Bulletin #4424, Bullying and Teasing

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Judith Graham Ph.D., Extension human development specialist, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

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older boy bullying younger boy

Table of Contents

Bullies. Without too much difficulty, most of us can remember the school or neighborhood bully who tormented other children. Research suggests that bullying is becoming more prevalent and the patterns of abuse are becoming more vicious.1

Nan Stein of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women states that “bullying is part of the evaded curriculum in schools—we all know it’s there but we rarely talk about it in a sustained, non-judgmental, age-appropriate manner.”2 Many of the current American programs on bullying in schools draw on the decades of school research from Norway, Sweden, and England. While the plethora of research has focused on bullying in schools, other studies on parenting and child maltreatment would suggest that bullying also has roots in the family and is embedded in our broader cultural tolerance of aggression and violence.

Given the growing recognition of the deleterious impact of violence in our lives, we continue, however, to have difficulty recognizing and confronting bullying as a form of violence. The authors of Bullies & Victims, SuEllen Fried and Paula Fried, suggest several reasons for this: it is so widespread and so common we are blinded to its extensive harm; it is considered a minor issue because it largely involves children; because children are viewed as powerless, “adults are often oblivious to the insidious power structure that is a part of bullying”; and our cultural, historical denial of abuse in general clouds our recognition of this and other forms of abuse.3 David Walsh suggests another reason—our growing culture of disrespect. Writing after the shootings at Columbine High School, he considered the escalation of violent behaviors and our changing definition of “normal.” “If normal behavior is kids treating each other with some respect, then the extreme might be a verbal outburst, a kick or a punch. But if ‘in your face’ behavior and put-downs are already the norm, then the extreme behavior is going to go farther over the edge. As our culture becomes more and more violent, extreme expressions of violence will inevitably be more grotesque.”4

“To prevent bullying, educators need to do nothing less than change school culture,” states education researcher J. David Hawkins of the University of Washington. Schools must adopt a “zero tolerance for harassment, put-downs, and bullying” and demand that despite differences, students respect one another and treat each other with dignity.5

This Family Issues is the third part of the series on violence and violence prevention.6 This issue takes up the topic of teasing and bullying within the context of violence. The lead article examines the research on bullying and defines what bullying is and how it differs from teasing. Other articles will give children and adults tools to help deal with those who choose to use bullying behaviors as a way to meet their needs. The final issue in this series (due out this summer) will look at a variety of violence prevention programs and provide tools and information for teachers and adults to use to implement or reinforce programs designed to foster non-violent environments.

1 Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 9.
2 Stein, N. (1996). Bully Proof: A Teacher’s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Fourth and Fifth Grade Students. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and the NEA Professional Library.
3 Fried, S., & Fried, P. (1996). Bullies & Victims. New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc., xii-xiii.
4 Walsh, D. (1999). MediaWise. Minneapolis, MN: National Institute on Media and the Family, vol. 6, summer.
5 Cromwell, S. (1999). “Stop Bullying Before It Starts!” Education World website. Retrieved on January 14, 2002 at http://www.education-world.com/ a_admin/admin117.shtml.
6 Graham, J. (2000). “Violence, Part I: Societal and Cultural Roots,” Family Issues v 8 n 3 (2001). “Violence, Part II: The Role of Shame,” Family Issues v 9 n 1 (2001).

Common Characteristics of Bullies

Single traits, like single incidents, do not characterize a person as a bully. However, when children exhibit multiple characteristics like those listed here, and they are repeated over time, they are a signal that targeted and serious empathic intervention is needed.

