A ten-year-old boy is told repeatedly that he is a “weakling” and a “girly man,” yelled at and teased in a tone of voice tinged with disgust and disdain. Is this bullying? What if it leads to a fist fight? How do you know when someone crosses the line between cruel teasing and bullying? Does emotional bullying have any “real” physical consequences? And perhaps, most importantly, if you are dealing with a true bully, what do you do about it? Let’s start by figuring out what bullying is and then move on to what the consequences are and the best ways to deal with it.
Bullying takes place when a one or more kids repeatedly harass, intimidate, hit, or ignore another youngster who is physically weaker, smaller or has a lower social status. Realize that adults can also engage in bullying, particularly what I call emotional bullying. However, today we’ll focus on young people.
Note that a single fistfight between two kids of similar size and social power is not bullying; neither is the occasional teasing.
Physical bullying is seen in both boys and girls, but it is more common among boys. Girls typically use emotional bullying more so than boys. Bullying can take a number of forms.
o Bullying can be physical (hitting, shoving, or taking money or belongings) or emotional (Causing fear by threats, insults and/or exclusion from conversations or activities).
o Boys tend to use physical intimidation (hitting or threatening to hit) as well as insults, and they often act one-on-one. Girls are more likely to bully in groups by using the silent treatment towards another girl or gossiping about her.
o Kids are often bullied through putdowns about their appearance, such as being teased about being different than other children or for the way they talk, dress, their size, their appearance and so on. Making fun of children’s religion or race occurs far less frequently. 1
Bullying begins in elementary school and is most common in middle school; it fades but not completely in high school. It usually occurs in school areas that are not well supervised by teachers or other adults, such as on playgrounds, lunch rooms, and bathrooms. Much of it takes place after school at a location known to students and unsupervised by adults. When I was in middle school, there was a Christmas tree farm where all fights took place. When I was a psych at a middle school, there was a dry creek bed nearby where fights took place. There is always a certain spot that is well known to the students where altercations occur. One way to prevent bullying is to be aware of this spot and police it regularly after school. And realize that the spot will move as soon as the adults become aware of it.
Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intended to cause harm or distress, occurs repeatedly over time, and occurs in a relationship in which there is an imbalance of power or strength. Bullying can take many forms, including physical violence, teasing and name-calling, intimidation, and social exclusion. It can be related to hostile acts perpetrated against racial and ethnic minorities, gay, lesbian, and bi-sexual youth, and persons with disabilities.
Ninety percent of 4th through 8th graders report being victims of some form of bullying at some time in their past. Boys are typically more physically aggressive (physical bullying), whereas girls rely more on social exclusion, teasing, and cliques (verbal or emotional bullying). Bullying can also take the form of cyber communication, e.g., via email (cyber bullying). It is estimated that one in four boys who bully will have a criminal record by age 30.
Who are the bullies?
Children who regularly bully their peers tend to be impulsive, easily frustrated, dominant in personality, have difficulty conforming to rules, view violence positively and are more likely to have friends who are also bullies. Boys who bully are usually physically stronger than their peers.
Moreover, several risk factors have been associated with bullying, including individual, family, peer, school, and community factors. With respect to family factors, children are more likely to bully if there is a lack of warmth and parent involvement, lack of parental supervision, and harsh corporal discipline. Some research suggests a link between bullying behavior and child maltreatment. Also, schools that lack adequate adult supervision tend to have more instances of bullying.
Psychological research has debunked several myths associated with bullying, including one that states bullies are usually the most unpopular students in school. A 2000 study by psychologist Philip Rodkin, PhD, and colleagues involving fourth-through-sixth-grade boys found that highly aggressive boys may be among the most popular and socially connected children in elementary classrooms, as viewed by their fellow students and even their teachers. Another myth is that the tough and aggressive bullies are basically anxious and insecure individuals who use bullying as a means of compensating for poor self-esteem. Using a number of different methods including projective tests and stress hormones, Olweus concludes that there is no support for such a view. Most bullies had average or better than average self-esteem.
Who is being bullied?
