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What is bullying?

I get asked this question a lot from parents and young people and when I ask the same question back each person has their own definition. These definitions range from ‘any name calling or teasing’ to ‘anything physical from one child to another’ or ‘repeated nasty behaviours’. All of these definitions are valid but put together they make it quite confusing to work out what words or actions can be called bullying. Teenagers often to say to me it depends on the reaction of the other person e.g. ‘it’s not bullying if the other person finds it funny as well’. That’s also a difficult definition as we are assuming the mood state of the other person. 

So how do I answer the question? The definition I like best is by Farrell and Sullivan (2004), who define bullying as ‘mistreating or intimidating people perceived to be weaker’. The important part here is the emphasis on the power imbalance in the relatiomship. In addition, the relationship is based on aggression from the bully and the victims fear of the bully. Therefore, bullying is ‘any negative behaviour by one person or a group of people to another person or group, where there is a power imbalance (based on aggression and fear) between them’

Who are the victims and who are the bullies?

Absolutely anyone, adult or child can be a victim of bullying. Being a victim of bullying is never due to a fault in the victim. That said, there are some characteristics that increase the likelihood of being bullied or of being vulnerable to negative consequences of bullying. Individuals who are socially withdrawn, wary and timid are more likely to be victims of bullying. These individuals may lack the social skills and social understanding necessary to be popular with peers. They may also have poor self-esteem and lack confidence. In addition, they may blame themselves for the victimisation. The lack of social supports and self-esteem coupled with their self-blame increases the risk of further victimisation and other negative consequences. Recognising these characteristics can help parents, teachers, friends and class mates to identify and support those people more at risk of being bullied.  

On the other hand, bullies usually show moral disengagement, physical aggression, relational aggression, low monitoring by parents and low parental trust, they may lack social skills and they are likely to be susceptible to peer pressure.

Bullies and victims have one major thing in common and that is they are usually rejected by their peers. Victims because they are withdrawn and bullies because they are aggressive. For both groups their characteristics result in cycles of being further rejected, they then become further withdrawn or aggressive as a reaction to the rejection and so on. 

How can we help victims? 

Before any interventions can happen, we need to be able to talk to people about their social environment and social status in that environment. It can be really difficult to start a conversation about being bullied, sometimes people feel like it’s their own fault or that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn’t be happening. Sometimes they’re scared that if the bully finds out that they told, it will get worse. Others are worried that their people won’t believe them or won’t help them to do anything about it. 

Starting a conversation about bullying:

  • Find indirect ways to discuss social issues. For example, when watching a TV show asking, ‘what do you think of this’? 
  • Ask them about friends and relationships in general, this allows us to get to know the dynamic of the class and the child’s place in these dynamics. 
  • Ask open ended questions i.e. ‘tell me one good thing and one bad thing about your day’, ‘how do people treat you at school’? ‘how do people treat others in your class’? 
  • Talk with their friends and friends’ parents about the social environment. 

If they do talk about being bullied: 

  • Don’t overreact
  • Highlight that it is not their fault
  • Try to understand the behaviours
  • Include them in the plan of action 
  • Motivate them to speak up by doing a pros and cons list 
  • Emphasise that the bullying a problem for the whole environment 

Interventions for victims of bullying:

  • Social skills training
  • Assertiveness training
  • Building confidence/self-esteem
  • Managing depression/anxiety
  • Thinking skills – internalisation

How can we help bullies? 

Whilst supporting victims of bullying is very important, so is supporting the bully in order to prevent further victimisation as well as protect the bully form the negative consequences of his or her actions. As a general rule we can talk to bullies in the same way as we talk to the victims, e.g. open-ended questions, discussing friends and relationships in general terms etc. 

If they do talk about bullying:

  • Try to instil empathy, help them understand their own and others’ emotions
  • Help them describe the situation using feeling words
  • Try to understand why they are engaging in these behaviours
  • Explain that these behaviours are not acceptable ways of expressing themselves
  • Involve them in the plan to stop the behaviours, ask them how they think they can change or what they need to be able to change

Interventions for perpetrators of bullying:

  • Conflict resolution
  • Anger management
  • Social skills training
  • Social problem solving
  • Moral reasoning 
  • Family work 
  • Aggression replacement training/Reasoning and rehabilitation.

Dr. Rebecca Ferguson, Psychologist