Victims Often Use Same Tactics on Other Children
Every day, approximately 160,000 children skip school out of fear of being picked on, humiliated or beaten up by a bully, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
“Bullying behaviors — teasing, ridiculing, name-calling, peer-group exclusion, threats and intimidation, extortion or stealing of money and possessions and physical violence — are very common,” said Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
While studies worldwide suggest that as many as 15 percent of schoolchildren are victims and up to 9 percent are bullies, in the August issue of the Journal of Early Adolescence, Espelage argues that among adolescents, at least, the line between bully and bullied is often “very blurred.” Her study was one of three presented at the American Psychological Association’s annual convention in August. According to the latest research:
Of 558 adolescents (11 to 14 years old, 300 of them girls) attending middle school in Indianapolis, 80 percent had engaged in bullying behaviors within the previous 30 days, suggesting that adolescents don’t fall neatly into categories of bullies, non-bullies or victims.
Three-quarters of 83 sixth-graders (47 of them boys) surveyed by University of Nebraska-Lincoln researchers described themselves as bullies, victims or both; teachers and students alike had difficulty identifying victims who were always on the receiving end of bullying. The researchers speculate that in this age group, children move between the two roles, and behaviors that others perceive as bullying may be self-defense. Interestingly, students more readily pegged aggressive girls as bullies. In keeping with previous findings, girls were expected to be passive whereas boys were expected to be aggressive.
There is an increase in aggressive behavior when children make the transition from primary to middle school, because bullying is used to establish dominance in new peer groups. Following 154 fifth-grade students (87 of them male) before and after they moved to the sixth grade at a new, larger school, researchers at the University of Georgia and the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities also found that aggressive behavior subsides once the bully’s place within the new peer group is secure.
There are no innocent bystanders
“There’s an old adage that a bully at school is a victim at home. Such kids build themselves up by tearing someone else down,” said George M. Batsche, co-director of the Institute for School Reform at the University of South Florida in Tampa, and a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists.
Many studies of bullying over the past 20 years paint a portrait of the perpetrators, their victims, innocent (and not so innocent) bystanders and teachers:
Bullies: aggressive, don’t like following the rules or taking the blame. They tend to be popular, larger or stronger than their peers and enjoy dominating others. “The skills needed to be a bully are the same needed to be a leader and to make things happen. It’s just the context in which those skills are used,” Batsche said.
Passive Victims: shy, passive loners who tend to cry easily, don’t know how to defend themselves verbally or physically and become too flustered to deflect bullies with humor. They are “safe” targets because they typically do not retaliate when they are picked on. “In this age group, children are intolerant of differences, and anyone who looks different because of race, weight or style of clothing is more likely to be victimized,” Espelage said.
Aggressive Victims: impulsive, easily provoked and quick to interpret actions and words as hostile. They don’t initiate aggression, but they have a chip on their shoulders and overreact to provocation, bullying others in return. “Aggressive victims get frustrated easily and have poor social skills, and are the least popular kids in school — and they know it,” said Laura E. Hess, assistant professor of child development at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.
Bystanders: witnesses to bullying who may ignore the victim’s plight for fear of becoming the bully’s next target. They also may learn that aggression is an effective means of getting what they want and could become more willing to accept or imitate this behavior. “Many middle school students tease their peers or egg a bully on so that they fit into the crowd, but know that what they are doing is wrong,” said Espelage. “We need to teach bystanders to go against peer pressure and to intervene to help the victim.”
Teachers: Often absent at recess and lunch when bullying typically occurs, teachers are typically unable to sort out who did what to whom and may not be able to intervene effectively as a result. “School personnel don’t see most of the bullying, since it happens out of their sight,” Espelage said.
She added that “bully-victims” are often punished when they bully, while their victimization may go unnoticed. “If they think they are being treated unfairly, their frustration level could increase, causing them to lash out with recurring displays of aggressive behavior.”
Girls bully in subtler ways than boys
In a 1993 Norwegian study of fifth- to seventh-grade students, boys were perpetrators and victims of bullying by other boys, whereas girls were more likely to be a target of bullying by boys rather than by other girls. This study, and others, found that boys typically engage in “direct” bullying involving intimidation, extortion, physical or verbal attacks. Girls are more apt to use social exclusion, manipulation of relationships, spreading rumors, setting a victim up to look stupid and other indirect, subtle means to harass other girls.
Bully B’Ware Productions, a Canadian company started by two school principals to combat bullying, created a video that depicts these gender differences in bullying style so that parents, teachers and students learn how to recognize and handle them. In one illustration, a large boy muscles his way to the front of the line and dares anyone to complain; in another, a girl surrounded by her clique is bad-mouthing a classmate.
Another difference between boys and girls: Boys who bully are often popular among their peers, whereas girls who are disruptive and aggressive rank near the bottom of the social pecking order, according to a study of third- through fifth-graders at two urban schools in Pennsylvania published in the April 1998 issue of Applied Developmental Science.
