Lately, you have noticed that your child is eager to avoid attending school when, in the past, they have always enjoyed learning. Stomach aches and mysterious illnesses seem to pop up in the evening and get worse as the school bus approaches your stop. These may be signs that your child is troubled by a schoolyard bully. Bullying can be defined as the assertion of power through aggression in repeated and systematic harassment and attacks on others; it can be perpetrated by individuals or groups. Bullying can take many forms and include a number of different behaviours, including:
- Physical violence and attacks
- Verbal taunts, name-calling and put-downs
- Threats and intimidation
- Extortion or stealing of money and possessions
- Exclusion from the peer group
- Racially, ethnically, and gender-based put-downs.
There are particular key elements of bullying: a power imbalance, the bullies’ intent to harm and lack of empathy, the victims’ distress, and the repetition of the behaviour over time. Bumps and bruises are telltale signs of physical bullying but there are less obvious signs as well, such as inventing mysterious illnesses to avoid school, missing belongings or money, sleeping problems, bed-wetting, irritability, poor concentration, unexpected changes in routine and problems with schoolwork. The children who are bullied should not be the only centre of focus when addressing the problem. It is also important to consider the bully, as it is likely that the bully is experiencing problems themselves. If these problems are not addressed, the child bully is likely to have difficulties later in life. In fact, as many as one out of four elementary school bullies have a criminal record by the time they are thirty years of age.
The prevalence of bullying is alarming. A study by Pepler, Craig and Connoly (1997) found through observations of children on playgrounds and in classrooms that bullying occurs frequently: once every 7 minutes on the playground and once every 25 minutes in the classroom. More recent research suggests that 41% of students reported being involved in social bullying as either victims or bullies, and 32% of students reported being involved in physical bullying as either victims or bullies. Moreover, 18% reported that they had called other students racist names, while 16% reported unwanted touching, grabbing or pinching in a sexual way. Ten percent reported being victimized by homophobic harassment. Results from an international study conducted for Health Canada found that 56% of boys and 40% of girls in grades 6 and 8 admitted that they had bullied someone that year; as well, 43% of boys and 35% of girls admitted they had been targets of bullying. In Canada, 14% of boys aged 4 to 11 years old bully others and 5% are targeted sometimes or very often; whereas approximately 9% of girls between 4 and 11 years old bully others while 7% are victimized. Victimization also increases by age. According to Wendy Craig, a Canadian psychology professor, bullying should be considered a public health problem and governments should adopt national strategies to deal with it. This conclusion stems from a study she conducted on bullying in 40 countries. Countries that have established anti-bullying campaigns show the lowest rates of bullying, therefore it is important to implement anti-bullying strategy campaigns everywhere.
A number of factors have been identified which contribute to bullying, including family factors, individual factors and school factors. It is believed that bullying is a learned behaviour, not a character trait.
Family Factors: A poor home environment may contribute to aggressiveness and bullying by children. Negative factors such as a lack of attention and warmth toward the child coupled with modelling of aggressive behaviour at home and poor supervision may lead to bullying behaviour. Modelling of aggressive behaviour may include the use of physical and verbal aggression toward the child by the parents, or by the parents toward each other.
Individual Factors: Personality and character traits may lead to an increased likelihood that a child may bully. The primary individual factor linked to bullying behaviour is a child’s temperament. Temperament refers to the basic tendencies by which children to develop certain personality styles and interpersonal behaviours. Children who are active and impulsive in temperament may be more inclined to develop into bullies. For boys, high physical strength compared to age peers also seems to be a characteristic which is associated with bullying although there are, of course, many boys fit this profile but never bully.
School Factors: Social context and supervision at school have also been shown to greatly affect the prevalence of bullying. Just as inappropriate supervision at home can contribute to bullying, so can the level of supervision at school, particularly on the playground and in the hallways. When appropriate supervision and intervention in a school is enforced, it can reduce the severity and frequency of bullying. It is essential for schools to have curricula and administrative policies in place outlining how to address bullying within the school. Moreover, in order to reduce bullying, teachers must be trained how to provide adequate supervision and be able to implement appropriate intervention programs when possible.
Children become bullies in many ways and there is no single type of bully. The following general characteristics have been identified, though primarily through research on boys who bully.
- Gender. Based on survey data, more boys report bullying than girls, but the discrepancy between boys’ and girls’ rates of bullying is not as great in playground observations. Boys report more physical forms of bullying, whereas girls tend to bully in indirect ways such as gossip and social exclusion.
- Age. In Canadian surveys, 11- to 12-year-old students reported bullying others more than did younger (9- to 10-year-old) and older (13- to 14-year-old) students.
