Bully or Not?

What is bullying?
Bullying is abusive behavior by one or more students against a victim or victims. It can be a direct attack -- teasing, taunting, threatening, stalking, name-calling, hitting, making threats, coercion, and stealing -- or more subtle through malicious gossiping, spreading rumors, and intentional exclusion. Both result in victims becoming socially rejected and isolated.

Boys tend to use physical intimidation or threats, regardless of the gender of their victims. Bullying by girls is more often verbal, usually with another girl as the target. Cyber-bullying by both boys and girls -- in online chat rooms, e-mail, and text-messaging -- is increasing.

Bullying is a common experience for many children and teens. Direct bullying seems to increase through the elementary school years, peak in the middle school/junior high school years, and decline during the high school years. Although direct physical assault seems to decrease with age, verbal abuse appears to remain constant. Whether the bullying is direct or indirect, the key component of bullying is physical or psychological intimidation that occurs repeatedly over time to create an ongoing pattern of harassment and abuse.

Who bullies?
Students who engage in bullying behaviors seem to have a need to feel powerful and in control. They appear to derive satisfaction from inflicting injury and suffering on others, seem to have little empathy for their victims, and often defend their actions by saying that their victims provoked them in some way.

Bullies often come from homes in which physical punishment is used, where striking out physically is a way to handle problems, and where parental involvement and warmth are frequently lacking. Students who regularly display bullying behaviors are generally defiant or oppositional toward adults, antisocial, and apt to break school rules. Bullies appear to have little anxiety and to possess strong self-esteem. There is little evidence to support the contention that bullies victimize others because they feel bad about themselves. Chronic bullies seem to continue their behaviors into adulthood, negatively influencing their ability to develop and maintain positive relationships, and can experience legal or criminal troubles as adults.

Bystanders also play a role in bullying:

  • the assistant who joins the bully
  • the re-enforcer who encourages the bully by observing and laughing
  • outsiders who avoid the bullying by staying away and not getting involved for fear of losing social status or being bullied as well

If you suspect your child is bullying others, it's important to seek help for him or her as soon as possible. Without intervention, bullying can lead to serious academic, social, emotional and legal difficulties. Talk to your child's pediatrician, teacher, principal, school counselor, or family physician. If the bullying continues, a comprehensive evaluation by a mental health professional should be arranged. The evaluation can help you and your child understand what is causing the bullying, and help you develop a plan to stop the destructive behavior.

Who gets bullied?
Victims of bullying may be anxious, insecure, and cautious and suffer from low self-esteem, rarely defending themselves or retaliating when confronted by students who bully them. They may lack social skills and friends and thus are often already socially isolated. Victims tend to be close to their parents and may have parents who can be described as overprotective. Victims of bullies often fear school and consider it to be an unsafe and unhappy place. Victims will often stay home 'sick' rather than go to school or travel on the school bus.

Victims experience real suffering that can interfere with their social and emotional development, as well as their school performance. Some victims of bullying have attempted suicide rather than continue to endure such harassment and abuse. Other victims have taken out their anger and frustration in violence. Most of the young people who have caused school-related violent deaths have been victims of bullying. Experts, pointing to such tragic events as Columbine, agree that bullying can lead to serious violence, including murder and suicide.

If you suspect your child may be the victim of bullying ask him or her to tell you what's going on. It's important to respond in a positive and accepting manner. Let your child know it's not his or her fault, and that he or she did the right thing by telling you. Ask your child what he or she thinks should be done. What's already been tried? What worked and what didn't? Help your child practice what to say to the bully so he or she will be prepared the next time.

Other specific suggestions include the following:

  • Know the school policies that protect students from harassment, bullying, and physical violence. All students have the right to a safe and secure learning environment. Get copies of these policies and procedures.
  • Seek help from your child's teacher, the school guidance counselor, and school administrators -- and hold them accountable for following school policy. Most bullying occurs on playgrounds, in lunchrooms, and bathrooms, on school buses or in unsupervised halls. Ask the school administrators to find out about programs other schools and communities have used to help combat bullying, such as peer mediation, conflict resolution, anger management training, and increased adult supervision.
  • Notify the police if your child is assaulted. Get a restraining order so that the bully is required by law to have no contact with your child.
  • If school officials and the police do not follow policy or laws, take legal action.

If your child becomes withdrawn, depressed, reluctant to go to school, or if you see a decline in school performance, additional consultation or intervention may be required. A mental health professional can help your child and family and the school develop a strategy to deal with the bullying. Seeking professional assistance earlier can lessen the risk of lasting emotional consequences for your child.

Why don't young people tell adults?
Students typically feel that adult intervention is infrequent and ineffective and that telling adults will only bring more harassment from bullies. Students are also reluctant to tell teachers or school staff as many adults view bullying as a harmless rite of passage that is best ignored unless verbal and psychological intimidation crosses the line into physical assault or theft.

What can adults do to stop the bullying?
Combating bullying is a mission that requires cooperation between everyone involved. Parents, the school, and the community must work together to stop bullying. A comprehensive intervention plan that involves all students, parents, and school staff can help ensure that all students can learn in a safe and fear-free environment.

This can include school surveys on bullying to identify the problem, awareness campaigns in schools, churches, places of worship, libraries, and recreation centers, and a school climate where bullying is not tolerated (educational programs, peer counseling, whole-school policies, classroom rules, cooperative learning activities, increased supervision during lunch and recess).

Information provided by Ron Banks, ERIC/EECE Publications, Digests EDO-PS-97-17.