Bullies and the Bullied: Closer than they appear

By Erin Anderssen
Saturday, April 3, 2004 Globe and Mail

They are the kids the teachers tend to ignore because they don't make any noise. The ones you might see on the playground, hovering at the edge of the crowd, as if they wish they could join in but aren't sure how. They are easy pickings for the classroom bully.

But the bullied child shares more with the bully than you might think.

In the past two decades, science has begun to unravel both the origins and social cost of shyness, and build a case for why parents and schools need to give the quiet kid in the corner the same attention they give the rabble-rouser in the sandbox. And they need to do it early. Kenneth Rubin, a Canadian researcher at the University of Maryland who has tracked shy kids over time, says that as early as Grade 2, their social awkwardness has begun to alienate them from their peers.

Interviewed at the age of 10, when they are painfully aware they don't fit in, the children in his study expressed heartbreaking loneliness. "They are terribly unhappy kids," says Dr. Rubin, director of the Centre for Children, Relationships and Culture at the university. "It's a sad story. There is a lot of intervention going on with aggression. There is practically zilch going on for these kids."

And yet, the research suggests they may need it just as much. Like the aggressive child who is rejected from his peer group for being too physical, the shy child is also more likely to face rejection, but for being socially immature both, Dr. Rubin observes, miss out on the development that early play teaches. They are more likely to be poorer problem solvers, and like overly aggressive kids, more likely to do less well in school not because they aren't smart, but because they find school, especially if they are targeted by a bully, to be an unwelcoming place.

Like their aggressive counterparts, Dr. Rubin says, they may have more trouble concentrating on tasks: They may look studious at their desks, he says, "but really they are looking over their shoulders to make sure that nothing nasty happens to them." The pattern, he says, develops as early as the age of 4. Studies have found that once-shy kids have a greater risk for depression in adulthood, and can be slow to make major life steps like starting careers and families.

"It turns out," says Carleton University researcher Robert Coplan in Ottawa, "they aren't hurting anybody else, but they are hurting themselves."

In recent years, the science has focused on understanding the biology of child anxiety. Some studies have found that infants and toddlers with higher heart rates at rest, or greater activity in the right frontal part of their brains the area that handles negative emotions ended up looking more socially anxious as preschoolers. Other work has also focused on how the nervous may overreact in the lead-up to a social encounter. Researchers are still trying to pinpoint what it all means. But in social settings, Dr. Coplan says, "these kids may be working against their own physiology, and it's a real challenge for them."

An environmental link has also been uncovered. Having one good friend, for instance, can be protection against the risk factors. On the home front, several studies have found that children prone to shyness who are raised by overprotective parents are more likely to have problems later.

Dr. Rubin points out that it is a natural reaction for parents to want to protect their child when they see them afraid or anxious. But anxiety researchers say parents should be encouraged to gently push their child into new experience, teaching them to talk about their emotions, even role-playing before social events. But even then, a shy child is unlikely to bloom into a super extrovert, says Dr. Coplan, who hosts workshops for parents in Ottawa.

And being extroverted is something that the individualistic North American society places a high value upon, especially for boys, who usually have the hardest time when they are shy. Cultural studies have revealed a striking difference, for instance, in the outcomes for shy children in China, where conformity is celebrated -- they end up as leaders among their peers, and academic stars.

Of course, being shy a feeling almost everyone experiences at one time or another doesn't automatically predict a negative outcome.

"I certainly know people who are productive, successful individuals with good, satisfying lives, who don't like to go out to big social events, crowded restaurants, big sports events. They aren't newscasters, or professors lecturing at a university," concludes Paul Hastings, who studies anxiety at Concordia University in Montreal. But they are happy.