Bullying Throughout The Life Cycle

Protecting Against Bullies
Throughout the Life Cycle

Carol E. Watkins, M.D.

Bullies are frequently
the root of disruption, injury and violence in schools and the workplace. Learn

how to change the culture of your organization in order to defuse bullying.


What is a bully? It is someone who takes

advantage of another individual that he or she perceives as more vulnerable.

The goal is to gain control over the victim or to gain control over a social

group. This type of behavior occurs in all ages, sexes and social groups.

Most adults, if they think about it, have experienced bullying too.

Bullying usually involves deliberate hostility or aggression toward the

victim. . The interaction is painful and humiliating and distressing to the

victim. Note the word deliberate.
Bullying has
existed as long as there has been human civilization. However, recently our

society has become more aware of bullying and its harmful consequences. In

June 2002 the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association adopted

a report by the AMA’s Council on Scientific Affairs that reviewed bullying

among U.S. children and adolescents. It found that 7 to 15 percent of

sampled school-age children were bullies. About 10 percent of the same group

were victims. Between 2 and 10 percent of students are both bullies and

victims. In elementary schools, more boys than girls are involved in

bullying; however, the gender difference decreases in junior high and high

school, and social bullying among girls – manipulation done to harm

acceptance into a group – becomes harder to detect. 
Long-term consequences
for all involved

“Without intervention, bullying can lead

to serious academic, social, emotional and legal problems,” the CSA report

states. “Studies of successful anti-bullying programs are scarce in the

United States but … adopting a comprehensive approach in schools can change

student behaviors and attitudes and increase adults’ willingness to


The report defined bullying as behavior

that involves a pattern of repeated aggression, deliberate intent to harm or

disturb a victim despite apparent victim distress and a real or perceived

imbalance of power (e.g., due to age, strength, size) with the more powerful

child or group attacking a physically or psychologically vulnerable victim.”

(Report from AMA House of Delegates Scientific Affairs Committee June 2002)

Bullying behavior harms both the victim

and the perpetrator. If a child experiences chronic intimidation, he or she

may learn to expect this from others. He may develop a pattern of compliance

with the unfair demands of those he perceives as stronger. He may become

anxious or depressed. Finally, he may identify with the bully and become a

bully himself.

The bully is also harmed. If he or she is

allowed to continue the behavior, it becomes habitual. He becomes more

likely to surround himself with friends who condone and promote aggressive

behavior. He may not develop a mature sense of justice. If he intimidates

others to cover up his own insecurities, his own anxiety may increase.

The bystander who observes the interaction

may become frightened to express himself openly. He may also adopt the

behaviors or either the bully or the victim.


Types of


Sadistic, narcissistic bully

Lacks empathy for others. Has low degree of

anxiety about consequences. Narcissistic need to feel omnipotent. May appear

to have a high self esteem but it is actually a brittle narcissism.

Imitative bully

May have low self esteem or be depressed.

Influenced by the surrounding social climate. May use whining or tattling or

be manipulative. Often responds well to a change in the culture of the

classroom or social setting. If depressed may need other intervention.

Impulsive bully

He is less likely to be part of a gang. His

bullying is more spontaneous and may appear more random. He has difficulty

restraining himself from the behavior even when authorities are likely to

impose consequences. He may have AD/HD. He may respond to medications and

behavioral treatment and social skills training. He is also likely to be


Accidental Bully

If bullying is a deliberate act, this

individual might not be included. The behavior may be offensive because the

individual does not realize that his actions are upsetting the victim. If

someone patiently and compassionately explains the situation, the individual

will change the behavior. Sometimes social skills need to be taught. There

is some overlap with the impulsive bully.

The Victim:

  • Victims can be anyone. Sometimes it is

    an accident of time and place. Some people are more likely to become

    targets but this does not make it their fault.

  • Someone who is different by virtue of

    physical or cultural characteristics.

  • Someone who is envied by the bully for

    his talent

  • Competing with bully for dominance in

    the social group

  • Depressed individual with low self


  • Rescuing or masochistic victim. Often an

    adolescent girl who feels that she must allow a sadistic boyfriend to

    humiliate her so that she can rescue him.



  • Identifies with bully and may help.

    Enjoys the bullying.

  • Identifies with victim and feels


  • Avoids the situation or tries to

    minimize it.

  • Has mixed feelings and can see the

    problem but may fear to actively intervene. Often more mature than others.

 Situations that facilitate bullying

  • Classroom, clubs and other places where children or teens congregate in

    groups. Mobile phones and the Internet are newer venues for bullying.