In general, bullies

  • may derive satisfaction from inflicting injury and suffering on others
  • may feel powerless and out of control, and bully to feel powerful and in control
  • may be impulsive
  • may often seem defiant or oppositional toward adults
  • may not have experienced empathy in their own lives, and exhibit a lack empathy for others
  • may think overly grandiose thoughts about themselves (it used to be thought that all bullies had low self-esteem; however, newer research indicates that bullies generally have highly inflated self-esteem)
  • may frequently break rules because they are undersocialized about appropriate behavior, are temperamentally active, or may be poor at delaying gratification
  • may demonstrate aggressive behaviors
  • may have parents who tend to ignore or make excuses for their harassing tactics
  • may tend to come from homes where harsh punishment is used
  • may be victims of abuse, or witness abuse in the home

Adapted from Johnston, Linda (July 1999). Profile of a Bully. Family Information Services.

Background and Research

Defining Bullying

Researchers in Norway, Sweden and Britain have studied bullying more extensively than researchers in the U.S. Dan Olweus, professor of psychology at the University of Bergen, Norway has been a leader in this research for more than 20 years, focusing largely on Scandinavia. In the U.S., research has focused more on the pathology of the bully instead of the context of bullying, or bullying has been regarded as an “unfortunate stage” on the way from childhood to adulthood. U.S. treatment programs have concentrated on the bully—changing the behaviors of a selected few or developing checklists of characteristics—rather than using the European approach of creating environments of non-violence. In addition, U.S. research and programs have paid scant attention to the effect of bullying on witnesses, bystanders, and observers.1

Dr. Olweus defines bullying in a school as a student being repeatedly exposed to negative actions by one or more students. Negative actions are similar to what we would define as aggressive behavior—attempts or the intentional infliction of injury or discomfort upon another.2 Negative actions can be verbal or nonverbal, and physical or nonphysical. Verbal and physical negative actions include “threatening, taunting, teasing, name calling, hitting, pushing, kicking, pinching, and restraining.” Nonverbal, nonphysical negative actions would be “making faces or dirty gestures, intentionally excluding someone from a group, or refusing to comply with another person’s wishes.”3 This definition includes bullying by a single student and bullying by a group. Olweus suggests that while single and group bullying are closely related, there are some differences between them. One particular difference is that bullying by several students is more unpleasant and possibly more harmful to the victim.

Either a single individual or a group may be targets of bullying. According to Olweus, bullying implies an imbalance of power or strength between those involved and may be a single but serious incident. The most important feature of Olweus’s definition of bullying, however, is that the harmful behaviors are repetitive.4 Focus on the repetition of bullying events excludes “occasional nonserious negative actions that are directed against one student at one time and against another on a different occasion.”5

Olweus’s research suggests that bullying behavior is of two broadly different kinds: direct and indirect. Direct bullying is verbal and physical abuse; indirect includes “name calling, gossip, rumors, secret telling, refusing to be friends, refusing to let someone play, and playing tricks on someone.”6

The Context of Bullying

Children learn violent as well as nonviolent behavior patterns from all settings of socialization and development. The patterns they learn of violence-supporting or nonviolent behavior in their early years often set them on a course that influences their development for many years to come.7 Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological model readily allows us to diagram the factors or environments of socialization and, in this case, bullying. The smallest circle in the center represents the individual child; surrounding this is a circle representing the family, then outer circles representing the interactions of the child and family with the school, community, and society.8

Illustration of an inner circle, labeled Child, is surrounded by four rings.
An inner circle, labeled Child, is surrounded by four rings. Working from the ring closest to the circle they are labeled Family, School, Community, and Society. Adapted from Bronfrenbrenner’s ecological mode

Child characteristics in the diagram include personality traits—such as temperament—physical traits, and behaviors. Family variables affecting the child include the structure of the family and the proximity of family members, the style or styles of parenting used, methods of discipline, the amount of emotional support members provide for each other, communication styles and patterns, the level of conflict and tension in the home and the ways in which conflict is viewed and managed, the parents’ childhood experiences with teasing and bullying, employment, illness, and substance abuse, among others. The school environment, or circle, accounts for teachers’ and administrators’ ability to handle their own anger and aggression, the disciplinary philosophy of the staff, the willingness of staff to intervene in student conflicts, class size, teacher-to-student ratio, and a climate that either discourages or promotes violence. Community variables include the economic level of the community, density (rural or urban), the extent of ethnic diversity, the quality of social-service agencies, and community attitudes toward violence. The outside and largest circle represents the society. Social variables include attitudes toward violence; cynicism or hopefulness about the ability to solve social problems; biases such as classism, racism, ageism, adultism and sexism; and the role of media in shaping the values of our culture.9

