Note: This is the third in a series on bullying.
After years of believing that children who bully suffer from low self-esteem, lack social skills, and are rejected by their peers, we now know that the reality is far more complex.
Children who use bullying behavior come in a variety of flavors.
Who Are the Children Who Bully?
About half seem so much like ourselves that we often don’t recognize them. They have high self-esteem; they are socially competent and popular with their teachers and peers (even if they aren’t always well liked); and they’re influential leaders who hang out with kids who aren’t involved in bullying. From early childhood on they are on a pathway to success.
However, they also use bullying behavior—both prosocial and aggressive—to gain status and control. As bullying expert Faye Mishna points out, they continually challenge the official message that aggression is undesirable.
Many other children who bully do fit the classical description, and some other familiar adjectives as well—aggressive, impulsive, hot-tempered, easily frustrated, and rule-breaking.
And at the very opposite end of the bullying spectrum lie bully-victims (sometimes called provocative victims). As the name implies, they not only bully others but are targeted by them. Researchers describe them as “socially marginalized,” “fighting the system that keeps them on the periphery.”
As the most rejected and isolated children, with the lowest social status and deepest psychological problems, bully-victims may not have any friends, which makes them more vulnerable and puts them on a pathway to more and more abuse.
Their irritating and provocative behavior also alienates their teachers, who find it hard to summon up empathy for them—a critical ingredient in responding to bullying appropriately. More than any other children, bully-victims need empathy from adults and help with social skills and relating to peers.
Who Are the Targets of Bullying Behavior?
Children who are the targets of bullying usually lack social status or are “different” in some way and reward their attacker by crying, running away, or handing over their possessions instead of standing up for themselves. These reactions signal that they’re easy marks for harassment, and by the age of 8 or 9 years they may be locked into this role.
Experts agree that most students on the receiving end of bullying share certain characteristics, though no one knows for sure whether they are the cause or the effect of bullying. Children who are targeted:
- Have low self-confidence and self-esteem
- Are prone to depression and sadness
- Easily become fearful and anxious
- Have poor social skills
- Have few or no friends and are lonely and isolated
- Are passive and submissive and have a sense of helplessness
- Are physically weak and dislike fighting
- Don’t perform well in school
Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered students top the list, along with students who “just don’t fit in”—those who are different because of their appearance, behavior, race, religion, disability, aboriginal origin, or social and economic class.
On the other hand, the socially competent leaders who bully may pick on peers whose status is similar to their own in order to climb the social ladder, and the targets may be as difficult to see as the aggressors.
Who Are the Bystanders?
Peers witness 85 percent of bullying incidents, and their presence and actions can increase—or decrease or stop—bullying.
- Their silence and inaction send the message that bullying is okay.
- Their laughter, comments, and assistance reinforce the power and status of students who bully.
- Bullying lasts longer when more bystanders are present.
- Bullying is highest in classrooms where the bystanders seem to support it—everyone believes the rest of the group accepts it.
- The social climate becomes harsher and less empathetic as bullying becomes more acceptable.
- When bystanders intervene, more than half of the time bullying stops within 10 seconds.
- Students who stick up for the target are held in high esteem by their peers.
- Watching bullying makes most bystanders uncomfortable, and many feel they should try to stop it.
But in reality only a few intervene.
Why Don’t Bystanders Report or Intervene When They See Bullying?
They are afraid of retaliation, and they don’t want to be excluded from the group. It is easier to create rationalizations for not following moral standards, such as, “He was just joking,” “Everybody does it,” and “She deserves it,” or to assume someone else will take responsibility.
In addition, bystanders may not know what to do, may not have a trusted adult to confide in, or believe that telling will change nothing or make things worse.
Or they think: If bullying is so wrong, why don’t adults act?
One of the most important factors is the bystanders’ relationship to the other children involved. Most of the time they will loyally support their friends and follow the rules of their peer group.
Personal power matters, too. Kids who feel unsafe, disconnected, and disempowered probably won’t stand up for a targeted child—or even reach out to help after the fact—unless the peer group demands it.
Researchers are currently trying to figure out how to change peer group thinking. It is a vital clue to solving the bullying puzzle.
What Can Adults Do?
Research shows that bullying is a relationship problem that involves an entire ecology: home, school, community, and society. All of the pieces are important, and you are a primary role model: Your words, attitudes, and behavior always influence what goes on, even when you aren’t present.
When you see or suspect bullying, intervene consistently. We know we’ve said this before, and we’re going to say it again. We’ll tell you how in our next post.
