The Drama of Adolescent Aggression and Its Consequences

Bullying and Anti-Bullying Interventions

In Light of Symbolic InteractionTheory

~Tania Davidson

Since 2009, bullying in high schools has escalated in inci­dence and type. "Cyberbullying" is now a rising problem with adolescents due to the popular use of social media and ubiqui­tous use of cell phones in daily life. While bullying takes many forms, the players in this drama (bullies, victims and victim- bullies) suffer emotional and behavioral consequences that can lead to high risk acts of violence and lifelong aftereffects on identity and self concept. In childhood and adolescence, this can manifest as Conduct Disorder that often later be­comes Antisocial Personality Disorder, leading to criminally violent acts adults. Using George Herbert Mead's model (1934) as articulated by Herbert Blumer (1969) and ap­plied within a model for explaining the development of violent adult offenders by Professor Lonnie Athens (Violentization) (1980), bullying in adolescence can be viewed as a critical period to either derail future development of serious criminal disorders and behaviors or to enable them to escalate to their fruition. Identifying the highest risk adolescents for aggressive acts and using effective intervention strategies in the schools can reduce the incidence and contribute to promoting a non­violent social community. Programs in schools are examined and the most effective recommended for implementation to­ward the goal of not only preventing aggressive and violent behavior among youth, but in decreasing its incidence as they grow into adults. The social construction of identity and self concept in adolescence is described in light of these bullying experiences.

1. Introduction

During the course of researching and writing this article, another infamous event unfolded in the United States when the tragic shooting occurred in Newtown, Connec­ticut December 14, 2012 leaving 26 dead, including the youthful perpetrator. Given the history of mass murders within schools in the United States (Virginia Tech, 2007; Columbine, 1999, etc), and that of the 12 deadliest shootings in this country, 6 have taken place since 2007, it is an imminent public health and safety matter for mental health professionals to address. As children are witness to these acts, they are in turn affected in ways that can set the stage for their own mental health disorders, fa­mily dysfunction and the resulting societal costs as the cycle repeats itself.

School violence is certainly not a phenomenon limi­ted to the United States. In Canada, there are 10 nota­ble school shooting incidents, one of which occurred in Montreal in December 1989 that left 14 dead (Ecole Po- lytechnique). In Europe since 1980, there are 17 notable school shootings, the most egregious of which include the Dunblane Primary School in the UK (March 13, 1986, 18 dead), the Johann Gutenberg Gymnasium in Germany (April 26, 2002, 17 dead) and the Winnenden School in Germany (March 11, 2009, 16 dead). In South America, Asia and Oceania, there are 11 noteworthy school shoo­tings, the most recent of which were the two deadliest (Azerbaijan State Oil Academy, April 30, 2009, 13 dead; Realengo School, Brazil, April 7, 2011, 13 dead). These are only the sensational and rarer extreme events. The everyday, aggressive and violent bullying acts that occur in schools often go ignored, underreported and ineffec­tively addressed. However, it is in these social contexts that the seeds are sown for later violent behavior or emotional disorders that persist through adulthood.As a clinician who has specialized with adolescents and children for all 24 years of my career, I am always asked after such tragic events by others, "Why do these things happen? What causes people to do such things?" The answer is not a simple one, and not singular by any means. In all cases, there can be seen a progression of events, a "drama," that unfolds whose players include the child, their peer groups, adult authorities and the family that facilitate the creation of an emotional and cognitive structure that is manifested by malevolent social behaviors of various kinds (rule-breaking, so­cial norm violations, violating the rights of others, etc). These bullying patterns of behavior are often described as Conduct Disorder, in mental health diagnostic terms (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition-Text Revision, 2000).

2. Incidence and Type

"Bullying" is defined for research purposes as composed of three components: (1) peer-to-peer behavior that is intended to harm or disturb another person (2) behavior of this nature that is repeated over time and (3) within a situation where an imbalance of power exists between the perpetrator and victim (either physically or psycholo­gically). Internationally, incidence is reported anywhere from a low of 20% of adolescents in some countries to as high as 70% in others (Nansel et al., 2001). Incidence rates are difficult to ascertain because many of its vic­tims do not report bullying, fearing that it either would be ignored, or cause the bullying to increase. Males are by far more likely to be reported as both victims and per­petrators of bullying. The peak of bullying incidents is reported in the research to occur between middle and high school, during the transition. As high school age in­creases, the incidence reported decreases. It is generally accepted that at some point in school, most children will experience bullying at some level.

