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Abuse and Violence

Young father helping her daughter with her school project at homMy almost-17-year-old daughter is in China on a school trip, which prompted me to search out some of the week’s news from that country. Unfortunately, one of the first stories to cross my screen was a tragic piece that could have happened anywhere, and demonstrates how confused the public is about how to respond to problem behavior in children. A great deal of the confusion seems to center on punishment—not only on how to use it, but how to define it.

As the reporter relates the story, a security worker known as Mr. Zhang, tried to punish his daughter for academic cheating, but accidentally killed her in the process. This was not the first time the young girl had cheated in school. According to the reporter, Zhang explained that he had beaten his 11-year-old daughter because she had copied a classmate’s homework “again.” On finding out, her father was furious and “dragged her to the bicycle shed to beat her” on the evening of May 19th. Zhang says he “hung her up with a rope,” beat her legs with another rope for a short time, and left the bike shed. When he returned half an hour later, his daughter was near death. The girl was pronounced dead shortly after being brought in to the hospital. The father, “contrary to much speculation,” says the news report, loved his daughter and “spoiled her from time to time.” No specifics were offered to describe what he had done to spoil her, but perhaps we are meant to believe that the beating would not have been necessary had it not been for the spoiling. The photo accompanying the story shows Mr. Zhang prostrate on the floor, weeping over his daughter’s death.

In a strange way, I am sorry for the father. I’m sorry he was never taught more effective ways of dealing with problem behavior. But I’m much sorrier for his 11-year-old daughter. Tragic examples like these illustrate why it is so important for parents to understand how behavior change works and to consider constructive interventions and strategies as a replacement for “default technologies,” however embedded they may be in a culture. Default technologies are the “tried and survived” behavior-change tactics that worked enough of the time that they provided reinforcement for our parents (and for us) and now we believe they are the “best” ways of changing behavior. Keep in mind that we survive many things that aren’t necessarily the “best” options at our disposal. Yes, maybe you survived the era of no seatbelts . . . but many others didn’t. The fact that you survived doesn’t mean we should go back to the days when they weren’t required. Survival doesn’t prove efficacy, contrary to popular Facebook memes. People survived the Holocaust, for instance. What are we to make of that?

When we become dependent on default technologies, we become rusty at using more creative ones like reinforcement—a strategy that is surprisingly effective and doesn’t leave us open, as parents, to taking things dangerously far.This is not to say that punishment doesn’t have a place. It certainly can work, approached in the right way. But what is punishment? And how is it best used?

In its most precise sense, punishment is something that decreases the future frequency of a behavior. Positive punishment means “adding something,” while negative punishment means “taking something away.” For instance, if you walk carelessly into a dark room and stub your toe, you’re unlikely to make the same mistake again. Stubbing your toe has decreased the future frequency of walking into a dark room without turning on a light—and it’s “positive punishment” because it has added a stimulus: the stubbed toe. On the other hand, when you get a speeding ticket, you have to pay money. You lose something that you like. That’s “negative” punishment (the math kind of negative), because something has been taken away (money), and you’re going to think long and hard about speeding again. On the other hand, if you don’t blink at writing a $300 check to city hall, a ticket might not decrease your behavior. If it doesn’t, the consequence intended as a punishment is not a punisher. Rather, something else is reinforcing the behavior (probably the consequence of getting to your destination faster) and the intervention has no effect.

To avoid repetitive, ineffective attempts at punishment, it’s important for parents to clearly understand what is reinforcing the behavior we don’t want to see. Until we know how the behavior is “helping” our child, any attempt to change it is unlikely to succeed. Another key principle is that we can’t simply teach a child what not to do . . . we also have to teach him or her what to do as a replacement. Punishment works best if you are reinforcing alternate (positive) behaviors at the same time. This is a principle well demonstrated by research.

