Family violence and its many forms is certainly not a new phenomenon. It has existed since the beginning of time and very likely will continue until the end of time. Throughout history women and children have been subjected to horrific acts of cruelty and violence at the hands of male-dominated social systems. Siblings were not immune from committing such acts against family members. There is growing recognition that such events may not be gender specific, but rather may encompass to varying degrees participation as victimizer and/or victim by any family member. The purpose of this research paper is to explore aspects of what is widely being recognized as bullying in the family.
I. Definition of Family Bullying
II. Forms of Family Bullying
III. Characteristics of the Family Bully
IV. Family History
V. Family Types
VI. Effects of Family Bullying
VII. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
VIII. Theories to Explain Bullying
A. Physical Traits
C. Social Learning
IX. Characteristics of Victims and Bystanders
Definition of Family Bullying
Family bullying is a form of domestic violence that can occur between marital partners (heterosexual or homosexual), parents and children (in either direction), and siblings. Bullying occurs when one person, the more powerful, attempts to degrade, abuse, or control the other, less powerful person. The ultimate goal of the family bully is domination, power, and control of one or more family members.
Forms of Family Bullying
Most often the abuse takes the form of psychological tormenting of the victim. This may include constant criticism for real or imagined infractions, usually of minor importance, consistently blaming the victim at any opportunity, and refusing to value and appreciate the individual. This may also include emotional and verbal abuse (to undermine self-esteem and confidence), intimidation, and humiliation. Emotional abuse tends to be the most common form of bullying behavior in the family. Emotional abuse by siblings toward other siblings usually includes an older, more powerful sibling victimizing younger, weaker brothers and sisters. There have been cases, however, where older physically or mentally challenged siblings have been victimized by younger brothers and/or sisters. This type of abuse is perhaps the most damaging in the long term; it may lead to withdrawal, depression, antisocial behaviors, and the emotional abuse of others later in life.
Social abuse is another tactic employed by the family bully. This tactic is utilized to isolate the victim from socially interacting with friends and family. It may take the form of preventing the victim from leaving the home, forbidding phone use, verbally degrading the victim in front of others, not allowing contact with others, or making the victim accountable for his/her whereabouts at all times. This can lead to fear of others and to psychological dependence upon the family bully.
Financial abuse is used as another form of bullying. This method involves the bully taking complete control of the finances—his own and the victim’s—in order to completely control the situation. This may include depriving the victim of money necessary for survival on a daily and long-term basis.
Sexual abuse is a coercive method which leads to unwanted sexual activity. This form of bullying is all about power and control over another. This includes sexual assault, rape, and accusations of infidelity by the bully toward the victim. Long-term consequences may include sexual dysfunction in later life, domestic violence, crime, substance abuse, and suicide.
There is the potential for physical abuse as well. This may include, but is not limited to, threats, assault resulting in injury, beatings with the hands or other objects, or any attempt to control, hurt, or intimidate the victim. Damage or destruction of property should also be included in this category. Child victims of physical abuse bear not only physical indicators of that abuse but emotional scarring as well. In many cases performance at school is affected adversely, language development may be impaired, and the child may have difficulty nurturing healthy relationships with peers.
Manipulation of family members is a tactic employed effectively by the family bully. Pitting family members against one another, the bully is able to keep everyone off balance, which gives the bully the control they continually seek. The bully derives satisfaction and even pleasure starting arguments which lead to hostility and other forms of destructive behavior while at the same time doing his best to remove himself from the conflict. Emotional manipulation—making people feel guilty about their actions, opinions, or beliefs—is employed as well. Elderly family members as well as the very young are quite vulnerable to this form of exploitation. Gossip spreading and innuendo about other members of the family by the bully is used as a form of harassment and control. This serves to undermine and isolate the bully’s intended victim(s). This also leads to an environment of hostility and distrust in which the bully may rise to the top in order to appear to be above reproach and the hero of the day.
