Why I Taught Myself to Never Smile at School
By the time I began high school, I endeavoured to never show emotion on my face, and especially not positive emotions like happiness or joy. I’d learnt in my years of prior schooling that if you looked happy it made you a target by people who would tear you down. As a boy, much of the bullying I faced was threat of violence, which I avoided through speed and agility. The cutting remarks and insults, though? Those were harder to dodge.
Like many schoolkids, childhood bullying was a regular occurrence during my schooling years. I’m not sure if the bullying was worse in primary school than in high school—possibly (AIHW, 2022)—or if I’d developed strategies to deal with it (or maybe it was moreso because the music teacher let me work in the music block during break times so I didn’t have to go out and subject myself to the bullies). Whatever the reason, I don’t look back fondly at school or childhood generally, and still feel the aftereffects of childhood bullying decades later.
In discussions on this topic, like over at Reddit on the subreddit r/amitheasshole, where people can tell their stories and be judged on whether they were ‘the asshole’ in a given situation or not, there seems to be a very clear split in opinions between those who were bullied and those who were not:
- victims of bullying bear the trauma long-term and do not wish to have anything to do with their former bullies (or may wish to or actually carry out acts of revenge against them, for example recommending to their boss not to hire someone on character grounds)
- people fortunate enough to have never been bullied feel that the victims of bullying should ‘be the bigger man’ (as the expression goes) and forgive and forget, and maybe befriend them (and victims are bad people if they choose not to forgive their tormentors because it was ‘so long ago’ and ‘they’ve moved on’—the bullies, that is).
Bullying is accurately referred to as “predatory aggression” (Coloroso, 2004) because of the way bullies seek out ‘prey’ and torment them. It causes many long-term problems that affect children long after childhood’s end (Armitage, 2021).
The World Health Organisation classes childhood bullying as “a major public health problem” that directly contributes to detrimental “social and educational outcomes” for younger people and problems in adult health, both physical and mental (Armitage, 2021). These effects have been known for decades.
The mental and emotional toll of bullying, even decades into adulthood, can include paranoia (Campbell & Morrison, 2007; Catone et al, 2015; Jack & Egan, 2018), anxiety, depression (Armitage, 2021; Jack & Egan, 2018; Jadambaa et al, 2020) and even lead to suicide (Armitage, 2021).
Research shows that bullying often leads to an increase in paranoid thoughts which results in an “overestimation of threat” and perception of threats that might not actually be present in social situations (Jack & Egan, 2018). This can result in victims finding social settings stressful and uncomfortable, long after the bullying has ceased.
WHO GETS BULLIED
Across the world, “one in three children” will have experienced bullying in the past month. The type and frequency differs from place to place, but the overall world-wide numbers work out to one in three (Armitage, 2021). According to a report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2022), 42% of the children recorded in the research data for the year 2019 had been bullied in the previous month.
A key criterion of victims is the sense that they are ‘different’ in some way (Armitage, 2021). Some specific types of ‘different’ are:
- children who do not conform to gender expectations (Armitage, 2021)
- children who are gay or lesbian, bisexual, trans, intersex, non-binary, ace-spec, etc. (Rivers et al, 2018)
- children who are not neurotypical, especially those with autism (Hoover & Kaufman; Jack et al, 2018)
- children who are not of the local majority ethnicity or nationality, including immigrant children in particular (Armitage, 2021)
On the harm front, the suicide rate of young LGBT+ people is vastly higher their non-LGBT+ peers (Rivers et al, 2018). Also, when it comes to bullies targeting children based on their looks and aesthetics, girls suffer the most (Armitage, 2021).
WHY BULLIES BULLY
The main reason bullies bully can be summed up in a single word: contempt. The bully doesn’t even have to be enraged or need to have previously clashed with a victim, it’s “a powerful feeling of dislike toward somebody considered to be worthless, inferior or undeserving of respect” (Coloroso, 2004).
Coloroso (2004) spells out the three ingredients of bullies as having a “sense of entitlement”, “intolerance towards differences” and “a liberty to exclude”, or put more simply, “bullying is arrogance in action.”
Just who can be considered ‘beneath’ the bully and therefore worthy of victimhood is based upon the prejudices taught and learned in the bully’s household, community and schooling environment. Any element of a person, including their beliefs, physical or mental capabilities, or demographics can and will be used to fuel this feeling of contempt enough to make a potential target into a real one (Coloroso, 2004).