Distinguishing Between Teasing and Bullying

Some authors regard teasing as an inevitable and important part of life. This view suggests that “being teased introduces the tension of power struggles, which are an unavoidable part of relationships.”10 According to this view, such teasing can help develop a sense of humor, instruct us to be able to laugh at ourselves, and teach us to avoid taking ourselves too seriously. We learn how to ‘take it’ and to hold on to who we really are when others are attempting to shred our persona. Teasing can be a form of affection—a communication style that enlivens family and interpersonal dialogue. Teasing can also be a way that friends ‘toughen’ each other up, an adolescent initiation rite.11

Others see teasing and bullying on the same continuum, differing only by degree.12 Seen from this perspective, teasing can be a form of humor; unfortunately, much of what passes for teasing in our culture is, however, intentionally hurtful—one of the characteristics separating bullying from teasing.

Fried and Fried suggest six qualities that differentiate teasing from bullying.13 In teasing, there is no intent for harm; the intensity is mild and the duration short, with no damage to the self-esteem of the recipient; there is no abuse of situational or structural power, nor is the recipient vulnerable because of psychological or physical qualities; and the recipient feels good and supported as a result of the teasing. Bullying, by contrast, has these harmful qualities:

  • Intent to harm—the perpetrator finds pleasure in the taunting and continues even when the recipient’s distress is obvious.
  • Intensity and duration—the teasing continues over a long period of time and the degree of taunting is damaging to the self-esteem of the targeted child.
  • Power of the abuser—the abuser maintains power because of age, strength, size and/or gender.
  • Vulnerability of the target—the recipient is more sensitive to teasing, cannot adequately defend him or herself, and has physical or psychological qualities that make him or her more prone to vulnerability.
  • Lack of support—the recipient feels isolated and exposed. Often, she or he is afraid to report the abuse for fear of retaliation.
  • Consequences—the damage to self-concept is long lasting, and the impact on the recipient leads to behavior marked by either withdrawal or aggression.

Different Forms of Bullying Behavior

Physical Bullying: Physical bullying is a direct method of bullying more often chosen by boys, although girls certainly are not exempt from being physical bullies. The catch phrase “boys will be boys” is often the philosophical stance for excusing physical abuse or bullying.14 In addition to behaviors suggested by Olweus—hitting, pushing, kicking, pinching, and restraining—physical bullying also includes such behaviors as “punching, poking, strangling, suffocating, bending fingers back, burning, poisoning, hair pulling, excessive tickling, biting, stabbing, and shooting.”15

Verbal Bullying: Verbal abuse is another form of direct bullying. It is the use of words to harm a child’s “physical, moral, or mental well-being.” Verbal is the most common form of bullying and is chosen by both girls and boys, by women and men. The phrase “sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart” captures the essence of verbal abuse quite succinctly. The phrase also reminds us that the harmful power of words is immeasurable: “Scars of the soul take a lot longer to heal than the scars of the flesh.” Researchers also suggest that verbal abuse of children is usually chronic.16

Authors Fried and Fried use the six characteristics of bullying behavior noted above to describe the impact of verbal bullying.17

  • Verbal bullying intends to harm, to cause pain. It is quite common for bullying victims to blame themselves for the labels they acquire from their peers, even when those qualities stem from genetic or physiological causes that are beyond the victim’s control.
  • Verbal bullying involves intensity and duration.
  • Verbal bullying is used to gain power over another person.
  • Verbal bullying attacks the vulnerability of the victim.
  • Verbal bullying leaves a victim feeling isolated and exposed. Most childhood taunting and teasing is overt. However, some bullies are quite capable of engaging in brainwashing techniques.
  • Verbal bullying escalates, leading to physical consequences.