The types of bullying are varied and include direct (peer rejection, verbal ridicule, physical aggression) or indirect (spreading rumors, social exclusion, etc) and now Cyberbullying, which has become an ever-increa­sing problem (harassing posts on Facebook, Instagram, texts, etc). In all of these cases, bullying is a social phe­nomenon enacted in a peer group (James, 2010). Verbal abuse is the most common form of bullying with indi­rect ("relational" bullying) and physical bullying next in terms of frequency. Overall, the rates of indirect bullying are twice those of direct bullying. If male adolescents are involved in delinquent behaviors, the likelihood of being victims of direct bullying increases. Incidence of cyber- bullying is difficult to ascertain or measure depending on what is the unit of measure (each image or message, for example). In January, 2009, California passed legis­lation against cyberbullying in schools, following many other states' example. In 2006, the National Crime Pre­vention Council reported an incidence of 40% among U.S. teens experiencing cyberbullying. A well-publicized case in 2006 (though not the norm with regard to out­come) highlighted a 13-year old girl who committed sui­cide after a malicious cyber hoax perpetrated through MySpace. In my clinical practice, I frequently hear re­ports from adolescents about malicious texts, pictures being group-texted and malicious Facebook posts.

Although bullying appears to decline with the age of the adolescent, the resulting effects do not always decrease. Approximately two-thirds of deaths that are school-related are caused by other students. Students who have been shooters in schools have been identified as victims of bullying who then turned to bullying others themselves. This bully-victim is frequently identified in the literature as the most high risk group of potentially violent teens (Centers for Disease Control and Preven­tion, 2002; Stein et al., 2007; James, 2010). The bully- victims' externalized problem behaviors expose those in his peer group to greater risk of injury. They experience more academic performance and adjustment problems and are typically more socially isolated. These are the youth who often are diagnosed with Conduct Disorder and who are the most potentially dangerous.

3. The Results

All adolescent victims of bullying do not share the same aftereffects. There are resiliency factors for some teens (lower sensitivity to peer rejection and judging them­selves as having interpersonal competence, to name a few) which serve to mitigate the effects emotionally, academically and behaviorally for victims. These adole­scents have higher quality interactions and relation­ships with peers. They have superior social skills and this serves as a protective factor to bullying affecting their self-concept or any emotional aftereffects to go be­yond a transient experience (Masten et al., 2009). This resilience and response difference can be seen with neu- roimaging and measured.

However, adolescence is the developmental era in which peers and status among one's peers achieve the utmost importance in the development of core self be­liefs and the beginnings of identity formation. So, for adolescents who lack such resiliency to peer ridicule, assault or social exclusion, the psychological and phy­siological effects are well documented in the research. These symptoms include depression, anxiety, emotio­nal dysregularion, social withdrawal and more frequent illness/complains or somatic problems (Masten et al., 2009). Cruelly, then, those students who display emotio­nal symptoms are more likely to be the target of peer vic­timization of many types whether resulting from bullying already experienced or having existed independently of bullying (Turner, Finkelhor & Ormrod, 2009). The fre­quency and type of bullying (direct vs. indirect, repeated vs. intermittent) have different effects on teens' self es­teem and on their resulting behavior. For girls, repeated indirect bullying has a significant negative impact on their self esteem. For boys, intermittent indirect bullying appears to increase boys' risk of delinquent behavior (Carbone-Lopez et al., 2010).

Bullies, interestingly, share similar psychological dy­namics as do their victims. They share relational and emotional impairments, psychosomatic complaints and lack of self-confidence, though they do not share the de­pressive symptoms and pessimism of their victims (Me- land et al., 2010). Despite the increase in their conduct problems, bullies are generally psychologically stronger and, except in more extreme cases, enjoy greater social standing among their peers (Juvonen, Graham & Schu­ster, 2003). Victims tended to be socially marginalized, experiencing emotional distress, while the bully-victims fare poorly in all spheres: social, emotional and acade­mic.

4. Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic Interaction Theory, a concept derived from George Herbert Mead's (1934) teachings (unpublished) and his student, Herbert Blumer (1969)'s published works, describes how human beings develop a complex set of symbols to give meaning to our world (LaRossa &Reitzes, 1993). It is a model that describes how our social interactions (family, culture, community, peers) which form these symbols, create for humans a con­cept of larger social structure and of self concept. Self concept, once developed, provides a significant motive for behavior. Core principles of SIT include meaning (arising from social interaction, and as it is defined as "real," it becomes so along with its consequences), lan­guage (language is the source of meaning, the vehicle, and social meanings are attached to words) and thought (or "minding," our cognitions, interpretations of our per­ceptions, ability to assume the role of the "other" or the "generalized other" in how others perceive the individual based on their reactions to the individual). For Social Interactionists, the unit of analysis is the transaction. It is a socialization-based model that holds "roles" and the roles that are assumed by people as determinants of their behavior. These behavior principles describe, then, a theory of the self that can explain delinquent behavior, such as aggression and bullying. Mead believed that hu­mans form a specific sense of self largely from the re­flected appraisals of others (such as parents).

The Self then seen as rooted in social interaction (rat­her than global self esteem) is a complex system with multiple dimensions that provide a crucial link between self-control and social control. Delinquency, then, is in part determined by one's appraisals of self from the standpoint of others. A global sense of self esteem is one element of a multi-faceted self, but not an element that mitigates or predicts delinquent behavior (Wells, 1978). Instead, specific content/meaning of the self rele­vant to delinquent behavior such as an evaluation of the self as a "delinquent" vs. a "conformist," are much more important. Being seen as a "rule violator" has a signifi­cant effect on future acts of delinquency. Social interac­tions and the perception of others' view of self forms an important basis for self concept and self concept affects behavior.

5. Athens' Theory of Violentization

Drawing on symbolic interactionist theory, Lonnie Athens is a qualitative researcher studying the origins of malevolent, criminally aggressive behavior. His dyna­mic model detailing the development of a dangerous of­fender combines many disciplines and is one of the most clinically useful models of sociopathy and how a person develops through stages to become a threat to society. His model describes adolescence as an important time, in which this process can be interrupted and corrected, or allowed/facilitated to escalate. (Winton, 2011)

Athens focused on the SIT concepts of self image, symbols, social interaction, role-taking and the "actors'" interpretations of interactions with others. The issues of the "actor's" (perpetrator) interpretations of situations where they acted out, their self image while they were acting out and their self image throughout the course of the "criminal career" are the main foci. The model that Athens described to explain the creation of what psycho­logists would call "antisocial personality disordered in­dividuals" is in stages: (Athens, 1992, 2002)

Brutalization: a stage where one (a child, for exa­mple) is taught how to engage in violent behavior through observation and demonstration. This occurs in three types of experiences: violent subjugation, personal horrification and violent coaching. In cases of the "school bully," the actor (bully) may experience these events via their parent or other authority figure of importance in their lives. They learn ways to distort their interpretation of others' actions as threatening to them when that is not always the case. In cases of physically abusive homes or families where children are witness to domestic violence, these distortions carry credibility to support the distorted interpreta­tions.

Defiance: a stage where a belief system is presented to the person (child) that supports the use of violence to address a situation. Children learn that a means to dominate and control a threatening group (peers, for example) is to use violence or intimidation.

Violent Dominance Engagements: a stage where the person (child) begins to commit violent acts. In some cases, the "actor" (child) may be even punished for failing to behave violently (i.e. not "defending them­selves" in a fight that they provoked). The outcome of these acts is critical. If the reward in a school situ­ation is positive regard from peers (i.e. for "winning" a fight, being the "toughest"), material possessions (things taken by force from the victim) and the re­duced risk of being themselves a victim, this stage has been completed and escalates further. This is the point at which most traditional "bullies" exist. Virulency: a stage where the "actor" (bully) now de­fines themselves as "badass," "dangerous," and vi­olent. They now instill fear in those around them, and their self image is that of a violent person. They use aggression to control, humiliate, dominate and shame their victims, while avoiding these emotions themselves. This is the stage at which bully-victims who carry out violent behavior exist. They no longer have peer support of any kind, have poor social skills and act in ways that violate the norms of even the bully peer group (James, 2010). Even the toughest bullies now look at these youth as "out there," or "crazy" and this reflected attribution is adopted by the bully-victim as a self concept.

