By Kelly Frances
"Tears are welling up as I will no longer see my family in return for ending the days of harassment. Please don’t be sad because I am not here any longer, and please don’t kill yourself like I just did.”
The country has been riveted for weeks by the suicide of a bullied student at middle school in Daegu. The student’s chilling farewell note left parents, teachers, and government administrators struggling to understand and mitigate the factors surrounding bullying.
The case, combined with one of the highest rates of teen suicide in the OECD, has raised a serious question: What transforms a child into a relentless bully?
"It's a complicated question, but the answer has consistent themes,” said Park Jin-seng, a psychiatrist and psychotherapist who specializes in family counseling.
"Bullying occurs in every human social system, and at the core lies a breakdown in communication."
Park alludes to two personality types: masochistic and sadistic, or the stereotypical victim and bully, respectively. One type rarely exists without the other, and they often come from similar environments.
"One exists because of the other,” he said, referring to a Buddhist teaching: Since there is this, there is that ― Vesak, May, 1984.
Masochistic individuals often perceive a lack of love or affection from parents, or respect from seniors. This feeling of inadequacy robs them of the ability to feel self-love or pride.
"A healthy child feels empowered to express themselves emotionally, share their pain openly with parents, and refuse to tolerate abuse. Those with masochistic tendencies don't do this easily. They are especially prone to victimization."
Park says that bullies often have had experiences similar to those whom they victimize, often stemming from family experience, and may include physical or sexual abuse.
"In the case of a typical schoolyard bully, there is anger aimed at an 'untouchable entity,’ such as a parent or teacher. Therefore, the child projects this anger onto a weaker target."
According to Park, indifference can be as damaging as aggressive disapproval.
"Traditionally, Koreans associate success with examinations, dating back to the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910). In some cases, a parent or authority figure will express disappointment or neglect when an individual cannot perform as desired. This might result in a lessening of affection, or the sense that the person is 'hopeless'. People who sense this often become rebellious, losing interest in their own development. The resulting feeling of inadequacy sets the stage for anger, and in many cases, bullying."
Park, who served as a doctor for 3 years in the Korean armed forces, says the dynamic can be observed in any setting and is particularly prominent in the military.
"Over-achievers are favored, and those who suffer a handicap feel a lack of support. The emphasis on emotions is minimal, something that must change to prevent further bullying and victimization."
Adults can have difficulty knowing if a child is being bullied or has become a bully him or herself.
Parents and teachers should be wary of sudden changes in behavior, such as a shift from active to passive expression style. If a child is losing money, a bully may be stealing it from him or her. Conversely, a child with unexplained money might be bullying classmates for it. Unexplained injuries such as bruises or scrapes might be a sign of schoolyard violence.
"Emotionally troubled children often keep diaries,” he said, "due to the perception that they cannot communicate their pain to anyone. Healthy people talk about their suffering. Those living in fear suffer in silence or project their emotions. It's a cycle that perpetuates."
Ultimately, communication is the key.
"The solution lies in improved communication, beginning with person to person, and extending throughout the entire system,” he said. "We need to put more emphasis on the emotional wellbeing of all, not only over-achievers."
The writer is a guest columnist from Ontario, Canada, and is currently living in Seoul. She welcomes topic suggestions from readers and can be reached at email@example.com.