Most of us have bullied someone and have been bullied at some time in our lives. We have an aggressive trait that helps us stand up to a threat. We are emboldened to fight when we fear for ourselves or family, or simply when we’re “not going to take this anymore!” Mature people don’t do this without cause, but children and teens lack maturity and can engage in bullying throughout their school years. (Even the nicest children can bully another person.) Victims of bullying usually don’t have the power and skills to prevent it or to protect themselves.
“This is a huge problem in the schools… it’s particularly common in grades 6 through 10, when as many as 30 percent of students report they’ve had moderate or frequent involvement in bullying.”
–Dr. Joyce Nolan Harrison, assistant professor of psychiatry, Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.
Bullying occurs when others aren’t paying attention… or when there is an audience
In schools, bullies target victims where and when authorities can’t see, isolated but in crowds: hallways, the school lunch room, the playground or gym, and the bathroom or dressing room, not in plain sight of others who might report an incident. Or they have an audience that supports the bully or ignores the situation and doesn’t want to get involved… or tell.
Bullies target those they consider “weak” or simply “different”
What makes a target child “weak” could be so many things. Bullies seize on anything: a physical, emotional, or mental vulnerability–children with learning disabilities or autism spectrum disorders are often targets. But any “different” child is at risk: a child from another culture is different, a boy who seems effeminate or a girl who seems masculine. The list of reasons children are bullied is so long that it is impossible to proactively avoid attracting the attention of a motivated bully or bullies: physical features, small stature, younger age, shy or meek personalities, bad fashion sense (or perfect fashion sense), even being a Straight “A” student is cause for being victimized. A child’s family member might be perceived as an embarrassment that elicits bullying (a brother is in prison, a father lost his job). Or a child might be a member of a group that’s hated by the parents, who teach their child to hate the group. Some victims are chosen simply because they are at the wrong place at the wrong time:
A teen walks his usual route home from school. He is reasonably well liked but doesn’t stand out. Ahead are three troublesome youth he doesn’t know. No one is around. He’s still at a distance, but starts to feel uncomfortable. They stand side-by-side on the walk ahead of him and stare.
What would a street-wise kid do?
He crosses the street without breaking stride, but also watches them—they have to know he sees them. If he pretended to ignore them it could inflame their anger. They start taunting. Meanwhile, the teen has been thinking of ways to protect himself just in case: there’s a store is nearby or within running distance, there’s a neighbor who’s usually at home. If he has a phone, he pulls it out and is ready to dial 911. He stays alert and looks confident, and they eventually drop the effort and let him move on.
Bullies punish kids who try to stop the bullying
Those who “snitch.” Victims who ask for help are often targeted by the bully more intensely, and often joined by associates who simply jump the bandwagon (curious behavior described as “the madness of crowds”). The culture of tweens and teens has low tolerance for those who tell on others. Those who join the bullying episode against the victim can do it without thinking, or perhaps they feel empowered to vent anger on someone, or just want to fit in.
Those who try to stop them. A heroic bystander steps in to stop a bullying episode and becomes the target themselves.
Those who want to leave the bullying group. Some kids have second thoughts and feel uncomfortable about the bullying and try to leave, but they can’t. Leaving attracts intense, relentless bullying for “voting with their feet”—this is a hallmark of gang behavior
Sadly, some children appear to “set themselves up” for bullying. This victim is a child with a fatalistic attitude and low self-esteem, who doesn’t recognize when others take advantage of them. They feel they must endure and don’t take steps to protect themselves out of excessive fear of drawing retribution. These are the kind of children who can become victims of physical or emotional domestic violence as adults.
If your child is a victim, be aware that they live between a rock and a hard place. Be careful that your involvement doesn’t make things worse for them
Armor your child with multiple skills
There is no one way to handle every bully situation so flexibility is key. Together, develop a list of multiple options:
- Ask friends to accompany them
- Go to a place where people are and find an adult to help. Walk the other way, walk down different hall, walk to other side of street, use a different bathroom.
- Request loudly “LEAVE ME ALONE” when there’s an audience to witness the bullying, such as on a bus or standing in line.
- Use body language to project a firm stance. This can be the way your child stands or the loudness of their voice when the bully is present to show confidence, alertness, and empowerment.
- Let your child know you take them seriously and will do something about it. Give them emotional support.