When a child tells you he or she is being bullied, the rule that you need to see it to believe it doesn’t apply. Listen carefully, try to understand, and validate his or her experience. Focus consciously on empathy, especially for children you don’t like. As Faye Mishna puts it, when this doesn’t happen, the child doubts him or herself and loses trust in all adults, with damaging effects on adjustment and functioning.
Be aware of the distinct peer groups in your classroom and understand which kids have power. Use this information to create groupings and opportunities that will help students to recognize each other’s strengths and contributions.
Make the climate of your classroom a high priority. Foster support for acceptance of diversity, moral engagement, kindness, and helpfulness through stories you read, books you assign, discussions about how people feel, role-playing, and using a prosocial curriculum such as Second Step.
Prevention is the best intervention. Bullying begins in early childhood, and it’s easier and more effective to catch it and turn it around in those years than it is later on.
What do you think? Have you seen different types of children bully—or being targeted—in your own classroom or school? How aware are you of your own reactions to the children involved? What strategies have you found to be effective?
Note: This is the first of several posts about bullying.
Bullying, that age-old enemy, is making headlines again, and the news isn’t good: Its nasty effects last. These reports back up our intuitions with hard research evidence for the very first time.
- A 20-year-long study, the most comprehensive to date, found that children wear the scars of bullying far into their adult lives. Kids who use bullying behavior have a high risk of antisocial personality disorder; those who are bullied are very prone to depression and anxiety; and “bully-victims,” who bully as well as being bullied, carry an even higher risk for anxiety and depressive disorders and suicidal thinking. The findings surprised lead researcher William E. Copeland of Duke University Medical Center, who calls these effects “as potent as the effects of abuse.”
- Boys who frequently bully their classmates are four times more likely to behave violently with their women partners when they become adults.
- Being bullied changes a child’s physiological response to stress, affecting the genes involved in regulating mood and depression and rendering targets more vulnerable to future stress and psychopathology.
- Many children who are bullied develop persistent clinical symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Bully-victims have even higher levels.
Can we stop bullying?
Research is booming, but have we learned how to prevent and stop bullying? Do we have any tools that work?
Bullying is an incredibly complex phenomenon, made even more complex since cyberbullying entered the picture. It has become increasingly apparent that there is no quick fix. Strategies such as zero tolerance, technology bans, and heavy punishment don’t work, and some programs that looked effective initially haven’t lived up to their promise.
But elements of some existing interventions have proven worth keeping, and new approaches are emerging.
School climate is key
When it comes to bullying, a lot depends on school climate, so anti-bullying efforts should involve the whole school as well as parents and the community. In schools with a positive climate, there is less bullying and students are more likely to report incidents to a trusted adult.
- Students feel safe, connected, and supported
- Students and teachers treat one another and their peers respectfully and fairly
- There are clear rules against bullying, and students trust that the adults in their lives will immediately, appropriately, and consistently intervene to stop it
- Social and emotional learning is included in the curriculum
- People value diversity and inclusion—because children who bully often choose targets who are different in some way
A school survey to identify bullying hot spots, a system for anonymous reporting, and close supervision of public spaces such as bathrooms, corridors, and playgrounds bolster safety and security.
Bystanders play an essential role
It is vital that students, teachers, and parents understand what bullying is and what they can do about it. Even the traditional definition—when a person with more power intentionally and repeatedly harms a weaker person—is currently stirring up controversy among experts and legislators and requires thorough discussion in class and at home.
Bullying is a group activity, with bystanders involved 85 percent of the time. Their assistance, comments, laughter, and even their inaction show that they condone and approve of bullying—and actually increase it.
Fortunately, about 20 percent of bystanders defend a child who’s targeted, and 57 percent of the time their efforts are successful within 10 seconds. Paradoxically, 80 to 85 percent of students say they admire the defenders and disapprove of bullying. But they don’t act on their beliefs.
Because children who bully successfully are powerful and popular (whether they are liked or not), bystanders bow to peer pressure and don’t speak up. But researchers believe that this same peer pressure can actually change bystander behavior.
In one study, schools surveyed student views on bullying and created posters that reflected the data, which confirmed that most students disapproved of bullying. The result? Bullying dropped by as much as 35 percent.
Another study demonstrated that even students with low social status—who are usually the least willing to intervene—will step in when they believe their classmates expect it of them.
While we wait
School climate obviously affects peer norms and behavior, and visa versa. While we wait for more research news, we can start focusing on creating a sense of community where all children feel they belong and have a contribution to make.
Next in the bullying series: Understanding bullying and how to intervene when it occurs