Using a child’s cheating as an example of a behavior we want to change, the first order of business would be to determine what is reinforcing the cheating behavior. If it’s simply avoidance of work, why doesn’t the child just skip the assignment? More likely, the child also wants to avoid her father’s displeasure at the bad grades that would certainly result from neglecting her homework. By copying a friend’s homework, she avoids her parent’s displeasure (because she gets a good grade on the assignment) but she also avoids doing the work. Maybe she doesn’t believe she’s capable of doing the work. Either way . . . certain consequences have been avoided. Unless, of course, her father finds out.

When he does find out, one way a parent in this position could apply positive punishment (in other words, add something to decrease future cheating), would be to require the girl to do the homework assignment over again each time she copied her classmate’s work. If one of her goals is to avoid work, this is a potentially valid punisher. But remember that punishment works best when paired with reinforcement for an alternate behavior. What alternate behavior would a parent want in this case? Well . . . they would want their daughter to do her homework without copying from a friend. One way to reinforce that would be for a parent to be present while she did the work. The parent could then monitor her progress while also being available to answer any questions she may have and offer social support as she works.

Does this seem like a “reward”? Think again. It’s positive reinforcement, which is rather different. Having a supportive parent in the room to answer questions is reinforcing the current behavior of doing the homework herself . . . not the already past behavior of copying her classmate’s homework. This kind of immediate reinforcement is especially important at the beginning stages of behavior change. But, of course, if the child receives good grades as a result of her parent’s help, the preferred behavior is going to be even further reinforced by her accomplishment, as well as by her parent’s approval.

A bonus side-effect of using a constructive behavior-change approach is that the child is more likely to trust the parent’s future responsiveness and less likely to resort to lying, sneaking around, or other problem behaviors often employed in the aim of circumventing physically painful punishments. It’s a natural, human reflex to want to avoid pain. Of course, that doesn’t make lying or cheating right. Simply “natural,” like a parent’s tendency to go further than necessary when caught up in the throes of emotion.

Why is it so tempting for parents to rely on risky default technologies when it comes to addressing children’s behavior? One reason is that we receive automatic reinforcement for using them, because they seem to work in the short term, and the short-term consequence is what we associate most strongly with our action. We may be aware of the fact that there are long-term side effects to some types of punishment—such as the potential to stir up strong, destructive emotional responses in the learner. And we may be aware of the danger in modeling undesirable behavior ourselves. But it’s not always easy to see that we have other, more effective options.

Yet we do. And it’s well worth adding some of them to our parenting repertoire.

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SEE ALSO:

Bye-Bye Boot Camp: Positive Parenting for Challenging Kids

April 1, 2014—Having children is not a prerequisite for having strong opinions about childrearing, so it’s not remarkable that when we do have children, we can be a bit defensive about our parenting style. This is true even when it seems to be working well; but what if our child’s behavior seems particularly challenging? Because we take our responsibility seriously, we may focus on who or what is to blame, rather than on what we can do to improve the situation. We may even wonder whether it can be improved. Is a noncompliant toddler doomed to become a challenging adolescent? Worse, if we have a defiant teenager—one who refuses to comply with requests or follow rules of conduct—do we have any real chance of producing the result we want for him or her?
(Full story . . . )

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MOM PSYCH RECOMMENDS:

You Just Broke Your Child, Congratulations

To Build (or Break) a Child’s Spirit

5MythsA friend of mine recently pointed out that media articles promoting Bullying Prevention Month seem to focus on the effects of bullying more often than strategies for prevention. I had to admit she had a point, so I immediately went off to write an article that focused on prevention in her honor.

This isn’t it.

You knew that though, because you clicked on a link titled “5 Myths about Bullying.” And frankly, I have to say it was pretty brilliant of you to do it. After all, you can’t actually prevent something until you can recognize it, right? So before I give you a link to the article on Bullying Prevention, let’s be as sure as we can about what the behavior we’re trying to prevent looks like. We’ll start by defining bullying. This is not as easy you might think.

