Bullying has probably been happening for as long as children have gathered in groups. Although most bullying and taunting take place in school, teachers and administrators have long tended to consider it a minor issue. "There's an attitude that 'We all go through it' or even that it toughens you up," says Seattle psychologist Dorothea Ross, Ph.D., author of Childhood Bullying and Teasing. Many parents agree: In a recent National Crime Prevention Council survey, 50% of parents responding said bullying isn't a serious problem for kids.
But children take bullying very seriously, says Debra Pepler, Ph.D., director of the LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence and Conflict Resolution at York University in Toronto: "The impact can be tremendous," she says. "There are people who carry these concerns throughout their lives." At worst, bullying has led to suicides. The two shooters in the Columbine High School tragedy were bullied youngsters who retaliated.
Given how traumatic it can be, it's alarming to realize how common bullying really is. A 1998 survey of 6,500 South Carolina fourth- to sixth-graders, for example, found that 25% were bullied with some regularity, while 10% were bullied once a week or more. If anything, younger children suffer more than older ones: Dr. Pepler has found that first- through fourth-graders are bullied more than any other students. Even preschoolers can engage in aggressive behavior, researchers now agree. And while boys bully more than girls do, there's evidence that girls are targeted at equal or slightly lower rates.
As concern about violence grows, schools around the country have begun to adopt anti-bullying programs at all age levels. But children are still more likely to tell parents they're being bullied than they are to tell school authorities, so the more you know about bullying, the better you can protect your child.