Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


We’re Giving Bullying a Bad Name

Focusing on bullying could do more damage than good.

“Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.”
–Attributed to Henry James

Although it's been a part of life for generations, bullying is not just a normal part of childhood everyone must face. Bullying is a public health matter, and some say we should treat it as a crisis.

Three-quarters of all school shootings are related to bullying and school harassment. Suicide because of bullying “is the third highest cause of death in young people throughout the country.” By some estimates, almost a half-million children attempt suicide each year.

Even the less dramatic outcomes of bullying are serious. Roughly 160,000 children miss school each day because of being bullied. Being bullied not only prevents children from wanting to go to school, the chronic stress it causes can affect the immune system and children can become more prone to getting sick.

Rachel Simmons, author of The Curse of the Good Girl, and Odd Girl Out, and co-founder of Girls Leadership, argues that we cannot write off bullying as a childhood phase or rite of passage. "This is a much larger issue,” she told me. “One of the reasons this is so important for us to pay attention to is because relational skills learned in middle school become a template for how girls approach all kinds of situations as adults and across all kinds of different domains.” She warns, “We really have to take this behavior seriously—even beyond the mandate of dealing with bullies.”

What about anti-bullying programs?

Anti-bullying has become a cottage industry, but surprisingly, there is no credentialing process or regulating body. “As instances of school, workplace, and cyberbullying receive greater attention,” Newsweek reports, “an unregulated web of consultants, therapists, and coaches have sprung up.”

Bullying researchers Stan Davis and Charisse Nixon have found that many of the things we have done for years to stop bullying, and even many things that new anti-bullying programs put in place, not only don't work, but can do more harm than good. In particular, programs that revolve around teaching children what constitutes bullying can make matters worse. Children not only hear about new ways to torment their peers, but as children learn what teachers are looking out for, they change their strategies so as to both avoid detection and avoid being defined as “bullies.”

Even programs that don’t focus on “bullying” per se can be damaging. Some programs based on a model of bystander intervention encourage bystanders to directly intervene with aggressors. But according to Davis and Nixon’s study of over 11,000 students, direct bystander intervention only helps about a third of the time, and is as likely to make things worse as it is to make things better.

We've all heard stories of how "standing up to the bully" works, but there are an equal number of stories of how a child trying to intervene was physically hurt, retaliated against, or even disciplined by school administrators who were fooled by the aggressors. Bystanders befriending and supporting targets of mistreatment and getting adults involved are the most effective strategies, yet these are not as easy as they sound. Children fear losing social capital by befriending targets, and no one wants to be labeled a "tattletale."

Even with the explosion of anti-bullying programs, experts say the incidence of “bullying” has remained fairly constant for decades. Clearly whatever we’re doing isn’t working. As Newsweek reports, “It's the job of adults to teach basic norms of compassion and decency, but it remains to be seen whether there's an antibullying program out there that can give every young person the wisdom and foresight to curb their worst impulses.” Creating a school culture in which bullying is eliminated takes deliberate teacher training and an intentional focus on effectively and consistently intervening when students mistreat each other.

What’s the difference between kids just being “mean” and real bullying?

The widely accepted definition of bullying involves three criteria:

  1. Repetition: a child is the target of a pattern of aggressive behavior, or a child engages in a pattern of aggressive behaviors against others.
  2. A power imbalance between the children involved (the child with more power is aggressive against the child with less power).
  3. The aggressive child intends to do the other child or children harm.

As Davis, author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs and Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention, told me, this definition fails to capture the vast majority of real abuse and mistreatment that children inflict on each other. Further, when “bullying” is the intended focus, schools only address things that meet all three of these criteria. Not only is much mistreatment missed this way, but true bullying is also missed, since it can be difficult for adults to recognize a pattern until a tremendous amount of mistreatment has been left unaddressed.

Bullying comes in many different forms: children spreading rumors about targeted children; ridiculing targeted children; calling targeted children names; verbal threats against targeted children, their friends, families, and even their pets; children being intentionally excluded or ignored; children having their belongings damaged or stolen; children being pushed, tripped, spat on, kicked…etc. And cyber-bullying has added new ways children target each other.

Davis says delineating which behaviors fit all three criteria for bullying, and which are “just mean” is an impediment to solving the real problems of social, relational, and physical aggression.

