Sadly, bullying is a common issue that many young people face. Years ago, bullying was tolerated and seen as one of life’s milestones that children meandered through as they ventured towards adulthood. Today, we recognise the harmful aftermath of bullying: both for the bully and the ‘bullied’.
Psychologists agree that bullying is any deliberately hurtful action aimed at another person or group of people which causes them to feel unvalued, humiliated and rejected. Since bullying often occurs as a subtle form of violence, it usually takes place outside the scope of vision of authorities and, as such, is difficult to attend to effectively.
There are four main elements of bullying: an imbalance of power between the bully and victim, bullying involves repeated actions which occur over a period of time, these actions are intentional and there are unequal levels of emotional distress with the victim will show high levels of emotional distress (such are crying or withdrawing from social situations) and the bully showing hardly any emotion or anguish.
There are different forms of bullying. The most common form is verbal bullying and includes name-calling, teasing, mocking, repeatedly putting someone down, spreading rumours, harassment and making threats. Verbal bullying accounts for approximately 70% of all cases reported for bullying. It is often directed at marginalised groups due to sexual orientation, students with barriers to learning and ethnic or cultural group differences. Research suggests that girls tend to use verbal bullying tactics such as manipulation and gossiping more than boys do. Verbal bullying also includes cyber-bullying where the perpetrator often remains anonymous. In cyber-bullying, the cyber-bully harasses the victim through the use of text messages, e-mails, cell-phones, YouTube, social media sites (like FaceBook and Twitter), blogposts and online voting. Many times the perpetrators of cyber-bullying do not have to face the consequences of their actions as it can be difficult to trace them. Physical bullying involves the intention to cause physical harm and fear in the victim. Typical examples of this form of bullying include being tripped, spat on and slapped, having clothes or other personal items taken or hidden and demanding money. Research indicates that boys are more likely to use physical bullying as they tend to be more physical and their verbal skills are often not as well-developed as girls’. In addition, boys also enjoy displaying physical prowess. The final type, social bullying involves the purposeful exclusion of a person or group from another social group or the coercion within a group. Examples include aggressive stares at the victim, negative and hostile body language towards the victim and the bully rolling his/ her eyes at the victim.
Bullies tend to be individuals who lack healthy and happy home and social conditions which can exacerbate inappropriate and defiant behaviour. Research shows that, in many instances, bullies have been victims of violence themselves and that bullying is often a precursor to violent behaviour and vice versa. An issue which intensifies the problem of bullying is that some children do not believe bullying is a problem and often feel that the victim may have deserved being bullied to some extent. Bullies also tend to lack guilt and actively seek negative responses to their behaviour (believing that negative attention is better than no attention at all), bullies are concerned primarily with their own desires, they do not understand that others have their own subjective experiences and they lack empathy for others and generally bullies do not accept responsibility for their own actions and cannot consider the consequences of their behaviour.
Victims are usually characterised by the following: they may often be rejected by bullies as well as non-bullying peers, they may complain about feeling lonely and experiencing a great amount of stress as they lack supportive relationships in their peer groups, victims may be targeted for being different from the rest or even just for being ‘the new pupil’ at school, they often show signs ranging from low self-esteem, depression and inability to concentrate in school following a bullying episode, victims may show signs of self-harm (such as self-mutilation) and may even display suicidal tendencies, they often think they are responsible for being bullied and they may experience physical consequences (such as headaches, migraines, high levels of stress and anxiety, frequent illnesses, tiredness and excessive fatigue, skin problems such as eczema, irritable bowel syndrome, heart palpitations and panic attacks). However, the most common character trait is that each victim has been selected to be scorned and becomes the recipient of aggressive behaviour.
Often bullying is not reported by the victim due to fear of being attacked or further victimised by the bully and some teachers may not be willing to act and often their actions are inappropriate and may even exacerbate the situation.
Research indicates that the undesirable behaviour associated with bullying often arises from personal values of the bully which have been entrenched over a period of time. This suggests that exposure to bullies may then influence another person (often the victim of the bullying) to replicate the learned behaviour. Children who are impulsive and active show a greater tendency to become bullies themselves. The most common characteristic and cause of bullying is aggression towards peers and adults, coupled with a positive attitude towards violence. The most important causes of bullying include the bullies often having problems relating to their own feelings so they decide to focus on the feelings of others instead, bullies strive for any attention from the peer group, some bullies are of the opinion that bullying earns them status, control, power and feelings of belonging, children with aggressive tendencies often find it difficult to behave in a non-aggressive manner and often have poor role models to emulate. This results in the bullying behaviour being positively reinforced. Bullying is often a mask for hiding the bully’s own insecurities and feelings of inferiority as bullies, in many instances, have been victims of bullying in the past and bullies may be bored and the act of bullying may even provide amusement to the bully.
Bullying may be addressed through various channels. Schools should have bullying policies in place which outline the steps that need to be taken by School Managements Teams and teachers to address the incidence of bullying. Psychologists and counsellors often work with bullies and victims using appropriate intervention programmes such as the PIC Approach (Promoting Issues in Common). Parents and caregivers can prevent and assist children being bullied through the following: ensuring that there is adult supervision by not allowing spaces where bullying can easily occur, speaking with children about ways to resolve conflict and modelling appropriate behaviour for children to follow (setting a good example), becoming involved in the children’s lives through positive child-rearing practices, effective methods of discipline and positive involvement in the children’s lives, providing clear guidelines for behaviour and following up with monitoring of the child’s behaviour, examining what television programmes and computer programmes (especially for younger children) the child may be exposed to, questioning the source of possessions brought home from school if this is a frequent occurrence, teaching the child what to do if his/ her rights are infringed upon (such as reporting the incident to a teacher or other suitable adult), encouraging the child to bring friends home, boosting the child’s self-esteem by highlighting his/ her strong points, teaching him/ her how to be ‘safe’ using the internet and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter (such as teaching them about cyber-bullying and teach them to only give personal and/ contact information to people whom they know in the physical world) and keeping computers in a public room in the house to monitor internet usage. If the child is accused of bullying, accept that there might be a problem and support him or her. Encourage the child to attend counselling and use this experience as a learning opportunity.
Signs which may suggest a child is being bullied include physical signs such as frequent bruises and cuts, the child’s possessions often are missing or ‘lost’, he or she may display extreme mood swings, he/ she may be reluctant to attend school, the child may start wetting his/ her bed, have nightmares or sleep poorly, he/ she may stop talking about his/ her peers and may do something out of character. An effective approach would encompass support from the victim and bully’s school and teachers, parents or caregivers as well as from a professional trained in assisting children such as an educational psychologist or school counsellor.