A Google search will turn up a range of definitions for the term bullying, but the definition most commonly accepted by researchers amounts to: persistent aggressive behavior that often involves a power imbalance and intention to harm. It sounds simple enough on the surface, but it becomes complicated quickly because the power imbalance may be real or perceived, intentions may not always be clear, and harm may be physical or emotional. The key part of the definition is actually the presence of recurring aggressive behavior. Without considering a pattern of behavior, everyone could be considered a bully: we’ve all caused interpersonal harm to someone at some time in our lives.

No doubt we each have slightly different images in mind of a “typical” bully. One of the most common stereotypes in the media is that of a big bruiser of a schoolboy physically threatening a smaller child—perhaps stealing his lunch money or harassing him on the playground. Another stereotype, usually assigned to girls, consists of a group whispering about an ostracized classmate. Both are valid representations of bullying behavior as far as they go, but if we are interested in making real strides toward bullying prevention, we need to dispel some of the myths that restrict our thinking. I chose five, so this obviously isn’t an exhaustive list, but it offers some of the most fundamental misconceptions. If you’d like to bring up others, by all means, please add yours as a comment below.

Myth #1:  Bullying is mainly a childhood or teen issue taking place in the context of school.

People bully others in all kinds of settings at all ages. At home, at school, in the workplace, and online, bullies can be found among every age group. In fact, those who bully in one context also tend to have problems in their other relationships. They may bully online, and may have displayed similarly aggressive behaviors in preschool years at home among siblings or playmates. After high school, they may move on to bullying coworkers, intimate partners and/or children.

Different forms of bullying may carry one or two unique characteristics, but in the main, say researchers, bullies display relational aggression and in some cases, deficits in social problem-solving skills. This does not mean bullies are always loners, bereft of social skills. In fact, says University of Warwick researcher Dieter Wolke, when you look at relational bullying, for instance, certain social skills actually increase a bully’s capacity for harm. “Spreading rumors, excluding someone—these require that you know how to hurt someone without actually physically attacking them.” In some cases, otherwise socially engaged and/or self-righteous people may simply have learned to view the use of superiority or the degradation of others as acceptable forms of enforcing their will: perhaps after observing such behaviors at home, or through having themselves been victims of peer bullying.

Myth #2: Bullying is a harmless and necessary part of growing up. Kids will be kids, and they need to learn how to deal with life in the “real world.”

The best way for kids to learn how to deal with life “in the real world” is to be taught appropriate behavior toward others. While it’s certain we will each encounter bullies at various points in our lives, bystanders (whether adults or peers) should always intervene in bullying. Research finds that doing so does make a difference. Children can (and should) be taught prosocial skills whether they interact on a bus, a playground, at school, or online. As we are about to see, bullying is far from harmless and can impede, rather than encourage, the process of growing up.

Myth #3:  The effects of bullying are confined to its victims.

Those who are bullied indeed suffer, not only effects such as higher rates of incarceration and problems with health, poverty, and social relationships, but as one recent study found, “being bullied during childhood directly increases the likelihood of self-harm in late adolescence.” And the effects of social bullying in particular can linger long into adulthood in the form of mental health issues such as suicidal thoughts, anxiety and depression.

But bullying impacts everyone involved: including the bullies themselves and those bystanders who witness the behavior. As bystanders learn which behaviors are tolerated in their community, they may emulate the bully—or they may run the risk of falling prey to others who do. Bully victims who go on to become bullies themselves tend to end up with higher levels of all anxiety and depressive disorders, plus the highest levels of suicidal thoughts, depressive disorders, generalized anxiety and panic disorder. But even pure bullies, who tend to suffer relatively few consequences compared to their victims, are also at increased risk for some mental health issues, such as psychotic experiences and even antisocial personality disorder—a finding that held even after researchers controlled for other factors.

Myth #4: Cyberbullying is not “as bad” as face-to-face bullying.

