Parents, teachers, and children can learn techniques to combat bullying.
Day after day a second-grader forces a kindergartner to turn over his lunch. A trio of 10-year-olds pounce on a smaller classmate, toss his backpack off the school bus and throw his jacket in the mud. A sixth-grade girl spreads rumors about another girl in class. A high school junior pushes a first-year student down the stairs and charges him daily to pass in peace.
For more than 2 million students in schools throughout the United States, bullying—the use of intimidation or force to assert power over another person—is a daily reality. For years, many school teachers and counsellors dismissed such behavior as a normal rite of passage. By 1999, however, educators recognized bullying as a “silent nightmare” affecting as many as 20 percent of school-age children regularly.
Bullying is not only common but extremely hazardous to everyone involved—bullies, victims, and bystanders. According to a study of almost 900 U.S. third-graders, a bully has a five times greater risk of engaging in criminal behavior as other children. The study also reported that a child who becomes a bully by age 8 has a 25 percent chance of ending up with a criminal record by age 30.
Problems also exist for children who are the targets of sustained bullying. These children often suffer long-lasting fear and humiliation as the result of being victimized. In extreme cases, children who had been relentlessly teased and bullied have committed suicide. Even bystanders who witness bullying can become victims, as they are sometimes bothered by feelings of apprehension and guilt for not having done something to stop the attack.
Shattering Myths about Bullies
Research conducted in the 1990s shattered many myths about both bullies and their victims. For example, contrary to some traditional stereotypes, both boys and girls bully, though in different ways. Sometimes, bullying trends across generations, with the children of bullies becoming bullies themselves while the children of victims grow up to be victimized. However, psychologists believe that bullying is neither inevitable nor irreversible.
It flourishes in settings where children silently suffer and adults ignore or dismiss aggressive behavior displayed by some children. By working together, psychologists in 1999 believed that parents and educators can prevent bullying at its earliest onset, establish a zero-tolerance policy against victimization, and take the dread out of going to school for millions of youngsters.
For years, psychologists theorized that bullies suffer from underlying anxiety and insecurity. But personality and hormonal tests have shown that this is not the case. Nor do all bullies fit the stereotype of being tough kids from high-crime, low-income neighborhoods. Bullies are found in all sorts of families and communities. However, the parental, physical, and environmental influences that cause someone to become a bully can vary.
Reasons why Children Become Bullies
A theory set by psychologist Dan Olweus of the University of Bergen in Norway links bullying to a combination of too little love and care and too much freedom in childhood. Plus, a pioneer in the study of bullying, theorizes that children may fail to form a deep, lasting bond with parents who do not show them affection. Because such children feel unloved, they lack empathy for other children and try to coerce them into doing what they want. At the same time, their parents may not set limits and may tolerate aggressive behavior toward siblings or peers.
The inconsistent parental discipline of children may also lead to bullying, according to some psychologists. For example, one day parents may respond to their child’s misbehavior with a violent emotional outburst or physical punishment. The next day, the same inappropriate behavior is ignored by the parent.
Thus, the child becomes uncertain about what might happen, begins to fear the worst in any situation, and attacks other children because he or she fears being attacked themselves. In particular, boys conclude that “might makes right,” especially if their parents are themselves aggressive, encourage their sons to fight, use physical punishment, and admire aggression in others.
Physical characteristics can also make some difference, at least for boys. In general, male bullies pick on children who are shorter, smaller, and younger than they are.
Environmental factors also play a role in making a child a bully. Dorothea M. Ross, a research psychologist at the University of California Medical School in San Francisco and author of the book Childhood Bullying and Teasing, believes that negative consequences for bullying are generally rare in American homes and schools.
In other words, children bully when they know they can get away with it. Usually, victims of bullying don’t tell adults what happened and parents don’t ask.
“The contention that bullies often are given the protection that is normally accorded to an endangered species is not an exaggeration,” says Ross. She says that young victims are often fearful of snitching on a schoolmate because they are embarrassed about their humiliation and doubtful that anyone will take serious action.
There are other environmental problems, as well. Some parents may dismiss their son’s aggressive behavior as part of adolescence and follow the adage of “boys will be boys.” Teachers and school officials traditionally have not considered bullying as serious a problem as other forms of violence, though such beliefs were beginning to change in the late 1990’s. And children who watch bullies in action without protesting, often to avoid becoming targets, also contribute to an atmosphere in which bullies survive and thrive.