In other words, in order to end “bullying,” children must stop engaging in the mistreatment of others. Children don’t need to learn what constitutes “bullying,” they need to learn what constitutes mistreatment, and which behaviors are tolerated and which are not.

But aren't kids just mean?

If children regularly mistreat other children at school, it represents a failure in the school environment, and possibly in the home environment as well. Parents are essential as partners in ending school violence and aggression, but parents cannot help their children be kind if they are unaware their children need help being kind. Children who are picked on at school may or may not tell their parents what is happening to them, but a child is extremely unlikely to spontaneously tell a parent that he or she has been mistreating another child. Complicating matters, as Simmons told me, often the most socially aggressive children are also the most socially intelligent, and are therefore frequently charming and delightful to adults. Parents might be entirely unaware that their sweet children are viciously aggressive at school. As soon as school personnel learn about mistreatment, it is up to the school to ensure that parents are alerted.

If parents and schools are serious about putting an end to bullying, we all need to take seriously the behaviors that look like “kids just being mean.” Davis found that often teachers let these behaviors slide either because they don’t think of them as serious, or worse, because they like the children who are mistreating other children, so they give them a pass—in many cases while applying consequences for the same behaviors when other, less charming children engage in them. Teachers and administrators can have blind spots that make it difficult to see the malicious nature of their favorite students’ behavior. Communicating that mistreatment is not tolerated is only possible in an environment in which adults consistently intervene when children mistreat each other, and specific behaviors are met with specific consequences regardless of who engages in them.

Meanwhile, parents gossip about other people's children. The problems with this are manifold. To begin with, when children hear their parents' negative attitudes towards other children, they can tend to adopt them. Also, it gives the message that gossiping about those same children—and gossiping in general—is acceptable. Furthermore, in some cases, the gossip parents spread about children can do more damage than what children do to each other. One mother whose daughter was targeted at school told me that another parent started such a pervasive rumor about her daughter that it even followed her to a different school across town, robbing her daughter of the chance to have a fresh start at a new school.

Perhaps most importantly, unaddressed “mean” behaviors are harmful. When parents write them off by saying that “some kids are just mean,” or "kids will be kids," rather than advocating for the children who are harmed by them, targeted children continue to be victimized and left without adult support, while children who are “just mean” are rewarded with social status. Instead of each incident of unkindness providing an opportunity for children to be guided in learning social and emotional skills, “mean” behaviors proliferate, and a school culture of unkindness is created.

Giving ‘bullying’ a bad name

Aggressive children who mistreat others are certainly responsible for their actions. However, we have come to think of a “bully” as a child who is inherently bad. Using the terminology “bully” and “bullying” makes it even harder to solve the problem. What child is willing to admit that he or she is a bully? What parent is willing to admit that his or her child is a bully? What teacher is willing to admit that bullying was allowed to develop in his or her classroom, and what school administration is willing to admit that their school is a place in which bullies succeed? The terminology causes unnecessary defensiveness rather than a collaborative approach to ending various forms of aggression.

Transformation requires a willingness to be self-aware and acknowledge one’s own part in engaging in unacceptable behaviors. When we label children “bullies,” we effectively eliminate the opportunity for those children (and their parents) to reflect on their behavior with self-awareness and an opening for change, and we diminish the opportunity for other children to see them in a new way. As difficult as it is for parents to believe that their children mistreat other children, parents are more likely to be receptive to hearing that their children excluded another child, called another child names, or started a rumor about another child than to hear their child is a "bully." And teachers and administrators are more capable of intervening when they see concrete, aggressive behaviors than they are of ascertaining whether something meets the criteria for "bullying."

The first step is to recognize that the problem of bullying is a problem of children mistreating each other in specific, recognizable ways, and that these occur one incident at a time. The next step is to look at our own part in creating an environment in which harm rather than kindness proliferates. Each incident of mistreatment is an opportunity for adults to either consciously help solve the problem or to (perhaps unintentionally) make it worse. The lines of communication between schools and parents must be open, and expectations for behavior must be transparent. If parents and educators work together, it is possible to protect targeted children, empower bystanders, and support aggressors in their transformation.

But to put an end to bullying, we first must put an end to looking the other way. ♦

More from Pamela B. Paresky Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today