Extreme Virulency: a final stage where extreme acts of violence are carried out (such as school shootings, gang rape, etc.)

The young person who is going through these stages forms violent plans of action because they interpret their situation as such that violence is an appropriate manner for dealing with a perceived threat. Applying this model to the formation of Conduct Disorder in adolescents, and the resulting lack of remorse for their rule-violating and forcing their will on others in aggressive and violent me­ans, the role of how the community labels and responds to these adolescents becomes clear in its importance. Athens himself, a child from a violent home, who could have progressed through these stages himself, reco­gnized the critical importance of schools and school per­sonnel in the intervention process. Dr. Athens believed that in-school intervention programs could be effective for interrupting this progression and offering the teen al­ternate self image symbols, meanings and self concepts through the social interaction relationship.

6. School-Based Interventions to Prevent Bullying and Violence

A wide range of programs have been constructed and implemented in schools across the United States and abroad seeking to reduce school violence by stopping bullying behavior. Unfortunately, there has been a dis­proportionate amount of published research on the problem of bullying/aggression in schools rather than to the effectiveness of intervention efforts (Merrell & Isava, 2008). Interventions in schools have included cir­cle time, drama/role-play, group work, peer support/ed­ucation, restorative justice and support groups (James, 2010). Another program studied, entitled PeaceBuilders, produced only modest positive outcomes (increased social competence, decreased aggression) for the most high-risk students, but little effect for those medium and low risk (Vazsonyi, Belliston & Flannery, 2004). In ano­ther review of anti-bullying program interventions (men­toring, social skills training, whole-school approach, so­cial work support), results were again mixed. While many school-based programs reduced bullying, if multiple disciplines were involved, the outcomes were improved (Vreeman & Carroll, 2007).

A comprehensive meta-analysis review of research in anti-bullying programs by Merrell and Isava (2008) is one of the more thorough and far-reaching. The programs reviewed were chosen by strict criteria, there were large numbers of children as participants, it spanned a date range from 1980-2004 and involved European nations and the United States. They found that the majority of outcomes produced no meaningful change, positive or negative. For approximately one-third of the variables, there were clinically significant positive effects. What seemed to occur in these programs was that participants were influenced in their knowledge, attitudes and self- perceptions, but that actual bullying behaviors did not decrease as a result.

A program developed and supervised by Susan Swe­arer, PhD, a psychologist and bullying researcher at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln involves a three-hour program for the bullies. She states, "There's a connec­tion between bullying in elementary school and middle school and adult criminal behavior. We need to get these kids off that trajectory." With assistance and financial support from Washington, DC, psychologists are at the forefront of creating multi-tiered approaches addressing the underpinnings of bullying and working to create a school community that fosters peace. (Munsey, 2012).

Other psychologist-based programs such as Coping Po­wer, involve group therapy, role-play and conflict resolu­tion skills. However, groups in which aggressive children are together can become counter-productive and serve to reinforce the deviant behavior between the peers.

Other programs have included anonymous surveys to gather incidence rates. The Olweus Bullying Preven­tion Program developed by Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, PhD, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports are being studied currently to determine their efficacy, and involve training children's peer group to stand together against bullying.

As evidence-based anti-bullying programs continue to be reviewed and the effective elements parceled out, it is important that those of us who work with our youth whether in schools or in therapy rooms, are taking this issue seriously. In many cases, it takes only one caring "hand" of a helping professional developing a positive relationship with a troubled youth that derails a train that was headed to school failure, probation and jail, re­placing it with alternatives for their future. As those of us who work in a therapeutic relationship with our cli­ents know, it is in the relationship that the healing takes place.


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Tania Davidson, PsyD

Dr. Davidson has 24 years of clinical experience working with adolescents and

families, specializing in sexual trauma, affective disorders and parent-child

relationships. Dr. Davidson also treats adults with affective disorders and PTSD. Dr.

Davidson has taught on the University level in rural Alaska and has presented at

professional conferences and training programs.

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