Interviewing Prof. Frans de Waal (The Age of Empathy)

FRANS DE WAAL is a renowned Dutch primatologist and ethologist. He is the Charles Howard Candler professor of Primate Behaviour in the Emory University psychology department in Atlanta, Georgia, and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is also the author of numerous well-known books including Chimpanzee Politics, Our Inner Ape, the Age of Empathy and The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. His research focuses on primate social behaviour, including conflict resolution, cooperation, inequity aversion, and food-sharing. He is a Member of the United States National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences.

SRM:  Professor de Waal, thank you for accepting my invitation to this interview, I’m honoured. The many years of your research and fieldwork with primates inspired what we know today as the field of Primate Cognition. What inspired you to study animal behaviour in the first place? What was your main goal?

FRANS DE WAAL: I study chimpanzees, bonobos and other primates mainly to learn more about them, but of course they also tell us something about ourselves. We are primates, after all. So, a second goal over the years has become to understand human society and how many aspects that we consider complex — such as culture, morality, politics — actually have roots that can be illustrated by the behavior of other primates.

For example, chimpanzee males form a hierarchy in which the smallest male may be the leader. How is such a thing possible? It is based on deal making by this male: he is probably more diplomatic than the others, grooms his supporters, gives them bribes and favors, so that when he is challenged by a bigger male he has coalition partners that help him. Such coalitions are part and parcel of human politics, and are now very well documented in chimpanzees both in the field and in zoo settings.

They are not necessarily based on kinship, because — as in humans — chimpanzees often strike these deals with non-relatives, so long as both parties stand to gain. This is why I read Machiavelli in the time that I wrote Chimpanzee Politics, now almost thirty years ago: the old Florentine philosopher had more to offer than most books on animal intelligence.

SRM: You have made highly important discoveries in primate cognition, discoveries that have led you to write over fourteen books around concepts such as empathy, cooperation and altruism within the animal societal structures. Would you say that, according to your knowledge and empirical data, animals do have conscientious thinking?

FRANS DE WAAL: Do you mean conscious or conscientious? Both are complex concepts, and since they are so ill-defined it is hard to say if animals have either. After all, we can’t ask animals to describe their feelings. But if you mean whether animals can reflect on what they do or what they have done, or can plan for the future, there are increasing indications. There are for example experiments that ask animals if they know what they remember (this is called meta-cognition), and other tasks in which they need to plan ahead. And in fact some primates do look into the future. An interesting spontaneous case was a chimpanzee at a zoo in Sweden, who was seen to collect big rocks and put them on neat piles within hand reach long before the zoo opened its gates, so that when he got to act out against the public he had all these projectiles handy to hurl at them. It is hard to imagine such planning without some conscious representation of future events.

SRM: What about what we so call ‘human emotions’?

FRANS DE WAAL: Animals probably have many of the same emotions that we have.

This is assumed in many brain studies, in which rats or monkeys show expressions of fear or anger when parts of the brain are stimulated that also in humans are active when we feel fear or anger.

So, neuroscientists generally have no trouble assuming similar emotions in humans and other mammals even though in the eyes of so-called behaviorists this is still very much taboo. They would prefer us not to mention animal emotions.

If a baboon female returns a week after the disappearance of her offspring to the spot where it happened to climb high up into a tree and scan the environment while uttering plaintive contact calls, repeating her agitation and calling for weeks every time her troop passes through this specific area, it is hard for the human observer not to assume a sense of loss or grieving. Similarly, I have heard female chimpanzees who had lost an offspring wail and whimper, and sometimes burst out screaming in the middle of the day or night. We also know from fecal analysis that wild primates that have recently lost close kin show increased corticosterone, which is a hormone that indicates stress. Such behavioral observations and physiological measures suggest felt emotions.

SRM: Can a distinction still be made between groups of animals who consciously decide and feel emotion and those that don’t, or maybe we just don’t know enough about the latter?

FRANS DE WAAL: Feelings are an aspect to which we attach extraordinary importance, since they are our most direct source of knowledge about the emotions. This explains why the greatest obstacle to the study of animal emotions is the common objection that “we cannot know what they feel.” While this is undeniably true, we should realize that it also holds for our fellow human beings.

Most of the time, we trust that members of our species feel similar to ourselves under similar circumstances, a trust enhanced by our similarity to them, but it remains a mere assumption.

It is hard to verify this assumption unless one trusts human verbalizations of feelings, which relies on yet another assumption, i.e. that humans accurately perceive their own emotions. In light of these assumptions, postulating feelings in animals is not as big a leap as it may seem.