It can be difficult to parse out the effects of cyberbullying and face-to-face bullying. As much as 90 percent of those who are cyberbullied are also bullied face-to-face: digital communication is simply one more tool in the bully’s arsenal. In some cases, says Wolke, cyberbullying offers the victim a chance to fight back that they may not have when face-to-face. But cyberbullying can be extremely stressful and may actually be worse than face-to-face bullying in other circumstances. Researchers have found that the degree of stress is much higher when humiliating photographs or videos are involved, since these materials can be proliferated across the Internet to an almost unlimited audience.

It’s true, of course, that a cyberbully may believe his or her actions are less hurtful than those of a schoolyard or workplace bully. However, this is a dangerous myth. All forms of bullying can cause intense emotional harm. It can be argued that traditional power imbalances (such as size and popularity) don’t exist in cyberbullying, but there are “non-traditional” or perceived power imbalances at work online that are not immediately obvious. For instance, when someone posts degrading or humiliating comments or photos about another person, the poster is often the only one with the power to remove them from public view. Depending on where and how the attack is posted, a victim may not even have access to a platform for responding, an imbalance of power that can impose a pervasive sense of helplessness and humiliation.

Myth #5: If we can define bullying precisely, it will be easy to recognize and address.

In a 2004 study published in the journal Children and Schools, researcher Faye Mishna found that even when children and adults agreed on a definition, they did not necessarily categorize the same incidents as bullying. One reason for this was that parents often did not see power imbalances or intention to hurt where children did, particularly in situations where bullying occurred among children that the adults considered to be friends and equals.

Mishna offers the example of one father describing a situation in which his daughter was bullied by friends. He and his wife struggled (in his words) “to get a sense of is it 50/50, or is it more your fault or more their fault?'” Another mother  wondered whether her daughter was really being bullied or whether the behavior could simply be considered ‘typical’ conflict.’  Was her friend being manipulative, or was it simply ‘an age thing” to attempt to control another child by threatening not to be her friend anymore?

Threatening to dissolve a friendship in an effort to control a playmate should not be considered harmless. It’s relational aggression, says University of Illinois researcher Laurie Kramer. “It’s very common and I think it happens because one child is essentially saying, ‘I’m frustrated that you don’t see the world the way I do, and that you don’t want to do what I want to do.’ It comes back to that lesson about perspective-taking and being willing to accept the other person’s feelings as valid, particularly when those feelings are different from their own. And there are ways to help kids learn how to have those conversations.” But adults won’t be having these conversations with children if they suffer under the misconception that kids should simply be left to work out their problems on their own.

Clearly this takes us back to Myth #2—and maybe even to the fundamental issue underlying bullying. The inescapable truth is that If children aren’t taught positive conflict resolution skills, leaving them to “work it out” is not going to magically endow them with the hoped-for “Aha!” moment. Unwanted behaviors that aren’t addressed can become habitual. That’s when they begin to slide from the category of “conflict” to “bullying.”

With these concepts in mind, where do we begin a strategy for bullying prevention? It would seem that laying the groundwork for prevention in workplaces, schools, and other institutions calls for creating a culture that refuses to tolerate aggressive behavior. But of course, there’s a level that’s even more fundamental than schoolrooms and workplaces.

Okay, you get the link to the prevention article now. There, that didn’t take long, did it? We still have two weeks left in Bullying Prevention Month:

Bullying Prevention Begins at Home

PTSD6-27-13The United States Senate has designated today (June 27, 2013) as PTSD Awareness Day, while also setting aside June as “PTSD Awareness Month.” To honor this worthy intent, Mom Psych is working with the National Center for PTSD to help educate the public about the causes, symptoms and treatment of traumatic stress.

One of the most common questions people ask about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has to do with why some people “get” PTSD and others don’t.  There may not be one simple answer, but researchers are closing in on some important influences. One important consideration is our level of resilience.

