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Understanding bullying

Almost 30 percent of youth in the United States (or over 5.7 million) are estimated to be involved in bullying as a bully, a target of bullying or both according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Center. The Center reports that in a recent national survey of students in grades 6 through 10, 13 percent reported bullying others, 11 percent reported being the targets of bullies and another 6 percent said that they bullied and were bullied themselves.

Understanding bullying

Bullying involves repeated acts of physical, emotional or social behavior that are intentional, controlling and hurtful. The National Mental Health Information Center states that bullying is a learned behavior, evident as early as 2-years-old.

Bullying can be direct or indirect. Direct bullying is seen and felt readily while indirect bullying is more difficult to identify. Indirect bullying includes deliberate exclusion, gossip and name calling.

The National Youth Violence Prevention Center reports that bullying takes on different forms in male and female youth. While both male and female youth say that others bully them by making fun of the way they look or talk, males are more likely to report being hit, slapped or pushed. Female youth are more likely than males to report being the targets of rumors and sexual comments. While male youth target both boys and girls, female youth most often bully other girls, using more subtle and indirect forms of aggression than boys. For example, instead of physically harming others, they are more likely to spread gossip or encourage others to reject or exclude another girl.

Warning Signs

“One becomes a bully through a combination of factors including but not limited to having been bullied themselves. Bullies develop an internal model of having power over something from having witnessed or experienced this power themselves,” says Dr. Ken Druck, founder of The Jenna Druck Foundation. He explains that the primary warning sign of a child becoming a bully is their repeated use of excessive force, physically and/or verbally, over another child to attain his or her goal.

“Be alert for someone who has a bad attitude toward anyone who isn’t just like them, someone who is quick to judge and label people,” warns Lizzie Vishnevsky, author of The Power to Be which shares some her personal experiences with bullying. She adds that children can pick up this behavior from their family dynamic. “Kids learn through examples and it’s important to understand their role in the family. If they are the youngest, they may get teased or pushed around a lot by older siblings. In turn, this can lead to them becoming a bully in school because they are in a situation where they can have the upper hand.” Vishnevsky says that middle children may turn to bullying to fulfill their need for attention because they feel left out at home. Older children may bully because they feel overshadowed by their younger siblings.

“There are clearly defined characteristics and patterns of behavior associated with children and adolescents who are identified as bullies,” says Dr. Marc Schwartz, D.O., a Chandler child, adolescent and adult psychiatrist. “Bullies tend to be quite confident in their demeanor and have a particularly high self esteem. They have a low frustration tolerance, are easily angered, impulsive, physically aggressive and exhibit pro-violent attitudes.”

The effects of bullying

“The chronic bully becomes increasingly desensitized to the feelings and suffering of others and may escalate their antisocial behavior,” says Dr. Druck. Antisocial behavior may graduate into violence and criminal activity.”

Dr. Schwartz adds, “Bullies are more likely to suffer from depression, suicide attempts, substance abuse, poor academic performance and have dysfunctional relationships compared to those who have not been bullied.”

“Short term effects of bullying on the victim include depression, anxiety, irritability, avoidance behaviors, social withdrawal and social isolation,” says Dr. Schwartz. He adds that long term effects include a significant increase in risk for depression and suicidal tendencies, anxiety disorders and a small increase in job turnover in adulthood.

Warning Signs of Bullying


A child being bullied often:

Withdraws socially; has few, or no, friends

Feels isolated, alone and sad

Feels picked on or persecuted

Feels rejected and not liked

Complains of illness

Doesn’t want to go to school; avoids some classes or skips school

Brings home damaged possessions or reports them “lost”

Cries easily; displays mood swings and talks about hopelessness

Has poor social skills

Talks about running away; talks of suicide

Threatens violence to self and others

Changes eating or sleeping patterns

Takes, or attempts to take, “protection” to school (a stick, knife, gun, etc.)

Displays victim body language—hangs head, hunches shoulders, avoids eye contact


A bully often:

Seeks to dominate and/or manipulate others

Enjoys feeling powerful and in control (whether real or not)

Is both a poor winner and a poor loser

Seems to derive satisfaction from other’s fears, discomfort or pain

Is good at hiding behaviors or doing them where adults can’t notice

Is excited by conflicts between others

Blames others for his/her problems

Displays uncontrolled anger

Has a history of discipline problems

Displays a pattern of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating and aggressive behaviors

Has a history of violent and aggressive behaviors

Displays intolerance and prejudice toward others

May use drugs, alcohol or be a member of a gang

Lacks empathy toward others

Source: National Mental Health Information Center

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