When the Bullied Becomes the Bully (You Can’t Punch Up, So You Punch Down)

When the Bullied Becomes the Bully (You Can’t Punch Up, So You Punch Down) February 26, 2013

A study from JAMA Psychiatry, as reported in Time, looks at the effects of bullying in school into adulthood, from the perspective of all parties involved, the bullied and the bullies themselves.
First, I’ll say that I’m always glad to see any recognition that bullying has long-term effects, as I’ve lived my life being told that “it was all in the past,” that “everyone goes through it,” and that one should just “get over it.” But of course that’s nonsense. Here’s the study’s author, William Copeland of Duke University:

What this study really suggests is that what goes on at school, and what goes on between peers, may be just as important in understanding their long-term function as what goes on at home. In childhood, when kids are in school, they spend a lot more time with their peers than they do with their parents so we should not be so surprised about this.

It’s hard for me to imagine that this has not always been obvious. Anyway. From the article:

After controlling for family hardships that might also make these mental health issues more likely, the researchers found distinct patterns of psychiatric problems that distinguished the bullies from their victims. Victims of bullying were nearly three times as likely to have issues with generalized anxiety as those who were not bullied, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, or agoraphobia, in which they felt trapped or had no escape, compared to those who were spared bullying.

No surprises to me, there, but again, it’s validating to see it backed up by science. Indeed, all those symptoms are very, very familiar to me even today, especially after some unpleasantness that was visited upon me a couple of years ago.

Bullies themselves showed a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorder as adults compared to those who did not bully others . . .

I have to admit, my first reaction to the topic of troubles for those who did the bullying was “boo-hoo, poor babies.” But of course, this kind of behavior rarely occurs in a vacuum, and there are likely situations in which these bullies are growing up that encourage bullying or make a kid feel compelled to it. Which leads us to this…

. . . and children who reported being both bullies and victims seemed to fare the worst of all; these participants showed a nearly five times greater risk of depression as young adults compared to those who had not both given and received bullying behavior, and a 14.5 times greater risk of having a panic disorder. These effects also showed some gender differences; women had a dramatically higher risk, at nearly 27 times, of having agoraphobia, while men showed an 18.5 times greater prevalence of suicidal tendencies.

I had never even thought about this as a category, but it makes a lot of sense as I think back to those ugly days. Imagine: In desperation to avoid being bullied, or to make up for it in the eyes of your peers or in your own sense of self, you yourself turn to bullying someone else. In other words, since you find yourself unable to punch up, you opt to punch down.

I even found myself in a similar circumstance. As the lowest kid on the totem pole, I at times managed to befriend some less-reviled kids in middle and high school. But I also remember feeling so terrified of being socially demoted back to the bottom, that I’d single out those few kids who I perceived to be a notch under me, even if they had at one point been my friends, and haplessly find ways to lift myself up by singling them out. I never “bullied” per se, but I did make a handful of bungled attempts at teasing, which always backfired and wound up making me look worst of all. Which, in those cases, was just.

So anyway, I get it: the middle-ground. According to the study, I would have been better off to stay at the base of the totem pole, hunker down, and bear those years with a little more character.

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