Batman Shooting in Colorado: Dealing With the Emotional Aftermath

Resiliency Following the Colorado 2012 Shooting and James Holmes (with his apparent Prescription Pill Abuse)

John L. Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Guide To Self, Inc.

I wrote an article following the 2007 slaughter at Virginia Tech on how to make sense of senseless tragedies. Unfortunately, it appears time to share these ideas again. This time it follows the horrific shooting at a Colorado movie theater during the new Batman: The Dark Knight Rises movie in July 2012.

James Holmes was on a large dose of prescription pain killers during his rampage.

The main question is how do we best respond to such unnecessary suffering and frightening tragedy?

While my work is in positive psychology, teaching clients to work towards greater happiness and contentment, there are many times during which I must teach others to address rage, grief and anxiety.

We are all pressed by the vicissitudes of life to confront humbling, depressing, horrifying incidents during our lifetimes. As we learn to become more resilient, we can bounce back from tragedy and restart in a positive direction.  To learn greater resiliency, to begin to experience post-traumatic GROWTH, you need a greater awareness of the emotions that are likely to arise in the aftermath of the the Colorado massacre. The human response to such unbelievable suffering is primarily emotional. We struggle to make rational sense of such insanity. Yet there are frequently no rational explanations. Many human acts simply defy reason, defy explanation. So we are left with intense, lingering emotional responses such as indignance, rage, sorrow, confusion, and fear.

Below is a brief breakdown of the major emotions that may follow a tragedy such as the Colorado Batman shooting:

  1.     Sadness and despair
  2.     Destructive anger
  3.     Constructive anger
  4.     Compassion

1.       Sadness and despair:

Following a tragic loss, sadness and grieving are normal responses. Both serve the purpose of lowering your energy level in order to keep you close to home where you are more likely to have the comfort of loved ones around you. Relationships buoy emotions in times of distress. Sadness acts to keep you in a safe place where you can take the time you need to recover and rebuild your internal, emotional reserves. If you were directly impacted by the Colorado murders and lost a loved one, recovery may take anywhere from 6 months to several years. With time, the feelings of sadness (which can arise suddenly and without warning) will slowly and gradually wash over you less frequently, last for shorter periods of time and become less intense.

2.      Destructive anger

Senseless violence often leads to feelings of anger – anger at the killer, anger at society, anger at God for allowing it to happen, anger at our own helplessness in the face of mindless brutality. Anger signals the fact that something or someone has come between you and a desired goal of yours. It is a call to action. The goal may be as simple as trying to get home through dense traffic or as basic as survival.

Destructive anger may be turned inward at oneself or outward at other people. Studies show that 90% of anger is turned inwards. You are most likely to bury your anger, to suppress it.  This is a normal attempt to control and contain the frightening emotion of anger, yet ultimately, it is doomed to failure, for anger cannot be contained. Given enough time, given no tools to release anger, anger frequently leads people to go volcanic – explode in anger.

It is better to become aware of your anger in the moment, label it (“I’m getting pissed off right now” or “I’m starting to be annoyed”), and release. Instead, most people I speak with, attempt to hold anger at a distance, bottle it up, contain it. Inevitably, this approach backfires. This stuffed anger is toxic and leads to all sorts of negative health outcomes (e.g., increased likelihood of heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, etc.). It also leads to displaced anger where you get angry with the wrong person, at the wrong time, and to the wrong degree, and can even lead to extreme behaviors such as hurting innocent others.

The weapons James Holmes used for his psychopathic act.

3.      Constructive anger

Constructive anger is anger that is used as motivation to act in a positive manner towards an ethical end. In other words, it is using your anger to help you remove something which is keeping you from reaching a goal. Unlike destructive anger which is usually held onto, constructive anger is released in a short period of time, usually as a result of the positive action taken, such as writing a letter to the editor of the local paper or starting a non-profit organization to help survivors.  Constructive anger provides you with a persistent attitude which enables you to push forward to solve a given problem.

Anger is frequently misunderstood. Anger is almost always thought to be negative and destructive, despite the fact that anger itself is merely a feeling. Anger, by itself, is instructive, not destructive. Anger can be a good thing. Anger is a step up the emotional ladder from sadness as it allows you to have the energy to act, to do something. However, for anger to be positive, you must first learn to manage your emotions. Then you have a choice as to how to respond to anger’s signal.

It may be early to ‘rejoice in the suffering’ but the sentiment is correct

4.      Compassion

When you are ready to get past your anger, start to think of the world as compassionate and nurturing. As such it is designed to reward compassionate, nurturing behaviors in individuals. Throughout the world, there are far more loving people who are committing acts of kindness than there are angry people committing foul deeds. The human mind is naturally inclined to overfocus on the negative – negative emotions, thoughts, self-definitions and actions by other people. This is the heart of media and news organizations.

Counterbalance this negativity bias with constant reminders of the good around you – positive emotions, supportive thoughts, good people, and kind deeds. The firm belief that humankind is primarily good, that the vast majority of people in the world are well-intentioned, lies at the heart of compassion.

Compassion occurs when you feel the suffering or distress of another person. Compassion is the identification with and the understanding of another person’s situation, feelings, and motives. It stems from an understanding that we are all interconnected, that our survival is dependent upon our peaceful coexistence. Compassion, the ability to “walk in the other person’s shoes,” is the antidote to anger. The goal is to understand the situation from the perspective of the other person. Often this involves interpreting the situation with a large degree of grace, understanding and forgiveness. It is an act that few of us have been trained to do.

