In a recent article from the New York Times, reporter Benedict Carey writes that new research shows that antagonistic relationships like those shared between a bully and the victim can actually enhance social and emotional development. The researchers do stipulate that the psychological impact of these relationships directly corresponds to the level of animosity and how youngsters respond to it.
Maurissa Abecassis, a psychologist at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire explains in the article that:
Friendships provide a context in which children develop, but of course so do negative peer relations. We should expect that both types of relationships, as different as they are, present opportunities for growth.
The researchers are not saying that hostile relationships are good for youth, though. There is enough evidence of the damage they can do, to include mental abuse, physical abuse and in extreme cases, murder and suicide. In their study, researchers found that 15 to 40 percent of elementary school children are dealing with at least one hostile relationship. The percentage jumps to 48 to 70 percent in middle and high school.
While the study concludes that most youth are doing fine, even with these high statistics, they also find that there is a smaller group that suffer from something they call “Peer rejection”. This is when a smaller group of children is so different from their peers that they deal with a larger percentage of bullying. This is interesting, because, while I never considered myself far different from my peers, I definitely dealt with more bullying in elementary school.
None of this makes the suffering of those who confront hostility any easier. The article discusses how the hurt is even deeper when two children started as friends and then it turns to enemies. I certainly know this from my firsthand experience with Robert R., a friend who turned on me that I discuss in several personal stories on this site.
The study really says that only mildly antagonistic relationships have any social or emotional benefit. Melissa Witkow, a psychologist at Willamette University in Oregon, conducted another experiment on the same subject. She says:
You have several options, as I see it, when you become aware of someone else’s antipathy. You could be extra nice, and that might be good. But it could also be awkward or disappointing, and a waste of time. You could choose to ignore the person. Or you can engage. When someone dislikes you, it may be adaptive to dislike them back.”
She says in the study that people tend to prefer balance and that shared antagonism has the same reactive benefit as shared affection. The only problem I personally have with this in theory is that you may be asking a person who is not, by nature, an antagonistic person to become one. What I have found is that, when you ask people to do something outside of their natural emotional comfort zone, they tend to do it to the extreme due to the discomfort. So where someone who has it in their nature to be antagonistic might do it mildly, I find that those who it is not in their nature do it to the extreme end, not naturally knowing where to limit it. So, I’m not a fan of this, but understand the root of the study.
Part of the theoretical benefit of this learned behavior according to the study is that having an enemy as a young person can prepare you as an adult to be able to find and avoid false or unreliable friends, because, according to the article, betrayals as adults are more harmful.
Personally, I have seen many of these studies come out recently, where they ask victims of bullying to behave in a way that might not be comfortable to them. I’m not sure what to make of them. Should we change our natural behavior instinct in order to pacify a bully? Do we start to get to their level and “fight back” in order to make it stop? I have personally never been a fan of this for the reason I stated above.
I do “get it” though, that you can change a bully’s behavior and suffer less by adapting to these tactics. But my question still remains, do the victims change or do we try to change the acceptance of bullying behavior as a society?