Forging a healthier social climate by addressing bullying

by Trishana Jones, MSW, North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence

Treating others with fairness and compassion helps us build healthy relationships and improves how we collectively feel about ourselves. Yet the opposite is also true: bullying at school and in other settings harms us all.

It’s especially bad for those involved. Studies have shown involvement in bullying—as a perpetrator, victim, or witness—can undermine one’s psychological well-being and academic performance and may lead to involvement in dating/intimate partner violence or substance abuse (CDC, 2014).

Despite the harm it causes, bullying is common. One in five students admits to being a bully or engaging in bullying. According to the 2015 results of the Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 15.6% of teens surveyed in North Carolina reported being bullied at school.

Bullying: What It Is
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2016a) define bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths…that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” Bullying may be carried out by physical aggression (hitting, tripping, damaging belongings), verbal insults, or hurting a victim’s social standing by spreading rumors or encouraging peer rejection or isolation.

There is also cyber-bullying, which is aggression through e-mails, chat rooms and forums, text messaging, or social media apps. Incidents of virtual or real-world bullying can be widely shared and put on unending display with social media platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr. In the 2015 YRBS results, 12.1% of teens surveyed in our state reported being electronically bullied.

Some are more at risk of being bullied than others. Youths who live with disabilities, learning challenges, obesity/body image issues, or who identify as members of an ethnic or religious minority or as lesbian, gay, or gender non-conforming are highly vulnerable. In the past decade, incidents of bullying Muslim girls by pulling their hijabs (headscarves) have increased. Victims of bullying may suffer physical injuries, lower self-esteem, changes in eating habits, and emotional distress. Bullying may incite the onset of depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties.

Bullying may also hurt a victim’s school performance. Bullied youth may grow to dislike school and may avoid attending out of fear of getting hurt. Importantly, Black and Hispanic youth who are bullied are more likely to struggle academically than their white peers.

Bullying can widen the disconnection some kids already feel at school. In a survey of 3,530 elementary school students, those who reported being bullied were four times more likely than non-victims to feel they did not fit in or belong at school. In contrast, bullies are perceived by their peers as popular or powerful (Zweig, et al., 2013).

There is no single profile for children and teens who participate in bullying. However, youth who bully are more likely to exhibit an attitude accepting of violence, lack non-violent problem-solving skills, display rule-breaking or defiant behaviors, have friends who encourage bullying, and have a history of violent victimization and harsh parenting by caregivers. Exposure to domestic violence also makes bullying behavior more likely.

Youth who consistently play the role of bully are at higher risk of substance abuse, poor academic achievement, and of using violence against peers and dating partners when they grow up. Bullying is also concerning because both perpetrators and victims have been found at increased risk of self-harming or suicide-related behaviors.

Bullying can have a domino effect, inspiring some victims to become bullies themselves (“bully-victims”). Studies show bully-victims have trouble controlling their emotions and often retaliate with aggression. Like victims, bully-victims may battle anxiety and depression, along with cognitive and behavioral difficulties, hyperactivity, and reactive aggression. Many lack close friendships.

Witnesses of bullying, also known as bystanders, can play multiple roles. Some assist or reinforce the bullying behavior. Others observe but provide no feedback. Still others step up and defend the target of the bullying. The role a bystander chooses is influenced by many things, including fear of retaliation, concern that taking action will have no impact or even make things worse for the victim, and the bystander’s feelings about the victim.

Bystanders have the power to stop bullying. In one study, when a bystander intervened, 57% of the time the bullying stopped (Hawkins, et al., 2001). Bystander strategies that victims find most helpful include:

  • Affirming the victim by letting them know the bystander cares;
  • Walking or talking with the victim in social settings; and
  • Helping the victim get away/offering advice.

What Can Resource Parents Do?

Keep learning. This article is just a start. Learn all you can about responding to bullying. Check out the resources found here.

Connect your child to a peer group. Especially if they have had to change schools or communities, kids in care may not know safe routes to and from school or which people or places to avoid. You can help by connecting the child to a group of peers. This provides a place to “belong” as well as access to kids who “know the ropes.”

Advocate with schools to provide effective anti-bullying programs. Child welfare agencies should do the same. For information about the traits of effective programs, see this study by Lawner & Terzian (2013).

If your child is being bullied:

  • Share your concerns with teachers, school administrators, and others who work with or care for the child. Keep documentation with dates, incidents, and school personnel contacted.
  • Coach your child on how to avoid bullying and to respond and seek help when it occurs. Never encourage physical fighting or matching the aggression of the bully. Coaching about issues of hygiene, clothing, and social skills may be helpful.
  • Enroll your child in a peer support group, counseling, or assertiveness training.

If your child is bullying others, talk with the child’s worker about how the child’s treatment plan might incorporate counseling or other interventions. Fortunately, bullying is a learned behavior and it can be unlearned.

Possible Signs of Bullying


NOTE: These signs may indicate involvement in bullying. However, they could be caused by many things other than bullying.

  • Missing or damaged belongings (e.g., books, clothes, electronics, jewelry)
  • Unexplained injuries
  • Frequent real or faked illness
  • Trouble sleeping or frequent bad dreams
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Increase in self-destructive behaviors
  • Runs away
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Afraid to go to school or other activities
  • Avoids computer, cell phone, etc. or appears stressed when receiving email, instant messages, or texts
  • Avoids conversation about computer use

Source: Marsh, 2011