Our lack of emotional management skills is, in my opinion, the greatest failing of our society. A heightened awareness of the power of emotional management may be the highest good that can arise out of the Colorado Batman shooting. Research has shown that better emotional management is related to longer lives, improved job performance, better grades, better management skills, greater resiliency and much more. As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind, without educating the heart, is not education at all.”

Tragic, difficult times demand that we look inward to see a different view of ourselves, our species and of life. This new view brings meaning to that which is unfolding. When you feel trapped in circumstance, when you are overcome with anger or sadness, try, try, and then try again to assume a new perspective. Tragedy masks the opportunity for growth. The surest way out of untenable situations is to change your perspective and view the situation as a challenge to which you are meant to rise.

Challenge yourself by asking, “What am I supposed to learn from this?” Your answer will usually involve a human strength or value, such as compassion, interconnectedness, gratitude, resiliency, gratitude, freedom, spirituality, or family.  Your answer will lead to a deeper connection with yourself, with your loved ones and with humanity.

Learn to manage your ‘Wild Thing’, the emotional mind, with constant reminders of the good around you

The challenge is to find meaning in the senselessness. Many times, a simple awareness of the lesson or value is all that is necessary to free you from the binds of sadness and anger. If not, the new connection with your core values will fuel your courage to help you find new ways to persevere, survive and eventually thrive. This meaning may be as simple as

“I survived this, I can survive anything” or

“I am resilient” or

“I must value my loved ones more.”

August Wilson once said, “Confront the dark parts of yourself, and work to banish them with illumination and forgiveness. Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing. Use the pain as fuel, as a reminder of your strength.”  Tragic situations remind you of your strength, for you are more resilient than you ever realized.  You always have the choice to focus your attention on the positive, such as compassion and forgiveness.  Do not give into your fear. Be courageous. Overcome your fears. Look your fear in the eye and move forward in spite of it, for that is the very definition of courage. Do not believe that we humans are, at heart, evil. Choose to believe in the good in humanity.

The Roman poet Horace put it well, “Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.” Find your talents. Find your strengths. Use them to help others. Persevere.

About the Author

John Schinnerer, Ph.D. is in private practice teaching men the latest ways to turn down the volume on painful emotions such as anger, anxiety and stress. He also helps individuals discover successful, more meaningful lives via the latest in positive psychology. He has consulted with and presented to cutting-edge companies such as Kaiser Permanente, Sutter Health, RAMS, and Pixar. John’s offices are in Danville, California 94526. He graduated from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in educational psychology.  He has been an executive, speaker, entrepreneur and coach for over 14 years.  John is Founder of Guide To Self, a company that coaches men to happiness and success using the latest in positive psychology.  He hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a daily prime time radio show, in the SF Bay Area.   His areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to anger management.  He wrote the award-winning, “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought.”  His blog, Shrunken Mind, was recently recognized as one of the top 3 in positive psychology on the web ( ). His new video blog teaches people concrete steps for anger management ( His latest project is an eMagazine entitled, Happier, aimed at teaching positive psychology tools to laypeople. It is expected out in September of 2012.

Call of Duty & Mortal Kombat 9 Linked to Greater Aggression & Anger Management Problems


Mike’s fist explodes in the teenager’s face like a car bomb detonating in the middle of Times Square. He has heavy, brick hands that smack right through the skin and skull of his opponent. Hit after hit rain down – head, body, head, head. His opponent’s knees wobble from sledgehammer blows, the brain temporarily ceasing to defend the body. Sensing the opening, Mike grabs the shoulders of his adversary and yanks the boy’s head straight down onto his rapidly rising knee. The jolt snaps the boy’s head back as a thick spray of metallic-tasting, black blood spurts from his mouth and nose. Barely conscious, the boy’s head cracks against the pavement. Blood leaks onto the concrete. He is no longer a threat, yet Mike continues to kick his torso and stomp on his head. Mike picks up the limp, lifeless body and slams the other boy’s head against the hood of a 2008 Dodge Charger, leaving a dent in the hood and head. As he lifts his fist to continue the carnage, Mike’s friends grab his arm, saying “I think you’ve done enough. He’s finished.” Mike drops the boy on the ground, unconscious, bleeding, concussed and injured for life.

This fight and countless others occurred at Snake Park in Blackhawk, CA.  I see clients with anger management problems daily. My clients tell me all about the frequent fights that occur in the San Ramon Valley. My sense is that, over the past two decades, fighting among adolescent males has increased in aggression, violence and desensitization. Every adolescent male client that I see plays highly violent video games on a daily basis. Games such as Call of Duty (COD), KillZone, and Mortal Kombat 9. This is on top of playing realistic and painful war games with Air Soft guns.

And just to give you a little taste of what gamers are repeatedly seeing, here is a sample fatality from the latest Mortal Kombat…

So you can imagine my concern when the following study came out today…

Violent Video Games Reduce Brain Response to Violence and Increase Aggressive Behavior, Study Suggests


ScienceDaily (May 25, 2011) — Scientists have known for years that playing violent video games causes players to become more aggressive. The findings of a new University of Missouri (MU) study provide one explanation for why this occurs: the brains of violent video game players become less responsive to violence, and this diminished brain response predicts an increase in aggression.


“Many researchers have believed that becoming desensitized to violence leads to increased human aggression. Until our study, however, this causal association had never been demonstrated experimentally,” said Bruce Bartholow, associate professor of psychology in the MU College of Arts and Science.


