into physical fights.

Devin wants to be a mechanical engineer. He too gets upset when people pick on him. In fact, when you ask him to describe himself, his answer might surprise you.

“I’m smart and could be caring,” said Devin. “Funny, outgoing, and I like a lot of attention.”

Like most 15-year-olds, loving attention sometimes gets him in trouble.

“There’s a laughing audience,” said Devin. “So if you get the most people to laugh then the other person lost, basically.”

While Devin clearly is no exception to giving in to social hierarchy, Saunders insists our instinct to be better than our peers doesn’t justify overly aggressive behavior.

“I don’t like the philosophy of ‘boys will be boys,’” said Saunders. “Where we say ‘This is just what kids do, so it’s okay.’”

Connecticut takes bullying very seriously, and has taken action against acts of meanness. This includes the implementation of school climate surveys, where administrators monitor how safe students feel on campus.

Meriden Public Schools send out climate surveys twice a year. They use them to find possible victims, while also scanning for aggressive behavior.

“So what we’re looking at is patterns over time,” said Meriden Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Mark Benigni.

If a student shows increased aggression in his or her responses, a school psychologist will reach out, according to Benigni.

“I think that’s how we can prevent bullying behaviors by reaching out before students get there,” he said.

Saunders suggests parents do the same, by teaching kids how to redirect their aggression.

“Just like we’re trying to teach them academic skills, we need to teach them social skills and life skills,” said Saunders. “Because that’s what translates to getting along later in life -- because you have conflicts.”

Experts, like Saunders, say its important to address bullying at its source early by reevaluating how kids treat each other in different social interactions. By doing so, kids can be empowered to come forward before it becomes a big problem, which typically results in someone getting hurt.

“This is bullying,” said Justin. “And this is a problem.”

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