Bullying consists of a pattern of aggressive behavior repeated over time, and relies on an imbalance of power or strength between bully and victim. It involves unwanted, negative actions toward a victim, encompassing the spectrum of physical aggression (such as hitting, kicking, throwing spitwads, tripping, etc.) and relational aggression (such as gossiping, giving the silent treatment, excluding a playmate, sabotaging a playmate's other friendships, cyberbullying, etc.). It is all about establishing dominance within a peer group, whether among first-graders or in the workplace.
Bullying is not always easy to recognize, since it takes on so many forms. However, where bullies have success, it is because the peer group allows it. Bullying is often rewarded with increased levels of admiration or romantic interest. Victims are typically shy, passive children, or are defensive/over-reactive and therefore disliked by the peer group.
Bullying and aggression put both bullies and their victims at risk for long-term social problems. These include:
- peer rejection
- delinquency, criminality
- school failure
- adolescent pregnancy
Research has introduced an interesting model for bullying that I think all parents, teachers, and other adults who interact with children and youth should become familiar with. It is called the Bullying Circle, and you can find a great PDF illustration available through BullyingPrevention.org, here.
A brief summary of the Bullying Circle idea is that there are typically few bullies and victims, but the rest of the peer group takes on roles ranging from henchmen and active supporters (who help the bully), to passive supporters, disengaged onlookers, and potential defenders (who do not actively help the bully, but also do nothing to stop the bullying), to resisters and defenders (who actively rebut the bullying and defend the victim).
Interestingly, it often only takes one peer in a "defender" role to stop or redirect a bully, but they must be a peer with some social standing (well-liked). One problem with this model is that children do not always know where to classify themselves, especially if they are the bully. Sometimes a child who is clearly the bully, from an outsider's (or peer's) perspective, considers him/herself to be a defender (!). So, unless a parent/teacher is familiar with the peer group dynamics, it may not be beneficial to rely on a child's take on the situation.
In most cases, it does not benefit a victim for a parent/teacher to attempt to directly take on the "defender" role. This frequently elicits more bullying, as the victim is seen as weak. A better approach would be to encourage children to look at social situations from others' perspectives, and thereby increase their moral reasoning and sympathy/empathy toward peers.
If your child is the victim, help them seek out friends, even if the friends are victims too. Perhaps helping them establish friendships away from the problem peer group, such as through an extracurricular class or parent-moderated play group, would give them needed confidence in social situations. Note that the parenting role should consist of monitoring, but not direct interactive intervention (except to take a child out of danger).
Another highly beneficial way to work with children, no matter their role in the peer group, is to seek to help them form a "benign attribution bias." Attribution bias refers to what you read into an ambiguous situation, where another person's action that had a negative outcome for you might have been accidental or purposeful, but you're not sure. Someone with a benign attribution bias would look for the best in the situation, assuming it was an accident (but such a person would be able to accurately label an aggressive action). Alternatively, someone with a hostile attribution bias would assume it was on purpose, and would react as such.
A benign attribution bias is highly linked to prosocial behavior (voluntary behavior intended to benefit another). Parents can help their children develop a benign attribution bias by:
- modeling it themselves (cut back on road rage; see the good in the child's behavior, rather than assuming they are trying to be naughty)
- working & talking with the child to help them process social information ("maybe it was an accident!")
- encouraging the child when he/she works through social information on their own
- encouraging/praising the child for altruistic behaviors (do not give material rewards)
Bullying is not funny, it is not something that children will "grow out of." It has serious consequences, both for bullies and their victims, so it is essential for parents and teachers to help all members of a peer group step out of the cycle. Helping every child to have a benign attribution bias is a much better way to intervene than directly meddling in the peer group dynamics. And, of course, children look to their parents as examples, so seek to model a benign attribution bias and healthy social interaction.