What is resilience and where does it come from?  From a psychological perspective, resilience is the ability to return to a healthy emotional baseline after adversity or stress. Like most of our traits, there’s a genetic component that contributes to where we fall on the resilience scale. But that’s not all there is to it. We know that our environment plays on our genetics to help determine which genes are “expressed” or activated, and which are not. We also know that there are certain key windows for this activation.

While the brain remains malleable to a certain degree our whole lives long, there are key developmental periods for shaping its basic substrates. Whether or not we reach our full genetic potential in terms of resilience depends to a great degree on our interpersonal history, particularly during the first two years of life:

[See: Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma]

Clearly, it’s during these early years that we’re most vulnerable to the effects of abuse. But even more so when the abuse comes from those who are supposed to protect and nurture us:

[See: Betrayed: Why All Trauma Is Not Equal]

So, even though there are complexities to the question of why some people end up with PTSD while others don’t, we are beginning to piece together a general picture:

[See: Why Some Soldiers Develop PTSD and Others Don’t

As this particular bit of research points out, pre-war vulnerability is just as important as combat-related trauma in predicting whether veterans’ symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) will be long-lasting. And one of the most common problems contributing to that pre-war vulnerability is, as you might suspect by now, child abuse:

[See: Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD]

All of this said, we aren’t stuck with our pre-existing resilience levels. Yes, we can work toward increasing our stores of resilience, and there are effective therapies for PTSD.

Interestingly, the most effective therapists are those who instinctively provide that interpersonal connection we need so we can use the brain of another as a scaffold to our own brain’s rebuilding process. As therapist Tom Cloyd puts it:

When you run into a rough patch and all your tools are failing, the number one fallback really is the same for child or adult: another person who is NOT a participant in your distress and is compassionate in relation to you—tolerant of your drama, understanding of the experience, interested in staying connected to you—and who follows through, etc. Because of the way feelings jump back and forth between people (it’s about mirror neurons, if you want to look up the neurology), a calm person will tend to propagate calmness to (or “infect,” if you will) a distressed person. Good parents do this all the time for children.

In addition to surrounding yourself with a good support network (including a knowledgeable therapist) there are a few practical things you can do to make the most of your own capacity for resilience.

The first key is to take care of your physical health: good nutrition, regular sleep and exercise will help give you the strength necessary to support psychological health.

But you can also apply these same concepts to your brain as you work to support neurogenesis (the birth of new neurons) and lay the groundwork for successful therapy.

  • Feed your brain with positive, health-promoting experiences such as reaching out to help others or accomplishing a task that has a clear and beneficial outcome.
  • Rest your brain through meditation or by focusing on those things that give your life meaning.
  • Exercise your brain by learning something new.  Behavioral biologist Paul Martin notes in his 2006 book Making Happy People, that learning helps us reduce unpleasant emotions like anxiety, anger and depression, as well as aches and pains (which often accompany PTSD). He suggests that this is because the knowledge and problem-solving ability we gain—and the resulting sense of mastery—liberates us from worries and concerns that would otherwise make us anxious.

It should be clear by now that there is much hope for PTSD sufferers and their loved ones. Realizing this hope begins with educating the public about this debilitating condition. And that, after all, is the point of having an “awareness day.”

For more information about causes, symptoms and therapies for PTSD, I’d like to recommend three great resources. There are more, but these are great places to begin:

PTSDFacesRecently in an online community dedicated to the discussion of trauma, I came across a comment that I’ve heard many times before. The gist was, “Whenever people find out I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), they assume I must be a combat veteran.”

Now, it’s true that way too many soldiers end up with PTSD. And it’s true that we can thank soldiers for the fact that PTSD was ever taken seriously enough to study in the first place. But almost twice as many women succumb to PTSD than men, and only a relatively small number of these women are soldiers. Most, in fact, are survivors of child abuse. And while that might not surprise you, here’s something that might: Even among soldiers, child abuse may lie at the root of PTSD, as this study suggests:

Embattled Childhoods May Be the Real Trauma for Soldiers with PTSD

This makes perfect sense, of course, when we consider how the brain develops. We are born to connect with other people, and it’s through nurturing interactions early in life that our self-regulatory systems—including fear and stress circuitry—are calibrated.

