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What is Bullying? Some Definitions

girl with bullying sign on face

What is Bullying?

Bullying is a persistent human pattern of aggressive behavior that severely affects its victims. Bullying is not conflict where two people want the same thing. The dictionary definition of bullying or to bully someone is - to intimidate using physical strength or psychological influence to make someone do something they do not want to do or would not normally do.  It usually involves repeated harassment and attacks on a selected known victim. It may involve verbal attacks, physical assaults, and/or destroying the victim's social relationships with others.

We usually think of bullying as something that children and young adults do.  However, if we look at the synonyms for bullying which include persecute, harass, torment, strong-arm, brow-beat, and dominate, we can see that bullying is a manifestation of aggression in young people that mirrors the larger scale aggression that exists in families, between racial and ethic and religious groups, in the political arena, and between nations.

Here are some other definitions of bullying:

A Relationship Framework  for Understanding Bullying

National Bullying Prevention Center

Stop Bullying.gov

Teens Against Bullying


Who Bullies?

Typically, bullying is discussed in terms of what happens in the schoolyard. The typical bully, immortalized in millions of stories and memoirs and TV shows  is seen as the mean, cruel, and often physically intimidating and hated youngster who chooses one victim to lash out at and to dominate. But this is an overly simplified picture.

According to a review of the psychological research by Rodkin and Espelage (APA 2015), the use of aggression by one individual over another is part of gaining and keeping social status within one's peer group and has both harmful and beneficial effects. While being a bully may eventually lead to an individual being attacked, despised, and rejected i.e. "socially marginalized", more often than not the bully gains power, social prestige, popularity, and increases the cohesiveness of her or his personal peer group.

Student leaders in sports and other activities, often exhibit bullying traits that are considered acceptable i.e. "social-integrated" and are rewarded for their behavior.  These individuals have high self-esteem and are socially-skilled. Again, think about how this mirrors adult behavior in sports, in the workplace, in politics, and between countries.


Who is the Victim?bullying sign on a T-shirt

There can be no bullying, if there is no victim.

The socially marginalized bully usually is someone who is overly aggressive and easily frustrated. They often pick on a victim because of a perceived or actual slight. The victim lacking social skills for dealing with aggressive behavior retreats and the bully-victim cycle is established. This kind of bully may form a peer group with other aggressive individuals or by default be grouped with other aggressive individuals and their victims who lack social coping skills.

For the socially-integrated or effective leaders, bullying is the way they become dominant and popular in their peer group. Victims need to be carefully selected. Usually the victim is someone with few friends, who is poorly adjusted socially, and who the other members of the peer group dislike and are willing to harass. The victim may accept some of the harassment and aggression if it allows her or him to stay on the edges of the peer group or they may retreat into themselves as isolates.


How Can It Be Stopped?

Because there are two types of bullies, prevention activities and programs need to take a variety of approaches.

The socially-marginalized bully  

Violence and aggression, and drug and alcohol abuse in the home are seen as the root cause for peer aggression. Little research has been done specifically on bullying as a behavior as separated from aggressive behavior. But much has been done on dealing with aggression in children. So for these individuals, a focus on teaching how to control frustration and violent reactions is key.  Similarly, their victims need to be taught how to deal with  aggressive behaviors aimed at them. For these individuals, bully-victim behaviors are just one manifestation of much larger anti-social problems that must also be addressed.

To stop aggressive bullying, victims need a strong peer-support group. They need allies who will join them and stand up for them.

Here are some activities that help victims stand up to aggressors and teach people to be allies.

Be an Upstander

Be Strong, Be Mean, or Give In?

We Are Watching

What To Do If You Are Being Bullied

The socially-integrated bully

One study by Rodkin and Roisman found that children who spent more years in early childcare were more likely to exhibit socially-integrated bullying patterns, perhaps reflecting more time to learn the social skills needed to dominate their less socially skilled peers. Anyone who has spent time with large groups of young children can attest to the fact that peer pecking orders develop at very young ages. And while there is no study for this, we cannot discount the fact that children are surrounded by role models such as parents, teachers, coaches, and so on who use domineering, bullying type behaviors, such as name-calling, spanking, and withdrawal of approval, to get them to do what they want.

Dominant individuals in a peer group already know how to control and weld social aggression to reach their goals. They may practice name-calling or make fun of someone who makes a mistake, drops the ball, wears the wrong clothes, etc.. They may use psychological methods such as getting other peers to avoid the person or talk behind their backs, taking their belongings and hiding them, or they may not invite that person to participate in events other peers are attending such as a party or a game. Cyber-bullying is a favorite form of attacking a victim. While they are less likely to be physically aggressive, they may use peer pressure, such as surrounding a victim with a large group of harassing peers in order to force the victim to do something he or she doesn't want to do or are afraid to do. If there is a size difference between the domineering person and the victim, no actual touching may be needed to make the victim to act against her or his wishes.

This type of bullying is very ingrained in our society. People are much more likely to react when a victim is beaten and battered than when a victim is isolated or name-called. Even our politicians are free to act this way with minimal consequences. The best approach to this kind of bullying is to foster cooperation rather than competition, and to teach our youth that they will be happier and accomplish more if they value everyone's potential to contribute to a team goal and be kind and caring to those who are different from themselves.

Here are cooperative and caring activities that help build inclusive communities of peers.

5 No Name-Calling Lesson Plans

Cooperative Learning Strategies

Inclusive Cooperative Games

Jigsaw Learning

You Can't Say You Can't Play

 October is Anti-Bullying Month.

We will be featuring activities, articles, and books focused on addressing bullying throughout the month.
Let us know if you have questions about bullying for us to address or help out by sending ideas, activities and resources your think are worth recognition.

Teach Peace Now
Teach Peace Now
We offer books, activities, lesson plans, and ideas that teachers, parents, and students can use to promote values, attitudes and behaviors which encourage non-violent resolution of conflict, respect for human rights, democracy, intercultural understanding and tolerance.

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