- Let your child know you will back them up by working with the school.
- Use the situation as a learning opportunity to help your child develop a backbone and inner strength. Even with your support, this will not be easy for your child to handle. Be a model of strength and resolve rather than of vengeance or anger.
- Consider mental health issues that might be making things worse for your child: ADHD, ODD, depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, chaos and stress at home, PTSD, substance abuse, and others.
“Help the bullied kids find each other. If there are a bunch of them together, they can stand the bully down. They don’t have to beat the bully up. They just have to say, ‘Why are you treating my friend this way?’ The bully will often move on… Parents can appropriately take matters into their own hands. You need to enlist the help of all the other parents of bullied children… Parents have to work as a group. One parent is a pain in the [butt]. A group of parents can be an educational experience for school authorities.”
–William Pollack, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry, Harvard Medical School
- Don’t tell your child to “let it go, ”or “it’s no big deal,” or “it happens, deal with it.”
- Don’t tell your child to be tough. What does “tough” mean? What do you want them to do?
- Don’t punish or dismiss a child who complains too much, or blame him/her for setting themselves up and asking for it. Ironically, a victim is sometimes treated as the problem child.
- Don’t bully your child at home! Are you doing this? Think. Your child learns to accept the inevitability of bullying because he or she is accustomed to it at home.
How things can go wrong: A boy is in the shower after PE class and gets slapped on the butt most days. He is too proud/embarrassed to tell his parents, or he tells and they react poorly. Perhaps he’s blamed for not standing up for himself, or a parent shows up outraged at school and yells at the bully or school staff. Now the boy’s parent is the problem and may be suspected of bullying their child. Or school staff overreact with swift punitive actions to the bully. Time passes and the bully starts up again bit by bit, only much more subtly. The boy is afraid to report it again because the encounters are more secretive. The bully denies his behavior and recruits others to advocate for him. They jump on the bandwagon because they don’t know the history, and the boy doesn’t want to tell everyone he is being sexually harassed. It’s a vicious cycle.
Teachers and schools
“You can’t learn if you’re being bullied, if every day you’re frightened of how you’re going to be treated.”
–William Pollack, cited above
Teachers, pay attention to signs that there’s a skilled, secretive bully at the school.
- Notice who others avoid.
- Notice a child coming into the class who’s upset and ask them about it later, promise you’ll protect their anonymity if you can get them to reveal a bully, but don’t pressure them.
- Observe the problem kid and their subtle interactions with others.
- Allow a victim(s) to have distance from bully, permission to use a different bathroom, to have their desk placed farther apart, to have a locker farther apart, or even a different class if possible.
- Inform the parents of your concerns in addition to the principle and school counselor.
- Focus your behavioral interventions on the bully (not the victims)
Avoid diagnosing the situation. You are not the expert. You don’t know why a bully is a bully, or why a victim is a victim, or anything about their parents. Ensure a school counselor is involved in any discussion about how to manage a bully problem in the school.
Avoid jumping to conclusions! Your actions can unintentionally undermine or harm either the child or their parents. You don’t know until you know.
“Bullies are like the lion looking for a deer that’s left the herd,” says Patrick Tolan, director of the Institute for Juvenile Research at the University of Illinois. “They try to single out the weakest kid. The best way to stop this is to work on increasing inclusion by helping the bullied kids with social skills.”
Bullies are usually bullied themselves (see another article Bullies like their victims, are also at risk). Only very small percentage are sociopathic, or who are intrinsically cruel and without empathy, perhaps 1 in a 100. How do you tell? If someone sets a clear boundary with punitive consequences, the disturbed bully will relentlessly target a victim regardless of how much trouble they get in.
I wish to personally thank Barry Diggs, probation and parole officer for the Oregon Youth Authority, for his insights into bullying behavior, which helped me develop this article. Margaret
If you have helped a child effectively cope with bullying, please share your story in the Comments below so others can learn from your story.
Bullying Linked to Violence at Home
Bullying is pervasive among middle school and high school students in Massachusetts and may be linked to family violence, a new study finds. In a survey of 5,807 middle-school and high-school students from almost 138 Massachusetts public schools, researchers from the Massachusetts Department of Health and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that those involved in bullying in any way are more likely to contemplate suicide and engage in self-harm compared to other students. Those involved in bullying were also more likely to have certain risk factors, including suffering abuse from a family member or witnessing violence at home, compared to people who were neither bullies nor victims.