Coloroso (2004) lays out the attributes all bullies possess:
- an enjoyment of the domination of others
- an enjoyment of using people to achieve their own ends
- a lack of empathy, of being able to think of what it is like to be the person they’re victimising
- only thinking of what they want, not what others want
- the habit of hurting children when authority figures are not able to witness it
- perceiving “weaker siblings or peers” as targets or “prey”
- projecting “their own inadequacies” onto their victims (including the use of “blame, criticism, and false allegations”)
- never accepting that they are responsible for what they do
- a severely limited ability to think about the consequences of their actions
- a need to be noticed
Apathy of peers is a contributing factor toward bullying, as one study (Cross et al, 2009) revealed bystanders witnessed 87% of instances of bullying and refused to intervene.
TYPES OF BULLYING
A key part of the relationship between a bully and their victim is that a disparity in power levels exists in their relationship, and that the bullying happens repeatedly, not just once. There is a wide range in not only the methods of bullying, but also how regularly it occurs and how aggressively it manifests.
On the lower end is teasing and calling someone unpleasant names and progressing upward in severity in no particular order are verbal abuse, “social abuse” (using social dynamics to bully a person indirectly through peer networks) and physical violence. The more the bullying is repeated, the more power the bully gains as their victims lose theirs along with their ability to defend against the attacks (Armitage, 2021).
Some categories of bullying are “direct physical, direct verbal and indirect bullying”, but in recent decades cyberbullying has become a new weapon in bullies’ arsenals (Armitage, 2021).
Broadly speaking, using a two-gender model (as such research typically employs), some trends can be seen:
- direct physical bullying is normally done by boys and against boys (Armitage, 2021)
- girls are more likely to be victimised by direct verbal and indirect forms of bullying (Armitage, 2021)
- girls who bully most commonly use indirect, covert, and emotional forms of bullying (Armitage, 2021; Crick & Grotpeter, 1995)
TYPES OF BULLIES
Coloroso (2004) denotes seven types of bullies.
The Confident Bully:
- has a “big ego”
- has an “inflated sense of self”
- has a “sense of entitlement”
- has a “penchant for violence”
- has “no empathy for [their] targets”
- “feels a sense of superiority over others”
- is admired by teachers and peers because of sheer power of personality
The Social Bully
- employs “rumour, gossip, verbal taunts and shunning” to methodically isolate their victims and manipulates social dynamics to ensure groups of peers freeze victims out of social participation
- is “jealous of others’ positive qualities”
- has a “poor sense of self”
- disguises their “insecurities in a cloak of exaggerated confidence and charm”
- is “devious and manipulative”
- is capable of pretending to be a person who cares for others but in actual fact lacks empathy
- “may be popular” among peers
The Fully Armoured Bully
- seems “cool and detached”
- presents “little emotion”
- is extremely motivated in seeking out victims and victimising them
- bullies when no one in authority can see them doing it
- while “vicious and vindictive” as a bully, can use their charisma to fool authority figures into believing they are innocent
- possesses a “flat affect” of “cold and unfeeling demeanour”, however in truth it’s because they’ve buried their feelings deep down
The Hyperactive Bully
- is overly challenged by school learning
- has “poorly developed social skills”
- can misread “social cues”
- often incorrectly intuits “hostile intent” from peers’ actions
- without much provocation, responds with aggression
- has difficulty establishing and maintaining friendships
The Bullied Bully
- is a victim of bullying or abuse
- ‘pays forward’ the abuse to escape their “feelings of powerlessness and self-loathing”
- of all the types of bullies, is the “least popular”
- viciously attacks people who hurt them, as well as “weaker or smaller targets”
The Bunch of Bullies
- consists of not one individual but a “group of friends” who as a group bully people they never normally would as individuals
- typically regarded as “nice” by others
- are aware their actions cause harm and are wrong but when acting as a collective disregard those feelings
The Gang of Bullies
- are the worst of the worst
- are not a group of friends but a “strategic alliance in pursuit of power, control, domination, subjugation, and turf”
- have members who might at first join the ‘gang’ to feel a sense of kinship and a desire for respect and protection
- put the goals of the group before their own self-preservation
- have no regard for the pain and suffering they cause
- have an absence of “empathy and remorse”
HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE BULLYING?
Research in Australia suggests that parents of schoolchildren who have not been bullied are more likely to believe their school is equipped and capable of reducing or ending bullying, a sentiment not shared by parents whose children have been bullied at school, who harbour much more pessimistic views (Rigby, 2019).