Emotional Bullying: Emotional bullying is a form of bullying used by adults (i.e., teachers, parents, and child care providers) as well as children and youth. In The Psychologically Battered Child, Garbarino, Guttman, and Seeley examine adult psychological maltreatment of children. They define psychological maltreatment as “a concerted attack by an adult on a child’s development of self and social competence, a pattern of psychically destructive behavior.” This destructive behavior can take five forms: rejecting, isolating, terrorizing, ignoring, and corrupting. It is the most difficult form of maltreatment for children to understand and overcome.18

Garbarino’s research on psychological battering and Olweus’s research on student bullying are very similar. Not recognizing or excluding another person, smirking, name calling, snickering, and “whispers, giggles, and sneers” all constitute rejecting or ignoring forms of emotional maltreatment or bullying. Garbarino and colleagues characterize isolating as “depriving children of normal occasions and opportunities for social interaction.” Classmates ostracizing, excommunicating, blackballing, shunning, or intentionally alienating another classmate evidence this form of emotional bullying. Terrorizing is “threatening to reveal intensely embarrassing characteristics or exposing the child to public humiliation.” And corrupting is defined as encouraging a child to act unsuitably, whether sexually, aggressively, or by using abusive or illegal substances.19

Andrew Vachss states that “emotional abuse is the systemic diminishment of another. It may be intentional or subconscious (or both), but it is always a course of action, not a single event. It is designed to reduce a child’s self-concept to the point where the victim considers himself unworthy—unworthy of respect, unworthy of friendship, unworthy of the natural birthright of all children—love and protection.”20 Fried and Fried enlarge on this definition to incorporate the intangible but equally devastating “sins of omission,” those acts, such as the withholding of love or relationship, that are passive or indirect acts of bullying rather than active acts, such as verbal or physical behaviors.21

The Gendered Aspect of Bullying

Research also indicates that bullying is gendered. Boys more often engage in direct physical and verbal abuse, while girls engage more in indirect verbal and other forms of bullying. Both girls and boys may be the targets of bullies, but boys do most, but not all, of the teasing and bullying. Moreover, as Froschl, Sprung, and Mullin-Rindler point out, “it is important to keep in mind that this is not an indication that ‘boys are bad,’ but rather that we all must do a much better job of addressing aggressive behavior in young boys to counteract the prevailing messages they receive from the media and society in general” that bullying is acceptable.22

Sex role scripting can seem to encourage or “legitimize” bullying or aggressive behavior. Through sex role scripting, children learn what it means to be male and female in our culture and how they are “supposed” to act in accordance with these social norms. This process begins even before birth. Colors, stories, toys, games, clothing, room furnishings, play, and adult responses are all part of sex role scripting. The expectations for behaviors are different for boys and girls; teasing, harassment, threats, bullying, and abuse frequently enforce these expectations.23 Girls typically “are encouraged to act nurturing and to be emotionally expressive; adults are protective when girls stretch their boundaries; and risk-taking is often discouraged. In many instances, aggression in girls is deemed ‘unladylike’ and strongly discouraged. Girls are taught, subtly or unconsciously, that they need to be protected rather than stand up for themselves.”24 It makes sense that the forms of bullying that seem to be the most prevalent with girls focus primarily on disconnecting relationally or disrupting social connections and relationships.