During the study, 70 young adult participants were randomly assigned to play either a nonviolent or a violent video game for 25 minutes. Immediately afterwards, the researchers measured brain responses as participants viewed a series of neutral photos, such as a man on a bike, and violent photos, such as a man holding a gun in another man’s mouth. Finally, participants competed against an opponent in a task that allowed them to give their opponent a controllable blast of loud noise. The level of noise blast the participants set for their opponent was the measure of aggression.


The researchers found that participants who played one of several popular violent games, such as “Call of Duty,” “Hitman,” “Killzone” and “Grand Theft Auto,” set louder noise blasts for their opponents during the competitive task — that is, they were more aggressive — than participants who played a nonviolent game. In addition, for participants that had not played many violent video games before completing the study, playing a violent game in the lab caused a reduced brain response to the photos of violence — an indicator of desensitization. Moreover, this reduced brain response predicted participants’ aggression levels: the smaller the brain response to violent photos, the more aggressive participants were.


Participants who had already spent a lot of time playing violent video games before the study showed small brain response to the violent photos, regardless of which type of game they played in the lab.


“The fact that video game exposure did not affect the brain activity of participants who already had been highly exposed to violent games is interesting and suggests a number of possibilities,” Bartholow said. “It could be that those individuals are already so desensitized to violence from habitually playing violent video games that an additional exposure in the lab has very little effect on their brain responses. There also could be an unmeasured factor that causes both a preference for violent video games and a smaller brain response to violence. In either case, there are additional measures to consider.”


Bartholow said that future research should focus on ways to moderate media violence effects, especially among individuals who are habitually exposed. He cites surveys that indicate that the average elementary school child spends more than 40 hours a week playing video games — more than any other activity besides sleeping. As young children spend more time with video games than any other forms of media, the researchers say children could become accustomed to violent behavior as their brains are forming.


“More than any other media, these video games encourage active participation in violence,” said Bartholow. “From a psychological perspective, video games are excellent teaching tools because they reward players for engaging in certain types of behavior. Unfortunately, in many popular video games, the behavior is violence.”


The journal article, “This Is Your Brain on Violent Video Games: Neural Desensitization to Violence Predicts Increased Aggression Following Violent Video Game Exposure,” will be published in a forthcoming edition of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.


This spiraling trend of increasing glorification of violence has got to stop if we want to reduce aggression and violence in our teenagers. Today’s culture, replete with MMA, UFC, Air Soft guns, COD, street fights and dehumanization of others threatens the very fabric of our society. Where does it end?

What are your thoughts? What do you think? Have we gone too far when we paint a picture of victory as ripping out your opponent’s spine and beating him to death with his own skull as in the new Mortal Kombat 9? At what point are we oversaturating our children with the message that violence is an acceptable solution to disagreement? I’d love to hear your opinion!

All the best,

John Schinnerer Ph.D.

Founder of Guide to Self

Anger management geek

For a free PDF copy of John’s award-winning book on anger, anxiety and depression, simply visit click on the yellow book icon and enter your name and email address on the following page. You will be sent an email to verify your email address and then receive instant access to your book!  

University of Missouri-Columbia (2011, May 25). Violent video games reduce brain response to violence and increase aggressive behavior, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 26, 2011, from¬ /releases/2011/05/110525151059.htm


ADHD, Poor Emotional Control Run in Families – New Study

I’ve seen this phenomena for years in my private practice where I teach clients anger management tools – parents bring in their teenage son and want me to ‘fix’ his anger problem. The adolescent often has ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) and trouble managing his emotions (i.e., mainly anger, but also anxiety, shame, guilt and sadness). As I begin to work with the troubled teen, it becomes obvious that he is not the only person in the family with difficulty managing anger and other negative emotions.

Anger Management Difficulties & ADHD Run In Families

Online Anger Management Class For Parents Plus Individual Anger Management Coaching for Teenager

Typically, I’ll suggest that the parents take my online anger management course, in conjunction with individual coaching for their teenager. This has been highly effective in creating families that are cooperative, peaceful, and respectful.

This study just came out today demonstrating that ADHD and difficulty managing strong negative emotions, such as anger, run in families. In my mind, it’s a genetic predisposition which is activated by an emotionally volatile environment.

You may be interested in a guide book to your mind if you are reading this. If so, I have just the thing, and it’s free! You can instantly get a complimentary PDF copy of my award-winning book (Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought). It teaches you concrete steps to turn down the volume on anger and other negative emotions (as well as proven methods to turn up the volume on positive emotions). All you have to do is visit my main website at, click on the yellow book icon at the top left of the page and enter your name and email address.

For more information on my online anger management class, visit There are even four free online anger management classes available there!

To life, love and laughter,

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Founder, Guide to Self, Inc.

Anger management coach

Proudly Serving San Ramon, Danville, Alamo and Walnut Creek CA since 2000

Here is the write up of the study from Science Daily…

ADHD and anger in teens and families 

Combination of ADHD and Poor Emotional Control Runs in Families, Study Suggests

ScienceDaily (May 5, 2011) — A subgroup of adults with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also exhibit excessive emotional reactions to everyday occurrences, and this combination of ADHD and emotional reactivity appears to run in families. A study from a Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)-based research team finds that siblings of individuals with both ADHD and deficient emotional self-regulation (DESR) had a significantly greater risk of having both conditions than did siblings of those with ADHD alone.