Children who are bullied are often cautious, sensitive, insecure, socially isolated, and have difficulty asserting themselves among their peers. Boys who are bullied tend to be physically weaker than their peers. Children who have been victims of child abuse (neglect, physical, or sexual abuse) or who have disabilities are also more likely to be bullied by their peers.
How common is bullying?
In 2002, it was reported that 17 percent of students reported having been bullied “sometimes” or more frequently during the school term. About 19 percent reported bullying others “sometimes” or more often. And six percent reported both bullying and having been bullied. However, in a 2003 study from UCLA, it was reported that almost 50% of sixth graders in two Los Angeles-area public schools report being bullied by classmates during a five-day period.
New research from the Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education on 37 school shootings, including Columbine, found that almost three-quarters of student shooters felt bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others. In fact, several shooters reported experiencing long-term and severe bullying and harassment from their peers.
What’s more, roughly 45% of teachers report having bullied a student in their past. This comes from a 2006 study which defined bullying “using power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure.”
The effects of bullying
Bullying exerts long-term and short-term psychological effects on both bullies and their victims. Bullying behavior has been linked to other forms of antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, skipping and dropping out of school, fighting, and the use of drugs and alcohol.
Victims of bullying experience loneliness and often suffer humiliation, insecurity, loss of self-esteem, and thoughts of suicide. Furthermore, bullying can interfere with a student’s engagement and learning in school. The impact of frequent bullying often accompanies these victims into adulthood. A study done in 2003 found that emotional bullying such as repeated name-calling has as much of a damaging impact on well-being as being beat up. Dr. Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, states, “Bullying and particularly name calling can be degrading for adolescents. Posttraumatic stress is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a frightening event or ordeal in which physical harm occurred or was threatened, and research clearly suggests that it can be caused by bullying. It is important that peer victimization is taken seriously as symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety and depression are common amongst victims and have a negative impact on psychological health.”
As with smoking and drinking, youthful bullying can have serious long-term effects. Norwegian psychologist Dan Olweus, PhD, for example, reported in “Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do” (Blackwell, 1993) that 60 percent of boys who bully had at least one conviction by age 24, and 40 percent had three or more convictions.
Other studies found that about 20 percent of American middle school children say they bully others sometimes. Such youngsters tend to have multiple problems: They’re more likely to fight, steal, drink, smoke, carry weapons and drop out of school than non-bullies.
That said, recent research has exploded some common myths about bullies: in particular, that they’re isolated loners with low self-esteem. In fact, many bullies are reasonably popular and tend to have “henchmen” who aid their negative behaviors.
New and innovative research
A nationally representative study of 15,686 students in grades six through 10, published last year in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Vol. 285, No. 16) is among the most recent to document the scope of bullying in U.S. schools. This study found that:
* Bullying occurs most frequently from sixth to eighth grade, with little variation between urban, suburban, town and rural areas.
* Males are more likely to be bullies and victims of bullying than females. Males are more likely to be physically bullied, while females are more likely to be verbally or psychologically bullied.
* Bullies and victims of bullying have difficulty adjusting to their environments, both socially and psychologically. Victims of bullying have greater difficulty making friends and are lonelier.
* Bullies are more likely to smoke and drink alcohol, and to be poorer students.
* Bully-victims–students who are both bullies and recipients of bullying–tend to experience social isolation, to do poorly in school and to engage in problem behaviors such as smoking and drinking.
In the past, bullying behavior was looked at in an either/or fashion – either you are a bully or you are a victim. However, some children report that they’re both a bully and a victim at different times.
Bully-victims experience higher levels of depression and anxiety than the bully-only group or the victim-only group. Those who fall into the bully-victim subgroup are more troubled in terms of internal problems. They carry a great deal of anger, fear and sadness within them and don’t have any tools to release it.
Studies have shown that, despite thinking they know how to identify bullies, teachers aren’t all that good at actually doing so. Administrators and teachers in schools overestimate their effectiveness in identifying and intervening in bullying situations.
This can have troubling implications. For example, to contain costs, some schools hold intervention programs in group settings. If bully-victims are in the group, they may cause problems for students who are solely victims. It’s more productive for bully-victims to be treated separately.