    Flaming, or anonymous threatening emails are examples of this.

  • Some

    are of the opinion that mixed age class groupings result in more true

    leadership and less bullying.

  • Abusive

    homes, acceptance of violence and humiliation as ways of getting things


  • Administrators who turn a blind eye to bullying in classes.

Discovery of bullying


school may notice.

  • Student with school avoidance.

  • Declining grades,

  • Frequent trips to the nurse

  • Social withdrawal.


parents may notice.

What are the
signs that your child is the victim of a bully? One may see non-specific

signs of school distress: These might include falling grades, physical

complaints on school days, and lack of interest in school work or sports.

More specific signs would be unexplained injuries or torn clothes, missing

belongings or money, or repeated requests for more money. If someone is

taking your child’s lunch, he or she may come home hungry even though he

took an adequate lunch to school.

How Parents Can Intervene:

You need

to know how to get your child talking about his concerns. It is best to

broach the subject at a calm neutral time. Ask general questions about

whether something is bothering your child. Get as detailed a narrative as

possible. Avoid interrupting or judging. Try to stay calm and do not make

outraged statements while your child is telling his tale. Avoid offering

premature solutions. You may not get the entire story on the first telling.

Be patient and bring up the topic again later. Finally, if you feel that

something is going on and suspect that your child is withholding

information, call his or her teacher.

How can you help your child deal with the

bullying? First, help teach him to avoid being an easy target. Start with

posture, voice and eye contact. These can communicate a lot about whether

you are vulnerable. Practice with a mirror or even videotape. Tell your

child to avoid isolated places where no one can see or hear him. He should

learn to be vigilant for suspicious individuals or for trouble brewing. If

bullying starts, he might be able to deflect it with humor or by changing

the subject. He should run over a list of positive attributes in his mind.

This reminds him that he is worthy of something better than bullying

behavior. Teach your child not to obey the commands of the bully. Often it

is better to run away than to comply. The parent may help the child make

more positive friends. If he or she sticks around with a group, he is less

likely to be a target. Finally, if the child sticks up for other children he

sees being bullied, people may get the idea that he is not someone who

tolerates bullies.

How Schools

Can Intervene:

Target The Students:

Involve students from different

cliques, ethnic groups and neighborhoods. Peer mediation training, student

government projects and conflict resolution training are helpful.

Target the

Faculty and Staff:

Faculty and staff should discuss the

social atmosphere at the school. Ideally, coaches, bus drivers, aides and

janitorial staff should be included. Make sure that staff is aware of the

long-term consequences of intimidation. Teachers and administrators could

either brainstorm about ways to integrate this into each class or use a

curriculum. Once a curriculum or an approach is chosen, parents or PTSA

should meet with staff. When bullying behavior is seen, the teacher or

guidance counselor can intervene at different levels depending on the

severity of the incident.

  • Cooperative

    activities in the classroom and on the playground: Find ways to emphasize

    the achievements and strengths of many different types of children. (This

    is not the same thing as “dumbing down” curriculum.)

  • Written

    behavioral expectations for students to be signed by students, parents and


  • Disciplinary program that emphasizes rewards for correct behavior rather

    than solely focusing on demerits from misbehavior

  • Posted

    rules that mandate respect between students.

  • Consistent

    consequences for individuals who do not follow the student code of


  • Peer

    mediation training. Mediators should be chosen from a broad spectrum of

    students, not just the academic achievers or sports stars

  • Children

    who tend to be victims should be supported by the formation of friendship


  • Figure out

    the locations where bullying behavior is most likely and monitor these

    areas closely. (e.g. lunchroom, locker room)

  • Students

    and adults who function as mentors for children who tend to be bullied.

  • Pairing

    students in an ongoing buddy system

  • Invite

    parents in for classes on assertiveness, active, non-violent parenting

    techniques, and anger management.

  • Ongoing

    curriculum in decision making and conflict resolution.

  • Books like

    “The Decision is Yours” series.

  • Publicize

    classes and groups that build self-discipline and social skills. These

    might include martial arts classes, Scouting and religious youth groups.



Characteristics of Organizations with

Bullying Problems:

High rates of sick leave, dismissals,

disciplinary suspensions, early and health-related retirements, disciplinary

procedures, grievance procedures, and stress-related illnesses. This company

may be more likely to hire security agencies to gather data on employees.

Types of workplace bullying

Adapted from


Stressed, impulsive or unintentional bully

Occurs when someone is under stress or an

institution is undergoing confusing, disorienting changes. This is the

easiest to redirect.