Characteristics of the Family Bully
Interestingly enough, family bullies also tend to project their shortcomings onto others. This allows them to avoid the reflection necessary to own up to their own inadequacies and the effort necessary to correct them. The projection takes the form of blaming, criticizing, and maligning others to keep the focus of attention off of the bully. The bully tells much about himself through his negative commentary of others. Other behavioral descriptors apt to characterize the bully include:
- Highly verbal
- Emotionally immature
- Sexually immature
- Incapable of intimacy
- Attention seeking
- Quick to misinterpret the actions or language of others
- Highly defensive
- Given to extreme mood swings
- Adroit at lying and believable
A number of child-rearing styles and family dynamics are evident in the creation of the family bully. Children learn first from their family the expectations, behaviors, and either effective or ineffective ways of interacting with others. Children who come from backgrounds which are authoritarian, harsh, and physically punitive tend to manifest bullying behaviors in later life. These children tend to be ineffective in establishing healthy relationships with others due to the inappropriate manner (i.e., physical aggression) in which they first learned to interact. Families that tend to overly control, dominate, and shame their children also tend to produce bullies in later life. The type of parental role model also plays a factor in building bullying behavior. Parents who are overly aggressive and abusive to each other set the tone for future interactions of their children with their peers and later with their own families. Again, these children model their own behavior to exactly what they see in the home as a tool to get what they want. This negative cycle of behavior affects siblings and parents, and may spill over into the school environment as well. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and various forms of antisocial behavior. Siblings from these types of environments also tend to victimize each other.
Children who lack attachment to parents, are neglected or abused, and/or come from highly volatile and dysfunctional environments are under a great deal of stress as a result of the lack of predictability around them. Likewise, children from extremely permissive environments are at risk as well. These children will tend to resort to the same tactics they see successfully used in this environment to gain some semblance of control and stability. Unfortunately, this tends to ripple out into other areas of their lives, such as school, work, and eventually their own families. This is very much a cyclic phenomenon.
As a long-term result, family bullies tend to have no conception of the feelings or needs of others. The physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of their victims are totally irrelevant to them and in many cases are used as strategies of attack and eventual conquest. The spouse who terrorizes or intimidates and the child who oppresses and dominates siblings or other family members are both driven by the compulsive and destructive need for control. Although they appear compassionate and caring, in reality they are toxic and destructive to themselves and their families.
Research has identified three kinds of families and their relationship to bullying. The three types of family structures are the brick-wall, the jellyfish, and the backbone. The brick-wall family is concerned with order, control, obedience, and a hierarchy of power. The jellyfish family lacks a core family structure and exists within a laissez-faire atmosphere. The backbone family provides consistent control with an opportunity for discovery.
The brick-wall family instills in the children that power is obtained through intimidation. To win in this world, one must obtain and maintain power over subordinates. Power results from the actions of physical violence and threats. The bully is most likely a product of a brick-wall family.
Two different types of jellyfish families exist. The first type is one in which the parents, in an attempt to please their children, fail to provide strict rules of conduct. In this type of family, the child becomes his own master. A child who has never been led to feel he must work for what he or she desires expects those desires to be fulfilled simply upon request and may bully a smaller or weaker child into submission. In the other type of jellyfish family, the parents, again in an attempt to please their children, assume all of the responsibilities for their children. A child raised in this environment may be perceived as an easy target to bullies, as he is labeled the ‘‘mama’s boy’’ of the classroom, thus becoming vulnerable to the intimidations of other students. In one type of jellyfish family, the child becomes the bully. In the other, the child becomes the victim.
In the backbone family, the child learns through caring but consistent rules and punishment, which parents utilize in order to empower and teach their children. These children will most often feel respect for themselves, their parents, and others. Through these families, communications lines are open and there exist caring for the other family members and respect for each other. The child from the backbone family is least likely to be involved in bullying as the bully or as the victim.
Effects of Family Bullying
Once the initial confrontation between bully and victim has taken place or has been suggested, the element of threat of further aggression exists. Both the bully and the victim know that the bullying will continue and that it is unrealistic to expect that a bullying encounter is merely a single event. Both the victim and the bully know that the much popularized media story of a victim standing up to and defeating his bully is essentially a myth. The victim now realizes his vulnerabilities and unfortunately so does the bully. With the threat of further aggression, the bullying continues.