SRM: The results of your outstanding work have indeed leaked into the human realm, for it covers what are the origins of morality. ‘The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society’, published in 2009, is a thought-provoking account of how empathy comes naturally to both humans and animals. Are we witnessing the end of an erroneous stream of thinking in which selfishness and self-preservation were seen as the only basic ‘natural instincts’ of all animal species?

FRANS DE WAAL: For the past three decades, scientists and popularizers have tried to tell us that we and all other animals are inherently selfish, and that the evolution of morality is an almost impossible affair, since nature cannot provide the caring for others needed for morality. I call this “Veneer Theory,” since it assumes that human morality and kindness is just a thin veneer over an otherwise nasty human nature.

This is a position that goes back to Thomas Henry Huxley, a contemporary of Darwin, and has been repeated over and over even though Darwin himself disagreed. Darwin saw human morality as continuous with animal social instincts, and my own work is a return to Darwinian thinking. I am supported in this now by many recent studies that indicate that humans (and other animals) are far more altruistic and cooperative than was assumed.

The field has radically changed in recent years. Psychologists stress the intuitive way we arrive at moral judgments while activating emotional brain areas, and economists and anthropologists have shown humanity to be far more cooperative, altruistic, and fair than predicted by self-interest models. Similarly, the latest experiments in primatology reveal that our close relatives will do each other favors even if there’s nothing in it for themselves.

Chimpanzees and bonobos will voluntarily open a door to offer a companion access to food, even if they lose part of it in the process. And capuchin monkeys are prepared to seek rewards for others, such as when we place two of them side by side, while one of them barters with us with differently colored tokens. One token is ‘selfish,’ and the other ‘prosocial.’ If the bartering monkey selects the selfish token, it receives a small piece of apple for returning it, but its partner gets nothing.

The prosocial token, on the other hand, rewards both monkeys. Most monkeys develop an overwhelming preference for the prosocial token, which preference is not due to fear of repercussions, because dominant monkeys (who have least to fear) are the most generous.

SRM: In your opinion, what would be the single most important lesson that we, as human beings, could learn from the animal world?

FRANS DE WAAL: We can learn about the origins of our sociality, both in terms of hierarchies, competition and power games and in terms of empathy and morality.

We share both with our animal relatives, both the good and the bad, and should stop blaming everything we don’t like about ourselves on our biology (“we’re acting like animals!”) while claiming all good we do for our noble human nature.

All of our tendencies evolved for a reason among the social primates, and once we understand this, we will better understand the dynamics of our own societies.

SRM: What are your views on eating animal meat? Is that natural in us and thus necessary and unavoidable, like in many other carnivorous species? How do we reconcile our carnivorous ways with the notion of animal conscience and emotion?

FRANS DE WAAL: Eating meat is as natural for our close relatives, the chimpanzees, as it is for us. In fact, hunting large game and sharing the pay-offs has probably played a major role in human evolution, resulting in reciprocity and cooperation at a level few other animals achieve. The mammals that do achieve high levels of cooperation are mostly carnivores, such as killer whales and wolves, and also chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys cooperate during hunts. So, meat has been very important to our lineage.

Whether we need to eat meat is a separate question for me, since I think we are smart enough to find ways of obtaining the nutrients we need without meat. It doesn’t seem a strict necessity. I myself do like and eat meat, but the practices of the agricultural meat industry bother me for ethical reasons, and I would be very happy if we either could change those practices or raise meat in the absence of a central nervous system.

What I mean is meat-growing plants where muscles are grown without growing the entire animal, so that suffering can be excluded. This possibility seems to be getting closer, and would remove the ethical dilemma for me.

SRM: Professor, would you be so kind as to explain what is the Living Links Center?

FRANS DE WAAL: The Living Links Center aims to understand human evolution by studying primate behavior. We speak of “living links” as opposed to “missing links,” since we have close relatives around that inform us about where we come from and why we behave the way we do. Instead of studying small pieces of ancestral bone, such as done by fossil seekers, we have actual live animals to work with, which are a far better source of information about behavior and cognition. That’s the origin of the name of our institute.

The Living Links Center >
All of Prof. Frans de Waal’s Books at Amazon >

Interviewing DR. Muthanna Samara (Children in War)

On countless occasions we have heard the expression ‘children are the future’ but rarely we have stopped to think about what the meaning of this expression really implies.

It implies that everything that affects our children in their first years of life leaves a deep and indelible impression that will mark their early development, their later perception of life, their interaction with the world and finally the influence that they themselves will exercise on their children and on society in general.

