What is Bullying? And what can we do?

First, what precautions should be taken in defining bullying?

It's important to understand that some level of conflict in a child's life is normal and integral to development (Beane, 2008), but this does not include bullying.

When deciding whether a situation between two or more children is bullying or not, take great care to consider the full definition of the term, because it's important that conflict not be mislabeled as bullying as this is unproductive and it changes the approach.

Finally, we should be aware that overuse of the terms "bully" or "bullying" diminishes and normalizes the antisocial behaviors that we seek to heal (Englander, 2013).

What is bullying?

Researchers and educators acknowledge that bullying is a difficult term to define, but it is generally thought to include three main components:

  1. Imbalance of Power
  2. Repetition
  3. Intention

(Coloroso, 2008; Englander, 2013)

How does bullying progress?

Developmentally speaking, bullying behaviors begin around age three as children enter preschool (Beane, 2008) and increases in severity with age, though the behavior begins with words (King & Bott, 2012), which is significant in that it helps trace the origin to a bias.

Bullying peaks in adolescence and is most common in middle school, though it continues into high school and adulthood (Beane, 2008). This correlates with findings in an Australian study by Ken Rigby and Phillip Slee that showed a decrease in sympathetic attitudes for victims between primary and secondary school students (Eslea & Smith, 2000).

Who bullies?

via SupportSeekers.info

Bullying behaviors are evident in children and adults of all ages, backgrounds, etc., however, these behaviors, while antisocial, do not define the person behind them.

It's important to note that while there are some differences in the ways boys and girls bully, it is unclear whether one gender participates in bullying more than the others. Boys tend to have a preference for physical bullying, which is easily identified, girls tend to be more verbally abusive (Beane, 2008).

Coloroso says children who bullying possess many of the following traits:

  • Preference to dominate
  • Desire to use others to get what they want
  • Inability to see other perspectives
  • No concern for others
  • Need for attention
  • Lack of foresight
  • Projection of inadequacy
  • Lack of responsibility
  • See weaker people as prey
  • Isolation of victim(s)

(Coloroso, 2008)

How do bullies bully?

Bullying happens in three ways:

  1. Verbal
  2. Physical
  3. Relational

(Coloroso, 2008)

WHat is Verbal bullyinG?

Verbal bullying makes use of words, whether spoken or written and includes:

  • Name calling
  • Taunting
  • Cruel criticism
  • Sexual remarks
  • Gossip
  • Extortion or threats

(Coloroso, 2008; Liu & Graves, 2011 )

What is physical bullying?

May be the easiest form of bullying to detect, because it is seen, physical bullying includes:

  • Tripping
  • Hitting
  • Choking
  • Poking
  • Scratching
  • Twisting limbs
  • Destruction of clothes or possessions

(Coloroso, 2008; Liu & Graves, 2011 )

What is relational bullying?

At times incredibly difficult to detect, because relational bullying is "systematic diminishment of a bullied child's sense of self (Coloroso, 2008, p. 17)," means include:

  • Ignoring
  • Excluding
  • Aggressive stares
  • Hostile body language
  • Sighs
  • Rolling eyes

(Coloroso, 2008)

What affect does bullying have?

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Bullying is harmful to its perpetrators and its victims and has been known to create psycho-social and psychiatric problems in both (Mishna et al., 2005), so it is important that bullies and the bullied are treated with empathy to help prevent a long-term impact on their psyche.

Similarly, bias-based bullying (related to race, ethnic group, orientation, etc.) is shown to be linked with more extreme outcomes (Englander, 2013).

In the most extreme cases, bullying leads to suicide, known as bullycide. The term originated with British researchers Neil Marr and Tim Field, who found that the first suicide in Britain occurred in 1967 with an 11 year-old, the youngest instance affected an eight year-old (King & Bott, 2012).

Why don't children report bullying?

There are a handful of reasons why bullying goes unreported and they can be broken down into three categories:

  1. "Tattling" - the child fears coming forward for risk of being labeled a tattletale by adults and/or peers, which is seen as socially unacceptable
  2. Shame - through bullying, the child has come to see him/herself in a negative light and therefore deserves to be bullied
  3. Reaction - the child fears the adult will make the situation worse through action (retaliation) or inaction (brushing off the claim, insufficient advice)

(Beane, 2008; Coloroso, 2008)

How can adults help?

In spite of the perception from a survey conducted by Eslea & Smith showing 50% of adults and 27% of children believe bullying is inevitable, "just human nature," their research found this was not true, noting the schools that took bullying seriously and invested time and resources into handling it saw better outcomes in the reduction of bullying (2000). Needless to say, we can help, but the means of helping are complex.

What strategies are ineffective in handling antisocial, bullying behavior?

  • Exclusion - removing or excluding the bully from a school or program; research suggests these tactics only enhance the antisocial behaviors, as does labeling the child a bully (Englander, 2013; School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs, 2016)
  • Mediation - attempting to resolve the situation by bringing both parties to the table wrongly blames the victim(s) for the bullying (School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs, 2016)

What strategies encourage pro-social behavior?

  • Empathy - Mishna et al found that the more a teacher empathized with a student who was the victim of bullying, the more likely they were to effectively intervene and handle the situation (2005); listen to the child when he or she comes forward, approach the situation with an open-mind (Eslea & Smith, 2000; King & Bott, 2012)
  • Avoid Labeling - research shows that calling a child a bully has a negative impact, but so does labeling a child a victim, because this may cause them to act like one (Beane, 2008); instead focus on criteria for defining bullying (imbalance of power, repetition, intention) when talking to a child who is bullying, for the child who has been the target, talk about his or her strengths and the root of the problem; keep it positive
  • Address Gateway Behaviors - set the expectation of what behaviors are accepted, by addressing those that are not early and upfront; Englander suggests the "9-Second Response," in which one notices the negative behavior and addresses the perpetrator simply by saying that the behavior was offensive and bothersome and must be stopped (2013, p. 107)
If you want to reduce antisocial behaviors, interact and connect with people in the community, convey expectations... and address minor incidents before more serious ones erupt. (Englander, 2013, p. 103)


Beane, A. L. (2008). Protect your child from bullying: Expert advice to help you recognize, prevent, and stop bullying before your child gets hurt. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Coloroso, B. (2008). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From Preschool to high school—how parents and teachers can break the cycle of violence. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Englander, E. K. (2013). Bullying and cyberbullying: What every educator needs to know. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Eslea, M., Smith, P. K. (2000). Pupil and parent attitudes towards bullying in primary schools. European Journal of Psychology of Education, 15(2), pp. 207-219. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/226708860_Pupil_and_Parent_Attitudes_Towards_Bullying_in_Primary_Schools.

King, A. S., Bott, C. J. (2012). A.S. King and C. J. Bott talk about bullying. The English Journal, 101(6), pp. 50-54. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23269407.

Liu, J., Graves, N. (2011). Childhood bullying: A review of constructs, contexts, and nursing implications. Public Health Nursing, 28(6), pp. 556–68. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3228406/.

Mishna, F., Scarcello, I., Pepler, D., Wiener, J. (2005). Teachers’ understanding of bullying. Canadian Journal of Education, 28(4), pp. 718-738. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/4126452.

School-Based Bullying Prevention Programs. (2016, December 1). Retrieved from https://www.crimesolutions.gov/practicedetails.aspx?id=20.


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