The element that exists after an incident of bullying is terror. Bullying is a systematic action intended to intimidate and maintain dominance over a victim or victims. Once terror has been established, the bully can act without fear of retaliation and, in many cases, the action will escalate to more severe forms of abuse both in terms of emotional abuse and physical abuse. In some cases, this escalation of bullying may also be in the form of sexual abuse. The victim is always awaiting another attack and remains in a state of emotional terror. This state of terror facilitates the continuation of bullying.
The effects of family bullying on children are manifested in different ways depending on the child and the circumstances. Emotional symptoms include:
- Feeling guilty for the abuse and for not stopping it
- Grieving for family and personal losses
- Having conflicting feelings toward parents or other family members
- Experiencing fear of abandonment, the unknown, or personal injury
- Feeling angry about the violence and chaos in their lives
- Becoming depressed, feeling helpless and powerless
- Being embarrassed about events and dynamics at home
Perceptual symptoms of children affected by family bullying include:
- Believing that they are responsible
- Blaming others for their own behavior
- Believing that it is acceptable to bully others to get what they want
- Not asking for what they need or want
- Not trusting others
- Having very rigid beliefs about what it means to be a man, a woman, a husband, or a wife
Behavioral symptoms include:
- Becoming an overachiever or underachiever
- Refusing to go to school
- Showing more concern for others than for self
- Becoming exceptionally aggressive or passive
- Wetting the bed or having nightmares
- Seeking excessive attention
- Demonstrating ‘‘out of control’’ behavior
Social symptoms include:
- Being isolated from friends and relatives
- Having relationships that are frequently stormy
- Having poor conflict resolution and anger management skills
- Becoming excessively involved in social activities
- Being passive with peers or bullying peers
- Engaging in exploitative relationships either as perpetrator or victim
- Playing with peers in an exceedingly rough manner
Physical symptoms include:
- Complaining about headaches, stomachaches, etc.
- Seeming anxious and having a short attention span
- Being tired or lethargic
- Regressing in developmental tasks
- Seeming desensitized to pain
- Engaging in high-risk play and activities, abusing or mutilating themselves
For many individuals who bully, bullying is only the beginning of their perpetration of violence. Studies on bullying suggest that bullies are six times more likely to commit violent crimes than non-bullies. In addition, child bullies who are not stopped may mature to be adult bullies who provoke fear in their families and often in their coworkers. It is not unusual for an individual who bullied others as a child to continue that behavior and even further the aggression in terms of domestic violence and child abuse.
Studies have also suggested that individuals who engage in antisocial behaviors as children may also continue these actions as adults. In fact, according to many criminologists and criminal justice practitioners, an ‘‘early onset’’ of violent behavior is one of the best predictors of the frequency, seriousness, and duration of offending. In general, individuals who begin aggressive bullying toward others at the age of seven are more likely to continue with actions of violence than individuals who began aggressive bullying at the age of fifteen.
Adult victims of family bullies also may manifest such symptoms as:
- Clinical depression
- Gastric problems
- Unspecified aches and pains
- Loss of self-esteem
- Relationship problems
- Drug and alcohol abuse
Family Bullying and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
Over the years the victim(s) of prolonged family bullying may manifest symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This psychiatric disorder can occur following the experience of or witnessing life-threatening events or violent personal assaults. It can also result from a series of nonlife- threatening negative events over a prolonged period in which the victim cannot escape or chooses not to leave. These may include incidents of humiliation, rejection, betrayal, emotional abuse, physical abuse, loss of control, and disempowerment.
The symptoms are marked by clear physiological and psychological changes in the individual. This disorder is complex in that it usually manifests itself in concert with various other psychic disorders such as depression, drug and alcohol abuse, short-term memory loss, emotional numbness, and loss of concentration in the sufferer. Unfortunately, this disorder is frequently linked to job loss, crime, family disharmony, divorce, ineffective parenting, and a general inability to nurture and sustain effective interpersonal relationships. In addition, victims can experience general discomfort throughout their bodies, such as dizziness, headaches, digestive problems, angina, insomnia, and problems with their immune systems. At present, there is no cure for this disorder. The recovery process for victims of family bullies often takes years, and in cases involving PTSD, the victim may never fully recover.
Theories to Explain Bullying
In explaining the action of bullying, three perspectives are utilized—biological, psychological, and social. Specifically, to explain bullying, the physical trait perspective is offered as a biological explanation; sociopathy is offered from the social-psychological perspective; and the theory of social learning is offered from the social perspective.