In an Australian context, many teachers feel they are not adequately trained and equipped to deal with effectively identifying and dealing with bullying behaviour (Rigby & Johnson, 2016), especially the covert forms (Cross et al, 2009), however it is those very teachers in schools that parents are relying on to solve the problem (AIHW, 2022; Rigby, 2019). Many times, the victims themselves won’t tell their parents or other adults about the bullying for fear it won’t help or could make the situation worse (Rigby, 2019). So too, many parents don’t know how to best deal with children who are being bullied beyond reporting it to the school since the vast majority of childhood bullying occurs within school grounds (RCHM, 2018).
To this day there is a lack of appropriate mechanisms to manage and refer bullies and the bullied to relevant health professionals for assessment and treatment. Many systems currently in place around the world are usually not based on evidence and radical changes are needed if the harm to children and to their later adult selves is to be reduced (Armitage, 2021).
Anti-bullying programmes, based on research and evidence, must be properly implemented and undertaken on “school-wide” bases to ensure early intervention (Bayer et al, 2018; Jadambaa et al, 2020) and engaged with by parents and the community (RCHM, 2018). Only by reducing the number of children bullied in schools and the severity of such, can the physical and mental health of those future adults be ensured (Jadambaa et al, 2020).
Childhood bullying is not, as some people seem to believe, a harmless ‘rite of passage’ or kids being kids. It causes serious long-term harm to victims’ bodies and minds. Kids who are ‘different’ are most at risk, and as someone who was considered to be ‘different’ as a kid, it’s unpleasant to have those experiences downplayed by people who were fortunate enough to not experience such things. Understanding why children bully, how they bully and what type of bullies exist is essential to developing meaningful countermeasures.
But until the community at large, schools and government all together take this seriously and are willing to invest in evidence-based programmes to address and prevent bullying before children are exposed to it, we will not solve the problem.
As for me, my hope is for children to never need to teach themselves not to smile.
If you have any comments or questions, why not join the community and do so?
Armitage, R. (2021). Bullying in children: impact on child health. BMJ Paediatrics Open 2021; 5(1): e000939. doi: 10.1136/bmjpo-2020-000939 . https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7957129/
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2022). Australia’s Children, Bullying. https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/australias-children/contents/justice-and-safety/bullying
Bayer, J.K., Mundy, L., Stokes, I., Hearps, S., Allen, N., & Patton, G. (2018). Bullying, mental health and friendship in Australian primary school children. Child and Adolescent Mental Health 23(4), p. 334-340. https://doi.org/10.1111/camh.12261 . https://acamh.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/camh.12261
Coloroso, B. (2004). The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. New York: Collins Living [HarperResource]. pp. 11–41. ISBN 978-0-06-174460-0. https://archive.org/details/isbn_9780061744600/page/11
Cross, D., Shaw, T., Hearn, L., Epstein, M., Monks, H., Lester, L., & Thomas, L. (2009). Australian Covert Bullying Prevalence Study. Perth, Australia: Child Health Promotion Research Centre, Edith Cowan University. https://ro.ecu.edu.au/ecuworks/6795
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Jack, A.H. & Egan, V. (2018). Childhood Bullying, Paranoid Thinking and the Misappraisal of Social Threat: Trouble at School. School Mental Health 10, 26–34. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-017-9238-z . https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12310-017-9238-z
Jadambaa, A., Thomas, H., Scott, J., Graves, N., Brain, D., & Pacella, R. (2020). The contribution of bullying victimisation to the burden of anxiety and depressive disorders in Australia. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences, 29, E54. doi:10.1017/S2045796019000489 . https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/epidemiology-and-psychiatric-sciences/article/contribution-of-bullying-victimisation-to-the-burden-of-anxiety-and-depressive-disorders-in-australia/F1AB0B73B69593EE97711DD8C7A2CF18
Rigby, K., & Johnson, K. (2016). The prevalence and effectiveness of anti-bullying strategies employed in Australian schools. https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/The-prevalence-and-effectiveness-of-anti-bullying-Rigby-Johnson/d4b07b843724ff2c494ec67b612423019227c508
Rigby, K. (2019). How Australian parents of bullied and non-bullied children see their school responding to bullying, Educational Review, 71(3), 318-333, DOI: 10.1080/00131911.2017.1410104 https://www.ncab.org.au/media/2535/parent-paper-educational-review.pdf
Rivers, I., Gonzalez, C., Nodin, N., Peel, E., & Tyler, A. (2018). LGBT people and suicidality in youth: A qualitative study of perceptions of risk and protective circumstances. Social Science & Medicine, 212, Pages 1-8. ISSN 0277-9536. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2018.06.040 . https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027795361830354X
The Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne. (2018, 20 June). Childhood bullying: How are parents coping? RCH National Child Health Poll. https://www.rchpoll.org.au/polls/childhood-bullying-how-are-parents-coping