Looking at bullying from a psychological perspective

By Nuskiya Nasar

Bullying is a serious problem that demands our attention. By understanding the psychology behind it, we can develop targeted solutions that will make a real difference.
The theory of bullying has been debated for many years. Some believe it is a form of aggression that is learned through observation and imitation. Others believe it is a result of a power imbalance.
Counselling psychologist Dulari Ranasinghe founded Mind Leap Counselling Services in order to provide individuals with the essential tools required to find their own personal ‘why’ in order to overcome their obstacles.
Counselling psychologist Tashya De Silva started Bright Minds LK with a mission to help individuals realise their full potential through awareness, provision of high-quality services, and resources for an inclusive, bright and productive life. Here’s what both these practising psychologists have to say about the psychology of bullying and its theory.

Q: Is there a connection between bullying and mental illness?

A: Tashya: Whilst there are various definitions, bullying is commonly referred to as a form of aggression that is intentional and repeated, often resulting in psychological harm. Research has shown that individuals who have experienced bullying as well as individuals who bully are both likely to experience depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Q: Is there a link between bullying and insecurity?

A: Dulari: There is mixed research around bullying and insecurity. While bullying might stem from the fear of social exclusion, insecurity can arise as a result of socio-economic status, poor academic performance, gender differences, and/or expectations from family/society. However, a study found that kids who were bullied were more likely to have a positive self-concept. Hence, there isn’t really any link between the two. 

Q: Are there any strategies to address the psychological harm caused by bullying and victimisation?

A: Tashya: Bullies and their victims can be vulnerable to a range of mental health challenges such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem. In such cases, therapy and counselling can be useful in helping them cope with these emotions and learn healthier ways of expressing themselves.
Sadly, bullies often come from a dysfunctional environment that exposes them to poverty, abuse, substance use, or neglect. In such cases, it’s essential to consider the safety of the child and remove them from this environment if necessary. In cases where it is not possible to remove a child from a stressful environment, it is important to at least equip them with the skills to navigate it in a more adaptive way.
Additionally, schools that focus on driving anti-bullying campaigns can be helpful, especially when awareness is created around the consequences for bullies, and more importantly the safety measures and support for victims. 

Q: From a psychological perspective, what is the actual theory behind bullying?

A: Tashya: Bullying is not simply a dyadic problem between a bully and a victim, but a group phenomenon, occurring in a social context in which various factors serve to promote, maintain, or suppress such behaviour.
Accordingly, a social-ecological framework is helpful in understanding school bullying. This theory conceptualises human development as a bidirectional interaction between individuals and the multiple systems in which they operate such as home, school, etc. This means that bullying is not just the result of individual characteristics, but is influenced by multiple relationships.

Q: How do children become bullies?

A: Dulari: Some children may have been neglected by parents due to arguments or divorce. They might turn to unhealthy behaviours such as bullying in an attempt to gain attention and feel accepted amongst peers. There is also substantial research supporting the influence of media on children’s bullying-related behaviours. Studies have shown that children who watch television and movies that glorify violence are more likely to engage in bullying and that playing violent video games reinforces these behaviours. 

Q: When an individual feels powerless in their own life, it may trigger bullying. What’s your take on this statement?

Dulari: It is difficult to isolate powerlessness alone as a trigger to bullying. Some individuals engage in bullying behaviour to control their surroundings and might be struggling with anxiety.
There are many risk factors at play when it comes to becoming a bully. These can include witnessing or experiencing abuse in the family environment, inability to regulate emotions, feelings of inadequacy or jealousy, and even being a victim of bullying. Therefore, recognising risk factors in the early stages of development and helping affected individuals adopt healthier behaviours can help prevent bullying behaviour later on.

Q: Bullies are more than twice as likely to experience Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD). What is your take on this statement?

A: Tashya: There is emerging research that shows a positive correlation between ADHD and bullying. Having ADHD is a risk factor for being bullied as certain characteristics such as poor social skills and impulsive behaviour are often targeted. Similarly, individuals with ADHD and low self-control often exhibit bullying behaviours.
This highlights that often bullies have unmet psychological needs. It is not that these individuals are ‘bad’ but it is a dysfunctional coping strategy for their own internal suffering.
Unfortunately, bullies are often disciplined with criticism, aggression, punishment, and physical violence which only exacerbates their psychological problems and is not an effective strategy.