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General strain theory claims that individuals who have more strain or stress in their lives, and feel mad or discouraged and have negative emotions because of their strains, are more likely to engage in bad or criminal behavior (Agnew, 1992). Although the issue of bullying has been studied more often in the last few years, it has been difficult to determine what leads children to become so aggressive towards other children and to be bullies. It seems evident that many children are bullies because of underlying issues that they have within themselves. Agnew (1992) points out that children’s negative relationships that they have with other people such as their parents, guardians, siblings, peers, and the people they interact with on a daily basis or their positive relationships they have with deviant friends can pressure a child into delinquent behavior, such as bullying. The number of bullying incidents has become even more prevalent in recent years due to the availability of more places to bully others. For example, children can now bully at school, outside of school, online, or through cell phones, which allows the bully to abuse their victim(s) at any time that they want.
General strain theory evolved from the models of strain theories that were developed by Merton (1938), Cohen (1955), and Cloward and Ohlin (1960) and was developed by Agnew throughout the 1980s (Agnew, 1992). To fully comprehend general strain theory and what it pertains to, it is important to understand control theory and differential association/social learning theory. Agnew (1992) states that all of these theories are sociological theories and that they explain crime and delinquency by the individual’s relationships in society. General strain theory is notable from social control and differential association in its description of the relationship that leads to delinquency and the stimulus for crime (Agnew, 1992). Agnew (1992) stated that although control theory and differential association theory focus on relationships as well, general strain theory broadened the focus to look at the negative stimuli that is presented by the relationship with others.
The main aspect of general strain theory is that is focuses on negative relationships with others (Agnew, 1992). Agnew (1992) explains that there are three major types of strain “each referring to a different type of negative relationship with others. Other individuals may prevent one from achieving positively valued goals, remove or threaten to remove positively valued stimuli that one possesses, or present or threaten to present one with noxious or negatively valued stimuli” (pg. 50). Strain theory argues that delinquency is because of the pressure of negative emotions and these emotions may lead to the child to use crime to achieve goals, be delinquent to escape from the negativity, or to use drugs to rid their negative emotions (Agnew, 1992).
Bullying is often a response to stressful situations and/or strain and many children use it because bullying allows them to let their anger or animosity out on other people. Agnew (1992) states that general strain theory proposes that a number of conditioning factors, such as poverty, abuse, living conditions, aggression, or violence affect which children are more likely to commit crimes or deviant behavior as a response to strain. Strain makes people feel angry, worried, frustrated, depressed, anxious and miserable. These bad feelings create pressure and issues that a person needs to get rid of one way or another. Undoubtedly, bullying others- whether in person or online- is something strained youth might partake in to let go of their negative feelings. Teasing, taunting, depreciating, and otherwise tormenting other children provides a bully with a sense of power and authority. Shetgiri, Lin, Avila, and Flores (2012) found that education achievement, family income, and the family structure were strongly associated with bullying. Shetgiri et al. (2012) also stated that poverty, abuse- whether it is psychological or physical- bad neighborhoods, and seeing domestic violence are huge conditioning factors that can easily lead a child into being a bully.
Consequently, many children are in harsh circumstances that cause a lot of stress, which can lead them to lash out. Poverty, like many other strains, can lead a child to pick on others as an escape or as a means to feel more powerful. Shetgiri et al. (2012) noted, “children living in poverty had almost twice the odds of being bullies” (pg. 2282). Similarly, Chaux, Molano, and Podlesky (2009) found the same thing stating that children living in a poor socio-economic family have a higher risk of becoming a bully. Due to poverty, children may have low self-esteem, which may cause them to react quickly and negatively to other children by emotionally, mentally, or physically hurting the victim. Woolley, Grogan-Kaylor, Gilster, Karb, Gant, Reischl, and Alaimo (2008) state that poverty usually implies that a person is living in a run-down, violent, or unsafe neighborhood or environment. Poverty and seeing violence or hostility is significantly related because having a low-income means being in a low-income neighborhood and not being able to be a part of the privileged society. This all relates back to general strain theory because due to the neighborhood, poverty then allows a child to see violence such as fighting, gang rivalry, shootings, break-ins, etc. and then puts violence into that child’s brain as a “normal” trait. The child then bullies as a response to the stress of the neighborhood and the viewing of violence. Chaux et al. (2009) argued that there is a significant relationship between being exposed to violence in the community and aggressive behavior mediated by normal beliefs supporting aggression. This means that the child sees aggression more often than not and they view it as ordinary. Seeing the constant aggression and violence is an influence on their life and leads them to being destructive and forceful as well. Also indicated by Chaux et al. (2009), is that it is likely that children who see violence in their community or neighborhoods learn that aggression, including bullying, is a way that the child can reach some sort of personal goal and obtain power or status. The negative emotions, like rage and irritation, brought upon the child because of the violence ties back to the general strain theory and how these emotions lead to crime.
