Bullying is a critical issue for children and anyone involved in their care. As bullying spreads from the classrooms to social media, we are becoming increasingly aware of the consequences this can have on children’s well-being. What can we do as parents, teachers, children or others to help fight this problem?

What is bullying?

Bullying is a multi-faceted term that can be separated into two broad categories: physical and relational aggression. Physical aggression involves inflicting or threatening to inflict bodily harm on another individual, while relational aggression captures a broader frame of non-physical targets. Originally defined in 1995, relational aggression involves harming a person socially – through their reputation, their social circle, their social status, etc.

Relational aggression can take different forms, including “in your face” – e.g. “I don’t like you, I don’t want to play with you anymore,” but also “behind the back” – e.g. “We don’t like him, let’s not play with him anymore.”

Currently, relational aggression is receiving a lot of attention because of the ease with which it can occur online. Cyber-bullying separates the bully from the victim, and hides a lot the consequences from the bully.

Research has increasingly shown that bullying has negative psychological and developmental effects not only on the victim, but also on the bully. This is a pressing issue that must be addressed, especially for those most at risk.

What can we do about it?

Research has only recently begun to focus on anti-bullying interventions. In their review of bullying interventions, researchers from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia outline some of the strengths and weaknesses of existing programs. Some in-class programs showed positive effects on bullying (e.g. the Canadian “Walk Away, Talk, Ignore, Seek Help” initiative). Strong interventions like this one involve the larger community surrounding the school and student body, target family reactions as well as peer reactions, and require few resources to implement. However, the researchers point out that future interventions should also be more sensitive to age group, gender, culture, and context.

But on a personal level, what can we do about it? Here are some tips for reducing bullying depending on your position in the situation:

Principals, teachers, resource teachers, and school psychologists: try to implement an anti-bullying program in your school. Research is showing how effective these programs can be, and a school-based intervention targets a large amount of students.

  • A successful intervention will require an evaluation of the current needs of the school and the development of a plan targeting existing problems and preventative strategies.
  • Involving parents and students in the development and carrying out of these plans can enhance the efficacy of and dedication to these programs.
  • The guide to the “Walk Away, Talk, Ignore, Seek Help” initiative is publicly available for free online, making this program accessible even in the case of limited school resources

Teachers: findings suggest teachers’ reactions to conflicts significantly affect the reaction children have to bullying – in fact, a positive teacher intervention decreases the odds of a resorting to fighting back.

  • Be conscious of the fact some children feel even worse about the situation when you suggest to avoid the bully or take a stand against the bully
  • A helpful intervention could instead involve encouraging the child to make friends. See Helping children relate to others.

Parents and teachers: remember that you are in a position to advocate for a child.

  • If you feel your school is not doing enough to implement anti-bullying philosophies or reacting appropriately to bullying, meet with the principal, resource teacher, or school psychologist. Your voice could be important in changing the way a school reacts to bullies
  • According to some researchers, parents and teachers should opt for “problem-centred” advice when approached by victimized children. This means that instead of focusing on the negative emotions provoked by bullying, caregivers and their children should instead brainstorm hands-on solutions to the situation.
  • Depending on the situation, this could involve making friends, talking to a teacher about it, standing up to the bully, etc. Shifting the focus away from the negative emotions and towards a solution to the problem could avoid the negative emotions becoming worse.

For more information:

Aceves, M. J., Hinshaw, S. P., Mendoza-Denton, R., & Page-Gould, E. (2010). Seek help from teachers or fight back? Student perceptions of teachers’ actions during conflicts and responses to peer victimization. J Youth Adolesc, 39, 658-669. doi: 10.1007/s10964-009-9441-9

Crick, N. R. and Grotpeter, J. K. (1995), Relational Aggression, Gender, and Social-Psychological Adjustment. Child Development, 66: 710–722. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.1995.tb00900.x

Kochenderfer, B. J., & Ladd, G. W. (1997). Victimized children’s responses to peers’ aggression: Behaviors associated with reduced versus continued victimization. Dev Psychopathol, 9, 59-73.

Leff, S. S., Waasdorp, T. E., & Crick, N. R. (2010). A Review of Existing Relational Aggression Programs: Strengths, Limitations, and Future Directions. School Psych Rev., 39, 508-535.

Visconti, K. J., & Troop-Gordon, W. (2010). Prospective relations between children’s responses to peer victimization and their socioemotional adjustment. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 31, 261-272. doi: 10.1016/j.appdev.2010.05.003