The study, which will appear in the American Journal of Psychiatry, has received early online release.

“Our research offers strong evidence that heritable factors influence how we control our emotions,” says Craig Surman, MD, of the MGH Pediatric Psychopharmacology and Adult ADHD Program, the study’s lead author. “Emotion — like capacities such as the ability to pay attention or control physical movement — is probably under forms of brain control that we are just beginning to understand. Our findings also indicate that ADHD doesn’t just impact things like reading, listening and getting the bills paid on time; it also can impact how people regulate themselves more broadly, including their emotional expression.”

Along with the classic ADHD symptoms of trouble paying attention, excessive physical activity and poor impulse control, many individuals with ADHD display high levels of anger, frustration and impatience. In contrast to mood disorders, which are characterized by the persistence of specific emotions and behaviors, DESR involves emotional expressions that are brief and occur in reaction to situations that would be expected to produce similar but much less extreme responses in most individuals. For example, an individual who consistently reacts to minor disappointments by snapping at family members or co-workers or who displays great distress in response to small inconveniences may have DESR.

While some investigators have proposed that poor emotional control be included among the defining symptoms of ADHD, previous studies have not clarified whether the two conditions are separate conditions that appear together by chance or if they are related. Also previously unknown was whether DESR is transmitted among family members, something that is well known to be the case for ADHD.

The current study began with a group of 83 participants — 23 with ADHD alone, 27 with ADHD plus DESR, and 33 comparison participants with neither condition — and then enrolled one or more siblings of each of the original participants. Researchers conducted standardized diagnostic interviews with all participants to determine whether they met the criteria for ADHD and other mental health conditions. Diagnoses were confirmed by expert clinicians who were blinded to participants’ diagnoses or their sibling status. Participants also reported their current frequency of DESR-associated symptoms and were determined to have DESR if their control of emotional reactions was worse than that of 95 percent of a large group of individuals without ADHD, which included the comparison sample in this study.

As expected, ADHD was more common, in the siblings of original participants with ADHD than in the comparison group. However, co-occurrence of both ADHD and DESR was found almost exclusively among siblings of the original participants who reported both conditions.

“Other research that we and another group have conducted found that individuals with ADHD who also display emotional overreaction have a reduced quality of life and difficulties with personal relationships and social success,” Surman says. “Studies have shown that 4 percent of the adult population has ADHD, and this investigation is part of a larger study that found DESR in more than half of the enrolled adults with ADHD, suggesting that roughly 5 million adults in the U.S. may have the combination of ADHD and poor emotional control.”

He adds, “Increased recognition of emotional dysregulation, its frequency in adults with ADHD and the potential consequences of both conditions will help people get support for these challenges. Future research needs to examine both medication- and non-medication-based therapies and improve our understanding of who could benefit from these therapies.” Surman is an instructor in Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Story Source:

The above story is reprinted (with editorial adaptations by ScienceDaily staff) from materials provided by Massachusetts General Hospital.
Journal Reference:
1. C. B. H. Surman, J. Biederman, T. Spencer, D. Yorks, C. A. Miller, C. R. Petty, S. V. Faraone. Deficient Emotional Self-Regulation and Adult Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: A Family Risk Analysis. American Journal of Psychiatry, 2011; DOI: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2010.10081172

Positive Psychology In Anger Management

Hello! My name is John Schinnerer, Ph.D., founder of Guide to Self in Danville, CA.

I teach clients the latest proven tools to turn down the volume on anger. 

A perfect client for me is a man between the ages of 15 and 65 whose anger and irritation is driving his coworkers up a wall.

I use a novel positive psychology approach to anger management which means my clients take away feelings of hope and inspiration rather than guilt and shame. It also means that I teach clients proven tools to increase positive emotions as well as ways to turn down the volume on negative emotions.

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Guide to Self

Turning down the volume on anger with positive psychology!

For a free copy of John’s award-winning self-help book ‘Guide to Self: The Beginner’s Guide to Managing Emotion and Thought’ visit and enter your name and email for a free PDF version!

Stopping the Senseless Violence Before It Starts – Anti-Bullying and Jared Lee Loughner

The recent shooting that took place in Tucson, Arizona on January 8th, 2011 involving Jared Lee Loughner is an example of the deep pain, anger and frustration many Americans have suffered in the past few years. It is difficult to believe that anyone could walk into a peaceful gathering and open fire on a group of unarmed civilians which included children. It is apparent from his YouTube channel and his cowardly actions that Jared Lee Loughner suffers from a mental disorder. Which one is a matter of speculation at this point.

The violent actions of Mr. Loughner caused me to reflect on an article I wrote a couple years ago about the long-standing and deleterious effects of bullying on its victims. Interestingly, research has shown that it is not only punches that harm us, but malicious words as well.

New research from the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on 37 school shootings, including Columbine showed that almost 75% of student shooters felt bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others. Several shooters reported experiencing long-term, intense bullying and harassment from their classmates.

Police searching for evidence in East Hartford

I wonder to what extent Jared Lee Loughner suffered at the hands of bullies in his upbringing. On the other hand, to what extent did he bully others?

It is doubtful that any school-based program would have been sufficient to derail the heinous act of gunning down a federal judge, a congresswoman (Gabrielle Giffords) and several others. However, it is necessary to continue to get the message out that there is an undeniable wave of anger, frustration, stress and rage that is sweeping through the U.S. like a wildfire. 

