| Dr Ilse Ruane

We all have a mental image attached to the word bullying, but, in order to combat the real problem of bullying, we have to move beyond this simple definition. We need to be able to understand the difference between what bullying is and what it is not.

As per definition, “bullying is a pattern of behaviour by a person or group of people who repeatedly and intentionally exert power over another person.” Therefore bullying is the intention of doing harm through repeated action over a period of time. What the definition does not elude to is that not all of the effects of bullying are visible. In fact, visible scratches, bite marks and bruises are not the real intention of a bully. Bullies want to dominate and control others. The bully knows what they are doing is hurting the other child, and they derive a certain amount of gratification from doing it.

Generally speaking there are four major types of bullying that occur: physical, verbal, social alienation, and cyberbullying.

1. Physical bullying

Typically, boys are more likely than girls to participate in physical bullying. Bullies are not always the biggest and ‘baddest’ children on the playground. They come in all shapes and sizes. Physical bullies attack their victims through hitting, pushing, tripping, slapping, stealing or destroying possessions and even sexual harassment or assault. It is all done to illicit a reaction out of the targeted child and to intentionally cause them harm. Physical bullying includes not only the physical act itself, but threats of physical harm. When a victim fears for his or her physical well being, this kind of bullying is taking place. Bullies can also threaten the friends of the targeted child thereby creating a situation where the child feels guilty if they do not remain the target of the bully’s actions.

However, physical bullying is not the same as having a fight. Children routinely have fights and disagreements. This is part of the natural developmental process of growing up and testing the boundaries of what it acceptable and what is not. The bully, on the other hand, exerts physical power over a chosen target on multiple occasions. Targets are usually chosen because the bully does not expect them to fight back.

2. Verbal bullying

Verbal bullying is also called relational bullying. When a child routinely puts down another person through their words, they are attempting to exert control over that person verbally. Girls are much more likely to engage in verbal bullying than boys. They do this through name calling, insults, gossip, spreading of rumours, teasing, taunting, intimidation, and sexist or racist remarks.

The effects of this kind of bullying may not be visible, but they are very real. Just like targets of physical bullying, targeted children of verbal bullying fear going to school. Furthermore, verbal bullying has a longer lasting impact on the targeted child than physical bullying. This is because words last longer than bruises, causing depression and anxiety in the child. These incidents of bullying may need to be taken more seriously than other forms of bullying.

Often this form bullying in overlooked at school, because there is no ‘evidence’ as in a bruise or a scratch, to ‘prove’ the event happened. It becomes a ‘your word against mine’ scenario, with teachers not knowing who to believe. The bully often knows how to manipulate the situation by lying, fake tears or compounds the story by adding more ‘evidence’ into the mix when called in by the teacher. Thereby making the situation no longer as clear-cut as it presented initially. The targeted child may then be victimised ever further by the school system that fails to assist them as no proof can be provided. The targeted child is also then less likely to ask for help in the future, from the system that indirectly perpetuates the bullying, and becomes further alienated and withdraws.

3. Social alienation

This is also called covert or indirect bullying. It is the hardest for parents and teachers to spot. Most of this kind of bullying goes on behind the victim’s back through spreading rumors, smear campaigns, exclusion, and pranks. These negative gestures and public humiliation are very damaging elements to a developing child.

Bullies who attack through social alienation need an audience. They derive power in a social setting by exerting social control over another child. Other children are drawn in to participate as the bully dictates the social structure. This often happens in so-called popular groups, where one or two children are allowed to speak negatively about others or ‘dis’ others because of their popularity. Bystanders are used to participate in spreading the rumours and creating the climate of exclusion. We need to remember that sometimes bystanders participate out of fear of recourse from the bully. This then becomes a situation of secondary bullying, for lack of better terminology, where the bystander ‘assists’ in discrediting the targeted child to avoid being targeted themselves. However, the bystanders can also be used against the bully. When they stand up and refuse to participate with the bully’s tactics, they take away the bully’s power. For example in refusing to spread the rumours further and in including the targeted child no matter what stories that bully has brought about a particular child. Practically however this is very difficult to achieve as this type of bully, through the use of manipulation and fear of social consequences, dictates the social structure at school.

4. Cyberbullying 

Cyberbullying is any sort of verbal or social bullying that occurs through an electronic device. With the increased access children have to cell phones and tablets, a breeding ground is created via the internet to be able to send threats, taunts, or insults via text messages, email, chat rooms, SMS, Facebook, Instagram or any other social media.

Unlike other forms of bullying, victims feel like there is no escape from cyberbullies. The information posted goes viral. The bullies follow them everywhere they go through their phones and the internet. Victims of cyberbullying often do not tell parents or school teachers because they are afraid their phone and computer privileges will be taken away. Ironically the situation then punishes the target and not the bully. Parents, of the targeted child, take the phone away in an attempt to protect their child, however the action is viewed as punishment so the child rather keeps quiet. In my experience as a therapist, the parents of the bully, do not take their child’s phone away, thereby indirectly participate in the action of cyberbullying as well as indirectly condone their child’s behaviour.

To prevent such instances, parents of children with a cellphones or tablets can routinely check the messages sent, games played, and posts made by their child. It is not an invasion of their privacy. We need to remember they are not adults and have yet to develop the moral judgement that comes with maturity. A moral compass is something that children are taught, it’s not naturally occurring in them.

What bullying is not

The element essential in labelling an incident as bullying is in the definition that bullying is a pattern of behaviours, implying multiple events creating a pattern not one incident. While isolated incidents should be dealt with and children should be taught that any behavior that hurts another person physically or psychologically is unacceptable, they do not make the perpetrator a bully.

Bullying is never random. Victims are carefully targeted and pursued by the bully. It can be out of jealousy, or where the bully derives a degree of gratification from the power s/he is exerting over the other child. Bullies repeatedly torment others with the purpose of doing harm, alienating, or excluding the targeted child over a period of time. Until a pattern of physically, verbally, or socially abusive behavior has been established, bullying has not occurred.

NB Children and teenagers do not have the cognitive or emotionally capabilities at this stage of their development to deal with bullying, and other types of situations effectively. We need to assist them and educate them. We need to teach them the right and wrong way in which we communicate with others.

  • If you find that your child is participating in bullying (by being a bystander) or is the bully, you need to take immediate steps against such behaviour and not ignore the situation just because your child is not the one being hurt.
  • The same goes for the case of it being your child being bullied. Do not negate their feelings with ‘boys will be boys’ statements or ‘you are over sensitive’. Being bullied can have long term consequences.
  • Listen carefully and assist your child in facing the bully and taking a stand against such behavior.
  • Involve the school and teachers in providing a support structure for your child as they can not take a stand alone – again because they do not have the cognitive and emotional capabilities to handle the problem effectively. The school and teachers need to intervene and provide support for all parties, the bully, the bystanders and the targeted child.

If your child is in this position, please do not wait, seek assistance at the earliest possible time as the long term effects of bullying are very destructive.