Bullying: How to Define it and What are its Impacts?
By Emily Weinberger, M.A., Therapist, Soffer & Associates
How do we define “bullying” when the term seems to be thrown around in so many ways?
The definition of bullying is: Unwanted, aggressive behavior involving real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time (Stop Bullying, 2022).
Let’s break down the definition to see what bullying might look like and how to recognize it as a parent.
Bullying embodies two primary features:
Imbalance of power: Kids who bully use their power (either physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity) to control or harm others
Repetition: behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
Bullying can occur in several locations or settings, including at school, other places in the community (clubs, sports teams, friends’ houses), and online (“cyberspace” which includes text, apps, social media, forums, etc.). There are three types of bullying as outlined in the literature (Stop Bullying, 2022):
Verbal (teasing, name calling, inappropriate sexual comments, threats)
Social/Relational (excluding someone, spreading rumors, embarrassing someone in public)
Physical (hitting, kicking, spitting, tripping, taking or breaking property)
How frequently does bullying occur amongst school-aged youth?
According to the 2019 National Crime Victimization Survey, School Crime Supplement (National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice), 22% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying (This is a significant number of our children).
“Tweens” (9-12 years old) are particularly vulnerable to bullying. 50% of kids 9-12 years old say they have experienced bullying at school and 14% shared they had experienced cyberbullying.
30% of students, grades 2 through 12, reported at least one experience of being cyberbullied.
One of the questions I often get from parents who call the practice is, “How do I know if my kid is being bullied?”
Your child may not feel comfortable disclosing that he/she is being bullied, potentially for fear of retaliation by peers, or a desire to handle the situation independently. Therefore, along with using the information provided above to determine whether or not your child is being bullied, it is important to pay attention to any changes you observe in your child’s functioning, such as:
Resistance to attend school or participate in sports/activities.
Anxiety signs and symptoms: headaches, stomachaches, changes in sleep patterns (trouble falling asleep, waking up frequently, oversleeping), and changes in appetite (eating more or less than typical)
Injuries or marks from physical bullying
A change in friendships or reluctance to spend time with friends
Frequent crying and intense emotional reactions
Desire to spend more time alone in the home
An over-attachment to, or sudden withdrawal from, electronic devices
Potentially, a more complicated question to address is, “How do I know if my child is being labeled as a bully (and if so, how do I handle it)?”
The first thing I like to remind parents is that it doesn’t feel good for a child to behave meanly towards someone else. The more you can empathize with your child, the more effective your conversation with them will be. You will be more likely to get their version of the story and subsequently, have an impact on their behavior change.
Many children who are bullied will go on to become bullies themselves as a way to regain control and power in their lives. It is important to recognize that both bullies and those being bullied require intervention and support – and that often these may be the same kids.
The first time a concern is expressed, either by your child, another child/parent, or the school, set your parenting expectations and boundaries around behavior without judgment. Validate your child’s feelings without validating the behavior (bullying). Work to understand why your child is behaving this way – determine the function of their behavior and what their purpose is (essentially the “why” behind the bullying). You should also try to determine if your child is being bullied themselves, given the high overlap between victimization and perpetration of bullying, then work with your child/school/etc. to support them in taking responsibility and repairing the harm. As a parent, it is easy to react impulsively in these situations (on either side). Remember to take a breath and try to navigate the situation with your child, instead of for your child.
What are the psychological effects of bullying?
Children who experience bullying are at increased risk for mental health and behavioral problems, including depression, anxiety, sleep difficulties, lower academic achievement, and increased rule-breaking behaviors. One meta-analysis found that children and adolescents who experienced bullying were 2.2 times more likely to have suicidal ideation and 2.6 times more likely to attempt suicide than those not facing bullying. The risk for negative outcomes were higher among those who experienced cyberbullying compared to those who experienced “traditional” bullying (Gini & Espelage, 2014).
According to the National Center for Educational Statistics (2019), students who are bullied self-reported that bullying negatively impacts how they feel about themselves (27%), their relationships with family and friends (19%), their schoolwork (19%), and their physical health (14%). Early interventions for bullying are important because studies suggest that long-term
psychological effects of bullying persist into adulthood. Those who were victims of bullying between the ages of 9-13 had elevated rates of depression and anxiety between the ages of 19-26 (after controlling for other psychiatric risk factors). Those who were both victims and bullies suffered the most from depression, anxiety, and suicidality in adulthood (Copeland et al., 2013).
What can I do?
This article may have left you with more questions and concerns than answers. We are all protective of our children; we all want them to be safe. Talking to our kids about their emotional well-being and about being respectful community citizens is the best way to maintain an open dialogue and an honest line of communication. Professionals both within and outside of the school are available for consult when you aren’t sure whether an occurrence qualifies as bullying. These professionals can also help in handling a situation that involves both another parent and/or the school.
Copeland, W. E., Wolke, D., Angold, A., & Costello, E. J. (2013). Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA, 70(4), 419-426.
Gini, G., & Espelage, D. L. (2014). Peer victimization, cyberbullying, and suicide risk in children and adolescents. JAMA, 312(5), 545-546.
Patchin, J. W., & Hinduja, S. (2006). Bullies move beyond the schoolyard: A preliminary look at cyberbullying. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 4, 148-169
Emily is a master’s level clinician currently working on her doctorate degree in Clinical Psychology at Fordham University. Earning her undergraduate degree from Bowdoin College and a Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology from Fordham University, she also studied Spanish and Social Human Rights at the University of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Broadly, she is interested in combining research and clinical practice to promote positive outcomes for individuals and families. Emily focuses on the assessment and treatment of trauma, emotion dysregulation, and conduct problems. She has trained in child/adolescent outpatient and day treatment programs, inpatient hospitals, and forensic settings (e.g., juvenile detention, adult jails, courts) with diverse patients across the lifespan.