Since before the publication of Lombroso’s The Criminal Man (1876) and up through today, individuals have attempted to categorize persons by their physical appearance and their asserted propensity to act strangely or violently. William Sheldon (1949) in his Varieties of Delinquent Youth applies that philosophy to young people. Sheldon maintained that there existed three categories of body types and that each type had its own unique associated temperament. Specifically, the types of body builds were: (1) endomorph, (2) mesomorph, and (3) ectomorph.
The endomorph body type was soft and round with a tendency to put on body fat. Its associated temperament was one of a relaxed nature that was slow to react and tolerant of others. The mesomorph body type was one of massive strength and defined muscular development. Its associated temperament was assertive with a desire for power and dominance. These individuals were often considered ruthless and indifferent to pain (theirs or others). The ectomorph body type was thin and frail. Its associated temperament was one of inhibition and social isolation.
In applying Sheldon’s body types to the behavior of bullying, one asserts that the bully is the mesomorph. The mesomorph is an individual with not only the physical build and strength to intimidate and provoke fear in others, but also the personality or temperament to desire dominance over others. The target or victim of a bully, based on Sheldon’s theories, is most likely the ectomorph. The victim is perceived to be physically vulnerable and lacks the social integration or ability to form and sustain the social bond to peers that may reduce his/her likelihood of becoming a target.
One social-psychological explanation that is applied to criminal and delinquent behavior is that of sociopathy. The terms psychopathy and antisocial personality are considered synonymous with sociopathy. Sociopaths are characterized as selfish, impulsive, and emotionally unattached. As these individuals do not feel sympathy or empathy toward others, they often are the perpetrators of many crimes of violence over their life course. The cause of sociopathy is uncertain. Some researchers look toward the concept of a neurological defect as the cause, some seek explanation from the experience of an emotional trauma during childhood, and some look to the family. However, it is suggested that, in some cases, youths who begin bullying will continue the action throughout their life course. Such a youth may be classified as a sociopath.
Developed in the 1970s as a revision of Sutherland’s concept of differential association, social learning theory is an attempt to explain behaviors as a result of reinforcement and punishment. Like Sutherland’s concept, Aker’s social learning theory maintains that deviant behavior is learned and that it is a direct outcome of instrumental conditioning and imitation. Instrumental conditioning, which relies upon reinforcement and punishment, allows a behavior to continue once it has been reorganized and imitated from observing the original source.
In discussing the action of bullying, a potential bully observes another bully and then initiates his or her own action of bullying, with instrumental conditioning supporting the behavior. Specifically, in Aker’s (1985) social learning perspective, behavior increases if either a reward is received or a punishment is removed. A bully who obtains power and control over his target and does not receive any sort of punishment will continue bullying. If neither the target nor the bystanders intervene, bullying continues. The original action of bullying, as discussed above, is usually viewed within the family.
Characteristics of Victims and Bystanders
Although bullies may have a positive perspective on themselves, victims do not. Victims of bullies tend to suffer from low self-esteem, are insecure, and are often unwilling to defend themselves. Whereas the parents of bullies often allow the child to become independent at an early age, often in order that these parents may have more time to focus upon themselves, the victims of bullies may come from homes with very overprotective parents and are allowed few friends outside of the family.
From a victimological perspective, bullying is explained under the foundation of victim precipitation, which asserts that victims (either passively or actively) provoke their attacks. In cases of bullying, victims passively precipitate the action merely through their physical appearance or behaviors. In support of their actions, many bullies blame their victims for their attacks. Bullies perceive their victims as physically weaker, ‘‘nerds,’’ and ‘‘afraid to fight back.’’ These victims do not report the bullying; hence, the bully is given permission (through omission) to continue.
It has been suggested with regard to bullying that there are no ‘‘innocent’’ bystanders. Those who observe the bullying either support it or are neutral to it. Researchers have suggested that there are six different types of bystanders, all with a different dynamic:
- The bully. As discussed previously, he/she rules through threats of violence and intimidation.
- Followers or henchmen. These take part in the bullying but are not the initiators of the action.