- Temperament. Bullies tend to be hyperactive, disruptive, impulsive, and overactive. They usually have an inability to control their inhibitions against aggressive tendencies and often have a positive attitude towards violence.
- Aggression. Bullies are generally aggressive toward their peers, teachers, parents, siblings, and others. Bullies tend to be assertive and easily provoked. They are attracted to situations with aggressive content and have positive attitudes about aggression. Bullies tend to use aggression in their everyday lives.
- Physical strength. Boys who bully are physically stronger and have a need to dominate others. In contrast, girls who bully tend to be physically weaker than other girls in their class.
- Lack of empathy. Bullies have little empathy for their victims and show little or no remorse about bullying.
Families of bullies tend to have little closeness or unity. Many children use bullying as a form of control and attention. If they do not receive support, children identified as high risk for bullying are likely to experience a wide range of problems. Although not all children experience these problems, the following health outcomes are associated with chronic problems of bullying:
- Externalizing problems (i.e., conduct disorder)
- Delinquency and gang involvement
- Substance use
- Early dating experience and dating aggression
- Sexual harassment
- Academic problems and school dropout
- Internalizing problems (i.e., anxiety)
- Negative peer reputation
- Continuation of problems throughout adulthood
Any child can become a victim of a bully. For some children the following characteristics may be present before bullying occurs, or can develop as a result of bullying.
- Gender. Boys and girls are equally likely to report being victimized.
- Age. Victimization seems to decrease across grade levels: 26% of grades 1 to 3 children report victimization compared to 15% of grades 4 to 6 and 12% of grades 7 to 8 children. Children in lower grades are more likely to be victims of older bullies, whereas children in higher grades are more likely to be victims of same-age bullies. Younger students experience more direct bullying, whereas older students experience more indirect bullying.
- Temperament. Some victimized children have a tendency to be anxious and withdrawn. However, there is more evidence of this among preschool children than among school-aged children.
- Physical appearance. Research has not supported the popular stereotype that victims have unusual physical traits. They to tend to be young and smaller in size.
- Self-esteem. Victims often report low self-esteem, likely because of repeated exposure to victimization.
- Depression. Both boys and girls who are victimized report symptoms of depression such as sadness and loss of interest in activities.
- Anxiety. Boys and girls who are victims report symptoms of anxiety, such as a state of mental or emotional strain or suspense, fears, and worries.
Research shows that victims tend to find themselves in similar victimizing situations over and over again, they are not usually “in the wrong place at the wrong time”. The health outcomes of being victimized by bullying are substantial, especially when the victim does not receive support. Children who have been identified as high risk of bully victimization may exhibit chronic problems such as:
- Internalizing problems
- Somatization problems (conversion of anxiety into physical problems)
- Withdrawn behaviours
- Victimization by sexual harassment
- Peer reputation as someone who can be victimized
- School problems (i.e., school refusal, poor concentration, and school dropouts)
There are several high-profile cases which highlight the extreme effects of bullying. Dawn-Marie Wesley, a grade eight student in British Columbia, claimed that three girls from school were threatening to kill her and she could not take it anymore; she committed suicide. It came as a shock to everyone, especially her school just east of Vancouver, which reported never being informed of or observing any indication of bullying. Sadly, Dawn-Marie is not the only victim who has taken their own life as a result of bullying. Others include 14-year-old Hamed Nastoh, who tragically ended his life after verbal abuse from classmates.
If your child is being victimized by a bully:
- Ask the child directly. Often children do not wish to tell their parents due to shame, embarrassment, or fear that the bullies will retaliate if they tell. Look for signs such as a fear of going to school, lack of friends, missing belongings and torn clothing, as well as increased fearfulness and anxiety.
- Work with the school immediately to make sure your child is safe, that effective consequences are implemented, and that monitoring at school is adequate. Advocate for involvement of the bully’s parents. If the bullying is happening on the way to and from school, arrange for the child to get to school with older, supportive children, or take him or her yourself until other interventions can take place.
- If your child is timid and lacks friends, try to arrange for your child to participate in positive social groups which meet his or her interests. Developing your child’s special skills and confidence in the context of a positive social group can be very helpful.
- Suggest that the school implement a comprehensive anti-bullying program. A home and school association meeting to discuss and support such an initiative can be helpful.
The main goal in helping your child to deal with bullying is to help him or her regain a sense of dignity and recover their damaged self-esteem. Holding your anger, never getting physical or bullying back, acting brave, walking away, ignoring the bully, using humour, talking about it, using the buddy system, and developing more friendships by joining social organizations, clubs, or sports programs all help ward off bullies.