We live in a globalized world. It’s no longer ‘my children’ and ‘their children’. It’s OUR children. A child is the vessel of our teachings, the key to the perpetuation of our species, the only extension of our mortality and our only chance for EVOLUTION.

Therefore, what kind of future are we imprinting into our children?

Having to cope with long raging wars and other physical and psychological abuse our seed grows into adults that, just like us, will continue to engage in war and abuse of their social and organic environment in a continuous cycle which, unlike the geometrical figure or the natural flow, does have an ending, and it is not a happy one.

The world is at war with our children, for it seems that there’s no power in the planet that can stop killing the very spirit that is worth preserving: the joy of living, pure innocence. And violence, as we know, only engenders more violence.

I had the privilege to interview, on the subject of the psychological development of our children, Dr. Muthanna Samara, whose varied research has been cited by the BBC, The Guardian, The Times, The Telegraph, amongst others, as well as specialised medical websites.

A chartered psychologist, Dr. MUTHANNA SAMARA joined Kingston University in 2010. The general focus of his research is on the social and emotional development of children (ADHD, Bullying at home/school, Cyberbullying, Children of War, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in Children…)

In June 2012 he secured a grant from the Quatar National Research Fund for a new research project on cyber bullying. He is the lead principal investigator on a three-year comparative study of cyber bullying in Qatari and UK schools, the findings of which he hopes will be used to help establish legal regulations around the issue and eventually to find ways to help prevent it.

SRM: Dr. Samara, thank you again for participating in this interview, it’s a pleasure to count with your expertise and wealth of knowledge.

Your research and specialty studies span from Bullying and ADHD to the subject of Children of War. In the years that you have dedicated to the study of psychological development of children, have you identified any specific area in which major change, whether positive or negative, has been taking place?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: The past decade has seen intensive and massive research for example in the areas of bullying and premature infants, which will further the development of intervention programmes in both these areas and that is really a very huge positive change. Although in a sense the more research is done, the more is discovered that needs to be done. For example the consequences of victimisation, and those in war zones, are extreme in terms of developing mental health and psychological problems and that needs to be taken seriously. Also, in one side you can see that human beings and governments do support research that deals with improving the wellbeing of children but in the same time they destroy the happiness and well-being of children by creating more wars and hatred and as you said in the introduction you feel sometimes that the world is at war with our children, while we are trying to protect them and make them happy.

SRM: How paradoxical, right? We are going to delve into that specific subject soon but first, let’s find out more about your other subjects of research: You carried out a study, including a follow-up, together with Dieter Wolke and Sarah Woods, on children from year 2 (aged 6-7 years) and year 4 (aged 8-9 years) on the issue of bullying and escaping bullying victimisation. What were the main conclusions of this study, in terms of the relation between children and class social hierarchies and with regards to the continuation of bullying victimisation?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: The study followed up the same children at year 6 and revealed that there was an increased risk of remaining a direct victim including physical and verbal at follow-up. It was found also that direct victimization was only stable for girls not boys, i.e., girls at follow up were more likely to continue as direct victims compared to boys, and for those who received few positive peer nominations.

Thus, friends and being liked by peers can protect against prolonged victimisation.

It could be that females who remain as direct victims may not have reciprocated best friends that are able to buffer against the negative and adverse effects of direct victimisation in terms of adaptive coping strategies and were thus less likely to be nominated as liked peers.

The study also revealed that emotional health problems and high class hierarchical structure were found to predict becoming a relational victim at follow up including excluding from the group and spreading rumours and lies. This finding emphasises the importance of being aware of a child’s physical and emotional health as a risk factor for bullying involvement.

Relational bullies may have the skills required to recognise that a child is suffering with such problems and therefore target this vulnerability using psychological forms of manipulation, which in turn may exacerbate the child’s emotional problems leading to a pattern of relational victimisation. The strong social ranking of the peer hierarchy at baseline could have hampered the child’s ability to interact with peers, and had a negative impact on the development of competent social interactions that were subsequently seized on by bullies at follow-up.

SRM: Dr. Samara, to your knowledge, which would you say is the top number 1 cause for social exclusion within the school environment nowadays, at least in Britain: economic status, culture/race, religion, sexuality, disability…?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: Social exclusion, which is sometimes labelled as relational bullying is a complex behaviour which cannot be predicted or caused by only one factor.

There are number of factors and domains which can affect and cause the child to be involved in such behaviour. In a recent longitudinal study which will be published soon we looked at the relative influence of child characteristics, family (e.g., parenting), and environmental (family adversity) factors since pregnancy time in relation to bullying involvement in primary school.