Born to Connect: The Role of Secure Attachment in Resilience to Trauma

Considering the far-reaching effects of our first experiences with caretakers, we can see why neglect counts as trauma alongside physical and sexual abuse, and we can also see why adults who have been abused as children are so much more vulnerable to stress than others.

Child Abuse Changes the Brain

This vulnerability to stress can lead to a host of mental health challenges. But, here’s a duh! moment: The brain controls processes in the body as well as thinking processes, right? So how is it we’ve managed for so long to overlook the fact that harmful effects of abuse in childhood are not confined to mental health issues? We’re only just beginning to acknowledge that we can’t really separate notions of the biological, the psychological, and the social aspects of human well-being. So, what does child abuse do to the body? Not only does developmental stress accelerate aging,

Risk of Accelerated Aging Seen in PTSD Patients with Childhood Trauma

but it also makes us vulnerable to cancer,

Study: Children Abused by Parents Face Increased Cancer Risk

as well as cardiovascular problems. In men who have been abused as children, this tends to be seen in an increased risk for heart attack,

Childhood Sexual Abuse Linked to Later Heart Attacks in Men

while in women, it’s high blood pressure, poor cholesterol levels, and metabolic issues like diabetes.

Middle-Aged Women Survivors of Child Abuse at Increased Risk for Heart Disease, Diabetes

PTSD is a complex disorder, and the costs to human potential and national budgets are equally devastating. And child abuse is a major contributor to PTSD, for soldiers as well as civilians. With that in mind, perhaps when we read studies like the next one, we’ll remember that it isn’t only the soldiering that that led to these findings, but life before soldiering too.

For Combat Veterans with PTSD, Fear Circuitry in the Brain Never Rests

And instead of asking civilians with PTSD whether they’re veterans, maybe we’ll start asking veterans whether they’re survivors of developmental trauma. Or maybe we’ll just offer them the nurturing support and friendship they need to work through the healing process, instead of making assumptions about them. Hey—It could happen! 

On the bright side, good relationships later in life can help repair the effects of abuse.

Marriage, Education Can Help Improve Well-Being of Adults Abused as Children

And while some relationships will certainly have challenges, it is well worth the time to find support for them.

Couple’s Therapy Appears to Decrease PTSD Symptoms, Improve Relationships

tolerating violenceAlmost immediately after the Newtown school shooting, before anyone had a chance to grieve the losses, the finger-pointing began. Finger-pointing is not simply one of America’s favorite pastimes, it’s also a prerequisite to our favorite team sport: politics. After all, you’re not going to paint your body in the team colors until there’s a game scheduled; and the game can’t go on without an arena, an opponent and a game plan. In this case, the arena was school violence, and the opponent was obviously going to be the Liberals (if you were a Conservatives fan) or the Conservatives (if you were a Liberals fan). The finger-pointing is necessary to define the game plan and put the ball into play.

A slew of options was entered into the play book: the teams would be able to comfortably dig their cleats into the ground over any given line of scrimmage. They could fight over gun control,  mental health programs, or media violence, for instance. The fans, well-versed in their team’s best strategies, were already calling the plays—even before the start of the game—you could hear them in the stands:

“Guns don’t kill people, people kill people!”
“There’s no evidence that violent video games cause violence!”
“The Constitution protects my right to bear arms!”
“The Constitution protects the media’s right to free speech!”
“The shooter was mentally ill, he should have been put away!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my guns!”
“I’d like to see them try to take away my video games!”
“I’d like to see them try to excuse him on the basis of mental illness!”

If you were an out-of-town visitor and didn’t happen to have a team to root for, you might find yourself in the position of being able to take a mental step back (a tactic that research has shown to be an effective tool for decision-making). You might marvel at the fierce team loyalty that kept one side of the stadium almost completely red and the other side blue. You might wonder where you should sit; and whether you might end up with beer down your back if you did.