Cyber bully

This includes hateful emails and cyber

stalking. Some feel that employers who monitor employees’ email are using

intimidation but this position can be debated. If it is used unfairly, it

can be seen as intimidation.

Subordinate bully

Bullying perpetrated by subordinates (such as boss being bullied by an

employee, nursing staff being bullied by a patient.)

Serial bully

An individual who repeatedly intimidates or harasses one individual after

another.   A victim is selected and bullied for an extended period of time

until he leaves or asserts himself and goes to Human Resources (HR) The

bully deceives HR by being charming while the victim appears emotional and

angry. Since there are often no witnesses, HR accepts the account of the

senior staff member, possibly a serial bully.  The bully may convince the

organization to get rid of the troublesome victim. Once the victim is out of

the organization, the bully usually needs to find a new victim. This is

because the bully needs someone on whom he can project his inner feelings of

inadequacy. The bully may prevent others from sharing negative information

about him by sowing conflict. If the organization eventually realizes that

it has made a mistake, it is difficult for them to publicly admit this. To

do so might make them legally liable.

Secondary bully

Others in the office or social group start to

react to bullying by imitating or joining in on the behavior. This can lead

to institutional bullying. Even if the primary bullying individual is

removed, the secondary bullies may fill in the gap because they have learned

that this is how to survive in this organization.

Pair bullies

Two individuals, sometimes people who are

having as affair, collude to intimidate others. The participation of the

second individual may be covert.

Gang bullies

The primary bully gathers a number of

followers. He may be a loud, highly visible leader. If he is a quieter sort,

his role may be more insidious. Some members of the group may actively enjoy

being part of the bullying. They like the reflected power of the primary

bully. If the primary bully leaves the organization, and the institution

does not change, one of these individuals may step in to fill the shoes of

the primary bully. Others of the gang join in because they feel coerced.

They fear that if they do not participate, they will be the next victims.

Indeed some of these individuals do become victims at some point in time.




Confrontations between employees, HR

interventions, social disputes take up a lot of energy and distract everyone

from things they should be doing at work and at home. (Aikido story) It is

better to prevent an incident than to deal with it later. Sometimes this is

a matter of judgment for the individual. Assertiveness, humor and

negotiation can often head off a confrontation and prevent further bullying

behavior. A strong positive self-image can help by making it easier to

ignore minor insults. The positive self-image can also make it easier for

one to take action when the bullying has gone too far. Cultural

misunderstandings combined with personal insecurity can lead to hurt




Institutions can make intimidation less

likely by instituting policies discouraging bullying behavior. Supervisors

need help with learning sensitive ways to interact with employees. Sometimes

it may be as simple as cultural sensitivity and remembering to ask employees

for feedback. Other times, particular individuals may need ongoing

supervision or removal. It is difficult to change old habit. Explicit

directives with examples may help. Managers need to understand their

management style and how subordinates perceive it. It is important to

understand the line between tough but fair and imperious and capricious.


and social stability

One might look at adult bullying as a

mechanism of social control. Employers, government officials, and others in

authority wish to retain and increase their control and authority. If power

and control are central to the existence of an organization, bullying and

denial about the existence of bullying may be central to the stability of

the organization. Rules, regulations and clear lines of authority are not

the same as institutional bullying. A person who might grow up in a family

where there was covert intimidation, inconsistent demands and unfair

treatment.  His parents might single him out for harsher treatment than his

siblings but make him feel too guilty to speak out. Paradoxically enough,

such an individual might experience a strong sense of relief after joining

the military. He would experience more overt yelling and more

minute-to-minute control of his activities. Yet he thrives. Why? In the

armed forces he would report that he received fair and consistent treatment.

The rules were predictable. The expectations were rigorous but clear and

predictable. His superiors shouted at him, but they shouted at everyone

else. Some superiors might be excessively harsh, but everyone knew who they

were and knew what to expect. Intense, highly authoritarian situations

sometimes lend themselves to bullying situations.  However, this is not

always the case. If there are consistent predictable rules and no one is

unfairly singled out, hierarchy does not necessarily mean bullying. In

strict hierarchical situations, there should always be an avenue for

individuals who feel that they are being treated unfairly or being asked to

do unethical things.
E. Watkins, M.D.    


See our other articles on
with Bullies and How Not To Be One

Dealing with Bullies (A shorter article aimed at elementary school

children-located on Kids and Teens page)

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Copyright 2000

Carol E. Watkins, M.D.

Glenn Brynes, Ph.D., M.D.

Rita Preller, LCSW-C