We found that bullying and victimisation were most strongly predicted and related to child characteristics before school entry with some familial and environmental factors. This was especially obvious with relational bullying with only relational bullies being predicted mainly by family factors. In addition, relational victims were more likely to be predicted or related specifically to cognitive deficit or negative verbal abilities compared to direct bullying. This may explain why relational victims cannot escape victimisation or defend themselves. These children usually lack self-esteem and confidence in their own worth; they bring their characteristics to the environment and to their relationships and consequently become more vulnerable to victimisation. These may include also race, religion or disability.

In the case of bullies, they pick up on these vulnerable children and try to manipulate and influence their behaviour. A particularly high-risk group are those pupils who are bully/victims, those who bully others but are also victimised by others. This group of children shared the characteristics of bullies and victims and is distinguished by more behavioural, cognitive preschool problems and adverse family background. On another study we also found that those who are bullied by their siblings at home were more likely to be bullied by their peers at school and to have more behaviour and emotional problems compared to those who were not involved in bullying. Certainly, factors such as racism, religion, sexuality and disability also play a role. So, in summary I would say it is a complex of several factors and domains that cause children to be involved in bullying and/or victimisation.

SRM: Back to the subject of war: According to the outstanding paper Children in War, which you worked on, in conjunction with Mohamed Altawil and David Harrold, and which covers the issue of Palestinian refugees, we find out that 1,200 Palestinian children were killed and 16,000 badly injured in the period from October 2000 to January 2007. That’s over 200 children killed and over 2,600 injured per year. Apart from the obvious physical scars of the injured, what are the most common psychological scars that these children will have, probably for life?

MUTHANNA SAMARA: Children living in war zones are at a high risk of developing post-traumatic stress and other emotional disorders. For example the loss of a loved person is one of the most intensely painful experiences any human being can suffer.

Obviously, the psychological consequences of these traumatic experiences have had a negative influence on normal child development.

These children have not known a day of real peace in all their lives. As in all modern wars, the victims of the latest Middle Eastern wars are mainly civilians including children.

The effects of the ongoing violence on children and youths are both short-term (intense fear, episodes of bed wetting, difficulty in concentrating, eating and sleeping disorders, irritability, hyperactivity) and long-term. Some of the post-traumatic symptoms persist for several years after the traumatic event with an increase in anti-social behaviour during adolescence and neurotic problems during adulthood. Traumatic war events often lead to many mental health problems including anxiety, fear, paranoia and suspicion, grief, despair, hopelessness, withdrawal, depression, somatisation, anger and hostility. In addition to psychiatric symptoms, there are also problems in work, family, and marital relationships, adjustment, and in acculturation and assimilation.

SRM: Would you please be so kind as to explain what post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is, which are its more severe degrees and how they affect the child’s development?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA:  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the complex somatic, cognitive, affective and behavioural effects of psychological trauma. PTSD is characterized by intrusive thoughts, nightmares and flashbacks of past traumatic events, severe anxiety, avoidance of reminders of trauma, hypervigilance, and sleep disturbance, all of which lead to considerable social, occupational, and even interpersonal dysfunction.

Individuals with PTSD compensate for such intense arousal by attempting to avoid experiences that may begin to elicit symptoms; this can result in emotional freezing, less interest in everyday activities and, in the extreme, may result in detachment from others.

Individuals with one or more PTSD symptoms are more likely to experience marital difficulties and occupational problems later in life and have poorer social supports. In the extreme cases PTSD may increase the risk for attempted suicide. War-related PTSD has been associated also with long-term consequences for mental health problems. The consequences that children face because of PTSD are severe. Children may regress into the earlier stages of development; they become apathetic with severe somatic, psychological, social, and functional problems.

For instance our research that we did in Palestine found that every child in the Gaza Strip had been exposed to at least three traumatic events. The most prevalent types of trauma exposure for Palestinian children were as follows: 99% of children had suffered humiliation (either to themselves or a family member); 97% had been exposed to the sound of explosions/bombs; 85% had witnessed a martyr’s funeral and 84% had witnessed shelling by tanks, artillery, or military planes. Importantly, our recent study found that 41% of children suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorders (PTSD). Overall, the exposure to chronic traumatic experiences led to an increase in the symptoms of PTSD among Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip.