Mediation programs for bullies and victims are also problematic. Peer mediation may be appropriate in resolving conflict between students with equal power, but bullying is a type of victimization. Just as child abuse is a form of victimization between parties of unequal power, so too is bullying.
Solutions for bullying
Many anti-bullying programs don’t use research and are thus are likely to fail. Those that work off the myth that the root of bullying is low self-esteem may produce more confident bullies but they probably won’t have a significant effect on any bullying behavior.
What’s more, the common approach of grouping bullies together for group counseling tends to increases their bullying. You’ve just put them in a peer group of bullies who reinforce their destructive behaviors.
And conflict resolution or mediation–which assumes equal power between bullies and their victims–may retraumatize those who have been bullied. Pop treatments usually fail because they focus on only one aspect of the problem.
Bullying is a complex problem. There are multiple reasons for bullying. Successful programs take a holistic approach to preventing bullying. This means that they create new school norms for acceptable behavior, involving all facets of the school–students, parents and teachers, psychologists and more.
Global buffers to protect against bullying
Indeed, key to the success of any intervention is appropriate adult guidance and support, presenters agreed. Adults supervise their children about 40 percent less than they did 30 years ago, statistics show, and this and related phenomena have been correlated with problem behaviors. The trend, they added, occurs at a time when teens report wanting more parental attention and family time.
Research shows that parents can be effective interventionists. In a 2001 article, when parents learned to effectively communicate information on binge drinking to their pre-college teens, the young people returned from their first semester of college significantly less likely to drink than a control group.
Teaching your children emotional intelligence (EQ), or how to manage one’s emotions, results in less illicit drug use and far less physical violence. Those with lower EI had more substance abuse problems and more frequent fights.
The biggest challenge for teens is to develop the self-regulatory abilities implied by high EQ, and that adults can aid in that process. That’s why I’m always talking to you about how to identify your emotions, reminding you to breathe deeply, stressing the importance of journaling, prayer, exercise, yoga, meditation and so on. These are all ways to become more aware of your emotions, so you can in turn manage your emotions more effectively. It’s all about emotional intelligence folks.
Parents must also be involved in their children’s lives and intervene in a supportive and empathetic nature if they believe their child or another child is being bullied. To help prevent bullying, parents should enforce clear and concise behavioral guidelines and reward children for positive, inclusive behavior. Furthermore, parents should seek assistance from the school’s principal, teachers, and counselors if concerns regarding their child’s or another child’s behavior arises.
Sometimes bullying is easy to spot–a child pushing another on the playground or shoving a classmate’s face into the water fountain. Other times bullying is less overt–children spreading rumors, teasing peers or excluding a classmate from games at recess. This veiled type of bullying–known as relational or covert aggression–can be harder for parents and teachers to see and prevent. What’s more, previous research suggests that relational aggression increases and intensifies as children get older and become more emotionally and socially sophisticated.
Studies report that the rates of aggression are rising in middle school girls. “It’s always been the case that we expect rates of aggression and delinquency to increase for boys, while girls were considered somewhat protected,” said Julia Graber, a UF psychologist who did the research. “In this study, it’s clear that the differences between girls and boys are diminishing.”
Unlike boys, girls in the study reported feeling increasing amounts of anger between sixth and seventh grades, she said. Both groups reported a decline in self-control.
The study of 1,229 students at 22 public and parochial schools in New York City found that the proportion of girls committing five or more aggressive acts in a month, such as “hitting someone” or “pushing or shoving someone on purpose” jumped from 64 percent to 81 percent between sixth and seventh grades. For boys, it rose from 69 percent to 78 percent.
“Girls’ entry into adolescence is generally thought of as a vulnerable time for depression, and studies tend to focus on girls’ emotional experiences with sadness and depressed moods,” Graber said. “What’s interesting about this study is that we see an increase in a different negative emotional experience, and that’s anger.”
Bullying among primary school age children has become recognized as an antecedent to more violent behavior in later grades. Statistics on violence in our country tell a grim story with a clear message. Some children learn how to dominate others by foul means rather than by fair, setting a pattern for how they will behave as adults (bullies). Other children are more easily dominated, suffer miserably, often in silence, and develop a victim mentality that they may be unable to over-come as adults (victims). Action is needed to end purposeful harassment, and bullying.
