Understanding and Dealing With Kids' Bullying Behavior

Most of us have some less-than-fond memories of being bullied when we were kids--or even of being the bully ourselves. From the perspective of adulthood, it may not make much sense to have intentionally hurt others or, as victims, to have tolerated the brutishness of a bully. However, things are different when you're a kid and are intent on maneuvering for esteemed social positions, vying for peer admiration or attention, or just trying to fit in.

As grown-ups, we want to help our own kids as well as other youngsters in our lives whom we're close to (students, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, etc.) avoid the seemingly senseless and always hurtful situations of bullying or at least to help them better understand just why some kids pick on others.

Just What is a Bully?

Simply put, bullies are those who use negative actions (usually physical or verbal aggression) against others (their victims). Since most research has focused on boys rather than girls, the little we know at this time is that female bullies usually use different tactics than their male counterparts. Girls typically engage in indirect bullying, for instance, teasing, starting and/or spreading rumors or isolating their victims by excluding them from the group. Boys tend to use more outwardly aggressive and direct tactics such as hitting, shoving, fighting, or verbally abusing.

Boys who bully are often the larger, stronger and more aggressive kids. Some studies have found that bullies are perceived of as athletic, good looking, outgoing, and magnetic and are often rated by their peers especially in the elementary school years--as some of the more socially connected kids. This would seem to dispel the myth that bullies are outcasts; researchers suggest that since bullies seem to hang around other aggressive kids (who are often drawn to bullies for both affiliation and protection), they comprise as high as 15% of the school-aged population.

Bullies count on intimidation to both raise and maintain their status within the peer group. While their behavior may be seen to be hurtful to their victims, aggression, especially for boys, is often equated with status and popularity. Throughout the school day, there's a great deal of jockeying by most kids for social resources (attention, friends, allies) and bullies, especially those who assume leadership roles, seem to be those who have learned to use their aggression to maintain their leadership position.

What Makes a Kid Want to Act Like a Bully?

What makes a kid want to act in such hurtful ways? Some kids are bullies because they are bored and crave excitement. Some do it to feel powerful. Some kids who bully turn to this abusive behavior as a way of dealing with a disturbing situation at home, such as divorce or a seriously ill parent. Some bullies have been victims of abuse themselves, either at home or from their peers.

Whatever the cause, bullies usually pick on others as a way of dealing with their own problems. We have to help our children learn healthy and socially acceptable ways ways to cope with urges and anger, and to satisfy their emotional needs appropriately. A big challenge? Yes. But it's part of growing up and becoming an empathetic and responsible person.

Types of Bullying

Hostility and aggression directed toward a victim who is physically or emotionally weaker than the bully are the more obvious signs of bullying. But sometimes bullying behavior is harder to identify how do you distinguish between good-natured ribbing and bullying? One ever-present factor of bullying is that the behavior results in distress and/or pain for the victim.

Tactics of bullying behavior include:

Physical bullying is perhaps the most obvious form of intimidation and can involve kicking, hitting, biting, pinching, and/or hair pulling. Physical bullying can also include making threats, for example, a bully may threaten to punch a child if he or she doesn't give them their homework or allow them to cut in front of them when they're standing in line to be dismissed for recess.

Verbal bullying can include name-calling, persistent teasing, and starting and/or spreading rumors.

Emotional intimidation includes such tactics as deliberately excluding the victim from a desirable group activity such as a birthday party or after-school get together.

Sexual bullying is characterized by unwanted physical contact or abusive comments. For example, many girls experience the humiliation of having their bra strap snapped by a bully or being taunted by sexually suggestive remarks.

Victims of Bullies

Although most of us have been pushed around or verbally berated at some time or another by another kid when we were growing up, there's a select group of kids who seem to be victimized year after year. Bullies will often target someone who is different than others and focus on those differences. Wearing glasses, consistently dressing out-of-fashion, having a distinctly different accent, being overweight or being very thin are all differences that can incite a bully's ridicule.

A child doesn't have to appear physically different from other children to be singled out by a bully. Kids who are perceived of as more anxious, insecure, less popular, more privileged, less privileged, smarter or slower than most of the other kids are picked on significantly more often than those who don't stand out so distinctly.

Recent studies suggest that habitual victims (those who seem to be constantly picked on by bullies) make up slightly higher than 18% of the school-age population. Victims of bullies, especially those who endure teasing or ridicule over an extended period of time, tend to develop problems with self-esteem as well as depression.

