In 2015, one in five American high-school students reported that they had been bullied on school property in the previous year. According to ABC News, as many as 30% of children either bully or experience bullying.
It’s easy to get swept up in a simplified narrative of school-age aggression. It’s easy to believe that there are bullies and victims, good kids and bad. The truth is much more complex. Bullying is a spectrum of grey more than it is black and white. Along this spectrum a child may be bully, bullied, or witness, and their role may change with time or circumstance. For any youth involved in what researchers call the “circle of bullying” there can be long-term, negative impacts.
The better we understand bullying, the better equipped we are to create a society in which our young people can develop safely.
What Makes it Bullying?
There are many types of aggression in both youth and adults, but bullying has specific characteristics. Bullying occurs between two people when there is:
- A real or perceived power imbalance.
- Repetitive behavior, or the potential for the behavior to happen more than once.
The power of a bully could come from physical strength, social popularity, or access to sensitive information — and they use this power to control or harm others.
Here are just a few reasons children and teenagers may bully:
- Family circumstances. Disturbances at home can contribute to aggressive behavior in youth. A teen may act out in reaction to a situation they find upsetting, like a divorce or living with someone who struggles with mental illness or substance use. The child may want more attention, affection, or stability without knowing how to ask for it.
- Exposure to aggression. Kids pay close attention to examples they see in video game, movies, and TV. But even more than those, they are watching the adults in their life. If they witness aggressive behavior, bullying, or volatile conflict, they are more likely to replicate those behaviors, believing them appropriate.
- Peer pressure and social status. Social belonging is very important to young adults. They are more likely to participate in bullying if their peers do, or if they see it as a way to gain popularity. A teen might believe that it’s either “bully or be bullied.” Similarly, if a child has been bullied in the past, they may respond by bullying to regain their sense of control after feeling powerless.
What can you do, to help steer your child safely away from the circle of bullying?
- Educate your child about the different forms of bullying, so that they know if they are experiencing bullying, witnessing it, or being pressured to participate
- Inform them about the importance of withdrawing support from bullies by not participating as an audience member, and instead drawing adult attention to the issue
- Explore how they feel about their friends, their popularity and reputation. Pay attention if they seem competitive or overly concerned about their status, and to the words they use to describe other children.
- Be mindful of how you express emotions and resolve conflict. Never exhibit bullying behavior in front of your children. Kids are using your example to determine what is acceptable.
- Minimize your child’s exposure to violent or aggressive media, including music, television programs, movies, and video games. Educate them on the serious and tragic impact of bullying — not only on the children who are bullied, but on the futures of those who participate in bullying.