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.
While there are all too many ways to bully -- name-calling, hitting, extorting money, and spreading nasty rumors are just a few -- the motivation is always the same. Bullies deliberately set out to hurt someone, physically or psychologically, who is less powerful than they are: smaller, weaker, lower on the social totem pole. Children can't truly be considered bullies until they're 4 or 5, many researchers believe. "Before that age, most children haven't developed the mental complexity of wanting to cause pain to others," says Peter Randall, Ph.D., a senior research fellow at the University of Hull in England and an expert on bullying. "A 2-year-old may get angry and kick or punch, but it's impulsive behavior."
Still, even by 2 or 3, some children are noticeably more aggressive. This can signal a bully in the making "unless the aggression is curbed and reframed," says Dr. Randall, who stresses that bullying is learned, not inborn, behavior. Aggression in children turns into bullying only if it is inadvertently rewarded. "Kids realize, 'I can get this toy away from so-and-so, she'll cry, and I get to play with the toy,'" explains Ronald G. Slaby, Ph.D., a lecturer on education and pediatrics at Harvard University. "If anything, the teacher might lecture you, which means you get attention. So the behavior pays off."
From an early age, some children seem to have traits that make them likelier victims. In a 1995 study, University of Illinois researchers talked to a group of kindergartners at the start of the school year and found 22% reporting that bullies were picking on them. By the end of the year, only 8% were being picked on, meaning the bullies had narrowed their focus. Why did some children continue to be abused, and not others? One theory is that shy or anxious children are more natural targets. Another is that children who are somewhat passive -- who don't protest or who cry if others snatch a toy -- open themselves up to future attacks.
As children grow, emotional abuse tends to replace physical bullying. "Girls in particular are adept at indirect kinds of bullying -- leaving one girl out of a group in hurtful ways," says psychologist Susan P. Limber, Ph.D., of Clemson University in South Carolina.
In trying to combat bullying, U.S. educators have modeled their efforts on a pioneering program developed in Norway in the 1980s by psychologist Dan Olweus, Ph.D., of the University of Bergen. Dr. Olweus created his program following a rash of suicides there by bullied youngsters. The program, tested with Norwegian fourth- through seventh-graders, reduced bullying by 50% within two years while improving the overall atmosphere in schools.
One key to this program is its recognition that bullying won't stop until everyone agrees not to tolerate it. "This isn't a curriculum," Dr. Limber explains. "It's incorporated into the school's life. Administrators, teachers, parents, and staff need to know how to intervene." The program also aims to convince students that bullying must be reported.
Dr. Limber and Dr. Olweus are directing a bully-prevention program that is being evaluated as one of 10 model projects in a national violence prevention initiative funded by the U.S. Department of Justice. "Bullying has always existed, but the potential for what can happen is much more serious today," says Katie Moffett, guidance counselor at Liberty Middle School in Ashland, VA, which is testing the program. Moreover, says Moffett, "It used to be that everyone in a neighborhood knew one another and people looked out for one another's children. Those safety nets are not in place any longer, and more kids are at risk."
When Liberty first introduced its anti-bullying program, the school community was hesitant. "Before, children hadn't wanted to talk about being bullied," Moffett says. But when the principal explained to each grade individually that bullying would no longer be tolerated, students began opening up. "They talked about what it's like to see other kids hassled and not know what to do, afraid that if you step in, it will happen to you."
Liberty's program teaches victims how to assert themselves, and works with the bullies as well. But the thrust of the program is geared toward the once-silent majority. Students are asked to include children who are typically left out-to clear a space at the lunch table, say, or draw them into conversations. Many students have responded enthusiastically. "People -- both teachers and kids -- are noticing bullying more," Moffett says. Still, she adds, "This isn't something you can change overnight. It takes time."
The earlier children learn not to bully, then, the better. Nancy W. Sager, an education and behavioral consultant in Englewood, CO, helped create an elementary-age program called "Bully-Proofing Your School," adapting it for kindergartners as well. "We talk about what a positive friendship looks like and feels like," she says. "We talk about what to do if kids aren't being friendly, and the difference between telling and tattling. These are topics all kids can relate to."
Even some preschools are working to give children problem-solving skills that will stop aggression before it starts. Children learn to consider the options before they act: If they want to play with someone's toy, are there better alternatives than snatching it away? How would it feel to be the child whose toy gets snatched? "This is the age when children are developing habits of thought that will guide them through various phases of life," says Dr. Slaby, who coauthored a teaching guide on violence prevention. "We can start to shape those habits in a way that prepares children to be violence-preventers."
The reality is that no single program can eliminate bullying in a school. So how do you lessen the odds that your child will be victimized? Start early in teaching your son or daughter to be a good friend, says University of Illinois professor of educational psychology Gary W. Ladd, Ph.D.; children who have more friends are bullied less than those who can't turn to other kids for support. Set up regular playdates and intervene if your child needs help learning to communicate or take turns. "Ask yourself, 'What makes relationships work? Does my child have those skills?'" Dr. Ladd says.
Keep in mind, too, that young people can be intolerant of differences. Do what you can to ensure that your child doesn't stand out from the crowd in awkward ways. "Take a good look at what goes on at school," advises Dr. Ross. "How do the kids dress? What lunch boxes are they carrying? Send your child off with similar outward trappings." What if your child is already being bullied? Sadly, many children are too afraid, ashamed, or discouraged to speak up.
Here are some strategies for uncovering abuse and helping a child cope:
Talk to your child about her day. Find time for a quiet moment and ask open-ended questions," says Dr. Pepler." 'What was the best thing about your day? The worst? What did you do at recess?'" Pursue clues that suggest something may be wrong.
Know the signs of bullying. Torn clothes, missing possessions, requests for extra lunch money, dropping grades, and refusing to go to school can all be indications that a child is being bullied. Children may complain of headaches or stomachaches -- either to avoid school or because stress has brought them on. They may act sad or angry; they may have bouts of insomnia or bed-wetting.
Recognize that your child can't deal with the problem alone. "Sometimes parents tell a child, 'Stand up to the bully and say you don't like what's happening,'" says Dr. Pepler. "But the child has probably tried something every single time and it hasn't worked. If he could solve the problem alone, he'd have done it." Let your child know you're glad he's told you and that you'll help. If the situation involves teasing rather than serious bullying, talk about approaches your child could take. Dr. Ross explains that teasers want their victims to cry or run away: "That's the payoff. It's what makes the teaser feel powerful." She teaches children how to stand their ground calmly and deliver zingers that make teasers themselves look silly. "The teaser might not stop the first time," Dr. Ross notes, "but eventually the child being teased is going to win."
Don't hesitate to contact the school. If the bullying doesn't stop, keep records of dates and names of those involved, and let school officials know. Children often don't want their parents to "tell" about bullying; explain that it's important for teachers to know so they can keep everyone safe.
Reassure your child. Getting bullied is hard on self-esteem. Be sure your child knows you love her and that she's done nothing to deserve such treatment; it's the bully who's at fault. If you experienced something similar as a child, let her know so she'll feel less alone.
In fact, taking bullying seriously is one of the most important things parents can do, experts agree. "If children are courageous enough to come forward, we really need to tune in to the hurt they feel," Dr. Pepler says. "It's the way we, as adults, respond to bullying that will determine whether or not things change for our children."
Copyright © 2001 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the February 2001 issue of Child magazine.