Statistically, victims of bullies are not aggressive in return. However, impulsive victims can overreact, which only serves to give the bully exactly what he most wants: attention. When the victim reacts in a highly emotional manner, it can be interpreted by the bully as further provocation and can actually heighten the level of aggression and ridicule.

What You Can Do If Your Son or Daughter is a Bully

"I was called to my 13-year-old son's school today because he stole some money from another boy during lunch. This wasn't the first incident. A few weeks ago, the principal called because Keith made another boy take the blame for graffiti he wrote on the school bus. No matter what we tell him, he constantly seems to get in trouble. What can I do?"

If you learn that your son or daughter is a bully, you may feel a sense of disbelief or even find it impossible that your child is behaving in such a way. Try not to become angry or defensive as this could make a bad situation even worse. While it's not always the case, one recent study showed that kids who bully tend to come from families in which physical aggression is used by parents as a means of discipline, and/or parents who express a consistently negative attitude toward their kids, and/or parents who tolerate aggressive behavior between family members (e.g., siblings persistently taunting, teasing, and tyrannizing one another).

Talk with your son or daughter and ask them to tell you exactly what they've been doing and ask why he or she thinks they resort to bullying and what might help them stop. Ask very detailed questions. For example:

"Did you plan to take the other boy's lunch money beforehand, or was it a sudden urge?"

"Why did you pick on that particular person?"

"What were you thinking of when you did it?" (e.g., I need the money or I'll look cool)

"How did you feel when you did it?" (e.g., excited, thrilled, frightened, powerful)

"How do you think the other boy felt?"

Because bullying can stem from unhappiness or insecurity, try to find out if something is troubling them. Unless they receive help, childhood bullies may go on to engage in more serious antisocial behaviors as adolescents and adults. You need to make clear that you disapprove of bullying. Be firm, but do it in a loving way.

Set a standard--no bullying--and make sure your child understands the consequences for violations of this rule (time-outs, losing privileges, etc.) Help them find productive, un-hurtful ways of reacting to certain situations that usually trigger their impulse to bully and offer an especially positive and understanding attitude toward your child as they work on making these changes.

Make a point of observing your child in one-on-one interactions and praise them for appropriate behaviors. Positive reinforcement can be a powerful form of motivation. Talking to their teacher, coach, principal or other school staff may also help. Let them know your child is trying to change their behavior. Another significant source of supportive help is for you and your child to meet with an educational psychologist or other mental health professional.

As your son or daughter learns to modify his or her behavior, it's important to assure them that you love them--it's their bullying behavior you don't like. Right now your son or daughter needs your unconditional support. By providing this, you will, by example, be helping them develop empathy--the ability to understand how other people feel and to care about others' feelings--in a powerfully positive way.

What You Can Do If Your Child is the Victim of Bullying

The effects of bullying aren't always as obvious as a black eye or a torn shirt. Signs you can look for if you suspect your child is the victim of a bully include the sudden appearance of bruises, missing belongings, or the invention of mysterious illnesses or aches and pains in an attempt to avoid going to school.

Your child may be embarrassed or feel weak by admitting he's the victim of a bully. To make it easier for them to talk about it, consider asking some thoughtful questions, for example, what happens on the playground before or after school or during recess, or what their walk home from school is like. You might also try asking if there are any bullies in the neighborhood who have threatened to hurt any kids your child knows. This approach can make it easier for your child to talk about bullies because they won't necessarily have to talk about their own experiences.

If you learn your son or daughter is being victimized, try not to overreact--you don't want to add to your child's burden with an angry or blaming response that they could then misinterpret as your being critical of or disappointed in them. If your child is being bullied at school, it is important to contact the administration about the problem. One current report shows that when students in schools do not tolerate bullying behavior (report aggressive behavior to school authorities, defend victims, and interrupt bullying behavior) the rates of victimization and bullying decline.

Getting Help Is Key to Ending Bullying and Victimization

Grown-ups in kids lives: parents, teachers, coaches, etc. can unwittingly give implicit tolerance to bullying if they believe that kids must learn to deal with bullies all on their own, or that learning to cope with victimization is a normal part of growing up. It could be that helping your child effectively deal with either being a bully or being a victim will require outside assistance. Take advantage of any psychological counseling services that are offered at your child's school or in your community.

The news headlines detailing tragic consequences of unchecked bullying behavior are more than enough of a red flag for letting all of us better appreciate the importance associated with responding quickly to signs of aggression and victimization. Seeking professional help could save your son or daughter from a childhood of grief and misery that will forever affect them. And as difficult as it may be for us to acknowledge, the latest statistics and school violence incidences also show that getting help for bullying behavior could be what saves your child's life.