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Bullying, as hurtful as it is, is not rare by any stretch of the imagination. What makes a child bully others in school, and who is at risk of becoming a bullying victim?

It started in class 2B, when I was 12. After I — a tiny blonde girl trained in judo — stopped a crowd bullying this girl and walked her home, that same crowd found a new target in me. They picked on me, verbally abused me, and beat me up. Though I could have hit back, I didn't. I was kind of a pacifist at the time, and wanted to show them what sh*t people they were in a different way. (The message didn't get through.) I didn't want to go to school anymore and was so sad, but never told my folks, who believed the bruises were caused by my (real) clumsiness. So the bullying went on, and on, and I lived from one school holiday to the next. Moving schools was ultimately the answer for me, and I made some great friends in my new class. Until that happened, though, life was tough.

Nobody stood up for me. The kids not actively involved in the bullying were sheep who went along with the crowd and didn't want to end up in my spot. Maybe they were just grateful it wasn't them. 

My story is far from unique — US statistics indicate that somewhere between a third and a quarter of school kids face bullying in school at one time or another [1]. One of the reasons school bullying is so brutal is that it's incredibly hard to get away from; kids spend so much time at school, and can't just pack up and move to another school on their own initiative. In today's technologically-connected world, which made cyberbullying possible, it's even worse. Like me, many victims of bullying may not tell their parents what is going on, either. 

As a good parent, you'd do everything you could to prevent your child from finding themselves in the position I was in, or to remove them from it if they're already there. What do you need to know about the dynamics of bullying to help keep your kids safe?

Why Do People Bully?

This all-important question comes with surface and deeper answers. School bullies may, for instance, be in it to rise to the top of the class pecking order, seek to remedy their own self-esteem issues by picking on others, or even struggle socially — not all bullies realize the harmful impact their "banter" has on their target(s). Some bullies further face anger management issues or don't experience regret or remorse, while others were themselves victims of bullying and figure that being a perpetrator is the better position. [2]

One study found that among children who admitted to bullying others, "negative attitudes to victims and the perceived expectations of friends were associated with self-reported bullying behavior" [3]. That, I think, leads us to a rarely discussed root cause of bullying — people tend to sort others into "in-group" and "out-group"; those who belong and those who don't. They feel protective towards those they perceive as similar to themselves, and may feel indifferent or outright hostile towards those they perceive as "other". [4]

We have, of course, seen this play out along national and ethnic lines countless times; a quick look at places like Rwanda or former Yugoslavia demonstrates how this dynamic works quite well. The root of bullying, I suspect, is no less and no more than human nature. We humans can be awesome, and we can also be really awful. 

Who Becomes A Victim Of Bullying?

Any child, anywhere, can become the victim of bullying, and this look at risk factors for bullying is most certainly not meant to be an exercise in victim-blaming. It can, however, potentially help parents in the process of deciding what school is right for their children.

Identified risk factors will come as a surprise to no-one — those children seen as "other" are in more danger of becoming a victim of bullying than those who are seen as belonging (there's the whole in-group/out-group thing again!). "Other" may be as trivial as wearing glasses, having freckles, wearing "uncool" clothes, or being under or overweight. It may also touch on core identity issues, such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, and disability. Those singled out for bullying are more likely to have low self-esteem and to be thought weak and unable to defend themselves, among other reasons because they're likely to lack a strong peer support network... other kids who may stand up for them. [5]

A study of children's perceptions of bullying included the — quite shocking — note that "it appears that adults are aware of only a small amount of the bullying behavior found in school". It went on to describe that children think that those with a "different appearance", who are "small, weak, and soft", who "behave strangely", who "talk with a different dialect", and who are "shy and insecure" are most likely to be bullied. [6]

What Makes Bullying Stop — And Can It Be Prevented?

Bullying intervention strategies currently in use include [7]:

  • A disciplinary approach — this may involve a stereotypical "talk in the principal's office" scenario in which the bully is told that they're a bully, that bullying hurts the victim, it needs to stop, and if it doesn't, X steps will be undertaken next. 
  • Strengthening the victim, by equipping them with strategies such as how to humorously respond to verbal abuse. 
  • Mediation, wherein bully and victim talk about the bullying. 
  • Support group meetings wherein a whole group talks about bullying. 

I personally don't think these strategies should be the only ones in the toolbox, as some of them could well make the bullying worse. Remember the note above, about adults only being aware of a small portion of the bullying that goes on? I have the fairly informed feeling that a "talk in the principal's office", particularly, leads the victim to a punch-up or verbal abuse right afterwards. The children from the study about student perceptions of bullying seem to agree. What they think makes bullying stop is quite different [6]:

  • The victim changes classes or schools. (For more about this option, see — Moving schools: How you can help your elementary child transition to thrive in a new environment.)
  • The victim starts standing up for themselves, for instance by working on becoming physically stronger. 
  • The victim "stops being different", by "getting the right clothes" or "losing weight" for example. 
  • The bully matures and grows out of their tendency to bully. 
  • The bully feels remorse. 
  • "Adults intervene" also featured on the list of possible things that could make bullying stop, but it wasn't anywhere near the top; 14 percent of children thought this could be useful.
  • "Victim gets revenge on bully" was a possible strategy for four percent of children. 

This is the world children inhabit — I don't think it's unreasonable to assume that we can learn a lot from them when they share their opinions about stopping bullying, though I also don't think any of us would agree that "getting your own back" is a great idea. "Victim stops being different" is also a bit brutal and not always possible, however, the same child who was different in one school may fit right into another, making them "no longer different" due to a change in environment rather than a change in them. 

After reading a bunch of articles — good and bad ones — about workplace bullying among adults, I noticed that documenting, talking to HR, and considering legal action were frequent bits of advice. Looking for another job, too, was almost always one of the possibilities victims of workplace bullying were advised to look into. Adults wouldn't stay in a toxic work environment if they could help it; children deserve the same chance to get away from their bullies and make a fresh start. 

As prevalent as school bullying is, however, it's clear that the right approach involves much more than reacting to already existing situations. Anti-bullying programs in schools can help prevent and stop bullying, research shows — and parent and teacher education, rather than child education, is the biggest part of the reason they work [8]. Helping children embrace more and more others in their "in-group" may just be the key. That means teaching — from a young age — that we have more in common than we might think, but also that differences are beautiful, and to be celebrated rather than squashed. 

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