Today’s blog post is the second in a biweekly series on senior bullying, bringing research into practice.
Who bullies and who gets bullied?
By Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ and Marsha Frankel, LICSW, Clinical Director of Senior Services, Jewish Family & Children’s Services, Boston, MA
Individuals Who Bully
Readers will recall from our initial blog that bullying is defined as intentional repetitive aggressive behavior involving an imbalance of power or strength (Hazelden Foundation, 2008). Given this definition, the characteristics of most individuals who bully reflect underlying needs for power and control; the majority of bullies’ behaviors and social interaction patterns strive to achieve these aims. Although most people like to be in charge of their situation, they accomplish this in ways that do not negatively impact others. In contrast, bullies are more likely to use power and control strategies at the expense of others. Indeed, they often find it positively reinforcing to make others feel threatened, fearful or hurt, or to contribute to conflict between people. These tendencies are further complicated by difficulty tolerating individual differences, lack of empathy, and very few positive social relationships.
In our experience there are gender differences in bullying behaviors whereby women tend to engage in more passive aggressive behavior like gossiping and whispering, and men are more likely to make negative in-your-face comments.
In keeping with the social work profession’s strengths perspective, it is also important to acknowledge additional issues that provide insight into what makes older bullies tick. First, bullies put others down in order to build themselves up, suggesting low self-esteem plays a role in their behavior. Second, loss is ubiquitous with aging in Western societies; examples include loss of independence, relationships, income, and valued roles. Such losses are especially salient for seniors who move into assisted living facilities, nursing homes, and other long-term care settings: they may be seeking control at a time in life when they feel exceptionally powerless. Third, many long-term care residents may not have lived in a communal setting for years, if at all. Shared living requires adjustments around territory such that feelings of jealousy and impatience often arise. Bullying behaviors related to territoriality, as with selection of channels for shared televisions, dining room seating…etc., may involve attempts to exert control and change public space into private space.
Individuals Who are Bullied
In contrast to individuals who bully, individuals who typically fall victim to bullies have trouble defending themselves. They do nothing to “cause” the bullying, but passive social interaction styles make them ideal targets for bullies to overpower and control. Victims may also experience a sense of powerlessness, but in this case because bullying experiences are unpredictable and they have difficulty preventing them and removing themselves from bullying situations.
There are two types of bullying victims, those who are passive and those who are provocative. Passive victims tend to show a lot of emotion, are often anxious, and typically do not read social cues well. Others often perceive them as shy and insecure. Among older adults, such victims may have early dementia or a developmental disorder. Sadly, minority status based on race, ethnicity, or perceived sexual orientation can also contribute to individuals being targeted for bullying. Recall that bullies have difficulty tolerating individual differences.
On the other hand, provocative victims can be annoying or irritating to others, such as by intruding into others’ personal space. They are often perceived as quick-tempered and may inadvertedly “egg” bullies on. Among older adults, such individuals may have a dementia-related condition that is more advanced than that of passive victims.
Intersections Between Mental Health Conditions and Bullying
Both schizophrenia and dementia warrant additional attention in relation to bullying.
Individuals with schizophrenia experience disordered thinking, a distorted sense of reality, hallucinations, delusions, a limited range of emotional expression, and poor social skills. Such characteristics can make these individuals prone to both exhibiting bullying behavior and being victimized by others.
Similarly, individuals with dementia have cognitive deficits that can contribute to negative behavior, including aggression. Bullying behavior in this context does not involve a conscious, planned attack on another person, but is most often linked to decreased impulse control or distorted perception leading to a sense of feeling threatened. Dementia-related behavior can also trigger retaliatory bullying by cognitively intact peers as an attempt to control the individuals’ problematic behavior.
The Senior Bullying Series:
Reducing Senior Bullying: Conversation with Bullying Expert Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW
This 50-minute audio addresses how organizations can implement programs to reduce senior bullying, discussing in detail issues touched upon in Dr. Bonifas’ blog series on Senior Bullying. Listeners will learn:
How to discover the extent of senior bullying in your facility
Who should be involved in a task force to reduce senior bullying
How to distinguish between bullying and the problematic behavior of residents with dementia
Ways to create a positive environment that encourages caring behavior and thus reduces bullying