- Supporters. They enjoy observing the bullying but do not take part in it.
- Disengaged onlookers. They assert that the bullying of someone else is not their concern.
- Possible defenders. These believe that the target of the bullying activity should be defended.
- Defenders. Those unique individuals who actually attempt to help the victim of the bully (and his followers/henchmen). Although popular media may contradict the reality, in cases of bullying there exist few defenders.
The consistent theme evident in all forms of bullying in families is the intention of the bullies to humiliate the victims and achieve complete control over their lives. Bullying is a complex and multifaceted dynamic that tends to manifest in multiple forms in American society. Bullying in the family may indeed be related to other types of bullying in our culture. The consequences of being victimized by a bully vary with the individual and the severity and duration of the bullying. However, it is suggested that bullying not only affects the victim, but also, for instance, an entire school environment. Bullying disrupts classes and redirects the attention of the teachers away from teaching. A teacher who must constantly monitor the activities of one student is not focused upon teaching. It must also be acknowledged that although the overwhelming majority of victims of bullying in schools are students, there are some victims of bullies who are teachers, nurses, and/or school administrators.
Bullying may have both short- and long-term consequences for the victim. Short-term consequences can include psychological distress, physical illness, a lack of concentration on schoolwork, and a fear of attending school. Long-term consequences can include low self-esteem, depression, and a reduced capacity for learning.
Often, in many cases of bullying, the victims display behaviors of anxiousness, nervousness, and worry. In other cases, victims themselves become aggressive toward other non-bullying students. Students who are victims of bullying spend much of the time during their school day planning how not to be a victim. For example, a student who is concerned about being victimized in the bathroom may choose not to eat or drink during the day for fear of having to go to the bathroom, or may request permission to go to the bathroom during class time while the other students remain in the classroom. A student worried about victimization on the playground may act out in class to avoid being allowed to go outside and therefore stay inside under the supervision and protection of the teacher. For these students, educational learning is limited, and for the victims who cannot plan for their protection on school grounds, absenteeism becomes an issue.
Statistics indicate that 15 percent of U.S. students with persistent absences report bullying as their initial reason for missing school. Students who are not attending school are not learning. Schools which receive funding based upon the number of students in attendance suffer financially when students are afraid to come to school. Therefore, bullying, directly and indirectly, can pose one set of problems for the victim and another set for the educational system.
It has been suggested that many of the youths who were bullies in their schools were later members of street gangs. This is especially true for females. Reportedly, female gang members were even more likely than males to have been bullied at home and then to bully someone else at school. It is also suggested that involvement in bullying— as bully or victim—was related to juvenile involvement in violence and weapons. As publicized in the media since the 1990s, bullying can lead to severe consequences, such as school shootings like those at Columbine High School in Colorado.
In some rare cases of bullying, victims are initially the target of verbalized bullying; however, the verbal abuse escalates into physical abuse. Therefore, the victims are forced to fight to defend themselves and are often injured during these confrontations. Bullying is often the root of other forms of violence. In other rare cases of bullying, the victim decides that the only way to end the victimization is to kill the perpetrator. As is seen in cases of domestic violence, the victim, after a history of abuse at the hands of the perpetrator, kills the abuser either during a conflict or prior to his/her perception of a future conflict.
In addition, adolescents who have been bullied are isolated and, oftentimes, very angry. Their natural inclination is to gravitate toward others with similar experiences. This may result in friendships with other victims of bullies and sometimes develops into antisocial attitudes that may manifest in destructive behavior, including self-destructive behavior and even suicide. Although most people perceive the Columbine incident as a mass shooting by two students, it was in fact a planned suicide. Prior to shooting their classmates, teachers, and ultimately themselves, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had recorded suicide messages to their families on videotapes. In each of these boys’ accounts, they acknowledged that they would commit suicide. Hence, before entering Columbine, before attempting to ignite the first explosive, and before shooting the first students, the end result was intended to be a suicide, which many individuals, including the shooters and the media, attributed to bullying by classmates.
Unfortunately, this type of behavior is usually ignored by society unless it spills over into physical or sexual abuse or the victim is killed. Fundamental social and cultural mores must change if the insidious and destructive behavior of bullying within the family and within the school system is to be eradicated.
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