Finding a Role Model
Bullies often model themselves after other bullies. These role models can be modern-day heroes, including actors, historical figures, and even teachers. In one study, 2 percent of the bullying that children endured came from teachers who used sarcasm or mockery in the classroom. Another strong influence is television, which often rewards situation-comedy bullies with big laughs.
Even when bullies are depicted as cruel, continued exposure to bullying desensitizes child viewers to the pain and misery of being bullied, says Ross. “With this deterrent removed, the way is further cleared for the child to engage in bullying others,” Ross says.
Bullying is not a phenomenon of the late 1990s. As the English novelist Charles Dickens recounted in his book Oliver Twist (1837-1839), children have long been subjected to bullying by peers, families, teachers, and employers. According to some surveys, as many as 60 percent of school-aged children have been bothered by bullies. About 15 percent of those children surveyed reported being bullied regularly.
Places where Bullying Occurs
Bullying starts in elementary school, peaks in the middle-school years, and continues at a lower level in high school. It most often occurs in or around schools, but usually out of direct sight or supervision of teachers. In grade school, playgrounds are the prime sites for bullying. In later grades, bullying most often occurs in the hallways. A bully can sidle next to another student, say something demeaning or disturbing or “accidentally” push or trip the victim.
Some researchers in 1999 believed that bullying was increasing in both frequency and intensity, as teases and taunts gave way to such physical violence as beatings. By the late 1990s, bullying had taken on more violent characteristics, including the use of guns and other dangerous weapons.
The Differences Between Boy and Girl Bullies
According to Olweus, there are two common types of bullying—direct bullying and indirect bullying. Direct bullying refers to any form of physical or verbal aggression, including hitting, kicking, intimidating, threatening, or mocking.
Indirect bullying involves such tactics as telling stories behind someone’s back that in turn, affect the way others perceive and respond to an individual. Regardless of the method, psychologists say that both forms of bullying have the same purpose: to cause distress to and assert control over someone else.
Girls rely more on indirect bullying than boys. Their victims are almost always girls within their own age range. They often bully them by excluding them from cliques, conversations, or parties; suddenly refusing to be friends; or spreading gossip. One common example of what researchers call “relational aggression” among female bullies in elementary school is accusing a girl of carrying a highly contagious “germ.”
Olweus also distinguished between two types of bullies—aggressive and passive. Aggressive bullies are easily frustrated, fearless, and belligerent and are much more inclined to use violence than other children. Such children are often focused on power, physically strong, and need to dominate others.
They often see the world as being full of potential enemies, whom they must either dominate or submit to, and overreact to what they see as slights or hostilities. They also often claim that they are unappreciated by others.
How-ever, aggressive bullies are not equally aggressive toward all children; rather, they strike out only at select victims. Such bullies are often popular in grade school, but their popularity and academic performance plunge by the time they enter middle school.
Passive bullies, also called anxious bullies, rarely go out of their way to victimize others, but they admire and ally themselves with aggressive bullies. Once an episode of bullying begins, they eagerly join in, often as a way of gaining acceptance and approval. Passive bullies, says Ross, are often less popular than aggressive bullies, have few likable qualities, poor self-esteem, and difficulties at home.
Choosing their Targets
Bullies choose their targets for various reasons, often picking on someone of a different race, ethnicity, economic status, or appearance. In one survey of students in grades 4 through 12, both girls and boys ranked “didn’t fit in” as the number one reason for bullying.
Among 8th- through 12th-graders, boys said physical weakness, having certain friends, and style of clothing were the primary reasons for bullying. Girls cited facial appearance, crying or being emotional, being overweight, and getting good grades as frequent causes of bullying.
Psychologists note that boys who are bullied most often tend to be more passive and physically weaker than their tormentors. In middle schools, girls who enter puberty early are the most frequent victims of bullying, which usually takes the form of sexual harassment.
Research has shown that bullying by both sexes frequently takes the form of sexual harassment in middle and high school. In a 1993 survey sponsored by the American Association of University Women, an organization that lobbies for education and equity headquartered in Washington, D.C., 1 in 3 girls and 1 in 5 boys reported frequent sexual harassment, most of it occurring in hallways and classrooms.