The most prevalent types of PTSD were found to be: cognitive symptoms, from which 25% of children suffered (e.g., a child might take a long time to get to sleep, or feels everything around him is not safe); emotional symptoms from which 22% suffered (e.g., the child feeling alone and fearful, suffering from nightmares, bedwetting); social behavioural disorders, from which 22% suffered (e.g., aggressive behaviour, difficulty enjoying games); academic behavioural disorders, from which 17% suffered (e.g., difficult in concentration, bad academic performance); somatic symptoms, from which 14% suffered (e.g., headaches, stomach-ache).

Thus, having a normal childhood in war zones is unlikely and the psychological well-being future of these children is at risk of being compromised by on-going traumatic experiences.

Dr. Samara, in your professional opinion, are adults who, when children, were exposed to the tragedy of war, whether in continuous intermittent periods, or in an one-off experience, more vulnerable to develop a greater propensity to experience fear, anxiety and hostility even when the experience is long over?

MUTHANNA SAMARA: People who go through traumatic experiences often have symptoms and problems as a consequence.

How serious the symptoms and problems are depends on many aspects including life experiences before the trauma (e.g., negative life events, history of depression; previous exposure to trauma), personality, media exposure, the ability to cope with stress, the duration and severity of the trauma, and what kind of help and support a person gets from family, friends, and professionals immediately following the trauma.

It is often difficult to separate the effect of war trauma from that of potential compounding factors such as pre-migration stress, separation from family, post-migration stress, socioeconomic adversities, and acculturation difficulties.

The cumulative effect of multiple traumas is especially present in the situation of war. Research also indicated that there is a correlation between the number of previous traumatic experiences and PTSD, with more exposure leading to an increase of symptoms of trauma. In particular, research found a strong association between children and adolescents living with war who were exposed to war stressors and high levels of PTSD symptoms and grief reactions. While other studies indicated that the meaning of the violence is more important than the amount of violence directly experienced. It is also different whether children were the direct victims of violent events who will demonstrate greater PTSD levels than only witnessing violent events.

A study in Palestine showed that adults who were exposed to house demolition in Palestine showed a higher level of anxiety, depression, and paranoiac symptoms than those who only witnessed or those who hadn’t. The proximity of the child or adult to the event is thus an additional risk factor. Another example is that two years after the bombing, some children and adolescents who lived approximately 100 miles from Oklahoma City reported significant PTSD symptoms related to the event. This is an important finding because these youths were not directly exposed to the trauma and were not related to victims who had been killed or injured.

PTSD symptomatology was greater in those with more media exposure and in those with indirect interpersonal exposure, such as having a friend who knew someone who was killed or injured.

Longitudinal cohort studies confirmed that even after long periods of time after the war, victims with war-related PTSD were more likely than members of the general population to have depression, an anxiety disorder such as social phobia or persistent pain disorder.

Most individuals who develop PTSD experience its onset within a few months of the traumatic event. Individuals with one or more PTSD symptoms are more likely to experience severe problems in adulthood including marital and occupational difficulties and disability. Additionally, PTSD may increase the risk for attempted suicide as I mentioned before.

SRM: In clinical, specific terms, how does violence engender violence?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: Violence always leads to more violence.

As I pointed out before children who were exposed to aggression directly or indirectly at home or at school settings whether by siblings, parents, peers will turn to be either violent towards others or the victim of violence. For example research revealed that those with criminal fathers and fathers who use violence as a mean of resolving conflicts at home were more likely to become violent and to be involved in more antisocial behaviour in their childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

According to the social learning theory, children will learn to use violence as a mean to solve conflicts as a consequence of their early exposure to violence either directly or indirectly. It has been proposed that bullying and violence is strongly influenced by parenting and family environment and may flow through the generations in a cycle of violence. For example, children’s bullying behaviours have been found to be related to harsh forms of discipline at home.

In a 22-year longitudinal study bullies at school were found to have a 25% chance of having a criminal record by the age of 30, which led to the ‘cycle of violence’ model. Also, adult males who bullied at school were at risk of having children who themselves bully others.

There is also evidence of an intergenerational transmission of these problems through both genetic and environmental channels. For instance, victimisation during mother’s childhood and domestic violence during her adulthood could influence her parenting ability and thus threaten children’s future health and wellbeing. Furthermore, homes with martial conflict and domestic violence are characterised by imbalance of power and aggression, consequently children develop a low empathy towards others and start to learn to dominate others and might even be encouraged in doing so. Domestic violence in this regard is relevant in explaining aggressive behaviour among children as a learned behaviour.

SRM: Do we still have time to ‘save’ our children and thus our future as a species? What can be done once severe harm has been inflicted?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: I am always optimistic in the sense that we always can change things. The massive increase of research in the area of children’s wellbeing is the bright side of the story. More research on these areas is required and especially more intervention programmes and evaluation of such interventions are really needed.

