Reflect back on your life and imagine situations you have observed bullying behavior; the playground where one girl grabs another’s hair and pulls her/him off the swing, the classroom where a group of students taunt another for misspelling a word, sending harmful words or pictures via text messaging, or the lunchroom where someone trips the “fat” kid and causes his/her tray to spill all over the floor. Unfortunately, these situations have become regular and are often described as a normal part of childhood. This series will define bullying, the impact of bullying on psychological wellbeing, identify misconceptions and myths of bullying, and offer recommendations for reducing bullying behavior.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is a multifactor construct that is influenced by the people involved, the context, and the situation and place of the behavior. When using the definition provided by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying is defined as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated over time.” In other words, bullying is a behavior that is unwelcome, there is an imbalance of power (e.g., senior student), and the behavior is repeated. Bullying can be physical (e.g., punching, kicking), verbal (e.g., threats or name calling), relational (spreading rumors or exclusion), or electronic (e.g., gossip on a smart phone).
Bullying inevitably leads to
- Hurt feelings
- Other harm
Where and When Does Bullying Happen?
Bullying often happens near school or where adult supervision is limited or possibly non-existent. Bullying will happen when there is close proximity to another individual, whether during school hours or around school hours. Approximately 20-25% of students between the ages of 12-18 are bullied—and NO school lies unaffected. Children aged 5-7 describe physical aggression with a reported rate of 18%, while 14-17 year olds report experiencing or observing electronic bullying.
Examples of bullying contexts
- Locker Rooms
- Electronic devices
Who is Bullied?
It is impossible to accurately predict and identify individuals who will be bullied, and no combination of traits will guarantee that a child will or will not be bullied. However, there are common characteristics to note; individuals expressing low confidence, shyness, anxiety, and unhappiness are more natural targets. Bullies are less likely to “pick” on someone who has a large support system.
In terms of gender, males are more likely to be targeted if viewed as smaller or weaker than the average. Females are more likely impacted by relational bullying and electronic bullying while males are more likely to be targets of physical force.
- The Victim: The psychological impacts of bullying will ultimately impact everyone! Children who experience bullying are more likely to be emotionally withdrawn and shy/quiet, present with anxiety, sadness, and loneliness, and have trouble eating, sleeping, and studying. Individuals may drop out of activities or skip class. The most severe impact is committing suicide.
- The Bully: Bullies are also children in pain. Bullies have difficulty relating to their peers, often have few friends due to low empathy and cruel behaviors, may have drug addictions, and report traumatic abuse histories. The bully is also more likely to drop out of school.
- The Observers: Bystanders play a significant, crucial role in bullying. Most instances of bullying are public (e.g., playground), especially when the bully desires an audience to have more power and attention. Often, observers may feel that the bully could target them next, feel like a “tattletale,” and that any intervention would be unsuccessful. However, inaction is not passive. When bystanders do nothing, a choice is made to ignore or pretend that the bullying is not happening. Despite not being active, observing the act without intervening is equally harmful. Observers may also be more likely to smoke, skip school, develop anxiety and depressive symptoms, and drink.
- The Victim: The emotional harm lasts much longer than physical harm. The victim’s self-image is significantly damaged, which takes much work and processing to heal. Bullying will instill a fear and self-loathing, and being repetitively targeted makes it difficult to view the self as desirable, capable, and effective. Long-term, this leads to lack of trust for self and others, and the victim has adopted a belief that he/she is too weak or hopeless to persevere. These individuals are at higher rates of psychiatric disorders, such as panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, PTSD, etc.
- The Bully: The bully is often unhappy as adults, typically not being able to relate to others or work well with other people. Bullies often have quick tempers and aggressive behaviors that are not approved by society—making it difficult to retain friendships, maintain a job, and commit to a healthy relationship. Additionally, behaviors may be transferred to his/her own children, caregivers, etc.
- The Observers: Many of the above concerns hold true for the observers; as adults, observers may use or abuse alcohol and tobacco, report higher rates of anxiety or depression, and may have difficulty focusing at work or maintain positive relationships. Guilt and feelings of regret are strong.
While higher rates of media have focused on bullying, there are many misconceptions.
- Adults can’t do anything à False! Teachers can observe behavior to deter bullies, principals can discipline, and parents can report to school systems. It is important to comfort and invalidate the bully’s actions, and not to ridicule the victim (e.g., grow up, don’t be a cry baby).
- Boys are more likely to be victims à the rate of bullying by gender depends on the type of bullying (e.g., female and cyber-bullying; males and physical).
- It begins with cyber-bullying à Bullying typically ends with cyber-bullying. Typically, individuals will meet the bully in person, not faceless, and eventually develops into electronic means.
- Children just need to “toughen” up à Boys will not just be boys and children don’t’ always need to work it out. Bullying causes harm and often needs intervention from an adult level.
- Bystanders don’t have a role in bullying à False! Observers always have a role on bullying. Observers can either give the attention to the bully, who craves it, or can report it to a trusted individual or intervene when safe.
- Bullies are popular à Bullies may be unpopular or sideline themselves, so it’s false to assume that bullies are at the top of the pecking order.
- It is obvious when a child is being bullied à Remember, electronic means have skyrocketed over the last decade. Ask your children frequently about his/her relationships, if he/she feels safe, and which children they do not trust.
Healing the Victim
Parents, teachers, and administrators must adopt a zero tolerance policy of bullying. The most harmful feeling for a victim is a sense of helplessness and hopelessness. Another consequence is the development of low empathy (e.g., no one cared for me or my feelings, so why should I care about this person’s?) Send the message to the victim that his/her situation is not hopeless or helpless, and that things can change. Counteract the impact of bullying by building self-esteem and self-worth. The victim can be challenged to adopt a new identity, an identity of strength, resilience, awareness, and flexibility. Victims must be aware of how they can adopt control and regain trust for self and others. Victims should be encouraged to stop re-enacting a role of disempowerment as adults in the workplace. It is important for victims to cultivate new interests and hobbies to reduce isolation from others, complete tasks to build success and confidence, and provide a sense of agency by helping or advocating for others. Healing his/her self-image is priority and ultimately the key.
Another important aspect of treatment is adopting an adult perspective to replace the traumatized child perspective. This teaches reality and that bullies never had the right to hurt and that old judgment by perpetrators were false. By accepting the facts that others were wrong and immature, new beliefs that are healthier and accurate can be formed. Other goals in treatment are increasing self-empathy, self-validation, and developing a new relational style where they are no longer submissive and passive, nor have to be hyper-vigilant or aggressive to defend themselves. The new goal is an assertive relational style and to accept that not all people are bad or harmful.
In summary, treatment would focus on
- Improving communication with others
- Coping with fears of others and the world
- Confronting and challenging destructive thoughts
- Improving self-esteem
- Learning positive self-care and coping tools
- Building healthy friendships and relationships
For bullies, it is important to help them identify and understand personal emotions (e.g., jealousy, anger) and offer more positive ways to process those feelings. Bullies must understand the consequences of their behavior and also build empathy for other people.
Prevention is crucial! Adults can take the following steps to reduce bullying and create an atmosphere of resilience and strength.
- Model kind and respectful behavior to others, and specifically pro-social behaviors
- Establish clear rules and boundaries at home and at school
- Teach children bystander behavior and related social supportive skills
- Become educated on cyber-bullying and communicate with children appropriately about the pros and cons of social networking
- Monitor social networking when children and teens have accounts (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr).
- Always have an open door communication policy
- Discuss and identify the positive aspects of your children, and help them articulate their personal strengths
- Encourage the buddy support system
- Communicate consistently with teachers and administrators