Do Bullying Victims Have Bad Social Skills?

A recent study found that boys as well as girls experience meanness and "relational aggression" — but what's really surprising is the researchers' view of the "negative characteristics" that can make a kid a target.

Clinical psychologist Dr. Rhiarne Pronk and her team interviewed 33 teen boys and girls and found that both genders "had personal experiences around unpredictable friendships, social exclusion, or rumour and gossip including the use of notes, phones, email and Internet." The researchers found some differences in how boys and girls were victimized, but the fact that social strife isn't just a girl thing will shock no one who's been to high school. More striking is this paragraph, from ScienceDaily's coverage of the study:

Dr Pronk said the research also identified characteristics of adolescents that might put them at risk for victimisation. Negative characteristics included a lack of social appeal or emotional reactiveness while positive characteristics such as being too popular or talented also attracted unwanted attention.

Given a recent (though somewhat unscientific) survey showing that popular girls aren't necessarily well-liked — and the tragic death of a girl bullied for being "too pretty" — it's not so surprising that being too popular might make someone a target for social aggression. But I was more interested in "a lack of social appeal or emotional reactiveness." What exactly are these negative characteristic that can make a kid a bully-magnet?

A study released in January sheds even more light on the issue: researchers purported to find "three key factors in a child's behavior that can lead to social rejection." The factors are,

— ability to pick up "social cues," like changes in voice or posture.
— ability to interpret those cues.
— ability to solve social problems.

Kids who lack one or more of these skills are apparently at risk for rejection by other kids, and for other problems like poor grades, depression, and anxiety. However, says lead study author Dr. Clark McKown, understanding the factors that make kids social outcasts could make it "possible to pinpoint which abilities a child needs to develop and offer help." Which is hopeful ... and yet also disappointing.

When I read Sadie's take on Judith Warner's story of childhood bullying, I was heartened by a Times reader's comment that "the most successful women in the world were the victims of the bullies, not the bullies." I didn't fully believe it, but like many people who were bullied or rejected as kids, I sometimes like to think of this as a sign that I was special. I told myself at the time — and still tell myself occasionally now — that the reason other girls didn't want to sit with me in eighth grade was because they couldn't handle my uniqueness, my original perspective on the world that would later stand me in good stead. It changes what Warner would call "the ur-narrative" of my childhood to think that I might just have had poor social skills.

Of course, it's possible to retain some nerd self-respect by surmising that poor social skills might be correlated with uniqueness of thought — and Temple Grandin might agree. Relatedly, maybe a period of social rejection has good effects as well as ill. As Pronk says, the scars of bullying can be long-lasting: "People can take the hurt through into their adult life, their workplaces and their romantic relationships." But maybe being socially isolated also allows kids to focus on their talents and build up their inner worlds, making them more reflective or creative. And maybe being the butt of jokes as a child lends someone more empathy for the downtrodden later in life. For some, these benefits won't make up for the lasting social anxiety that comes from bullying — but I'm skeptical that any kind of help will completely keep kids from establishing pecking orders. And while those at the bottom may lack certain skills, they should remember that they might be developing others.

'Mean' Girls And Boys: The Downside Of Adolescent Relationships [ScienceDaily]
'Bullied Because She Was Pretty' [Sun]

Related: Three Key Factors To Help Children Avoid Social Rejection Identified [ScienceDaily]

Earlier: "The Most Successful Women In The World Were The Victims Of The Bullies, Not The Bullies."