It is our obligation to do everything we can to turn down the volume on this anger – angry rhetoric, bullying threats, intolerance, and all-or-nothing thinking. To that end, I am reprinting my article which an in depth look at bullies, their victims and what you can do to help out on either side.

Stopping Bullies Before They Wind Up Behind Bars

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

Guide To Self, Inc.

A ten-year-old boy is told repeatedly that he is a “weakling” and a “girly man,” yelled at and teased in a tone of voice tinged with disgust and disdain. Is this bullying? What if it leads to a fist fight? How do you know when someone crosses the line between cruel teasing and bullying? Does emotional bullying have any “real” physical consequences? And perhaps, most importantly, if you are dealing with a true bully, what do you do about it? Let’s start by figuring out what bullying is and then move on to what the consequences are and the best ways to deal with it.

Bullying Defined

Bullying takes place when a one or more kids repeatedly harass, intimidate, hit, or ignore another youngster who is physically weaker, smaller or has a lower social status. Realize that adults can also engage in bullying, particularly what I call emotional bullying. However, today we’ll focus on young people.

Note that a single fistfight between two kids of similar size and social power is not bullying; neither is the occasional teasing.

Physical bullying is seen in both boys and girls, but it is more common among boys. Girls typically use emotional bullying more so than boys. Bullying can take a number of forms.

  • Bullying can be physical (hitting, shoving, or taking money or belongings) or emotional (Causing fear by threats, insults and/or exclusion from conversations or activities).
  • Boys tend to use physical intimidation (hitting or threatening to hit) as well as insults, and they often act one-on-one. Girls are more likely to bully in groups by using the silent treatment towards another girl or gossiping about her.
  • Kids are often bullied through putdowns about their appearance, such as being teased about being different than other children or for the way they talk, dress, their size, their appearance and so on. Making fun of children’s religion or race occurs far less frequently. 1

Bullying begins in elementary school and is most common in middle school; it fades but not completely in high school. It usually occurs in school areas that are not well supervised by teachers or other adults, such as on playgrounds, lunch rooms, and bathrooms. Much of it takes place after school at a location known to students and unsupervised by adults. When I was in middle school, there was a Christmas tree farm where all fights took place. When I was a psych at a middle school, there was a dry creek bed nearby where fights took place. There is always a certain spot that is well known to the students where altercations occur. One way to prevent bullying is to be aware of this spot and police it regularly after school. And realize that the spot will move as soon as the adults become aware of it.

Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intended to cause harm or distress, occurs repeatedly over time, and occurs in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power or strength. Bullying can take many forms, including physical violence, teasing and name-calling, intimidation, and social exclusion. It can be related to hostile acts perpetrated against racial and ethnic minorities, gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual youth, and persons with disabilities.

Ninety percent of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of some form of bullying at some time in their past.  Boys are typically more physically aggressive (physical bullying), whereas girls rely more on social exclusion, teasing, and cliques (verbal or emotional bullying). Bullying can also take the form of cyber communication, e.g., via email (cyber bullying). It is estimated that one in four boys who bully will have a criminal record by age 30.

Who are the bullies?

Children who regularly bully their peers tend to be impulsive, easily frustrated, dominant in personality, have difficulty conforming to rules, view violence positively and are more likely to have friends who are also bullies. Boys who bully are usually physically stronger than their peers.

Moreover, several risk factors have been associated with bullying, including individual, family, peer, school, and community factors. With respect to family factors, children are more likely to bully if there is a lack of warmth and parent involvement, lack of parental supervision, and harsh corporal discipline. Some research suggests a link between bullying behavior and child maltreatment. Also, schools that lack adequate adult supervision tend to have more instances of bullying.

Psychological research has debunked several myths associated with bullying, including one that states bullies are usually the most unpopular students in school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, PhD, and colleagues involving fourth-through-sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms, as viewed by their fellow students and even their teachers. Another myth is that the tough and aggressive bullies are basically anxious and insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methods including projective tests and stress hormones, Olweus concludes that there is no support for such a view. Most bullies had average or better than average self-esteem.

Who is being bullied?

Children who are bullied are often cautious, sensitive, insecure, socially isolated, and have difficulty asserting themselves among their peers. Boys who are bullied tend to be physically weaker than their peers. Children who have been victims of child abuse (neglect, physical, or sexual abuse) or who have disabilities are also more likely to be bullied by their peers.

How common is bullying?

In 2002, it was reported that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied “sometimes” or more frequently during the school term. About 19 percent reported bullying others “sometimes” or more often. And six percent reported both bullying and having been bullied. However, in a 2003 study from UCLA, it was reported that almost 50% of sixth graders in two Los Angeles-area public schools report being bullied by classmates during a five-day period.

New research from the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on 37 school shootings, including Columbine, found that almost three-quarters of student shooters felt bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others. In fact, several shooters reported experiencing long-term and severe bullying and harassment from their peers.

What’s more, roughly 45% of teachers report having bullied a student in their past. This comes from a 2006 study which defined bullying “using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure.”

The effects of bullying

Bullying exerts long-term and short-term psychological effects on both bullies and their victims. Bullying behavior has been linked to other forms of antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, skipping and dropping out of school, fighting, and the use of drugs and alcohol.