But this is going to be more difficult now especially with the current plan to massively cut down funds and grants especially to social sciences. The issue also is how those who are affected can have the courage to transform their emotional pain or harm into something good that will come of it. I think with the suitable diagnosis, assessment, support and intervention at the correct time and place would make things totally different and would help a lot to improve or cure even severe problems. Whether this possible or not, it is all related to the strong attitude and will of the affected person and those who are surrounding her or him.

SRM: Another of your areas of research is the neurological development in extreme preterm children. What have been your main conclusions so far in terms of the direct correlation between diverse behavioural disorders and extreme preterm?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: We investigated the behavioural consequences of extremely premature children (<=25 weeks of gestation) in comparison to their full term classroom peers at 6 years of age by using parent and teacher consensus reports about behaviour problems. Extremely preterm children at school age were significantly more likely to have behaviour difficulties, including problems in a range of domains such as emotion, conduct, hyperactivity, attention, peer relationships, and prosocial behaviour compared to full term classroom peers.

Furthermore, parents and teachers agreed that, for 23% of the extremely preterm children, these behaviour problems had a considerable impact on home or school life, compared with only 7% in the comparison group, and on school adaptation. Controlling for general cognitive performance allowed us to determine whether differences in behaviour and school adaptation could be explained by low IQ alone or were attributable to specific deficits in behavioural or emotional regulation.

We found that low IQ explained the differences in some behaviour domains such as conduct, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness and their impact on parents and teachers. This indicates that for these behaviours this seems to be the consequence of global changes in cognitive functioning and not a specific feature of development after preterm birth. On the other hand low IQ did not account for the differences between extremely preterm and control in relation to emotional and attention problems and difficulties in peer relationships or school adaptation. Problems with maintaining and regulating attention seem to be a specific deficit in extremely premature children. Furthermore, it could be that some problems that are common amongst extremely premature children such as having poorer motor abilities and poor somatic growth can lead to victimization.

In a different study on the same population we also found that eating problems were more common among extremely preterm children at 6 years of age than the full term comparison group, including oral-motor and hypersensitivity problems. These eating problems were only partly related to other disabilities such cognitive, neuromotor and behavioural and make an additional contribution to continued growth failure and thus require early recognition and intervention.

SRM: On what area of research are you currently focusing your study efforts, and what previous observations have led you to direct your attention to this area?

DR. MUTHANNA SAMARA: One of the new areas of research I’m now focusing more on is cyberbullying, which is bullying through electronic means such as networked computers and mobile phones. Cyberbullying is increasing
and at present a high profile concern for policy makers, schools, teachers, parents, media and communities across the world. The danger of such behaviour is the difficulty for the victim to escape from it, the huge potential audience, and the anonymity of the bully who may be unaware of the consequences of his or her actions. It is very important to design suitable intervention programmes for this kind of bullying.

SRM: Dr. Samara, thank you again for your invaluable collaboration. I hope and wish for the very best on your research efforts, just as we all hope for the very best for our children’s future: OUR FUTURE.


Dr Muthanna Samara’s Profile at Kingston University (London) >

Interviewing DR. Michelle Anthony (Female Bullying)

From left to right: Dr. Reyna Lindert and Dr. Michelle Anthony (Authors of ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’)

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY has always been passionate about her work with families and children. After graduating with honors in Educational Studies from Brown University, she went on to get her Master’s in Child Studies and Teacher’s Certificate from Tufts University.

She taught in Massachusetts and Rhode Island for five years, after which she got her PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley.

Since that time, Michelle has continued to work as a learning specialist with both typical and developmentally-delayed preschool and elementary-aged students in both California and Colorado.

She has also taught graduate-level classes, and has been a speaker at various international conferences on issues related to education and development. In addition to the aforementioned, Michelle is a columnist and writes feature articles for Scholastic’s Parent and Child Magazine. She is a mother to three children, two girls and a boy.

DR. REYNA LINDERT has always wanted and needed to work with young families in order to feel fulfilled personally and professionally. She is a certified parent educator with broad experience working with elementary-aged children and their families. She graduated with distinction in Human Development and Family Studies from Cornell University.

She then earned her MA and PhD in Developmental Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley. Reyna is a skilled facilitator and has run numerous interactive parenting workshops for families and children in California and Oregon. Reyna is also currently pursuing a degree in Nursing at Oregon Health & Science University, to continue her work with young families in a health care setting.  She is a mother to three children, two girls and a boy.


