Do Bullying Victims Have Bad Social Skills?

Illustration for article titled 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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'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]

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

DISCUSSION

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The thing is, this still focuses on trying to make kids not "attract" rejection or bullying...when the problem is the disconnect with the bullies. Some kids are awkward or weird or not good at social interaction. You don't have to be their best or even any kind of friend.

But you also don't have to bully them. Not liking someone or finding them odd is not a valid reason for bullying. And I define bullying here as frequent abuse, verbal, physical...intimidation, threats, emotional manipulation, etc. Someone saying they don't like you once isn't bullying, they're just an ass. But repetitive, deliberate, concentrated efforts to isolate one person is a lot more serious than I think a lot of people realize. We always concentrate on why someone gets bullied instead of why kids resort to bullying.

I was bullied for 5 years of my life by various people in my school. Mostly boys. And I was not socially or emotionally awkward at all. The opposite. I was articulate and sensitive and very apt at solving social problems and putting other people at ease. I was always the "mature" one in class, the one other kids came to for help whether it was on projects or with other kids being mean to them. I was never popular, I was a kind of mix of creative and nerdy but not an overachiever, and though I got good grades they weren't exceptional. But it wasn't until I turned 13 that I became a real target, and it didn't let up for the next 5 years. And it wasn't just "Oh, we don't like you." It was every day, all day, in every class. It was name calling, it was body shaming, it was harassing me at school, at home, and when I went out. It was deliberate and it was awful.

My experience with bullying has profoundly shaped my life. It happened at precisely the age when you're most vulnerable and defining who you are. And for a really long time I've struggled with trying to figure out what I did so wrong that people would take the time to tell me they thought I should -die- because I was so "disgusting".

It's taken me nearly 18 years to figure out that it really didn't have anything to do with me. It had to do with some really troubled kids, a lot of ingrained gender issues that I didn't understand because I wasn't raised that way...and because no one stopped them. Because they could and did get away with it.

The truth is, I was different, just not in any way that 13 year olds could articulate. I didn't fit into an easy box of what girls "should" do or be, and that made me a target. Which is no more my fault than having poor social skills.

I really feel for anyone who has been bullied and I hope you know that, whatever the "reasons", it wasn't your fault. No one deserves it. No one.