Because you wouldn’t be busy shouting the team cheers, you might even have time to reflect that there was a little bit of truth, a little bit of misconception and even a little bit of paranoia in each of the calls being yelled from the stands. You might think to yourself that there’s a whole lot of room between reasonable regulation for guns and taking them all away.  A whole lot of room between acknowledging that some video games go much too far, and advocating media censorship. You might even find room between advocating for mental health intervention and assuming that mentally ill means “excused” or conversely, that mentally ill means “violent.” Black-and-white is easy for the human brain; considering an array of factors together—not so easy. We want to be told there is one simple cause so we only need to consider one simple solution. We are so uncomfortable  when things become complex!

It’s interesting that researchers actually know more about the roots of violence than you would suspect from watching media pundits arguing about it. Clearly, they don’t know everything. But they have learned that one of the most important influences on violence in a society is the extent to which people in that society view violence as normal, or acceptable. Children’s first clues to this are picked up at home, of course. They learn from the behavior of their parents and from the attitudes that come across in what parents say and how they say it. But even if parents do their best, children still pick up on the prevailing attitudes in their neighborhood, in their schools, and in the media.

Can a society’s tolerance of over-the-top violent video games demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s glorification of deadly weapons demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s “kill or be killed” attitude demonstrate acceptance of violence? Can a society’s choice of heroes demonstrate an acceptance of violence? What else can we think of that might give our children and teens the idea that violence really isn’t so bad: that in fact . . . it can be great fun and highly respectable?

Cindy Miller-Perrin, a family violence expert at Pepperdine University, once commented to me in an interview that if we want to solve that form of violence, an important thing needs to happen on the cultural level: “We need to work on being less accepting of the different forms of violence,” she emphasized, “even what we would call ‘normal’ violence within the media and within the family.”

Steven Pinker makes an interesting point that resonates with this idea. Although we often see upticks in violence statistics over the short term, Pinker argues that over the long haul we have actually succeeded in shedding some forms of violence. “What led people to stop sacrificing children, stabbing each other at the dinner table, or burning cats and disemboweling criminals as forms of popular entertainment?” he asks in his abstract for The Better Angels of Our Nature. He credits “the spread of government, literacy, trade, and cosmopolitanism,” and why not? These are influences that have a powerful effect on what we view as culturally acceptable.

There are others, of course. And while Pinker may be right when he suggests violence has declined overall in recent centuries, few of us (if anyone) would say we’re completely satisfied with society’s progress. Unfortunately, it seems highly unlikely we will make any more unless we are willing to take that step back from the fray and become the out-of-towner in the stadium for a moment. Otherwise, there will be no conversations; only yelling and flag-waving, because in the stadium, no one has any intention of giving the other side an inch. It’s all just a take-sides game. And what that means is that even if your team wins tonight, they’ll end up playing the same game all over again next week, next month, next year.

In honor of October’s status as  National Bullying Prevention Month, dozens of non-profit groups have been working to raise awareness of bullying and how to prevent it. It makes sense that the vast majority of the activities focus on educating parents, teachers and students about school bullying and cyberbullying. These two forms not only interfere with learning and emotional development, but have sometimes even led to suicide as in Amanda Todd’s recent case. Fortunately, many organizations are making important contributions toward teaching children the prosocial behaviors necessary to transform the schoolyard, if not yet the Internet, from a traumatic place into a safe, supportive one.

But what if the bully lives with you? What if it’s a sibling or parent? Worse, what if there are multiple family members who join forces against one family member to the point that there really is no escape from the abusive behavior?

In April 2008, I addressed this topic on another blog, referring to work by psychologist James R. Holmes examining the family influences on bullying. Holmes examined the existing research to tease out factors that contribute to bullying behaviors at school and found that most of them have their origins at home. It’s not really surprising that he found “boys who bullied others as adolescents were more likely in their 30’s to have children who were bullies.” There are certainly genetic components, which include  temperament and intelligence or attention problems. But there are environmental components too, says Holmes. These would include behaviors that occur between parents and children or perhaps between siblings.

