Interview: Who's a bully?

CBC News speaks to Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in children's mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa, about the nature of bullying, how it evolves and what parents can do to mitigate it.

Psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt on kids who bully and what parents can do

What types of kids bully other kids? A study by psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt found that 'the most popular kids in school were the most abusive.' CBC News interviewed Vaillancourt about bullying and what parents can do. (Reuters)

 Bullying has become a recurring motif of the news cycle. Whether it's the 1997 murder of Victoria's Reena Virk or the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, a gay teen at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the effects of bullying are intense and real.

The most recent example is Mitchell Wilson, a Pickering, Ont., boy with muscular dystrophy who was brutally mugged in November 2010 by one of his classmates who wanted Mitchell's iPhone .

The 11-year-old Wilson took his life on Sept. 6, hours after learning that he would have to face his tormentor in Ontario court.

While there was some doubt about whether the trial could continue without Wilson’s witness testimony, Crown attorney Kerri-Ann Kennedy argued on Wednesday that an affidavit written and signed by Wilson before his death should be submitted as evidence. The trial has been adjourned until Nov. 21.

Mitchell Wilson’s suicide is obviously an extreme outcome, but many bullying cases start with mild taunts that escalate to threats and even physical violence.

The effects of bullying — from anxiety to depression — are well-documented, but not as much is written about the psychology of the bullies themselves. How are these tormentors made? How can their behaviour be reformed?

CBC News spoke to Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in children’s mental health and violence prevention at the University of Ottawa, about the nature of bullying, how it evolves and what parents can do to mitigate it. Dr. Vaillancourt is a clinical psychologist.

CBC NEWS: How can you tell if your child is a bully?

Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt: There are two types of kids that bully. There are the habitual bullies, and they tend to be really impulsive and have poor emotional regulation. And that represents about 10 per cent of kids who bully others.

University of Ottawa psychologist Tracy Vaillancourt is also a faculty member at McMaster University and the lead investigator for Hamilton's Community-University Research Alliance for the prevention of bullying (mac-cura). (University of Ottawa)
The rest are everyday kids, so it tends to be hard to identify them. They tend to be really popular; because they have power, they can abuse power. So if your child is very popular, that could be something to keep in mind. When you watch your kids’ peer interactions, it gives you insight into how they use power and abuse power.

The impulsive kid is pretty easy to identify, because the schools have already identified him: you’re getting the note from the principal’s office, they’re constantly telling you your child’s in trouble again.

Whereas the other type of bully is so Machiavellian in their use of aggression, they’re pro-social and they’re anti-social, that parents get blindsided that their kids are bullying somebody else, and they tend to deny it. They take the kid’s side without any consideration that there might be some truth to what is being alleged.

Because they haven’t seen the evidence.

Well, they have seen the evidence, if they sit back and look more critically. That’s the challenge for educators: when you confront parents about these kids, it’s like a really toxic reaction – you almost get bullied yourself for suggesting their little angel could be doing something like this.

I published a study [in 2003] that showed that the most popular kids in school were the most abusive of their peers. They were four times more aggressive than non-popular kids who bullied others.

Is it because they think their popularity or power is in jeopardy?

They use aggression to achieve popularity and maintain popularity. But they also have a lot of things that the peer group values – they tend to be good-looking kids; if they’re boys, they tend to be good athletes; they come from affluent families. There’s a pervasive sense of entitlement. That entitlement can come from their family and they impose that entitlement on their peer group.

How can you, as a parent, identify this second class of bully?

These popular bullies are so socially skilled, they know how to charm their mom and dad and teachers – in a sense, they’re hoodwinking everybody. My daughter mentioned this once to me, and it’s a brilliant analogy.

We’ll just call him "Fred." Fred has two personalities: the personality that he has when he’s got his baseball cap on, which is when he’s out on the playground and there are no teachers watching him; and then there’s Fred in the classroom. Fred in the classroom is a delight; the Fred with the baseball cap is to be avoided.

