DAILY / MAY 7, 2012, VOL. 2, NO. 20   Send Feedback l View Online
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2012 APA's Annual Meeting Special Edition
Understanding Group Dynamics Key to Eliminating Bullying

Stuart TwemlowCan we eliminate bullying from our schools and communities? Stuart Twemlow, M.D., author of preventing bullying and school violence by American Psychiatric Publishing, gave a blunt answer at APA’s 2012 annual meeting in Philadelphia. "If we narrow the definition sufficiently to what I call true bullies, essentially psychopaths in childhood clothes, they are responsible for a tiny percentage of school bullying problems, and we don’t have good solutions for dealing with them. On the other hand, if we see dominance as a normal part of the way animals like ourselves and other primates like gorillas communicate and even solve problems, then the problem is cast in a very different garb.”

Twemlow pointed out that repetitive power struggles are entirely normal, and people engage in them every day, excluding, of course, power struggles that become newsworthy, like suicides or homicides. Humans, along with many other mammals, have built-in safeguards to mitigate power struggles so that they are not lethal. Twemlow reported that in his research dating back over 40 years, the dramatic lethal examples get more publicity than they deserve.

“We are not a run with fledgling murderous psychopaths, nor do we have a cadre of disgruntled teenagers waiting to ‘off’ themselves,” said Twemlow. He suggested a different conceptualization of bullying:

• Bullies do only what bystanders allow.
Twemlow said that his research has shown that what keeps bully performances going is having an audience. He proposed, along with his international team of researchers who have worked together more than 20 years, that to the identification of preventive measures requires research on group behavior, the role of the audience, and the way the audience unconsciously lets the situation get quickly out of control.

• Bullying is a social process, not a person.
Managing bullies and victims behaviorally is like treating a symptom only when the cause of the problem is known. Social-skills training won't change the cause of the bullying problem, and so a behavioral approach will ultimately fail.

• Sustainability is the research key, and large group dynamics in schools and communities need to be investigated.
Twemlow said that people need to see schools as an integral part and reflective of the communities in which they exist and be prepared to give up the idea that the ability to halt bullying lies in the hands of experts or researchers; that ability lies in teachers, school staff, and students who can meet, with the help of a psychodynamically sympathetic clinician, to look at the unconscious complexities at work without wanting to oversimplify them.



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