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Interview: Bullying and Peer Pressure

Bullying and Peer Pressure

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D. Talks to us about Bullying and Peer Pressure.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D.

Is bullying as big an issue today as it was say 10 years ago?

Thanks to all of the research that has taken place in the last 10 years, we are now much more aware of the psychological and educational consequences of bullying.  We know it is harmful to the perpetrator, harmful to the bystander, and most harmful to the victims.  In the sense that we are now fully aware of the harm, bullying is an issue that has taken on far more urgency than it had in the past.  We have an ethical responsibility to provide all children with safe and civil schools.

Do you see a difference in how bullying happens today – for example social media, mobile phones?

Clearly, cyber bullying has emerged as the latest form.  Fuelled by anonymity and aided by viral transmission, cyber bullying has gained in prominence.  But this is just an example of technology.  Bullying ultimately reflect on character.  No technology causes bullying.  That is why ultimately, we need worry less about the modality and more about the motivation.  If we are seeing an increase in bullying and related behaviors of harassment and intimidation, it is due to more children feeling left out, having their status threatened, feeling pessimistic about their future, lacking empathy, perceiving little control over the world around them, and more generally lacking clear positive goals.

With current media coverage on Bullying and Cyber Bullying is the situation improving?

There is more legislative action, such as the Anti-Bullying Law in New Jersey in the U.S., and there is more awareness, exemplified by the greater attention to bullying being paid by CNN.   But the attention span of the public is short, and it’s important to not assume that we have turned the corner on bullying, especially in its more subtle forms, and most of all, intimidation.

Bullying seems to not have improved in the wider public domain, and this can’t be lost on children.  Bullying tactics seem pervasive in civic life and political discourse, nationally and internationally.  We still see gender discrimination, and other forms of insensitivity that now come under most definitions of bullying, i.e., when relationships with a power differential are conducted in exploitative, coercive, or limiting ways.

You have a Golden Rule in your Amazon book Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, can you tell us more about this?

Everyone knows the Golden Rule:  Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.   But we find that is a little weak for the demands of the 21st Century.  So we refer to that as the 18 Karat Golden Rule and we suggest parents follow the 24 Karat Golden Rule: Do Unto Your Children as You Would Have Others Do Unto Your Children. It creates a higher standard for parents and asks them to not say or do anything to their children that that they would not tolerate if carried out by a stranger.   It really means to be careful how you speak to your children—not only what you say to them, but what you say to them about others.  Attitudes are transmitted as easily and subtly as the common cold.  And parents are much more influential on their children than they realize.  Parents and families often plant the seeds of prejudice inadvertently.  A casual remark, a “jest” that is taken literally by a child, describing someone in ways that call attention to a single surface feature (e.g., that fat guy; that Spanish-looking woman)—all these can lead our children to focus more on surface attributes and stereotypes rather than a deeper understanding of people as individuals.  We say a lot more about this in Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, which is available at and

As another way of helping parents (and teachers) build tolerance and emotional intelligence in younger children, colleagues in Israel and I collaborated on a book called, “Talking Treasure: Stories to Help Build Emotional Intelligence and Resilience in Young Children” (, 2012). This book, which at first will be read by adults to children and then over-and-over by the children themselves, contains retelling of timeless stories with important lessons for how to live with others in non-violent and positive ways.  The conversations suggested after the stories will allow parents and teachers to help children understand differences and to see strengths instead of weaknesses in people with physical and other challenges.

You also cover Peer Pressure – which is being driven more by children’s need to seem popular. How can a parent help their children with this? 

We define peer pressure as, “following other people’s goals for you.”  This comes when children do not know their own values, and, in essence, what they stand for.  These values need to be communicated clearly by parents and by schools because otherwise, the media will provide those goals for children.  And this is what is happening now.  Children are being sent subtle and not to subtle messages about the importance of popularity, of having the “latest” of everything, of engaging in extreme and risky behaviors as a way of getting noticed and appreciated by others, and of resolving conflicts through angry words and violent acts.

Parents need to send clear messages about what they believe is the right way to behave with other people, in the home, in the community, and in school.  And schools also need to be clear about the positive behavior and character expectations they have of all children.  Children may seem to overtly rebel against this structure but in reality, the vast majority appreciates it and feels comforted by having clear standards and knowing that adults actually care about and will enforce them.  This also prevents some of the vigilante behavior we see in bullying.  At times, kids escalate in the hope of getting the adults around them to act like adult and assert proper limits and boundaries.  Adults, for their part, must be clear about the dangers of bullying and not put forward “boys will be boys” and related messages that condone mistreatment of others.

Maurice J. Elias in his own words: My graduate training was in Clinical Psychology at the University of Connecticut.  Early on, in one of my practice in a Hartford, Connecticut, facility that provided treatment to children and families, I heard staff members lamenting that “if only the schools had done their job,” “if only the parents knew how to parent,” “if only adequate prenatal and early child care and education had been provided”…. All of these things seemed to me as if they could have, and should have happened.  This, combined with my learning about research showing the inequities in who received services and who received high quality services, led me toward a prevention perspective.  When I was young, I lived in the Bronx, NY, and I saw many children who were not part of the white, Christian majority get teased and bullied.  This fuelled my sense of injustice and how to prevent it.  For the past 33 years, I have been a professor of Clinical-Community Psychology at Rutgers University, Director of the Social-Emotional Learning Lab, and I have focused on creating school-based prevention programs.  I think the easiest access to my work is at the web site,, where I write a blog on social-emotional and character development.

Maurice J. Elias, Ph.D.

Psychology Department Professor of Psychology and Ph.D. Clinical Practicum/Internship Coordinator

Academic Director, The Collaborative, Rutgers’ Center for Community-Based Research, Service, and Public Scholarship (

Coordinator, Improving School Climate for Academic and Life Success (ISCALS), Rutgers Center for Applied Psychology

Rutgers University

New Brunswick, New Jersey

[email protected]

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