To boys, taunts about homosexuality were the most disturbing form of sexual harassment. Girls reported feeling upset and embarrassed by comments about their bodies or by being referred to in derogatory terms.
The majority of bully-victims are considered to be passive victims. Researchers describe passive victims as being more anxious and insecure than other youngsters, as well as cautious, sensitive, quiet, and serious. They often suffer from low self-esteem and see themselves as unattractive, unintelligent, and unpopular.
Boys are physically weaker than their tormentors, and both sexes tend to lack humor and basic social skills that would help them deflect a bully’s taunts. Many also suffer from unrecognized and untreated depression. According to many psychologists, everything about passive victims, including posture and facial expression, signals that they would be unlikely to retaliate either physically or psychologically to an attack.
Their typical responses to bullying include crying and feelings of helplessness. A passive victim may avoid a potential confrontation by walking several miles to school rather than taking the bus with a bully.
Provocative victims are more active and assertive, and fewer in numbers than passive victims. They often behave in ways that irritate others. When attacked, they fight back, though usually ineffectively, and end up prolonging the confrontation. Because provocative victims tend to be hot-tempered and easily aroused, bullies justify their attacks on them by claiming that they “asked for it” or that they “had it coming.”
A small subgroup of victims are referred to by psychologists as bully-victims. These are youngsters who are bullied—usually by someone bigger than themselves—and then bully someone else, usually smaller than themselves. Like provocative victims, they are easily agitated and often goad a bully into attacking. They often go to great lengths to be accepted and may play the class clown and try to laugh off a bully’s show of force. However, they often end up unpopular and rejected.
Just as the children of bullies often become bullies, research has shown that victimization also crosses generations. A study that spanned 24 years reported that men who had been bullied between the ages of 8 and 14 were more likely to have children who were bullied.
The Effects of Bullying
Bullying may have other very different effects—both immediate and long-term—on bullies, victims, and bystanders. Experts had once believed that the victims of bullies were the ones to suffer significant psychological effects. Later studies, however, have shown that both bullies and their victims will often suffer in silence, sometimes becoming suicidal or homicidal.
For many children who bully, their primary gain is a sense of being in control. “This feeling overrides any possibility of empathy for the victims or anyone else and reduces any anxiety they may be experiencing,” says Ross, noting that bullies often feel pleased with what they do to their victims. Forcing a child into obedience is even more gratifying, for example, then having a youngster give them money or a new sweatshirt. Bullies also enjoy the deference with which they are treated by other kids, especially in grade school.
As children enter higher grades, some bullies outgrow such behavior, while others become leaders of a group of kids who want a chance to succeed at something. Researchers note that such children typically do not do well at school. Some shift to shoplifting and other crimes.
In one study of bullies conducted in Norway, about 60 percent of boys identified as bullies in grades six through nine had at least one criminal conviction by age 24, and 40 percent had three or more arrests.
Research has also shown that bullies are also more likely to drop out of high school, be arrested for drunken driving, and abuse their spouses and children. Their children are also more likely to become bullies themselves.
For victims, the immediate impact of repeated bullying is fear. Children may become so terrified that they live like fugitives and try avoiding the bully at all costs. This tactic, which researchers agree is the most common response among victims, can lead to social and academic problems.
In one study, 90 percent of the victims of bullying had a significant drop in grades. Other youngsters, including those who were friends or at least friendly in the past, may reject them to avoid becoming targets as well.
Over time, the victims of bullies may come to see themselves as unworthy, inferior, even deserving of abuse. Some begin skipping school or run away, while others develop physical symptoms. Some have been so overwhelmed by the effects of being victimized that they have committed suicide.
Even those who survive seemingly intact may carry permanent scars. Psychologists theorize that some childhood victims may have greater difficulty with social interactions as adults. One study of two groups of Swedish boys reported that by age 23, those boys who had been victimized in middle school were well-adjusted adults in many respects, but had poorer self-esteem and were more likely to be depressed than those who had never been bullied.
Psychologists believe that even bystanders can be affected by bullying. Because fear can be viewed as being contagious, children may worry that they may also become the bully’s targets if they try to help or tell anyone about an incident.
Feeling helpless and guilty for not intervening, children may then have nightmares or feel stress. If repeated bullying goes unpunished over time, an atmosphere of fear and apprehension can fill an entire school and interfere with the students’ ability to concentrate and learn. Such an atmosphere may also fill a time like recess with tension and anxiety.
