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Bullying Trends

Bully Trends

If you feel that bullying has only been a recent topic of discussion, you are correct. In the 1970's and 1980's, groups of European businesses and research organizations began to investigate group harassment in the workplace among adults. There was growing suspicion that this group harassment, referred to as "mobbing," was interfering with productivity. The concept of "mobbing" had originated in child/adolescent research, but psychological and health effects of the process were not studied until the 1980's and beyond. It was not until the late 1990's and early 2000's that researchers in the United States began publishing on and addressing bullying. Many people may view bullying as a "rite of passage" and an inevitable hurdle of development. However, there is growing suggestion that bullying contributes to significant public health concerns, including psychological health concerns among children, adolescents and adults. 

What is Bullying?

Bullying is defined as the intentional use of a power imbalance to intimidate another individual. Power imbalances can develop from someone who demonstrates an advantage in size, status or skill over another individual. Although bullying can be perpetrated by one individual to another, there is agreement among bullying researchers that bullying behaviors rarely occur in one-to-one settings. Rather, most bullying occurs within group settings when there is an audience. The group settings have been thought to most often consist of bystanders, assistants, and reinforcers, in addition to the individual(s) perpetrating the bullying behavior and the individual(s) being victimized. Bullying can take many forms and the most common forms of bullying behaviors vary across the lifespan. 

Childhood Bullying – What does it look like?

Bullying behaviors during childhood are generally visible, and often include physical components or loud name-calling. Children are more likely than any other age group to experience physical forms of bullying. In preschool and kindergarten years, children are more likely to kick, hit, bite and shove peers. Keep in mind the definition of bullying behaviors includes an intentional use of power. A child who hits another child in response to the other child taking a toy is not demonstrating a bullying behavior.  Rather, that child is demonstrating something referred to as reactive aggression.  Aggression that is proactive, and intentionally used to establish or maintain dominance, can be considered a bullying behavior. An example of a child utilizing proactive aggression as bullying include forcing a peer to give up a possession under the threat of violence. 

Childhood Bullying – What do I do?

Bullying behaviors during childhood are more likely to be visible than in any other part of development. This is partially because children do not always have the skills to be covert and hide their social behaviors. It is important that children have skills associated with self-advocacy when it comes to bullying. Children can be taught to use phrase-starters that describe their experiences with bullying such as "I feel mad because..." or "I feel scared because…." When children can describe their emotions to an adult, the adult is more likely to understand that the child is in need of assistance. Teaching your child to describe their emotions and advocating for getting help with managing their emotions will help your child appear to be seeking assistance rather than "tattling" when they experience or see bullying. Additionally, if your child is able to describe being "scared" by the actions of another peer, personnel at your child's school or community center may be better able to address the issue. 

Adolescent Bullying – What does it look like?

During the transition from elementary to middle- and secondary-school, there is a notable transition in bullying behaviors. The transition of elementary to middle school is notoriously challenging in regards to bullying prevalence. Theories for why this developmental period can be challenging involve the uprooting and re-establishment of social groups as children change school settings, combined with the onset of pubertal development. Middle school years most commonly introduce the idea of dating, and the major influence in each child's life shifts from family and teachers during childhood to the peer group during adolescence. Middle school years can present unique hurdles for children with deficits in social skills and with disabilities which can impair social interactions. 

Bullying behaviors in adolescence most commonly take the form of something known as relational aggression. This form of bullying represents slander, rumor-spreading and tactful putdowns within social settings. These forms of bullying are used by someone to maintain or elevate their own social status. It becomes much more difficult for adults to detect bullying behaviors as adolescents often develop the ability to be more secretive in demonstrating those behaviors. Bullying behaviors occur both in-person and on technological applications via social media, message boards and texting. Bullying behaviors among adolescents are often based on someone's perceived identity. In other words, adolescents are often the target of bullying for clothing, feminine or masculine mannerisms, body type, or even racial/ethnic features, such as one's hair.

Seeking follow-up with adolescent bullying behaviors can be particularly challenging as many adolescents perpetrate bullying behaviors, including very well adjusted adolescents who may make impulsive decisions to "get back" at someone. For example, "vaguebooking" refers to a common adolescent bullying technique in which someone creates social media posts that clearly identify a person or group without explicitly identifying their names. 

Adolescent Bullying – What do I do?

Prior to your adolescent's transition to middle- and high-school, discuss with them how they define bullying, if they have ever seen it occur, and if they feel they have ever either demonstrated or received bullying behaviors.  It is important that you indicate to your adolescent that your expectation is that the adolescent is to respect the dignity and right to safety of all of their peers. Clear expectations and values that prohibit bullying behaviors within families are a strong predictor of adolescents steering clear of perpetrating bullying. Additionally, it is much more likely for your child to intervene and help a victim of bullying if they clearly understand that bullying is not an acceptable way of interacting with others to get what they want. Do not assume that just because your adolescent appears to be a kind or friendly individual that they automatically know what bullying behavior is. There is much research that supports the idea that many successful "bullies" are those adolescents who are actually well-liked by peers and considered to be popular.

Discuss with your adolescent that bullying has significant impact on people's lives. It can be helpful to give examples of people who have stress in their lives in many forms, and how experiencing rejection from their peers can be devastating. Teaching responses to bullying among adolescents can be very challenging, as research suggests their reaction to bullying behavior can either significantly increase or decrease the amount of bullying they may encounter. It is important to be non-judgmental of your child's preferred response to bullying behavior, unless it threatens their safety. Rather, it is most beneficial to provide them with as many strategies and chances to practice responses to bullying as possible. A typical response to bullying for adolescents is to purposefully refuse to address a rumor in front of a group. Teach your adolescent strategies for emotional control to keep a "cool head" when they encounter a rumor or putdown. The goal is to keep a sense of peace in order to leave a group situation, seek help or advice and respond without emotion. Advise them to consult with an impartial peer, sibling or parent prior to responding to any bullying behavior in-person or over technology.  


Bullying behavior varies across developmental periods and unique forms of bullying may impact certain settings more than others. One important concept to understand is "climate." As most bullying behaviors occur in groups, it is possible that the climate of a school or community center can have influence on the prevalence of bullying behaviors.  Common ways to change the climate of a setting to be more positive and supportive is to establish superordinate goals. These goals establish a common interest among the majority of individuals within a setting. Examples of these goals are teaching series on human rights issues and follow-up activities like creating events for fundraising or spreading awareness. When a group of individuals within a setting have more of a chance to establish a common identity, they are more likely to demonstrate positive interactions towards one another which can replace negative bullying behaviors.

If you notice consistent concerns that you believe may be related to bullying, consult with mental health professionals to help determine the best route to proceed. It may be beneficial to provide your child or adolescent with a chance to meet with a mental health professional to process the feelings associated with being bullied or witnessing bullying, or to build social skills and coping skills to help reduce the frequency of experienced bullying. If you are interested in establishing accountability for your child or adolescent who may be perpetrating bullying behaviors, it could also be useful to consult with a mental health professional.