The upshot, says Holmes, is that “bullying is associated with families in which people do not treat each other with respect or families in which children are not taught to respect the rights of others.”

Of course, parents can’t teach what they never learned. Holmes points out that the effects of poor family management and discipline can extend back several generations. More than having a parent who bullied, having grandparents who also bullied is an even stronger predictor of bullying for an adolescent.

After first writing about this topic, I found the online responses to be both sad and illuminating. Nearly 100 posts described the personal experiences of people who had been on the receiving end of bullying from family members at home. Sometimes it was the bully who commented, as in this instance:

When I was a child and teen I did act in a bullying way to some of my sisters. Often it was teasing gone too far. Mostly it was a case of intolerance, boredom and abusing my power as the eldest.

Sometimes my sister annoyed me just by her presence. She was often sulky and sullen and humorless. I annoyed her just for entertainment and to get a laugh from other siblings. I didn’t physically hurt her, but I verbally teased and niggled. Sometimes I just gave her hateful looks. Over time it wore her down. My parents didn’t intervene as they thought ‘kids will be kids.’ Plus a lot was done out of their sight.

These days I am a lot more self-aware and feel very badly for the way I behaved.

It’s worth highlighting the reference to the lack of intervention by parents. As you might expect, similar observations were made by many who had been on the receiving end of bullying. Also common were references to the mental health issues bullied siblings now faced as adults. This isn’t surprising considering that childhood is a crucial period of development for the brain and that a healthy and resilient neural structure depends heavily on positive social interaction. As one reader describes it:

My parent’s way of dealing with it [was] to ask me to just ignore it and to ask my other siblings to also just ignore it so that tension within the family is minimized and that we remain a family—this is after they tried to talk to the bullying sister and were met with denial and hostility. It has caused so much hurt and anguish in my life. After 10 years of bearing it, I began to experience panic attacks and nightmares as family events approached . .

Sometimes parents not only fail to intervene, they may also become an active part of the problem, particularly if there are multiple family dysfunctions:

I’ve been bullied all my life by my family. My brother beat me to a pulp every day and my mother took savage pleasure in stopping it by punishing me instead of him. She herself takes her temper out on me frequently. My sisters have now started picking on me online . . .

It can be tempting to blame the victims in these cases. Certainly, many of Amanda Todd’s tormentors continued to lash out at her for “weakness” even after her death. Almost like predatory animals, we tend to pounce on the fragile, blaming them for succumbing to their circumstances. It’s not only that the weak are easy prey, but seeing weakness in others can also make us feel uncomfortable. If there can be chinks in someone else’s armor, perhaps that means we are vulnerable to finding chinks in our own. This is not a conscious thought, of course. When spoken aloud it often comes out in terms such as, “I’ve had family issues, but I came through them fine. Why can’t that person?” Rather than seeing ourselves as fortunate that we had optimum circumstances to develop resilience, we see our resilience as something we’ve managed to work up on our own, and therefore everybody else can too if they’d just grab hold of their bootstraps with both hands. This is a misconception that all too easily gets in the way of our compassion for others whose circumstances are different.

That said, resilience can be strengthened: The really good news is that we aren’t stuck forever with the vulnerabilities we carry with us out of childhood. Research is zeroing in on influences that can promote resilience and is finding that supportive relationships are key to this process. In other words, the weak need the strong to give them a compassionate hand up rather than kicking them off the ladder.

The anti-bullying programs that have been leveraged over National Bullying Prevention Month have gone far in raising awareness of bullying behaviors in schools. Amanda Todd’s tragic death this month has made us all keenly aware of the issue of bullying behaviors online. The way forward in both of these venues, it would seem, is to raise awareness of bullying behaviors where they first take root: Home, sweet home.

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