Resources on Bullying

Why is everybody concerned about bullying?

For the past several years, bullying has received a lot of attention. As a school administrator who was occasionally familiar with bullies, victims, and bystanders, I am sometimes asked, Is bullying much worse than it ever was, or are we identifying a problem that’s always existed? I think the answer is the latter.

When I worked in schools I dealt with various situations that others described as “bullying.” Some of those descriptions were direct hits, some were near-misses, and some were launched wildly, usually by parents who were honestly afraid for their children’s well being but often highly anxious and almost always naive about how to help most effectively.

From very early age (about 18 months or so), children do things that are recognizably unkind. Most of these acts of unkindness are not “bullying.” It is not acceptable — but it is expected — that sometimes children will be unkind to each other, sometimes without even intending to be. Within normal limits, this is an important way that children learn to be kind. Not every instance of unkindness is “bullying.”

What is bullying?

Bullying is distinguished from random meanness by three defining characteristics:

  • an imbalance of social power (among boys there is often an imbalance of physical power as well);
  • the threat of ongoing aggression, and often the threat of reprisals for reporting the aggression;
  • the aggressor’s seeming pleasure in the victim’s unhappiness

The primary reason for distinguishing bullying from “random acts of meanness” is not merely semantic. Rather, it is twofold. First, while random unkindness is unfortunate, it is not unexpected or preventable — and occasional mistreatment of others is not in itself evidence of a problem in children’sdevelopment. Second, bullying is a specific set of problems that suggests a set of specific approaches, approaches that are unlikely to be effective in creating a culture of kindness by themselves.

What causes bullying?

As children grow up, they naturally “try on” various different ways of interacting with the world. This process is usually most acute during early adolescence — from about age 10 to 14 — because it is the time when most children begin to recognize a broader world around them, to reflect on that broader world without prompting by adults, and to wonder about their places in that broader world. “Who am I?” is a question both concrete and abstract, as each child grapples with the components of his or her identity and place in the world. (Am I an introvert or extrovert? Am I an athlete, an artist, an intellectual? Am I gay or straight? What does it mean for me to be a girl or a boy? To be black, white, Asian, Latino, or a combination of different ethnicities? And so forth…)

It follows that children in early adolescence often wonder if they are easygoing or high-strung, if they are “go-along, get-along” kids, or if they are the types who challenge others. (As a parent who has one of each, it’s obvious to me that parenting has little to do with temperament in these cases — while we can help children internalize healthy values, most kids come the way they come.) And it's common for some kids to band together, to try to exercise power, to make mistakes and to hurt feelings en route to learning acceptable ways of conducting themselves.

It’s hard to overestimate the family influence as well: Each child tends to regard his or her family as “normal,” so if a lot of relational aggression is the norm in a family, it’s not hard to see how that can influence a child’s interactions with peers.

Here are some of the reasons that bullying occurs:

  • Bullies think it's fun, that it makes them funny, popular, or cool — think of Biff and his entourage in Back to the Future;
  • It makes bullies feel like they have power or control, something most people want in reasonable measure;
  • Bullies are unsure how to react to differences in other children, and react in ways that preserve or amplify their own standing;
  • Bullies are jealous of other children and powerful enough to act on their sense of envy;
  • Bullies are trying to cope what hurt or loss;
  • Bullies are re-enacting the patterns that they have lived in their own homes.

In my experience it is a myth that teachers usually know about bullying but choose to ignore it. In over 20 years of school work, I never met a teacher who thought that was okay. Because bullying often happens out of sight of teachers — in hallways, locker rooms, or during class changes — it can take time for teachers to identify bullying, even if it happens frequently.

As children get older, they are also less likely to report bullying — another reason bullying often flares in middle school.

Anti-bullying Resources

For schools:

Paul Hadfield’s “The Bully Plan” for schools comes highly recommended by a local colleague.

Dan Olweus (“Ohl-vace”) is regarded as one of the first to study bullying systematically. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP) requires a time commitment by schools, but is widely regarded as an effective example of wide-ranging anti-bullying curriculum.