“As a traditionally female trait, passivity is much more socially acceptable in girls than in boys. Aggression, which is associated with boys, is less acceptable in girls,” said Hess, who is a co-author of the paper. “The consequences of being aggressive and disruptive are much more negative for girls than for boys. This may explain why girls learn to be covert in their aggression — and they become very skilled at it.”
Parents send mixed messages
Children often keep mum about bullying because they doubt that adults can do anything to help, or they are afraid of getting targeted for retaliation if they tell anyone, said Hess. So it’s up to you to ferret out the warning signs and to take action:
If your child has few friends, seems generally anxious and specifically afraid to go to school, is missing belongings and comes home with torn clothing, ask whether someone at school is bullying him or her.
Alert the school right away, and ask what immediate steps can be taken to ensure your child’s safety.
If the bullying is occurring on the way to and from school, accompany your child or arrange for alternate transportation until the problem is resolved.
Ask for a conference with school administrators and the bully’s parents.
Encourage your child not to give up playthings, possessions or territory to bullies so that the aggressive behavior is not rewarded. Practicing scenarios with your child could help build his or her confidence.
At the next PTA meeting, suggest that the school start a comprehensive anti-bullying program. You should also invest your own time, perhaps by being a playground monitor during recess or volunteering to walk students to and from school.
“A kid who is being bullied may get conflicting messages from parents — Mom might say, ‘Ignore it,’ Dad might say, ‘Throw the first punch,’” said Espelage. “Both parents need to sit down with the child and hash out the problem and its solution.”
Bullies can be turned around
“If your child’s school or another parent calls you about a specific bullying incident, don’t ignore the problem. Children who bully others are likely to have difficulty developing healthy relationships throughout their lives,” said Solange Ribeiro, a counselor with the University of Alabama’s SAFER (Spirituality, Ability, Fairness, Encouragement, Responsibility) Parenting program.
Ribeiro offers these suggestions to help modify your child’s behavior:
Sometimes bullying is a cry for attention. Get involved in your child’s life, and talk about his or her interests and concerns. Calmly find out why the bullying occurred, and discuss the negative impact that bullying has on the victim.
Attach consequences to the undesirable behavior. These consequences should be proportional to the severity of the bullying, and to the child’s age and stage of development, such as taking away privileges for a period of time.
Supervise your child’s activities and whereabouts more closely — for instance, monitoring TV and video games to reduce exposure to violent content.
Cooperate with your child’s school to resolve the problem, and speak with his or her teachers regularly to find out whether there is noticeable improvement.
Set the right example in your own relationships. For instance, you and your child could team up to do something nice for a neighbor, such as raking leaves or shoveling the walk.
Acknowledge and encourage your child’s efforts to overcome aggressive behavior and to be considerate toward his or her peers.
“You can’t expect to solve the problem in five minutes. You might look for a parenting course so that you can develop new strategies,” Ribeiro said. “If all else fails, and you see that the frequency or severity of the bullying is escalating, consult a school psychologist or a family counselor.”
Lessons from Columbine
“Bullying has been around forever, but the combination of exposure to violent media images, lowered levels of adult supervision and availability of weapons has made bullying potentially more lethal,” Batsche said. “Schools can reduce bullying by fostering a safe, supportive climate for all students.”
He recommends an anti-bullying program that includes:
A schoolwide “code of conduct” that specifically prohibits bullying, and encourages pro-social behavior.
Better adult supervision during recess and lunch hour, with teachers and administrators stepping in to stop bullying as soon as they become aware of it.
Schools should also fill out incident reports after each bullying episode noting when and where it occurred, and who was involved, to map out “hot spots” that need more supervision.
Conferences with the parent(s) of the bully and of the victim as soon as possible after the incident to solicit their cooperation in resolving it.
Consistent and immediate consequences for aggressive behavior, such as after-school detention, during which the bully participates in programs to improve social skills, reduce aggressive behavior and develop empathy for others.
Formation of groups and activities that help victims make friends, develop interpersonal skills, increase self-confidence and learn how to be assertive.
Redirecting the bully’s power with socially acceptable ways to get peer recognition, such as serving as a peer tutor or mentor.
Parent-teacher seminars to discuss bullying and other parenting issues and effective strategies.
Parents and teachers may feel that dealing with bullies is just a part of growing up, or they may want children to learn how to work out problems for themselves. But “repeated harassment can interfere with social, academic and emotional development,” Hess said. “In extreme cases, some children may become distressed enough to attempt or commit suicide, or to go out and kill someone, as the recent spate of school tragedies has shown.”
Batsche agreed, adding, “Adults have an obligation to teach and support their children in behaving well towards others and using effective strategies when people are trying to bully them.”