We could say that, although we have not evolved as a society when it comes to the issue of bullying, our general perspective on it has certainly evolved. 30 or 20 years ago this form of abuse was not recognised as a societal problem, but more like a natural or even necessary part of our growing years, a part we had to cope with, in order to acquire a certain ‘strength of character’.

Nowadays, however, the general consensus is that bullying is not only detrimental to the individual but to society as a whole.

This shift in our perception could be down to the fact that most of us are being direct or indirect witnesses, thanks to the Internet, of the alarming increase, seriousness and fatal consequences of so many and recent bullying cases.

Suicide statistics show that in the UK at least 16 to 25 children kill themselves each year because they are being bullied at school.  In the U.S., a recent nationwide survey of high schoolers showed that around 16 percent reported that they considered suicide.

We seem to be failing in determining the real root causes to this behaviour when, in essence, it shouldn’t be so hard to realise that children do as they see, and in a world where nasty behaviour is encouraged daily, whether in our personal romantic relationships or group settings, such as the competitive business arena, what do we think that our children are going to emulate?

Because bullying is not only about physical abuse, but also verbal and emotional abuse and it can start as early as in kindergarten, among both boys and girls. In fact, recent studies show that it is among females that bullying can involve larger groups and last far longer.

Dr. Michelle Anthony, respected developmental psychologist and Dr. Reyna Lindert co-wrote the book ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-Proof Girls in the Early Grades’
which has been very welcomed by parents and professionals alike.

I had the pleasure to interview Dr. Michelle Anthony on the issue of bullying and on the guide that her and Dr. Lindert wrote to help us help our little treasures.

SRM: Dr. Anthony, thank you for participating in this interview, I’m sure that readers, especially those with little children, will really appreciate it. You are a developmental psychologist, but how did you and your co-author, Dr. Reyna Lindert decide to work on the resulting title of ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: Thanks so much for inviting me to participate!

My interest in this topic began as a result of my own daughter being enmeshed in a series of “Mean Girl” interactions beginning in first grade, which lasted almost 2 years.

In fact, for almost a year, we didn’t even know it was going on because she was very confused and didn’t tell anyone.

In our research for this book, we learned how many young girls are experiencing similar struggles.  Thus, our goal in writing Little Girls Can Be Mean has been to help parents and other caring adults understand how and why meanness happens, and have a plan for what to do about it.  We also wanted to help parents of elementary-aged children take advantage of the unique opportunity they have to influence and guide girls, before the teen years when peer influence takes over and pushes caring adults away.

SRM: So sorry to hear that your daughter had to go through such terrible experience. And the saddest thing about it is that we can all relate one way or another, which brings us to the following question: Bullying is a natural predisposition or a learned behavioural pattern?

There has always been meanness, but the difference today is the public and permanent nature of the acts.  Electronic media are passed on forever and, unlike when we were young, you can’t get back the original note.  In the eyes of the kids, it is literally everyone and it is literally forever.

However, it’s important to understand that meanness actually serves a developmental function, and very nice girls can do very mean things and still be very nice girls.  When we understand the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of meanness, we are in the best position to use it to serve more appropriate developmental ends.

Girls (like all of us) are actively trying to have power within relationships. Unfortunately, they often don’t know how to make themselves more powerful without it being at the expense of another. This is incidental or accidental meanness. However, usually beginning around 3rd grade, they discover how to use negative power, and the amount of intentional meanness increases.  Without guidance early on, you get the double whammy of two kinds of meanness (incidental and intentional) that only grows as girls age, in both amount and magnitude.

SRM: Are there any differences between male and female’s relational aggressive behaviour?

If you had to stereotype, girls more often use social power—what researchers call relational aggression or social cruelty—to bully their peers. Boys, in contrast, more often use physical intimidation. Boys are usually clear that they dislike the other boy who is bullying them, and they try to avoid them. In contrast, girls are often very good friends with the girl or girls who are meanest to them, and they are confused as to whether what they are experiencing is actually bullying, thus leaving them feeling isolated and alone in their experiences. While the initial “blow” from a girl bully may seem less severe than the physical abuse sustained by a boy bully, the sting and its aftermath lasts much longer, and tends to involve more people.

SRM: The term frenemies came to my mind when you described the peculiar relationship between girls victims and their bullies… ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ advises parents and teachers to watch for signs of bullying at very early ages. Would you say that this precocity is something of today’s society or, on the contrary, it’s always been there and it’s just now that we’re starting to give it importance?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: I think it’s both.  Meanness has always existed and will always exist.  And, as I mentioned before, it actually serves a developmental function to help girls seek power.  However, left unchecked or without intervention and guidance, it grows.