Signs that a child is being bullied
Children who are being bullied may be embarrassed to talk about what is going on. Parents (or other adults) may notice signs that point to bullying. Your child may:
o Have scrapes, bruises or other signs of physical injury.
o Come home from school without some belongings such as clothes, or money.
o Come home from school quite hungry, saying they lost his or her lunch.
o Develop ongoing physical problems, such as headaches or stomachaches.
o Have sleep disturbances and nightmares.
o Pretend to be sick or make other excuses to avoid school or other situations.
o Change their behavior, such as withdrawing, becoming sad, angry or aggressive.
o Cry often.
o Become more fearful when certain people or situations are mentioned.
o See a sudden drop in grades or have more difficulty learning new material.
o Talk about suicide as a way out.
How to help the child who is being bullied
The key to helping your child deal with bullying is to help him or her regain a sense of dignity and recover damaged self-esteem. To help ward off bullies, give your child these tips:
o Hold the anger (temporarily). It’s natural to want to get really angry with a bully, but that’s exactly the response the bully is aiming for. Not only will getting angry or aggressive not solve the problem, it will only make it worse. Bullies want to know they have control over your child’s emotions. Each time they get a reaction from your child, it adds fuel to the bully’s fire – getting angry just makes the bully feel more powerful. Remind your child that anyone that makes you angry has control over you. Help your child work at staying calm through deep breathing and turning their attention to more pleasant thoughts while being picked on.
o Never get physical or bully back. Emphasize that your child should never use physical force (like kicking, hitting, or pushing) to deal with a bully. Not only does that show anger, your child can never be sure what the bully will do in response. Tell your child that it’s best to hang out with others, stay safe, and get help from an adult.
o Act brave, walk away, and ignore the bully. Tell your child to look the bully in the eye and say something like, “I want you to stop right now.” Counsel your child to then walk away and ignore any further taunts. Encourage your child to “walk tall” and hold his or her head up high (using this type of body language sends a message that your child isn’t vulnerable). Bullies thrive on the reaction they get, and by walking away, or ignoring hurtful emails or instant messages, your child will be telling the bully that he or she just doesn’t care. Sooner or later, the bully will probably get bored with trying to bother your child.
o Use humor. If your child is in a situation in which he or she has to deal with a bully and can’t walk away with poise, tell him or her to use humor or give the bully a compliment to throw the bully off guard. However, tell your child not to use humor to make fun of the bully.
o Tell an adult. If your child is being bullied, emphasize that it’s very important to tell an adult. Teachers, principals, parents, and lunchroom personnel at school can all help to stop it. Studies show that schools where principals crack down on this type of behavior have less bullying.
o Talk about it. It may help your child to talk to a guidance counselor, teacher, or friend – anyone who can give your child the support he or she needs. Talking can be a good outlet for the fears and frustrations that can build when your child is being bullied.
o Use the buddy system. Enlisting the help of friends or a group may help both your child and others stand up to bullies. The bully wants to be recognized and feel powerful, after all, so a lot of bullying takes part in the presence of peers. If the bully is picking on another child, tell your child to point out to the bully that his or her behavior is unacceptable and is no way to treat another person. This can work especially well in group situations (i.e., when a member of your child’s circle of friends starts to pick on or shun another member). Tell your child to make a plan to buddy up with a friend or two on the way to school, on the bus, in the hallways, or at recess or lunch – wherever your child thinks he or she might meet the bully. Tell your child to offer to do the same for a friend who’s having trouble with a bully. When one person speaks out against a bully, it gives others license to add their support and take a stand, too. o Develop more friendships by joining social organizations, clubs, or sports programs. Encourage regular play visits with other children at your home. Being in a group with other kids may help to build your child’s self-esteem and give your child a larger group of positive peers to spend time with and turn to.
Of course, you may have to intervene in persistent cases of bullying. That can involve walking to school with your child and talking to your child’s teacher, school counselor, or principal. Safety should be everyone’s concern. If you’ve tried the previous methods and still feel the need to speak to the bullying child’s parents, it’s best to do so within the context of the school, where a school official, such as a counselor, can mediate.