In addition to poverty and neighborhood influences, family has a large impact on the way a person acts and lives his or her life. Different struggles, like being ridiculed, yelled at, or even the child being bullied can cause that child to react destructively. Moon, Hwang, and McCluskey (2011) explained that children who experience higher levels of family conflict, punishment from their parents, or criminal victimization are more likely to bully other children. Like Agnew (1992) clarified, negative relationships and the persistence of these relationships lead to delinquency because of the lack of attachment. Children who experience, have experienced, or witnessed abuse tend to have a lot more issues throughout their lives. This ties back to witnessing violence in the community because it is the same concept about viewing violence as normal. For example, Mustanoja, Luukkonen, Hakko, Räsänen, Säävälä, and Riala (2011) found that there is an association between domestic violence and a child’s inclination to become a bully to others. Mustanoja et al. (2011) also suggest that there is a vicious cycle of violence that starts at the home and it leads an individual to be depressed, have low self-esteem, or to become assertive to their peers. Witnessing domestic violence can be very problematic in children and how they grow up. General strain theory argues that when children cannot escape from painful situations, such as domestic violence, it can lead them to a life of delinquent acts (Agnew, 1992). A child is supposed to see love and happiness in their household, not pain and violence. Constantly watching parents fight can lead a child to think that fighting is okay, power is important, verbal abuse is necessary, and brutality is the answer. Witnessing such horrible events, such as domestic violence or abuse, on a regular basis can make a child angry and cause the child to snap. Frisén, Jonsson, and Persson (2007) explained that children and adolescents who bully share many characteristics of aggressive children, including hot temperament, a less fortunate family, and a view of relationships that value aggression and bullying as a means of reaching power. Many children exposed to domestic violence are more likely to be aggressive and physical mainly as a result of what they have learned from the people around them that they care about the most. Bowes, Arseneault, Maughan, Taylor, Caspi, and Moffitt (2009) found in their study that children who witnessed domestic violence had an increased risk for being a bully. Parents do not always understand how much their actions effect their children and they may believe that their violence is not going to have an impact. However, it is clear that parental actions within the home are big factors when it comes to what a child believes is right or wrong.
Seeing domestic violence in the home is a big issue and so are parental attachment and how the parent acts toward the child as in whether they show anger or love often. Referring to the general strain theory, Agnew (1992) says “delinquency is most likely when the adolescent is not attached to parents, school or other institutions or when parents or others fail to monitor and effectively sanction deviance” (pg. 49). Neglecting a child or not showing affection or positive emotions is considered a form of psychological abuse. Messman-Moore and Coates (2007) found that children who are psychologically abused might cope by being more controlling, dictating, or insensitive. They also may respond to the abuse with mistrust or abuse towards others. Shetgiri et al. (2012) stated that the parents’ perception of anger and how they act out on their child is associated with higher odds of the child becoming a bully. In other words, having a parent constantly angry can cause a child to become a bully due to low feelings of acceptance and love. In addition, Shetgiri et al. (2012) went on to say that children of parents who were frequently angry with their child and often felt that their child bothered them a lot had more than double the odds of becoming a bully. To relate this back to general strain theory, Agnew (1992) explains that a child who is unfairly treated by their parents they are more likely to do the same to their peers. It is evident that children are often brought into this world “on accident” and it is sad when a parent does not want their child and shows it with constant psychological abuse. Adolescence is an extremely important time in a child’s life and warmth and caring needs to be had in order for a child to grow up with the right emotions and to have the right thought processes instilled in their brains. Parents are the behavioral models to a child and it is important that they promote positive reinforcement so that the child understands the right way to behave.