Victims of bullying experience loneliness and often suffer humiliation, insecurity, loss of self-esteem, and thoughts of suicide. Furthermore, bullying can interfere with a student’s engagement and learning in school. The impact of frequent bullying often accompanies these victims into adulthood. A study done in 2003 found that emotional bullying such as repeated name-calling has as much of a damaging impact on well-being as being beat up. Dr. Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, states, “Bullying and particularly name calling can be degrading for adolescents. Posttraumatic stress is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a frightening event or ordeal in which physical harm occurred or was threatened, and research clearly suggests that it can be caused by bullying. It is important that peer victimization is taken seriously as symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression are common amongst victims and have a negative impact on psychological health.”

As with smoking and drinking, youthful bullying can have serious long-term effects. Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, PhD, for example, reported in “Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do” (Blackwell, 1993) that 60 percent of boys who bully had at least one conviction by age 24, and 40 percent had three or more convictions.

Other studies found that about 20 percent of American middle school children say they bully others sometimes. Such youngsters tend to have multiple problems: They’re more likely to fight, steal, drink, smoke, carry weapons and drop out of school than non-bullies.

That said, recent research has exploded some common myths about bullies: in particular, that they’re isolated loners with low self-esteem. In fact, many bullies are reasonably popular and tend to have “henchmen” who aid their negative behaviors.

New and innovative research

A nationally representative study of 15,686 students in grades six through 10, published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 285, No. 16) is among the most recent to document the scope of bullying in U.S. schools.

This study found that:

* Bullying occurs most frequently from sixth to eighth grade, with little variation between urban, suburban, town and rural areas.

* Males are more likely to be bullies and victims of bullying than females. Males are more likely to be physically bullied, while females are more likely to be verbally or psychologically bullied.

* Bullies and victims of bullying have difficulty adjusting to their environments, both socially and psychologically. Victims of bullying have greater difficulty making friends and are lonelier.

* Bullies are more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, and to be poorer students.

* Bully-victims–students who are both bullies and recipients of bullying–tend to experience social isolation, to do poorly in school and to engage in problem behaviors such as smoking and drinking.

In the past, bullying behavior was looked at in an either/or fashion – either you are a bully or you are a victim. However, some children report that they’re both a bully and a victim at different times.

Bully-victims experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than the bully-only group or the victim-only group. Those who fall into the bully-victim subgroup are more troubled in terms of internal problems. They carry a great deal of anger, fear and sadness within them and don’t have any tools to release it.

Studies have shown that, despite thinking they know how to identify bullies, teachers aren’t all that good at actually doing so. Administrators and teachers in schools overestimate their effectiveness in identifying and intervening in bullying situations.

This can have troubling implications. For example, to contain costs, some schools hold intervention programs in group settings.  If bully-victims are in the group, they may cause problems for students who are solely victims. It’s more productive for bully-victims to be treated separately.

Mediation programs for bullies and victims are also problematic. Peer mediation may be appropriate in resolving conflict between students with equal power, but bullying is a type of victimization. Just as child abuse is a form of victimization between parties of unequal power, so too is bullying.  

Solutions for bullying

Many anti-bullying programs don’t use research and are thus are likely to fail. Those that work off the myth that the root of bullying is low self-esteem may produce more confident bullies but they probably won’t have a significant effect on any bullying behavior.

What’s more, the common approach of grouping bullies together for group counseling tends to increases their bullying. You’ve just put them in a peer group of bullies who reinforce their destructive behaviors.

And conflict resolution or mediation–which assumes equal power between bullies and their victims–may retraumatize those who have been bullied. Pop treatments usually fail because they focus on only one aspect of the problem.

Bullying is a complex problem. There are multiple reasons for bullying. Successful programs take a holistic approach to preventing bullying. This means that they create new school norms for acceptable behavior, involving all facets of the school–students, parents and teachers, psychologists and more.  

 Global buffers

Indeed, key to the success of any intervention is appropriate adult guidance and support, presenters agreed. Adults supervise their children about 40 percent less than they did 30 years ago, statistics show, and this and related phenomena have been correlated with problem behaviors. The trend, they added, occurs at a time when teens report wanting more parental attention and family time.

Research shows that parents can be effective interventionists. In a 2001 article, when parents learned to effectively communicate information on binge drinking to their precollege teens, the young people returned from their first semester of college significantly less likely to drink than a control group.

Teaching your children emotional intelligence, the ability to manage one’s emotions results in less illicit drug use and far less physical violence. Those with lower EI had more substance abuse problems and more frequent fights.  

The biggest challenge for teens is to develop the self-regulatory abilities implied by high emotional intelligence, and that adults can aid in that process. That’s why I’m always talking to you about how to identify your emotions, reminding you to breathe deeply, stressing the importance of journaling, prayer, exercise, yoga, meditation and so on. These are all ways to become more aware of your emotions, so you can in turn manage your emotions more effectively. It’s all about emotional intelligence folks.

Parents must also be involved in their children’s lives and intervene in a supportive and empathetic nature if they believe their child or another child is being bullied. To help prevent bullying, parents should enforce clear and concise behavioral guidelines and reward children for positive, inclusive behavior.  Furthermore, parents should seek assistance from the school’s principal, teachers, and counselors if concerns regarding their child’s or another child’s behavior arises.

Sometimes bullying is easy to spot–a child pushing another on the playground or shoving a classmate’s face into the water fountain. Other times bullying is less overt–children spreading rumors, teasing peers or excluding a classmate from games at recess. This veiled type of bullying–known as relational or covert aggression–can be harder for parents and teachers to see and prevent. What’s more, previous research suggests that relational aggression increases and intensifies as children get older and become more emotionally and socially sophisticated.