Cyberbullying (this is a superb and comprehensive article by an expert on cyberbullying)
Survey: Half of High Schoolers Report Bullying or Teasing Someone
“Ethics of American Youth Survey”, Josephson Institute of Ethics
Half of U.S. high schoolers say they have bullied or teased someone at least once in the past year, a new survey finds. The study also found that nearly half say they have been bullied during that time. The study surveyed 43,321 teens ages 15 to 18, from 78 public and 22 private schools. It found 50 percent had “bullied, teased or taunted someone at least once,” and 47 percent had been “bullied, teased or taunted in a way that seriously upset me at least once.” The survey asked about bullying in the past 12 months: 52% of students have hit someone in anger. 28% (37% of boys, 19% of girls) say it’s OK to hit or threaten a person who angers them. “There’s a tremendous amount of anger out there,” Michael Josephson says. (Founder of the Institute of Ethics)
Victims of Cyberbullying More Likely to Suffer Depression than Perpetrators:
ScienceDaily, September 2010
Young victims of cyber bullying, which occurs online or through cell phones, are more likely to suffer from depression than their tormentors, a new study finds. Researchers at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child and Human Health Development in the US looked at survey results on bullying behavior and signs of depression in 7,313 students in grades six through 10. Victims reported higher depression than cyber bullies or bully-victims, which was not found in any other form of bullying. Researchers say it unclear whether depressed kids have lower self-esteem and so are more easily bullied or the other way around.
Cyberbullying Teens and Victims More Likely to Have Psychiatric Troubles
Archives of General Psychiatry, July 2010
Teens who cyberbully others through the Internet or cell phones are more likely to have both physical and psychiatric problems, and their victims are at heightened risk for behavioral difficulties, a new study finds. Researchers collected data on 2,215 Finnish teens 13 to 16 years old. The survey found that teens who were victims of cyberbullying were more likely to come from broken homes and have emotional, concentration and behavior problems. In addition, they were prone to headaches, abdominal pain, sleeping problems and not feeling safe at school, the researchers found. Cyberbullies were also more prone to suffer from emotional and behavior problems, according to the survey.
Bullying And Being Bullied Linked To Suicide In Children
International Journal of Adolescent Medical Health; July 2008
Being a victim or perpetrator of school bullying, the most common type of school violence, has been frequently associated with a broad spectrum of behavioral, emotional, and social problems. According to international studies, bullying is common, and affects up to 54 percent of children. Researchers at Yale School of Medicine reviewed studies from 13 different countries and found signs of a connection between bullying, being bullied. and suicide in children. Suicide is third leading cause of mortality in children and adolescents. Lead author of this report, Young-Shin Kim, M.D. said “the perpetrators who are the bullies also have an increased risk for suicidal behaviors.”
Kids with ADHD more likely to bully
Linda Carroll, MSNBC, reporting on the Journal of Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, February 2008
A new study shows that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are almost four times as likely as others to be bullies. And, in an intriguing corollary, the children with ADHD symptoms were almost 10 times as likely as others to have been regular targets of bullies prior to the onset of those symptoms.
A study followed 577 children for a year. After collecting data on bullies and victims and identifying those children ADHD, there was a corollary between ADHD and bullying. Study co-author Dr. Anders Hjern, a professor in pediatric epidemiology at the University of Uppsala in Stockholm said “These kids might be making life miserable for their fellow students. Or it might turn out that the attention problems they’re exhibiting could be related to the stress of being bullied.”
Unfortunately, treating ADHD won’t remedy the bullying because drugs for the condition impact a child’s ability to focus, but not the aggression that leads to bullying, says Kazdin, a professor of psychology and child psychiatry and director of the Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic at Yale University, and president of the American Psychological Association.
Bullying Tied to Sleep Problems
Sleep Medicine, June 2011
Children who are aggressive and disruptive in class are more likely to have sleep-disordered breathing than well-behaved children, according to new research. Conduct problems, parent-reported bullying, and school disciplinary problems were all associated with higher scores on a measure of sleep-related breathing disorders, according to researchers. The study collected data from parents on each child’s sleep habits and asked both parents and teachers to assess behavioral concerns. The findings suggest that bullying may be prevented by paying attention to some of the unique health issues associated with aggressive behavior.