Bullying refers to the use of physical force, coercion, abuse of power, or peer pressure to abuse, insult or intimidate others. It typically involves an imbalance of power, and often recurs over time. Bullying has harmful effects on the victim’s self-esteem, and can cause depression, anxiety, sleep disturbance, hopelessness and helplessness, and a host of physical complaints. When persistent, victims can become suicidal.
Awareness of the seriousness of bullying and its adverse effects has certainly increased in recent years, due in large part to educational efforts and campaigns aimed at informing children and teens about the harmful effects of bullying and how each of us can be an important force for social good.
It is my sense that even with this increased awareness, the overall incidence of bullying has not decreased, likely due to the social influence of the internet (described below). Even so, along with greater awareness, there seems to have been an increase in bullying being identified and addressed, and an increase in bystander intervention (i.e., others are more likely to stand in defense of someone who is being bullied rather than stand silently by).
It’s important to watch for signs that the children in your life may be being bullied, as often they do not speak up out of fear of making matters worse, or out of shame. It is not uncommon for a victim to begin to believe what is being said about them and therefore feel that they deserve to be bullied or have brought the bullying on in some way. Signs that a child is being bullied include school avoidance, a drop in school performance, an increase in negative emotion (sadness, anger, anxiety, irritability), withdrawal from the world, unexplained withdrawal from previously enjoyed extra-curricular activities, belongings being damaged and/or missing, lying, unexplained injuries, an increase in gastrointestinal complaints/headaches, difficulty sleeping.
Parents and teachers should ideally be proactive in educating children about the dynamics involved in bullying, as well as providing them with an age-appropriate vocabulary for describing what bullying looks, feels, and sounds like. Role-playing exercises can be very helpful here: children can benefit from playing the role of the bully, the victim, and the bystander in order to help them to recognize bullying when they encounter it.
The traits of empathy and kindness should be taught young and stressed repeatedly. These are ideally modelled so that children see their parents and teachers being strong, independent-minded, kind, fair citizens. Sharing stories of situations in which the hero/heroin refuses to bully or extends kindness to someone in need can provide children with concrete examples of how they might behave when they encounter bullying out in the world.
There are some very good educational programs that have been worked into the early years curriculum in schools (e.g., The “Roots of Empathy Program,” The “Kelso the Frog” Program). These programs teach children to understand their own feelings and the feelings of others, and provide a guide for responsible decision making, and the value of bringing in a trusted adult when necessary. Providing this education in the early years as a base is extremely important. It is my observation however that as the academic curriculum becomes more challenging through the junior and intermediate years, there is much less continuing education about the more developmentally sophisticated and subtle forms of bullying that can happen in the older grades and throughout high-school. This is unfortunate as bullying with older children and teens can be extremely damaging and as we have seen in the news of late, potentially lethal.
With technology being as ubiquitous as it is today, online bullying is a very real problem. The distance and the potential anonymity afforded by the internet makes it easier for one to inflict pain on an essentially unseen victim. Harmful comments are widely disseminated and tend to quickly snowball, with the negative impact on the victim increasing exponentially over very short periods of time. The victim of online bullying can feel especially hopeless and helpless to defend themselves or counter the things being said about them. The internet can be used as a vehicle that essentially magnifies and fast-tracks the effects of traditional bullying.
If you are a child or young adult who is feeling isolated, sad, and helpless it is of the utmost importance to seek support. Sometimes only someone on the outside has the perspective to see that bullying is happening. Tell a trusted friend or adult, and do not wait. The effects of bullying are insidious; what might feel manageable one day can quickly escalate into a situation that can feel hopeless. A trusted adult can help to stop the bullying and can help you to see that this is a temporary situation that does not in any way define you. Bullying always says much more about the bully than the victim!
Of course bullying can also occur in adult contexts. Sometimes this is a situation in which someone is being targeted by another person who is in a position of relative power (e.g., a boss or superior who is using their authority to intimidate or abuse a subordinate). Other times the power imbalance is less obvious (e.g., an employee who uses their social influence to harass a colleague). In cases of workplace bullying, it is wise for the victim to document incidents of bullying and note whether there have been witnesses to these incidents. The victim should seek the support of management and Human Resources in order to develop a plan for dealing with the bully. In all cases, a person who is being bullied will need to be open to growing and developing new skill sets for dealing with the bully, as this will empower the victim and serve a protective function against any future episodes.
A key element of dealing with a bully is to remain clearly focused on the fact that the bully is in the wrong, and that keeping silent only empowers them. It is important that the victim not fall into the trap of being ashamed and staying silent; seeking out support is an essential part of disempowering the bully.