What is Childhood Bullying?
Bullying used to be considered a “rite of passage,” something that kids just had to go through to “get their licks;” something to be survived. After the series of murders at Columbine High School as well as the recent rash of teen suicides, adults have finally begun to take an interest and a stand against bullying. Current estimates indicate that over half of all children will be the victim of bullies at some point during their schooling careers.
And now, unlike when we were kids, as we’re living in the Internet Generation, children have yet another place in which they are able to be the targets of bullies – the Internet.
Who Is at Risk For Being Bullied?
No single factor puts a child at risk of being bullied or bullying others. Bullying can happen anywhere—cities, suburbs, or rural towns. Depending on the environment, some groups—such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, youth with disabilities, and socially isolated youth—may be at an increased risk of being bullied.
Children at Risk of Being Bullied
Generally, children who are bullied have one or more of the following risk factors:
- Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
- Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
- Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
- Are less popular than others and have few friends
- Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention
However, even if a child has these risk factors, it doesn’t mean that they will be bullied.
Children More Likely to Bully Others
There are two types of kids who are more likely to bully others:
- Some are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others.
- Others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.
Children who have these factors are also more likely to bully others;
- Are aggressive or easily frustrated
- Have less parental involvement or having issues at home
- Think badly of others
- Have difficulty following rules
- View violence in a positive way
- Have friends who bully others
Remember, those who bully others do not need to be stronger or bigger than those they bully. The power imbalance can come from a number of sources—popularity, strength, cognitive ability—and children who bully may have more than one of these characteristics.
The Importance of Not Labeling Kids
When referring to a bullying situation, it is easy to call the kids who bully others “bullies” and those who are targeted “victims,” but this may have unintended consequences. When children are labeled as “bullies” or “victims” it may:
- Send the message that the child’s behavior cannot change
- Fail to recognize the multiple roles children might play in different bullying situations
- Disregard other factors contributing to the behavior such as peer influence or school climate
Instead of labeling the children involved, focus on the behavior. For instance:
- Instead of calling a child a “bully,” refer to them as “the child who bullied”
- Instead of calling a child a “victim,” refer to them as “the child who was bullied”
- Instead of calling a child a “bully/victim,” refer to them as “the child who was both bullied and bullied others.
Kids Involved in Bullying
The roles kids play in bullying are not limited to those who bully others and those who are bullied. Some researchers talk about the “circle of bullying” to define both those directly involved in bullying and those who actively or passively assist the behavior or defend against it. Direct roles include:
- Kids who Bully: These children engage in bullying behavior towards their peers. There are many risk factors that may contribute to the child’s involvement in the behavior. Often, these students require support to change their behavior and address any other challenges that may be influencing their behavior.
- Kids who are Bullied: These children are the targets of bullying behavior. Some factors put children at more risk of being bullied, but not all children with these characteristics will be bullied. Sometimes, these children may need help learning how to respond to bullying.
Even if a child is not directly involved in bullying, they may be contributing to the behavior. Witnessing the behavior may also affect the child, so it is important for them to learn what they should do when they see bullying happen. Roles kids play when they witness bullying include:
- Kids who Assist: These children may not start the bullying or lead in the bullying behavior, but serve as an “assistant” to children who are bullying. These children may encourage the bullying behavior and occasionally join in.
- Kids who Reinforce: These children are not directly involved in the bullying behavior but they give the bullying an audience. They will often laugh or provide support for the children who are engaging in bullying. This may encourage the bullying to continue.
- Outsiders: These children remain separate from the bullying situation. They neither reinforce the bullying behavior nor defend the child being bullied. Some may watch what is going on but do not provide feedback about the situation to show they are on anyone’s side. Even so, providing an audience may encourage the bullying behavior.
- These kids often want to help, but don’t know how. Learn how to be “more than a bystander.”
- Kids who Defend: These children actively comfort the child being bullied and may come to the child’s defense when bullying occurs.
Most kids play more than one role in bullying over time. In some cases, they may be directly involved in bullying as the one bullying others or being bullied and in others they may witness bullying and play an assisting or defending role. Every situation is different. Some kids are both bullied and bully others. It is important to note the multiple roles kids play, because:
- Those who are both bullied and bully others may be at more risk for negative outcomes, such as depression or suicidal ideation.
- It highlights the need to engage all kids in prevention efforts, not just those who are known to be directly involved.
What Are The Types of Childhood Bullying?
There are any number of ways in which a child can be bullied. These include:
Physical Bullying – includes physical harm like hitting, kicking, punching, kicking or destroying another kid’s property.
Verbal Bullying – this type of bullying may be worse than actual physical violence. Verbal bullying includes teasing, gossiping, rumors, name-calling, taunting, and racial slurs.
Cyberbullying – this type of bullying includes mean and harassing emails, text messages, posting messages on blogs and leaving troll-ish comments on Facebook walls or Twitter accounts.
Signs Your Child May Be The Victim of A Bully:
There are many warning signs that may indicate that a child is being bullied. Your child may not come right out and say that he or she is the target of bullies – there is a lot of shame that goes along with being the target of bullies.
It’s vital that parents and other caregivers are able to recognize the signs that a child is being bullied. The signs of bullying may include the following:
Child comes home from school missing belongings, ripped clothes or damaged personal items.
Child claims to “lose” things like books, clothes, jewelry, or electronics.
Child appears to be easily distressed and emotional.
The child appears to be easily upset, cries easily and without much provocation.
Child exhibits disruptive and/or aggressive behavior – which is a change from previous behaviors.
Loses interest in talking to or visiting friends.
The child makes up excuses to avoid school or certain activities that were once loved.
The child has become secretive about his or her life – spending more time alone.
Hesitant to ride the school bus – asks for rides to school or volunteers to walk or ride a bike to school.
Newly fearful of different situations after previously being a fearless person.
Sudden bedwetting, nightmares, or trouble sleeping.
The child has many sudden and unexplained bruises or other injuries.
The bullied child begins to feel helpless, like he or she cannot control the situation.
Physical symptoms begin to emerge within the child. These may include stomach aches, headaches, vomiting, hair-pulling (dermatillomania).
Child begins to talk about death, dying, or suicide using phrases like “I wish I were dead.” May write stories about death, poems about death – death and dying may be romanticized in child’s life.
Has become a poor student – grades are suffering, interest in school is waning.
Child has only a few close friends – or none at all.
Child begins having problems eating or sleeping properly.
I’m Afraid My Child Is Being Bullied. Now What?
If you’re beginning to suspect (or have learned) that your child is being bullied, you may be outraged, furious that someone would hurt your child. You, as a parent, do need to take the situation seriously. Before you take action, take a deep breath and read the following tips.
Rather than approach it in an angry way with your child, be calm, and ask the child if he or she is being hurt by another person. A child may react to your anger and misinterpret as anger AT YOUR child, so being calm and collected is important
Tell your child that you believe him or her, that you’re going to help make this bullying stop. That you will make sure that your child is going to be safe, and protected.
Thank your child for opening up about being the victim of a bully, continue an open dialog about the day-to-day school experiences for the child.
Work with your child to teach him or her how to respond to different types of bullies.
Remind your child to ask the teacher, the lunchroom aide, the librarian, the counselor, any adult, for help dealing with the bullies.
Suggest that your child use the “buddy system” when at school or wherever the bullying takes place.
Talk to schools, teachers or other involved adults about your concerns about bullying so that a plan to stop bullying can be created.
Bring awareness to parent groups, PTA, or other groups and associations that correspond with your child.
Learn about bullying- help your child develop tactics and resources around bullying.
Familiarize yourself with legislation related to bullying. Many states have bullying legislation – call your representative for more information and to get involved.
What Do I Do If My Child Is A Bully?
While it may be very hard for parents to hear that their child is a bully, parents of children who bully must pay special attention to address this important issue before the situation becomes worse.
Parents of children who bully must remember that children who bully have a greater risk for criminal or risky behavior later in life. Be sure to work with your child’s school or a therapist to address these issues. Here are some tips for managing a child who bullies:
Ask your child about bullying. Listen objectively and calmly ask for an explanation of any situation in which your child is accused of being involved.
Make it clear that bullying is not okay and will not be tolerated. You can do this calmly and without berating the child. Any bullying on your end may further reinforce the negative behavior in your child.
Spend more time with your child and monitor activities and friends.
Provide clear consistent rules with consequences for negative behavior and praise for positive behavior at home.
Work with the school to send the message that bullying must stop.
Consult a therapist or school counselor to provide your child with additional help to understand the negative consequences of bullying.
A parent’s first instinct may be to deny the bullying and stand up and defend their child. This is especially true if the reporting parent is angry, hostile, or aggressive. As a parent, recognizing that there may be a problem is a first step. Ask for respect and calmness during the conversation and find out as many details as you can about the situation. Use this opportunity to build a relationship with the target’s family to help you monitor your child’s behavior.
Failure to manage and control the bullying behavior may lead to greater consequences in the future. A continued pattern of behavior will emerge including disrespect for authorities, vandalism, substance abuse, and maybe even conduct disorder.
What Are The Effects of Bullying?
Bullying can affect everyone—those who are bullied, those who bully, and those who witness bullying. Bullying is linked to many negative outcomes including impacts on mental health, substance use, and suicide. It is important to talk to kids to determine whether bullying—or something else—is a concern.
Kids Who are Bullied
Kids who are bullied can experience negative physical, school, and mental health issues. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience:
- Depression and anxiety, increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood.
- Health complaints
- Decreased academic achievement—GPA and standardized test scores—and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.
A very small number of bullied children might retaliate through extremely violent measures. In 12 of 15 school shooting cases in the 1990s, the shooters had a history of being bullied.
Kids Who Bully Others
Kids who bully others can also engage in violent and other risky behaviors into adulthood. Kids who bully are more likely to:
- Abuse alcohol and other drugs in adolescence and as adults
- Get into fights, vandalize property, and drop out of school
- Engage in early sexual activity
- Have criminal convictions and traffic citations as adults
- Be abusive toward their romantic partners, spouses, or children as adults
Kids who witness bullying are more likely to:
- Have increased use of tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs
- Have increased mental health problems, including depression and anxiety
- Miss or skip school
The Relationship between Bullying and Suicide
Media reports often link bullying with suicide. However, most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors.
Although kids who are bullied are at risk of suicide, bullying alone is not the cause. Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation
Why Do Kids Bully?
There are many reasons why a child may bully another child. Sometimes they are unable to express their emotions constructively. Other times, they need a physical outlet for their anger. Perhaps their home life is disruptive, and they are not used to being accountable for their actions’ consequences.
Popular media also plays a part in why people bully. For example, there are many television shows that promote “voting people off” the show for poor skill, performance, or looks. These shows reinforce a child’s belief that treating people disparagingly is okay.
The internet has also provided a strong outlet for kids to bully one another. The internet is easily accessible by many avenues, and it is easier for a kid to “hide” behind the shield of the internet, and not experience the other kid’s reaction to the bullying.
Finally, bullying may be the result of a turbulent family home. Compassion is a good tool to have when interacting with a bully, because more often than not they feel just as alone and scared.
Additional Resources About Childhood Bullying:
Bullying Statistics – This website is a comprehensive look at bullying, bullying statistics, the types of bullying, and how to stop bullying whether you or your child is the bully or the target. This page discusses how to parent a bully.
Kids Health – This website is dedicated to kid health, and the page in particular to childhood bullying. The article discusses what it means to be bullied, how to stop it, and what to do.
It Gets Better – The It Gets Better Project is a nonprofit organization with a mission to uplift, empower, and connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer youth around the globe.