The stereotypic notion of the lone schoolyard bully is a myth. The problem is much more complex, and it is on the rise. Between 15% and 30% of students are either regularly bullied or bully others. Bullying is now one of the most prevalent forms of mental and physical abuse in our schools.
What is Bullying? Bullying is defined as verbal, physical or psychological aggression, or harassment, intended to gain power over or dominate others. There are three general forms of bullying. The most notorious type involves physical abuse, which includes hitting, slapping, pinching, shoving, tripping, punching, damaging belongings or clothing, or any other form of physical assault. Verbal bullying comprises insults, name-calling, humiliation, degradation, cruel and persistent “teasing,” defamation, and threats. This may be done in person, or in the increasingly common form of Facebook and other internet forum. Cyber bullying intensifies the problem exponentially because private or slanderous information is disseminated to an infinite number of individuals and the victim is powerless to stop it or to defend himself . The central feature of relational bullying is isolation. Victims are separated from their peers and excluded from their peer group by focusing on mental, emotional, racial, socioeconomic, gender, religious or physical differences.
What is a Bully? Bullies come in all forms. Some appear strong and confident, and are popular. Others are anxious; they tend to have lower grades, poor concentration, and to be reactive. Their bullying may be a manifestation of their own trauma, which keeps them highly aroused, fearful, and unable to interpret social signals. Still others oscillate between being bullies and victims, which is an indicator that they have been exposed to sustained confusion, conflict, and lack of emotional guidance. They do not think the world is safe and do not know if they need to try to fight or flee.
Who are the Victims? There are two types of victims. The first category is comprised of those who appear to be insecure, cautious, shy, or sensitive, or who have low self esteem (passive type). The second group consists of those who appear anxious, hyperactive, and are easily provoked (provocative type). Likely victims of bullying are those who are noticeably above or below the norm, or who stand out from their peers. They tend to be more sensitive, lacking in social skills, unable to accurately assess social cues, and without an identifiable peer support group. They often have “over-protective” or “helicoptor” parents, fail to defend themselves, and lack effective coping mechanisms. In other words, they do not know how to negotiate their social environment with skill and confidence, and do not have a strong peer network upon which to draw strength and guidance.
When is Bullying Most Prevalent? It begins in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school. Grades six through nine see the highest incident of bullying.
What Causes Bullying? Factors in the home, school and community. All bullying is learned behavior, a result of traumatic conditions, or both. Family factors include lack of socialization and supervision, witnessing bullying, abuse or intimidation in the home, or being a victim of mental, physical, or emotional abuse. School-related variables include tolerating bullying (looking the other way, failing to stop it instantly, and address it comprehensively), and failing to educate youth and adults alike about the nature and prevalence of bullying and how it can be prevented. Peer factors include being exposed to bullying that is either ignored or reinforced as a means of “fitting in,” or reacting to victimization.
What are the Results of Bullying? Bullying is a form of psychological trauma. Some children and adolescents have sufficient coping skills that bullying is short-lived and the effects mild. Others may have significant and enduring symptoms. Acute symptoms may include fear, anxiety, problems sleeping and eating, nightmares and night terrors, hyper-startle response, “school phobia,” problems concentrating, avoidance of people, places and activities, and changes in mood. Victims report feeling sad, lonely, nervous, and “on guard.” They do not see the school as a safe place. They often fail to report the abuse for fear of retaliation. It is not unusual for victims to deny the abuse. Untreated trauma can result in depression, changes in personality and self-concept, a sense of helplessness or hopelessness, isolating behavior, phobias, panic attacks, self-medication through drugs and alcohol. In the extreme, bullying can result in suicidal thoughts and attempts, or, alternatively, aggressive or impulsive retaliation.
Responses and Intervention. As much as two-thirds of students believe that schools are unresponsive to bullying, and are not a dependable source of help. Almost 25% of teachers did not recognize bullying, and intervened only 4% of the time. Thus, bullying is still very much a problem in our schools and elsewhere.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do? Prevention is the best medicine. There should be systematic education for teachers, administrators, parents and students, in which all participants are encouraged to share their experiences and solutions. Every school should have a team of mental health professionals specifically trained to identify and treat psychological trauma, as well as how to redirect bullying behavior. In addition, schools should address bullying directly and clearly, with relevant rewards for good social skills, and consequences for any form of intimidation or abuse. The Alternatives to Violence Program offers a free workshop for adults and adolescents to develop skills for effective communication and the prevention of all forms of violence. They also provide workshops specific to addressing trauma. Parent-teacher organizations should include recurrent programs for the prevention and treatment of bullying.
For information about free lectures and workshops about bullying, child and adolescent trauma, childhood depression, secondary trauma and compassion fatigue, and other mental health topics, please contact:
Lee Norton, Ph.D., M.S.W., L.C.S.W.
Center for Trauma Therapy