In addition to parental warmth and psychological abuse, physical abuse is another major factor when it comes to adolescents bullying. Patterson (2005) found that when a child is physically abused it could cause issues within that child, such as depression or anger. Espelage, Bosworth, and Simon (2000) noted that physical discipline within the family was significantly related to bullying. Espelage et al. (2000) also found that students who said that they would be physically disciplined when they broke a rule at home were more likely to participate in bullying. According to Patterson (2005), long-term repeated abuse can be a chronic stressor that causes a lot of strain on a child and can lead them into becoming a bully. For example, a child who is continuously spanked can become anger and abusive toward other children. Child abuse and neglect reflects back to the general strain theory because the negative emotions brought upon the child from the abuse leads to delinquency and aggression (Agnew, 1992). Being physically abused can lead a child to thinking that abuse is normal or a way to get through to someone. Physical abuse can have a huge mental impact on a child and can push them into a deviant life (Bowes et al. (2009). Stacks, Oshio, Gerard, and Roe (2009) claim that child punishment is associated with negative behaviors from a child, that it can lead a child to be antisocial or more aggressive, and that the child may be more likely to have decreased mental health due to the abuse. This relates to the study done by Mohapatra, Irving, Paglia-Boak, Wekerle, Adlaf, and Rehm (2010) because the study focused on abuse and children being more likely to become bullies. Mohapatra et al. (2010) found in the study that children who did not have an intact family or had family involvement with child protective services (CPS) were very likely to become bullies. Having child protective services involved within a family usually indicates that there have been forms of abuse or neglect towards a child or children. Physical abuse is a huge element and should never be left unnoticed as a major aspect that leads children into aggressive life styles.
Throughout this paper, general strain theory was shown to have relation to the delinquent crime of bullying. Data is a huge factor when testing if stains and bullying are related. “A scientific theory must be testable by objective, repeatable evidence. If a theory cannot be tested against empirical findings, it has no scientific value. It is not enough for a theory to fit known facts about crime or empirical evidence consistent with its propositions” Akers an Sellers (2013). Measuring strains and bullying is an important issue when trying to diminish or lower the bullying rates. If the factors that lead to bullying are found, there is a better chance to lower bullying inside and outside of schools.
Moon et al. (2011) did a study to look at the major factors that lead a child to bully. Moon et al. (2011) found that low self-control was related to bullying, children with family conflict, punishment, or victimization were more likely to bully, and that anger was significantly related to bullying. Chaux et al. (2009) also did a study and found that witnessing neighborhood violence and children with less anger management abilities were significantly predictors of bullying.
General strain theory has been used to attempt to reduce delinquency by making programs to help minimize the strains that adolescents endure. In order to help decrease bullying while using the general strain theory, the most noticeable efforts occur within the juvenile, such as anger management or gang violence prevention, and within the family, such as welfare programs.
Candelaria, Fedewa, and Ahn (2012) found that anger management programs have an effect on a child’s negative emotions and anger issues and that this programs can help to teach a child how to deal with anger and teach positive ways to let the anger out. Once a child understands what anger is and how it can affect them or other people, they are much more likely to stop and think before they act.
While poverty, psychological and physical abuse, neighborhoods, and violence are major factors that may lead a child to be delinquent; there is no main reason(s) as to why children get on the path of bullying. Although nothing has been proven, it is apparent that stress and strains can cause issues that lead a child in the wrong direction; the direction of bullying. It seems apparent that some strains cause more issues than others, such as poverty and abuse, and those are the ones that need to be looked at the most. Poverty, abuse, violence, family, and living conditions are huge factors that may cause a child to be stressed out and begin to bully. Although there are other elements that may cause bullying, these factors are often prevalent within bullies. There is nothing that can stop bullying as a whole, but if parents, teachers, or peers handled negative conditioning factors such as abuse, neglect, or violence earlier on in a child’s life there could be a chance for children to steer clear of the bullying pathway.
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