The Hurtful Lives of Aggressors: Dr. Nadine Connell Takes on Bullies

November 15, 2016

You haven’t forgotten about it entirely; that time in elementary school when you were picked on for the clothes you wore, or because your grades weren’t good enough. Or perhaps your grades were too good.

You may remember Dr. Nadine Connell, assistant professor of criminology, who kicked off our first blog post with her research with Mentor Maps last year.  An editorial board member of Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice and Vice President of the Southwest Association of Criminal Justice, Dr. Connell’s recent research provides a deeper understanding about the nature of bullies and the lives of those that they affect. Focusing on juvenile delinquency, decreasing crime and substance abuse in schools, and improving academic achievement, Dr. Connell’s work has been published in Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, Deviant Behavior, and Victims and Offenders.

In your KERA interview, you stated that bullying is less of a single instance and instead a repeated effort on a perpetrator’s behalf. Why do bully’s bully?

From what we can tell, there are a lot of potential reasons why a youth could act as a bully. In research I conducted with a colleague (Robert Morris, formally of UTD), we found that certain childhood experiences were more likely to predict bullying during adolescence. These things could include experiences that would be traumatic to a young person, such as having a sibling face an extensive illness or having trouble with friends in school. This speaks to the importance of how an individual’s life circumstances can impact their behavior. This type of research into what predicts adolescent bullying is really important because it opens up avenues for prevention and intervention. The more we can do to intervene with the behavior early, the more options we have to help children and adolescents while also limiting negative consequences to both the bullies and the victims.

In general, students most likely bully for the same sorts of reasons they act out in other ways, including looking for and needing attention, emulating behavior that they see by adults taking part in, and navigating the complexity of adolescent social relationships. And it’s important to note that some youth people are bullies because they are aggressive (due to a variety of factors) and bullying is just another form of aggression.

The internet has changed the face of bullying substantially. What signs should parents or students with younger siblings be watchful for to prevent and/or help with a bully?

It is important to always monitor your child’s internet use.  Parents should keep all computer use confined to a central family location in order to be able to monitor internet and computer use.  It is also important to have copies of passwords and let children know that in the event of concern, accounts (such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) will be monitored.  Adolescence is a time when children need privacy, but in order to get that privacy, they have to show parents that they deserve it.

Parents should be aware of changes in their child’s personality and interest in school or other activities.  Children who are being bullied are more likely to withdraw from activities, start trying to stay away from school (for instance, faking illness for a prolonged time or very often can be a sign that something has changed in their school lives), and suddenly stop wanting to hang out with their friends.  Sudden personality changes, academic changes, or sudden changes in friendships are also signs that something troubling may be happening at school of in a child’s life.

Parents should get involved when it becomes apparent that a child’s academic life is being harmed, when there is any potential for physical harm, or when personality changes start to have a negative impact on a child’s life (exhibiting signs of depression, skipping previously enjoyable activities, or no longer having any friends to spend time with).

Is there a difference between bullying among children and teens, and bullying among adults?

There is some debate about whether adults are bullies. Or perhaps more accurately, there is debate about whether the term should be applied to adults and youth. I personally believe that bullying among children and adolescents needs to be treated differently than bullying between adults. A lot of the difference comes down to power structures. Children and adolescents have very little autonomy and power over their circumstances, so when bullying has a detrimental effect on their lives (such as their school experiences), they are not able to take steps to make change. A child cannot decide to switch schools or to take a different class. Even if a child complains, there is still no guarantee that something will be done to fix the situation. So it is really imperative for them to get help from the adults around them and also for us as adults to make sure we are actively watching children to make sure that they remain safe and are not victimized.

With adults, it is a little different. First, I want to be clear to point out that adults absolutely act in aggressive and harassing ways. Age does not always mean that people have learned to behave better! The difference is that adults have some agency – there are structures and institutions that exist to deal with situations in which other adults are acting in a harassing manner. There are laws – lots of them – in place to address this behavior. Human resources offices exist. And adults can leave. They can decide that their workplace is too hostile and choose to work elsewhere. These choices may not be without consequence but they have many more options, especially options that have been codified and are well defined, than do youth and adolescents. Poor behaviors by adults should be addressed and punished appropriately, but I think we should call adult behavior what it is: harassment.

And yes, since I know someone is wondering, it is certainly possible that youth who bully can grow up to be adults who are aggressive. In research that some colleagues and I conducted, Alex R. Piquero (UTD), Nicole Piquero (UTD), David Farrington (Cambridge University), and Wesley G. Jennings (University of South Florida) showed that males who reported being a bully at the age of 14 were more likely to be serious offenders as adults. So there is definitely the potential for continuity of behavior, which is all the more reason why we have to invest in early identification and prevention efforts.

For someone who is being victimized, what resources would you offer to help them resolve the abuse and cope with the trauma?

I would recommend parents to not be afraid to ask their child’s teacher about their child’s behavior and listen to what he/she has to say.  Teachers can be a great first line of information and can often spot signs of trouble before a child will tell his/her parents.  Pediatricians and family doctors can offer insights into resources and referrals to other professionals if the problem reaches that level of concern. If that’s the case, your family doctor can help refer you to the appropriate mental health professional. Don’t be afraid to ask for help – whether you think your child is being victimized or you think your child is being hurtful to others, there are options. Talk to your family doctors about what options are best for your family.

And parents need to remember that even though it is difficult in the moment, it is beneficial for children to experience some hardships and frustrations (like losing a game or learning how to deal with an argument with a friend) because it helps with problem solving skills over the long run and will help your child become a more successful adult.


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