Studies report that the rates of aggression are rising in middle school girls. “It’s always been the case that we expect rates of aggression and delinquency to increase for boys, while girls were considered somewhat protected,” said Julia Graber, a UF psychologist who did the research. “In this study, it’s clear that the differences between girls and boys are diminishing.”

Unlike boys, girls in the study reported feeling increasing amounts of anger between sixth and seventh grades, she said. Both groups reported a decline in self-control.

The study of 1,229 students at 22 public and parochial schools in New York City found that the percentage of girls committing five or more aggressive acts in a month, such as “hitting someone” or “pushing or shoving someone on purpose” jumped from 64 percent to 81 percent between sixth and seventh grades. For boys, it rose from 69 percent to 78 percent.

“Girls’ entry into adolescence is generally thought of as a vulnerable time for depression, and studies tend to focus on girls’ emotional experiences with sadness and depressed moods,” Graber said. “What’s interesting about this study is that we see an increase in a different negative emotional experience, and that’s anger.”

Bullying among primary school age children has become recognized as an antecedent to more violent behavior in later grades. Statistics on violence in our country tell a grim story with a clear message. Some children learn how to dominate others by foul means rather than by fair, setting a pattern for how they will behave as adults (bullies). Other children are more easily dominated, suffer miserably, often in silence, and develop a victim mentality that they may be unable to over-come as adults (victims). Action is needed to end purposeful harassment, and bullying.

Signs that a child is being bullied

Children who are being bullied may be embarrassed to talk about what is going on. Parents (or other adults) may notice signs that point to bullying. Your child may:

  • Have scrapes, bruises or other signs of physical injury.
  • Come home from school without some belongings such as clothes, or money.
  • Come home from school quite hungry, saying they lost his or her lunch.
  • Develop ongoing physical problems, such as headaches or stomachaches.
  • Have sleep disturbances and nightmares.
  • Pretend to be sick or make other excuses to avoid school or other situations.
  • Change their behavior, such as withdrawing, becoming sad, angry or aggressive.
  • Cry often.
  • Become more fearful when certain people or situations are mentioned.
  • See a sudden drop in grades or have more difficulty learning new material.
  • Talk about suicide as a way out.

How to help the child who is being bullied

The key to helping your child deal with bullying is to help him or her regain a sense of dignity and recover damaged self-esteem. To help ward off bullies, give your child these tips:

  • Hold the anger. It’s natural to want to get really angry with a bully, but that’s exactly the response the bully is aiming for. Not only will getting angry or aggressive not solve the problem, it will only make it worse. Bullies want to know they have control over your child’s emotions. Each time they get a reaction from your child, it adds fuel to the bully’s fire – getting angry just makes the bully feel more powerful. Remind your child that anyone that makes you angry has control over you. Help your child work at staying calm through deep breathing and turning their attention to more pleasant thoughts while being picked on.
  • Never get physical or bully back. Emphasize that your child should never use physical force (like kicking, hitting, or pushing) to deal with a bully. Not only does that show anger, your child can never be sure what the bully will do in response. Tell your child that it’s best to hang out with others, stay safe, and get help from an adult.
  • Act brave, walk away, and ignore the bully. Tell your child to look the bully in the eye and say something like, “I want you to stop right now.” Counsel your child to then walk away and ignore any further taunts. Encourage your child to “walk tall” and hold his or her head up high (using this type of body language sends a message that your child isn’t vulnerable). Bullies thrive on the reaction they get, and by walking away, or ignoring hurtful emails or instant messages, your child will be telling the bully that he or she just doesn’t care. Sooner or later, the bully will probably get bored with trying to bother your child.
  • Use humor. If your child is in a situation in which he or she has to deal with a bully and can’t walk away with poise, tell him or her to use humor or give the bully a compliment to throw the bully off guard. However, tell your child not to use humor to make fun of the bully.
  • Tell an adult. If your child is being bullied, emphasize that it’s very important to tell an adult. Teachers, principals, parents, and lunchroom personnel at school can all help to stop it. Studies show that schools where principals crack down on this type of behavior have less bullying.
  • Talk about it. It may help your child to talk to a guidance counselor, teacher, or friend – anyone who can give your child the support he or she needs. Talking can be a good outlet for the fears and frustrations that can build when your child is being bullied.
  • Use the buddy system. Enlisting the help of friends or a group may help both your child and others stand up to bullies. The bully wants to be recognized and feel powerful, after all, so a lot of bullying takes part in the presence of peers. If the bully is picking on another child, tell your child to point out to the bully that his or her behavior is unacceptable and is no way to treat another person. This can work especially well in group situations (i.e., when a member of your child’s circle of friends starts to pick on or shun another member). Tell your child to make a plan to buddy up with a friend or two on the way to school, on the bus, in the hallways, or at recess or lunch – wherever your child thinks he or she might meet the bully. Tell your child to offer to do the same for a friend who’s having trouble with a bully. When one person speaks out against a bully, it gives others license to add their support and take a stand, too.
  • Develop more friendships by joining social organizations, clubs, or sports programs. Encourage regular play visits with other children at your home. Being in a group with other kids may help to build your child’s self-esteem and give your child a larger group of positive peers to spend time with and turn to.