If your child is the bully
Learning that your child is a bully can be shocking. But it’s important to remain calm and avoid becoming defensive, as that can make a bad situation worse. You may have a greater impact if you express disappointment – not anger – to your child.
Because bullying often stems from unhappiness or insecurity, try to find out if something is bothering your child. Children who bully aren’t likely to confess to their behavior, but you’ll need to try to get your child to talk by asking some specific, hard-hitting questions, such as:
o How do you feel about yourself?
o How do you think things are going at school and at home?
o Are you being bullied?
o Do you get along with other kids at school?
o How do you treat other children?
o What do you think about being considered a bully?
o Why do you think you’re bullying?
o What might help you to stop bullying?
To get to the bottom of why your child is hurting others, you may also want to schedule an appointment to talk to your child’s school counselor or another mental health professional (your child’s doctor should be able to refer you to someone).
If you suspect that your child is a bully, it’s important to address the problem to try to mend your child’s mean ways. After all, bullying is violence, and it often leads to more antisocial and violent behavior as the bully grows up. In fact, as many as one out of four elementary school bullies have a criminal record by the time they’re 30.
Helping your child stop bullying
Although not all bullying stems from family problems, it’s a good idea to examine the behavior and personal interactions your child witnesses at home. If your child lives with taunting or name-calling from a sibling or from you or another parent, it could be prompting aggressive or hurtful behavior outside the home. What may seem like innocent teasing at home may actually model bullying behaviors. Children who are on the receiving end of it learn that bullying can translate into control over children they perceive as weak.
Constant teasing – whether it’s at home or at school – can also affect a child’s self-esteem. Children with low self-esteem can grow to feel emotionally insecure. They can also end up blaming others for their own shortcomings. Making others feel bad (bullying) can give them a sense of power.
Of course, there will be moments that warrant constructive criticism: for example, “I counted on you to put out the trash and because you forgot, we’ll all have to put up with that stench in the garage for a week.” But take care not to let your words slip into criticizing the person rather than the behavior: “You’re so lazy. I bet you just pretend to forget your chores, so you don’t have to get your hands dirty.” Focus on how the behavior is unacceptable, rather than the person. Home should be a safe haven, where children aren’t subjected to uncomfortable, harsh criticism from family and loved ones.
In addition to maintaining a positive home atmosphere, there are a number of ways you can encourage your child to give up bullying:
o Emphasize that bullying is a serious problem. Make sure your child understands you will not tolerate bullying and that bullying others will have consequences at home. For example, if your child is cyber bullying, take away the technologies he or she is using to torment others (i.e., computer, cell phone to text message or send pictures). Or instruct your child to use the Internet to research bullying and note strategies to reduce the behavior. Other examples of disciplinary action include restricting your child’s curfew if the bullying and/or teasing occur outside of the home; taking away privileges, but allowing the opportunity to earn them back; and requiring your child to do volunteer work to help those less fortunate.
o Teach your child to treat people who are different with respect and kindness. Teach your child to embrace, not ridicule, differences (i.e., race, religion, appearance, special needs, gender, economic status). Explain that everyone has rights and feelings.
o Find out if your child’s friends are also bullying. If so, seek a group intervention through your child’s principal, school counselor, and/or teachers.
o Set limits. Stop any show of aggression immediately and help your child find nonviolent ways to react.
o Observe your child interacting with others and praise appropriate behavior. Positive reinforcement is more powerful than negative discipline.
o Talk with school staff and ask how they can help your child change his or her bad behavior. Be sure to keep in close contact with the staff.
o Set realistic goals and don’t expect an immediate change. As your child learns to modify his or her behavior, assure your child that you still love him or her – it’s the behavior you don’t like.
Be aware that bullying also takes place between adults, as well as between adults and children. Anywhere there is a power imbalance; there is the risk of bullying. Athletic coaching is a fertile ground for bullying young athletes. As more is learned about bullying and the serious consequences of it, more and more zero tolerance policies will be adopted. Until then, stay aware of subtle cues of bullying in children. The first step is awareness. With greater awareness, bullying can be nipped in the bud.
Dr. John Schinnerer