Compare girls’ social messages to those boys receive: boys are encouraged to act physically or aggressively, they are expected to be dominant, they receive rewards for being adventurous, and risk-taking is considered a normal part of being a boy.25 Many boys receive the message that physical or verbal aggression or bullying is what “real” men do. Girls can also be violent but do not generally receive the same kind of systematic conditioning to employ violence to get their needs met. Kivel and Creighton suggest that when girls are violent, “they are acting out of male-constructed models of power and aggression.”26

Unfortunately, most adults do not intervene—or, they intervene inappropriately—when they witness teasing and bullying. However, the message children receive from adult non-intervention may serve to condone or even escalate incidents of bullying. Even when the intention behind adults’ non-intervention is benign or follows the thinking that letting children work out their differences alone builds good skills, what children perceive is tacit adult approval for aggressive or bullying behavior. Not intervening gives permission for this behavior to continue or to be repeated. Thus, children learn much about gender roles and permissible behavior by the actions or non-actions of the adults in their lives. “Children learn to read the true arrangement of power in a society by watching how adults around them act and resolve problems. They learn whether the principles of fairness and equality are meant to apply to them, or not. They learn whether these principles apply equally to all people. They learn whether we value those who stand up against injustice.”27

The Legacy of Bullying

Bullying hurts children, whether they are perpetrators, recipients, or witnesses. All three roles carry harmful consequences. Ron Slaby and his colleagues write convincingly about the broad negative effect of bullying on children. “Seemingly harmless patterns of aggressive-related behavior” learned in the early years, often increase the “predictability, frequency, and severity” for a child “becoming involved in harmful violence in later years.” In other words, the ways young children learn to behave in any of the roles, and the role models they have, set up behavior and response patterns that may have lifelong consequences.

Perpetrators: The aggression of bullies may be either reactive or proactive. Reactive aggressive children are emotional, easily provoked, and have poor impulse control. Such children feel continually threatened by outside forces and respond aggressively, believing that their response is justified and corresponds to the perceived threat. Reactively aggressive children view the world through a hostile lens, assuming that others are out to get them; “they see threats where none exist, and they take these imagined threats as provocations to strike back.” They also tend to assume that other children are more aggressive than they are and that they are, in fact, the victims of others’ aggression. In contrast, proactive aggressive children are nonemotional, controlled, and behave in a very deliberate manner. This aggression “is delivered with the hope of achieving some goal that comes from within the child, like coercion or domination, rather than in response to some external threat.”28

Bullies are cultivated, not born, according to psychologist Nathaniel Floyd. “Bullies are more likely to have been abused themselves than kids who are not bullies . . . the experience of having been a victim at home often makes a child more likely to bully at school.” This response pattern develops in part because “seeing other children who appear vulnerable is uncomfortable for the bully. ‘When these bullies see kids they perceive as vulnerable, they are threatened because it reminds them of the shame and humiliation of their own victimization.’ ”29 Thus they perpetuate violence by doing to others what has been done to them. Once bullies realize that they can scare other people, they are no longer so afraid. Thus, a bully’s frightening behavior makes him or her feel a little bit safer.30

Other research suggests that viewing violence leads to acting violently. Findings from a 30-year study by Leonard Eron and Rowell Huesmann indicate there are “three ideal conditions for learning aggressive behavior: watching others act aggressively, including viewing aggression on television; being rewarded for acting aggressively; and being treated aggressively. These researchers say the patterns for aggressive behavior are already well established by the age of eight.”31

Recipients: The targets of bullying also come in two types. One type of target is described as anxious and insecure and is labeled either low-aggressive or passive depending on the researcher. These recipients do not invite a bully’s aggression nor do they defend themselves when targeted. The second type is described as “hot-tempered and restless” and is labeled either high-aggressive or provocative. “These victims create tension by irritating and teasing others, and are more likely to fight back when they are attacked.” Provocative targets are also characterized as “argumentative, disruptive, inattentive, and physically aggressive.” Nor are they good at reading other children’s social signals and frequently misjudge how others view them.32

Long-term consequences for the recipients or targets of repeated bullying include depression, social rejection, and impaired self-esteem. Recipients may also turn into aggressors, believing that “preemptive strikes,” retaliation, or acting out their distress on others are legitimate or effective ways of responding to bullying.33

Targets of bullying may exhibit their distress by having difficulty adjusting to school and grade changes, and having academic difficulties. They may be more likely to drop out of school. Girls who are bullied may be more prone to depression. And one research team reports that “children rejected by their peers at age ten are more likely to associate with troublemaking children at age twelve.”34