Of course, you may have to intervene in persistent cases of bullying. That can involve walking to school with your child and talking to your child’s teacher, school counselor, or principal. Safety should be everyone’s concern. If you’ve tried the previous methods and still feel the need to speak to the bullying child’s parents, it’s best to do so within the context of the school, where a school official, such as a counselor, can mediate.

If your child is the bully
Learning your child is the bully can be shocking. But it’s important to remain calm and avoid becoming defensive, as that can make a bad situation worse. You may have a greater impact if you express disappointment – not anger – to your child.

Because bullying often stems from unhappiness or insecurity, try to find out if something is bothering your child. Children who bully aren’t likely to confess to their behavior, but you’ll need to try to get your child to talk by asking some specific, hard-hitting questions, such as:

  • How do you feel about yourself?
  • How do you think things are going at school and at home?
  • Are you being bullied?
  • Do you get along with other kids at school?
  • How do you treat other children?
  • What do you think about being considered a bully?
  • Why do you think you’re bullying?
  • What might help you to stop bullying?

To get to the bottom of why your child is hurting others, you may also want to schedule an appointment to talk to your child’s school counselor or another mental health professional (your child’s doctor should be able to refer you to someone).

If you suspect that your child is a bully, it’s important to address the problem to try to mend your child’s mean ways. After all, bullying is violence, and it often leads to more antisocial and violent behavior as the bully grows up. In fact, as many as one out of four elementary school bullies have a criminal record by the time they’re 30.

Helping your child stop bullying
Although certainly not all bullying stems from family problems, it’s a good idea to examine the behavior and personal interactions your child witnesses at home. If your child lives with taunting or name-calling from a sibling or from you or another parent, it could be prompting aggressive or hurtful behavior outside the home. What may seem like innocent teasing at home may actually model bullying behaviors. Children who are on the receiving end of it learn that bullying can translate into control over children they perceive as weak.

Constant teasing – whether it’s at home or at school – can also affect a child’s self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem can grow to feel emotionally insecure. They can also end up blaming others for their own shortcomings. Making others feel bad (bullying) can give them a sense of power.

Of course, there will be moments that warrant constructive criticism: for example, “I counted on you to put out the trash and because you forgot, we’ll all have to put up with that stench in the garage for a week.” But take care not to let your words slip into criticizing the person rather than the behavior: “You’re so lazy. I bet you just pretend to forget your chores, so you don’t have to get your hands dirty.” Focus on how the behavior is unacceptable, rather than the person.

Home should be a safe haven, where children aren’t subjected to uncomfortable, harsh criticism from family and loved ones.

In addition to maintaining a positive home atmosphere, there are a number of ways you can encourage your child to give up bullying:

  • Emphasize that bullying is a serious problem. Make sure your child understands you will not tolerate bullying and that bullying others will have consequences at home. For example, if your child is cyber bullying, take away the technologies he or she is using to torment others (i.e., computer, cell phone to text message or send pictures). Or instruct your child to use the Internet to research bullying and note strategies to reduce the behavior. Other examples of disciplinary action include restricting your child’s curfew if the bullying and/or teasing occur outside of the home; taking away privileges, but allowing the opportunity to earn them back; and requiring your child to do volunteer work to help those less fortunate.
  • Teach your child to treat people who are different with respect and kindness. Teach your child to embrace, not ridicule, differences (i.e., race, religion, appearance, special needs, gender, economic status). Explain that everyone has rights and feelings.
  • Find out if your child’s friends are also bullying. If so, seek a group intervention through your child’s principal, school counselor, and/or teachers.
  • Set limits. Stop any show of aggression immediately and help your child find nonviolent ways to react.
  • Observe your child interacting with others and praise appropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement is more powerful than negative discipline.
  • Talk with school staff and ask how they can help your child change his or her bad behavior. Be sure to keep in close contact with the staff.
  • Set realistic goals and don’t expect an immediate change. As your child learns to modify his or her behavior, assure your child that you still love him or her – it’s the behavior you don’t like.

Be aware that bullying also takes place between adults, as well as between adults and children. Anywhere there is a power imbalance; there is the risk of bullying. Athletic coaching is a fertile ground for bullying young athletes. As more is learned about bullying and the serious consequences of it, more and more zero tolerance policies will be adopted. Until then, stay aware of subtle cues of bullying in children and teens. The first step is awareness.  With greater awareness, bullying can be nipped in the bud.

About the Author

John Schinnerer, Ph.D.

John Schinnerer is President and Founder of Guide To Self, a company that focuses on coaching clients to achieve their potential using the latest in psychology, psychoneuroimmunology and physiology. Most recently, John hosted over 200 episodes of Guide To Self Radio, a prime time radio show, in the San Francisco Bay Area. He graduated summa cum laude from U.C. Berkeley with a Ph.D. in psychology. John has been a coach and psychologist for over 10 years.

John’s areas of expertise range from positive psychology, to emotional awareness, to anger management to sports psychology. He is a noted speaker and author on topics such as emotional intelligence, sports psychology, and executive leadership.

John wrote the award-winning book, “Guide To Self: The Beginner’s Guide To Managing Emotion and Thought,” which was awarded the “Best Self-Help Book of 2007”. He writes an award-winning blog on positive psychology, Shrunken Mind.  He has written articles on corporate ethics, anger management, bullying, positive psychology and EQ in the workplace for Workspan magazine,, and Business Ethics. He has given numerous presentations, radio shows and seminars to tens of thousands of people for organizations such as SHRM, NCHRA, KNEW and KDIA.