If your child is being aggressive or bullying others, the situation needs to be taken seriously, not only for the children who are being bullied, but for your child as well. Children and youth who bully others often get into serious trouble later in life, some obtaining criminal records, as well as having continuing trouble in relationships with others. Here are some things that you can do to turn the situation around.
- Talk to your child and to his or her teachers and administrators. Keep in mind that a bully will try to deny or minimize his or her wrongdoing.
- Make it clear to your child that you will not tolerate this kind of behaviour, and discuss with your child the negative impact bullying has on the victims. Do not accept explanations that “it was all in fun”.
- Arrange for an effective, non-violent consequence which is proportional to the severity of your child’s actions and his or her age and stage of development. Corporal punishment carries the message that “might is right”.
- Increase your supervision of your child’s activities and whereabouts and with whom they are associating. Spend time with your child and set reasonable rules for their activities and curfews.
- Co-operate with the school in modifying your child’s aggressive behaviour. Frequent communication with teachers and/or administrators is important to find out how your child is doing in changing his or her behaviour.
- Praise the efforts your child makes toward non-violent and responsible behaviour, as well as for following home and school rules. Keep praising any positive efforts the child makes.
- If your child is viewing violent television shows, including cartoons, and is playing violent video games, this will increase violent and aggressive behaviour. Change the family and child’s viewing and play patterns to non-violent ones.
- Make sure that your child is not seeing violence between members of his or her family. Modelling of aggressive behaviour at home can lead to violence by the child against others at school and in later life.
- Seek help from a school psychologist, social worker, or children’s mental health centre in the community if you would like support in working with your child.
Ninety-nine percent of Canadian students have used the Internet, 48% use it for at least one hour a day, and nearly 60% use chat rooms and instant messaging. With the socialization of so many students and children to technology, it is easy to see how cyberbullying can be a major issue to the bullying problem. Cyberbullying is when a child, preteen, or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen, or teen through the use of the Internet, interactive and digital technologies, or mobile phones. Chatting and gossiping can quickly spin out of control and become degrading abusive attacks; threatening text messages, email hacking to spread malicious messages, spamming victims, and creating mean-spirited web sites have all become ways for bullies to harass or exclude their victims because of the ability to remain anonymous. A recent survey found that 14% of young Canadian users had been threatened while using instant messaging like MSN Messenger, and 16% admitted they have posted hateful comments themselves. Thirteen percent reported being victims of electronic bullying and/or electronically bullying others. Cyber-bullying is considered especially traumatizing and serious because victims cannot escape it. The Internet is everywhere: at school, on cell phones, at the library, and at home.
Young people should be aware that some forms of online bullying are considered criminal acts. Under the Canadian Criminal Code, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others. It is also a crime to publish “defamatory libel” – writing something that is designed to insult a person or likely to injure a person’s reputation by exposing him or her to hatred, contempt or ridicule. A cyber bully may also be violating the Canadian Human Rights Act if he or she spreads hateful or discriminating rumours based on race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, age, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, family status, or disability.
There are a number of things that people can do to combat cyber bullying.
What Parents Can Do
- Get involved and be aware;
- Encourage kids to develop their own moral code so they will choose to behave ethnically online;
- Take action if your child is being bullied online.
What Schools Can Do
- Integrate curriculum-based anti-bullying programs into classrooms;
- Educate teachers, students and parents about the seriousness of cyber bullying;
- Change the school or board’s bullying policy to include harassment perpetrated with mobile and Internet technology;
- Update the school or board’s computer Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) to specifically prohibit using the Internet for bullying.
What Kids Can Do
- Guard your contact information. Don’t give people you don’t know your cell phone number, instant messaging name, or email address;
- If you are being harassed online, tell an adult, leave the area or stop the activity, block the sender’s messages, save harassing messages and forward them to your ISP, and/or tell the police;
- Take a stand against cyber bullying with your peers.
Everyone can remember an instance when they themselves were bullied. Bullying can take many forms ranging from physical and verbal attacks, to gossiping and exclusion, to cyber-bullying; all affecting the victims in a number of harmful ways. The bully him/herself also suffers from a number of issues, including being at a higher risk to develop substance abuse problems, gang involvement, and criminal behaviour. Bullying can, however, be addressed and there are measures to discourage or eliminate bullying altogether through cooperation and careful supervision by parents and school administrators and addressing the roots of antisocial behaviour. It is important to remember that, unless new behaviours are learned and adopted, many bullies continue to bully throughout their lives. This highlights the importance of the early detection of bullying, as well as emphasizes the need to counteract the problem. The playground and the classroom should be an environment for learning and friendship; and a child’s home should be a safe, warm, and inviting place to be.
For more information on bullying, please visit the following web sites:
Be Web Aware
Kids Help Phone – Bullying
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