This growth is fostered in a culture where social media and the spread of technology continue to increase and fuel an exaggerated and inappropriate sense of power, reach, and influence in young children.

The prevalence of “reality TV” shows that highlight, stage, and manipulate interpersonal conflict only adds to children’s confusion over how to relate to peers and rivals. As adults, we understand how these shows are designed to exploit conflict for entertainment; our children do not.

SRM: You hit the nail on the head there. Children are always going to emulate what adults show them to be adults’ behaviour (not sure if “adult” could be the term to describe that particular behaviour…) How can parents detect if their child is being bullied when they have not been alerted by the child or anybody else at their school?

As I mentioned, this happened with my own daughter and there is no worse feeling than realizing your child has been suffering and you did not even know it was happening. If I had known then what the signs were, I could have helped her so much sooner, and that’s something we describe throughout the book. Because we often have set notions of what behaviours are defined as “bullying,” a lot of girl meanness is not identified as such—neither by the kids themselves nor by the adults who care for them.

The key is to follow the Four Step process: Observe, Connect, Guide, and Support to Act. We walk you through this in detail with all kinds of situations, but in beginning with Step 1: Observe, look for some common ways that girls this age react when they are experiencing friendship struggles or are targets of bullying:

. They stop liking previously enjoyed activities.
. They use “code words” like “No one would play with me,” “She’s not my friend anymore,” and so on.
. They begin to have more fights with siblings.
. They have mood changes:  they seem more argumentative or more down.
. They begin complaining of more headaches or stomachaches , etc.

SRM: Those are some of the most obvious signs, indeed. Now, when it comes to the school environment, are teachers and counsellors liable for not intervening in incidents of bullying, when the bullying in itself isn’t as detectable as for example in the male physical bullying? What responsibility of intervention must lie on the parents of each child, whether victim, perpetrator or bystander?

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: This is always a tough one. By and large, teachers and schools are doing the best they can with the tools and resources they have. In our book, we help caring educators better understand and deal with relational aggression and social bullying in the educational context. My husband is the Principal at a K-8 school and I know first-hand how hard it is to address these issues from the school’s perspective, especially when we as a society have not given schools the power or resources to deal more comprehensively with these issues.

Parents can and should involve the appropriate authorities (school or otherwise) whenever they feel their child (or another) is at risk or in danger.

That said, the real key is not “How do we punish these problems?,” but, “How do we work to prevent them?,” and, “What is our educational guidance when they (inevitably) happen?”. It is so important to know that girls this age are able to be influenced, they are malleable, they can be guided. Nice girls do mean things, and they are still nice girls.

They are nice girls who need caring adults—both parents and teachers—to engage in the Four Steps: Observe the inappropriate behaviour (notice it…see it), Connect with the girl over what she was trying to do (have influence, feel important, etc.), work together to Guide her to meet those appropriate goals in a more appropriate way, and Support her to Act on her own choices within her social sphere.

These are the same Four Steps to follow, whether you are a parent, teacher, or administrator, and the same Four Steps to follow whether your child is a target, a bystander, or is mean herself. The goal is, if we can better understand where this meanness comes from, we can move away from labelling these kids and, instead, we can all (parent, teacher, society) work towards changing the trajectory at these early ages.

SRM: In ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ you propose this 4 step guide to ‘bully-proof’ little girls. What has been the general feedback received from parents and/or teachers who have already read the book?

What I hear over and over from parents and teachers alike is how excited they are to have a coherent, easy-to-follow plan to help support their children/students when they inevitably face these issues, and how immediately they and their children/students/whole class feel the benefits. This plan allows them to work with their child, student, or class (but not take over) as they support individuals and groups to develop new skills and resources to face any number of sticky social situations, whether the child they care about is a target, bystander, or is slipping into meanness.

SRM: Dr. Anthony, thank you again for your time and for your and Dr. Lindert’s great contribution to tackling this serious social issue.

The link to the ‘Little Girls Can Be Mean’ website is at the end of this piece, to allow readers obtain their copy easily.

DR. MICHELLE ANTHONY: Thank you so much for this opportunity to reach your audience. Not only can they get the book directly from us, but all major booksellers carry it as well. I hope it can bring to your readers what it has brought to families here.


A very special message from SAIDAT for you, boys and girls, who are experiencing bullying whether at school, online or both (YOU ARE NOT ALONE), and for you, kids and adults, who may be witnessing others being bullied (Do not hesitate to stand up for what is right: TOGETHER WE CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE)