The incidence of bullying in schools, across nations, is extremely high. In Australia, at least 50% of students experience some degree of bullying each year. Bullying is an age-old problem and universally widespread.
Age and gender
Children are most frequently bullied between the ages of 10 and 12. Boys are more likely to bully and be bullied. Boys and girls tend to bully differently, which probably reflects the way children interact in the first place. For the most part, children play and interact in much the same way, but boys tend to favour physically based group activities like sport. Girls seem to prefer social friendship-based interaction such as chatting and playground games. Girls who bully usually use methods like spreading hurtful information about someone, whereas boys are more likely to use physical intimidation together with nasty words.
For most children the problem is fleeting, though the consequences can be devastating for those frequently bullied, say, at least once a week. It is estimated that one in six students on average across age groups is bullied on a regular basis. More resilient students may come through fairly intense bullying relatively unscathed physically and psychologically. But if bullying is prolonged, the effects are unlikely to be trivial unless, of course, the victim is extremely resilient.
At the very least, a bullied child is likely to feel miserable, no matter how short-lived the problem may be. If victimisation is long-term, the consequences can occasionally be tragic. A link has been established between suicide and attempted suicide, and peer victimisation at school. In some cases, bullied children retaliate and become bullies themselves.
While the bullied child bears the brunt of an attack and stands in the most immediate psychological and physical danger, Professor Hazler and Professor Janson of Child and Family Studies at Ohio University, say that depending on the severity of the ordeal, the impact on bystanders can be just as traumatic.
Bullies, with seeming delight, intimidate and instill fear in their victims. They taunt, tease, belittle, hound, spread rumors and physically overpower. As a general rule, they pick on easy targets and shy away from more confident, resilient individuals who are likely to ignore or challenge them.
For obvious reasons bullies are not particularly well-liked, respected or popular. They often report feeling lonely at school as their menacing nature repels would-be friends, apart from sidekicks who are prepared to go along with them for fear of being bullied themselves. These "assistant" bullies are, in reality, as much victims as the children targeted or the bystander who turns the other way.
Bullies tend to be rebellious, defiant and disruptive in the classroom, as well as at home. Many report a dislike of school and struggle academically. They are typically domineering, antagonistic and aggressive in their interactions with peers and are easily frustrated if they don't get their own way. Usually, they resort to fighting as a means of problem solving and, before long, earn the reputation of being troublemakers who bully others on a regular basis.
Some experts describe the bully's bravado as a smokescreen to hide an insecure individual who craves control.
The bully mindset
As a rule, bullies do not identify well with their victims or the suffering they cause. This inability to empathise may well be linked to immature thinking processes characteristic of young children. Bullying is most commonly seen during middle childhood (10 /11 year olds), a time experts suggest thinking processes have not yet reached a level of maturity that would enable them to fully appreciate right from wrong and so be accountable for their actions. By and large, young children learn this by observation, what they are told and from experiencing the positive and negative consequences of their actions.
Developmental psychologists suggest that intellectual development and moral reasoning are closely related. Jean Piagèt, an early pioneer of moral reasoning and intellectual development in children, suggested that with the onset of puberty thinking processes begin to cross a threshold into a more sophisticated stage, heralding the realisation of an internalised sense of conscience.
Mental maturational changes associated with enhanced brain and neurological growth seen during pubescence, enable the individual to reason and internalise moral thought.
Why do children bully and how to help?
The discovery that your child is bullying others may be difficult to understand let alone accept. If a parent is to help their child find more peaceable ways to interact with peers, it may first be necessary to look at themselves and how they communicate - not only with their child, but also with others as this may be contributing to the problem.
Dr Sue Bagshaw is a youth health specialist in NZ who says, "Babies aren't born to bully, they learn from the people around them". First and foremost, children learn to communicate at home. An infant enters the world innocent and naïve, totally dependant on their parents. These significant individuals are the child's first contact with the world and they are the teachers who communicate important messages, directly (through excessive punishment, lack of affection) or indirectly (through aggressive problem-solving, marital discord, or parental rifts).
The relationship or attachment a child shares with their parents early in life should be a healthy one - loving, caring, consistent and safe. Most parents do the best they can, but sometimes, for whatever reason, children are deprived of healthy attachments, which can impact negatively on their physical and emotional development and have repercussions for future relationships.
Most of the time, the admonishing finger is directed solely at the bully, but it is imperative to consider the child's social and psychological context to achieve optimal therapeutic intervention. At first glance, blaming the bully may seem understandable as such behaviour is unacceptable, though care needs to be taken to ensure the child is not made a scapegoat for a bigger social problem.
Dr Bagshaw suggests that behavioural problems, by and large, reflect a top down effect from all walks of life. For example, in the context of marital discord, the parent kicks the child, the child then kicks the dog, the dog bites the cat, and so on. Consequently, a series of unequal relationships develops where each is angry and acts out inappropriately. This chain reaction needs to be interrupted and revised, ideally at all levels.
Bullies need to learn accountability for their actions and to develop healthy peaceful alternatives to aggressive behaviour. With equal urgency, underlying social and psychological problems may also require attention. It may be necessary for loved ones to revise their own behaviours that may be reinforcing or exacerbating the child's acting out.
Rules need to be established regarding aggressive behaviour and consequences (non-physical) explained for violations, such as the loss of privileges. Praise your child for appropriate behaviour. Individual and group work may assist behavioural change. Techniques, such as role-playing where the bully plays the victim, might help the child appreciate how it feels to be on the receiving end.
Victims are generally more sensitive, quiet and shy than their peers. They also suffer from low self esteem, but it is unclear whether this is the cause or effect of being bullied.
An intimidated child may be reluctant to talk about their ordeal, fearing reprisal from the bully and a consequent worsening of the situation. Victims tend to share certain characteristics including depression, anxiety, anger and lack of confidence. They become isolated and withdrawn. And their reluctance to attend school, as well as their loss of interest in schoolwork, often result in diminished grades. Persistent or severe bullying may limit their potential for happiness and success as adults, as well as causing immediate unhappiness.
Helping the victim
Treatments for those suffering the effects of being bullied include social and assertive skills training, strengthening and continuing friendships and making new ones. For some children, it may be necessary to address mental health problems like clinical depression or anxiety disorders. Above all, it is important to help the victim feel better about themselves. This way their self esteem is enhanced, and insecurities, fears and difficulties in reaching out to others are relieved.
The emphasis should be on therapeutic work with those directly or indirectly involved in the victim's problem, such as the bully, teacher, peers and family.
Parents should support and encourage their children to find their own solutions. It is thought that children in overprotective family environments do not develop the same skills of independence as their peers and are more vulnerable to exploitation by potential bullies. With this in mind, parents should exercise restraint in the tendency to overprotect or rescue their child like allowing them to stay home. At the same time, parents should encourage their child to take small steps towards goals, which gradually lengthen, at the child's pace, as confidence grows.
Addressing skills deficits in an individualised manner with a child, versus adult, focus improves social competence and peer interactions. Child-focused treatment empowers the child and releases inhibiting child-adult/parent dependencies that otherwise maintain a child's peer interaction problems. Improving poor self esteem improves self confidence, which, in turn, lessens secondary social problems. Enlisting parental support in this process will help achieve and maintain these gains. As the child improves in all these areas: enhancement of social skills and self esteem, the child as own problem solver, and enlisting parental support in this process; improvements in the child's well being are likely to follow.
Research indicates that only some of those children who are victims of bullying learn to cope, and, of those, few will learn to cope quickly enough to avoid damage and distress. For these reasons, behaviours of both the bully and victim should be analysed and amended.
Helping your bullied child
Look out for:
How you can help:Be sensitive to your child's reaction to questions about being bullied. Addressing bully-victim issues is a complex task - professional support and advice may be needed.Discuss school - class, sport, free time, how they feel about these activities.Encourage them to find their own solutions. Brainstorm and role-play ideas together.Encourage small steps towards goals, which gradually lengthen, at the child's pace, as competence and confidence grows.Explain that bullying is unacceptable; every person has a right to be treated with respect.Remind your child that reporting those who bully is not "dobbing in". When bullies are allowed to misbehave, everyone is a victim.Reassure your child that assistance is available from school staff.Encourage them to discuss bullying issues with their friends - a unified peer group is important as bullies rarely target children in groups.Be aware of your child's activities and ensure adequate adult supervision at all times.Discuss concerns with school officials - it is their responsibility to provide a safe learning environment.Do not personally confront bullies - you may aggravate the problem.Report bullying to school officials even if your child is not the target. This will demonstrate to your child that this behaviour will not be tolerated.
Dr Anna Cuomo-Granston, PhD (Neurology, Psychophysiology), M.App.Psych. (Clinical Psychology), has worked with children who have been bullied and who bully, and with their parents. Her approach to treatment has primarily been client focused and cognitive-behaviourally based.