Would you call that person a sociopath?

No, I would call that most kids. Most humans abuse power. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The unfortunate thing is that it’s intoxicating. Most people who don’t have power want power, and swear that when they have power, they won’t abuse it. And when they have that power-holding position, they abuse it. Most experimental studies show that that’s part of the human condition – to abuse power.

Surely there are bullies who don’t actually set out to torment another person.

That’s the difference between the two types of bullies. The one, that impulsive type — they’re kind of indiscriminate about who they bully. They pick on everybody and anybody. They’re like the Tasmanian devil or the bull in the china shop; they’re taking no prisoners.

And then there are those who are more Machiavellian. They’re called "bi-strategic aggressors," and they will be more targeted in who they abuse. Obviously they have to be more discreet, and obviously there’s no discretion when you’re bullying everyone. And they can’t pick on another alpha, because if they pick on an alpha, they could throw themselves out of that inner circle. You say, is that psychopathic? I don’t know. I see a lot of kids doing it. It’s appalling how many kids do this.

Is bullying an addiction?

It could be. I published this study on respect and fear, and I think that what bullies don’t understand is that the feedback they get from their peer group seems like respect, but really it’s fear, so they have a really hard time figuring out those messages.

Mitchell Wilson, 11, took his own life Sept. 6. Mitchell, who had muscular dystrophy, was bullied by classmates from his Pickering, Ont. school. (Wilson Family)
When they’re picking on somebody, because people are frightened and don’t want to be the next target, [the group members] tend to reinforce them, and the [bully] has a misattribution on that — they think, Here’s more evidence that what I’m doing is OK, I’m special.

Also, if you have children, you know that there’s this pervasive entitlement now. Kids are told every day how wonderful and special they are – of course not all children are – and they come to believe it. It’s a falsehood and it sets them up for failure.

What can parents do to nip this in the bud?

The abuse of power is the abuse of power, so if you allow your children to abuse each other in the home, then you’re not doing much for society as a whole. We really need to do something about the aggression that takes place in homes. It’s not comfortable. Oftentimes, the older sibling has more power because they’re older. Certainly, the younger could also hold power – you know the dynamics that take place in families.

All I’m saying is that parents need to attend to what’s happening in the home. We model the abuse of power constantly in how we interact with children. When we say, "It’s my way or the highway," we’re abusing power. I’m not saying that we have to give children a million choices in life, that’s not healthy either, but we need parameters, but with choice.

That’s what you do as a parent: you’re there to scaffold, you’re there to model appropriate behaviour. When kids abuse their power, it’s because they’re learning about power. We need to teach them the right tools.

We often hear that bullies torment others because they themselves have low self-esteem. Is this true?

We want to believe that kids who bully others do so because they have poor self-esteem, but the literature suggests that most kids bully others because they have high self-esteem — but high self-esteem that’s a little bit fragile. It’s this pervasive entitlement, this pervasive narcissism that exists in society today.

If you really had low self-esteem and I told you were an idiot, you would say, "You’re right, I am," because you don’t think well of yourself. You’re not going to fight back on that. You fight back when somebody says something that’s counter to what your belief system is.

I think bullying is motivated by jealousy a lot; a person’s power-holding position is threatened. A lot of girls bully other girls because they’re prettier than they are; boys think that other boys are more athletically competent than they are. If you just had bad self-esteem, you would just believe that you weren’t worthy of anyone’s attention or affection.

I personally believe that most bullying is based on competition. It’s about people trying to position themselves as better than others. I think we often don’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room, and the elephant in the room is that kids feel good about abusing others.

And I don’t mean that crazy stuff where they’re spitting on them and calling them names and shoving them into the locker.

I’m talking about the subtle stuff they do: the eye-rolls, the making fun of somebody, putting them down. It’s a complicated thing, and I really believe it’s rooted in our evolutionary past.