Techniques to Combat Bullying
Although victims of bullies may feel alone in their fight, experts agree that there are effective techniques that teachers, parents, and children can use to combat bullying. In school, close supervision is critical. Psychologists stress that school officials should also actively watch for aggressive behavior and hand out consistent, nonphysical punishment.
The judicial system in the United States has also taken a stand on the issue. For example, in 1996, a federal judge ruled that school districts have a responsibility to protect a student from physical and emotional harm while on school property. The case stemmed from a homosexual student in Wisconsin who had been harassed. And in May 1999, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that educators who fail to stop students from sexually harassing other students may be forced to pay the victims.
Some schools in Great Britain have attempted to reduce bullying by encouraging all students to report any aggressive or inappropriate behavior. In what they call a “telling school,” officials remind students that they have a right to come to school without being afraid, that silence protects bullies, and that they will get in trouble only if they don’t report a bully. Other schools have established bully courts in which students and faculty advisers convene to consider charges of bullying behavior and determine punishments, such as after-school detention.
Still other approaches include the use of video cameras to monitor student behavior in playgrounds and hallways, student-watch programs in which student volunteers patrol the school grounds and report any incidents of bullying, and big brother programs in which students in upper grades pair with those in lower grades to make them feel safer and to deter older bullies. Some communities have set up toll-free hotlines that children who are being bullied can call for advice and support.
While different schools emphasize specific types of interventions, the most successful programs share several common elements. For example, the school condemns bullying and acknowledges it as a serious problem. Parents, teachers, and students commit themselves to banning bullying. And students refuse to remain silent.
What Parents can Do
Experts agree that parents should take steps to prevent bullying, starting in the home. For example, parents should establish rules of behavior at home and commend the child for following those rules. Such actions help build self-esteem, according to many experts. Spending time with a child who also may tend to bully can also create positive experiences for that child, as well as provide them with a positive role model.
According to experts, a number of actions a parent can also take to help stop bullying. For example, if your child is being bullied, sympathize and let your child know that you are angry about the bullying and will take appropriate action.
Don’t blame your child for being victimized or suggest nothing can be done. Also, don’t promise your child that you will keep silent about the incident. Parents should explain that secrecy protects bullies so they can hurt more people.
Find out as much as you can about exactly what happened during a bullying incident, including when and where it took place, who was involved, and if others witnessed the scene. Parents should ask if this was the first incident and how the child responded.
Parents should also consider making an appointment to see the school official who handles parental complaints and bring a written report of the incident. They should also consider contacting the parents of the bully.
Although some parents will be concerned and address the problem, others will not. If they dismiss the incident, explain that what happened was an assault, reported to the school, and could become a police matter.
If you discover that your child has been a bully, listen to what others are saying about your child’s behavior. Get as much information as you can from your child’s peers and teachers, including a description of the incidents that led to the complaint.
In either situation, psychologists urge parents to think of bullying as a symptom and try to determine its underlying cause. If handling the situation on your own proves to be unsuccessful, experts recommend parents seek professional help from a school counselor, psychologist, or local social services personnel.
Before the first appointment, write descriptions of your child’s behavior at home and at school. Both parents and children should be ready to participate in family and perhaps also marital counseling. These sessions may be crucial in building healthier relationships within your family and with others.
How Kids can Help Themselves
Similar guidelines exist for children who are bullying victims. Experts encourage children to understand that they have the right to feel safe. To prevent attack, stick close to your friends, since studies have shown that bullies rarely pick on an entire group of youngsters.
If someone bullies you, always tell an adult, even if you think you’ve solved the problem on your own. If you find it difficult to talk about what happened, write down what has been happening and give it to a parent, teacher, a friend’s parent, or a school counselor.
Psychologists recommend that children who witness bullying take some action. If you see someone else being bullied, don’t just stand by. Alert an adult to what is going on. If you do nothing, you send the message that bullying is okay with you.
If you’ve ever bullied someone else, think about why you did it and how you were feeling at the time. Try to think of other ways that you can act to feel good about yourself. Make it a rule to treat others the way you would like to be treated.
The good news for both parents and their children is that bullying does not have to be a constant problem. Experts view open communication lines between bullies, victims, and their parents as one of the first steps in ending the situation.