Why do kids get bullied at school — and why do kids bully others?

Bullying is about a power dynamic between peers. To interrupt it, first understand why it happens.

Prisma Staff
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October 11, 2022

What is bullying?

A large, tough kid, pushing a smaller one against a locker and demanding their lunch money under threat of a black eye. There’s a stereotypical image of bullying, popularized by Hollywood. But the behavior is much more diverse — and often subtler — than it appears on films and TV. Sometimes it’s even undetectable except to the victim.

A form of violence between young people who are not related or currently dating, bullying is defined by the CDC as “unwanted aggressive behavior(s)...that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.”

The CDC distinguishes three types of bullying behaviour:

  • physical (hitting, tripping)
  • verbal (name calling, teasing)
  • relational/social (spreading rumors, leaving out of peer group).

The outward manifestations of each of these kinds of bullying are different. But whether they fear for their physical safety, wince at the insults hurled at them, or dread another day sitting alone in the cafeteria, a child who faces any of these kinds of bullying can experience mental health consequences.

Because it is more subtle and may leave little to no physical trace, relational bullying in particular may present a challenge for young people seeking adult support; if a parent sees a black eye, they’ll recognize the signs of physical bullying. With social bullying, a child might not even know what is happening, and it may require you asking questions before you can figure it out.

Today, one of the most common forms of bullying takes place online: cyberbullying. According to Unicef, cyberbullying (which can take place alongside in-person bullying) includes behaviors like: spreading lies, posting embarrassing photos/videos on social media, sending aggressive messages — or doing those kinds of things to others while impersonating someone or using a fake account.

Although cyberbullying can seem particularly hard to control because of the sheer numbers of sites, apps and platforms, there is one upside: the digital footprint it leaves can serve as evidence that may contribute to stopping the abuse.

Why do kids bully others?

The reasons why children bully others are as diverse as the kinds of bullying behavior. The most common explanation is that a bully themselves has low self-esteem and tries to regain a feeling of power by taking advantage of someone they perceive to be weaker. A child being bullied by a family member at home (or witnessing bullying behavior at home) may repeat that behavior at school, simply because they have seen it modeled by someone they admire.

In-school bullying can also be more of a systemic than an individual problem: if a school has a culture of bullying with no effective interventions in place, that culture of tolerance can teach kids that bullying is “cool.” The more common bullying is, the more likely a kid will feel pressured to either bully others or be bullied themselves.


Who gets bullied?

More kids are bullied at school than you may expect. In 2019, according to the CDC, 20% of high school students reported experiencing a bullying incident during the previous school year. According to the Monique Burr Foundation for Children, 25% of students are bullied every year, and 33% experience cyberbullying - a problem that is especially acute for middle school students, according to the CDC.

Kids can become the target of bullying for many different reasons. Many bullying incidents stem from a child’s (perceived) sexual orientation or their physical appearance: Standing out in any way (in terms of their body, their clothes or the way they move) can put a target on a child’s back. Sometimes bullies pick their targets based on a kid’s psychological profile — bullies may target other students whose social skills aren’t fully matured (i.e. they can’t read the social cues of their peers), kids with high levels of anxiety or low self-esteem.

However, in other cases, there may be no clear explanation as to why a certain kid gets targeted — simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.


What to do if you think your child is being bullied

If you think your child is being bullied, start by opening a dialog with them, so they feel reassured that you will listen before doing anything else. The Anti-Bullying Alliance recommends that parents act as supportive partners and sounding-boards, so that kids feel empowered to come up with an approach that makes them feel in control.

At the same time, a parent should also bring the situation to the teachers and administrators in charge, so that the responsible adults know what is going on and can be prepared to intervene as necessary. The school’s response will go a long way in letting you know if they are committed to creating an environment where bullying is not tolerated.

Once you’re no longer in the middle of an active bullying situation, you’ll also want to help your child build up their confidence in general. If their school environment is still a source of stress even after the incident is resolved, but moving them is not an option, it may help to find outside activities — arts, sports, nature-based groups, anything that gets them excited — where they can start fresh with a new group of kids, find their voice, and have fun.

How to stop bullying from happening

Just because it’s common, it doesn’t mean that preventing bullying behavior is impossible. Sometimes all it takes to shut it down is for a bystander to speak up: Research shows that in over half of bullying situations (57%), when someone intervenes — whether it’s a member of the school staff or a peer — the aggressor stops bullying within 10 seconds.

Ideally, however, we want our adolescents to learn in an environment where they don’t have to be a victim of bullying at all, not even for 10 seconds. In a follow-up to this post, we’ll discuss bullying prevention.

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