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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
are of the opinion that mixed age class groupings result in more true
leadership and less bullying.
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.
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:
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
Target The Students:
Involve students from different
cliques, ethnic groups and neighborhoods. Peer mediation training, student
government projects and conflict resolution training are helpful.
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.
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.)
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
rules that mandate respect between students.
consequences for individuals who do not follow the student code of
mediation training. Mediators should be chosen from a broad spectrum of
students, not just the academic achievers or sports stars
who tend to be victims should be supported by the formation of friendship
the locations where bullying behavior is most likely and monitor these
areas closely. (e.g. lunchroom, locker room)
and adults who function as mentors for children who tend to be bullied.
students in an ongoing buddy system
parents in for classes on assertiveness, active, non-violent parenting
techniques, and anger management.
curriculum in decision making and conflict resolution.
“The Decision is Yours” series.
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
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
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.
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.
Bullying perpetrated by subordinates (such as boss being bullied by an
employee, nursing staff being bullied by a patient.)
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.
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.
Two individuals, sometimes people who are
having as affair, collude to intimidate others. The participation of the
second individual may be covert.
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)