Witnesses: Bystanders or witnesses to bullying also suffer harmful effects. Simply observing bullying has great emotional power, especially when it involves family acquaintances or close family members. Research indicates that adults often underestimate the amount of violence and danger children are exposed to and the amount of emotional distress that witnessing such violence engenders.35 By their presence, bystanders may also support further aggression by “direct instigation, active encouragement, or passive acceptance.” “Even when bystanders play no direct role, their mere presence frequently serves as tacit social support and approval for an escalating conflict among their peers.” If not taught appropriate ways of responding effectively to aggression, witnesses themselves are “at risk for becoming accomplices, co-perpetrators, or victims of aggression.”36

Bullying Intervention Strategies That Work

Special thanks to Karen DeBord, Ph.D., H. Wallace Goddard, Ph.D., Maureen Mulroy, Ed.D., Pat Turner Nelson, Ed.D., Charlotte Shoup Olson, Ph.D., and Mary Temke, Ph.D. for reviewing this material. Their comments and suggestions greatly enhanced the quality of this publication.

1 1991: a study of 17,000 school children in grades three through nine in three cities in Sweden; 1993: 130,000 children in Norway from ages 8 to 16, representing almost a fourth of the whole student population in this county; and a more detailed study, known as the Bergen (Norway) study of 2,500 boys and girls in grades four through seven, along with data from 300-400 teachers and principals and 1000 parents, on the effects of an intervention program he designed. Stein, N. (1997) Bullying and Sexual Harassment in Elementary Schools: It’s Not Just Kids Kissing Kids. Working Paper Series No. 284. Wellesley, MA: Center for Research on Women, Wellesley College, 4. Stein, N. (1996). Bully Proof: A Teacher’s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Fourth and Fifth Grade Students. Wellesley, MA: Wellesley College Center for Research on Women and the NEA Professional Library.
2 Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 9.
3 Ibid., Stein, 1997, 4.
4 Ibid.
5 Olweus, 9.
6 Stein, 1997, 7.
7 Slaby, R.G., Roedell, W. C., Arezzo, D., & Hendrix, K. (1995). Early Violence Prevention: Tools for Teachers of Young Children. Washington, DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children, 2.
8 Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
9 Ibid.; Fried, S., & Fried, P. (1996). Bullies & Victims. New York, NY: M. Evans and Company, Inc., 6-8. Kivel, P., & Creighton, A. (1997). Making the Peace: A 15-Session Violence Prevention Curriculum for Young People. Alameda, CA: Hunter House, Inc.
10 Fried, & Fried, 2.
11 Ibid.
12 Froschl, M., Sprung, B., & Mullin-Rindler, N. (1998). Quit It!: A Teacher’s Guide on Teasing and Bullying for Use with Students in Grades K-3. National Education Association, Washington, DC.
13 Fried, & Fried, 9-10.
14 Ibid, 13.
15 Ibid.
16 Ibid, 15.
17 Ibid., 34-37.
18 Garbarino, J., Guttman, E., & Seeley, J. W. (1986). The Psychologically Battered Child. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 8.
19 Ibid.; Fried, & Fried, 45-52.
20 Vachss, A. (1994). Parade Magazine, August 28. Quoted in Fried & Fried, 45.
21 Ibid., 46.
22 Froschl, et al., 2.
23 Kivel, & Creighton, 122.
24 Froschl, et al., 2.
25 Ibid.
26 Kivel, & Creighton, 6.
27 Froschl, et al., 2.
28 Fried, & Fried, 87-88, 90-91.
29 Ibid., 88-89.
30 Lampen, J. (1992). The Peace Kit. London, England: Quaker Home Service, 35.
31 Ibid., 89.
32 Ibid., 96-97.
33 Slaby, et al., 2.
34 Fried, & Fried, 99-100.
35 Slaby, et al., 8.
36 Ibid., et al., 3-4.

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