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Stop The Bullies

“I just want the bullying to stop.
That is all I ever wanted. I used to love going to school. Now I hate it.”
— Verity Ward

What is a bully? When does the typical behavior of children
stop being normal and expected and transcend to bullying?
Those seem like fairly easy questions and they used to have fairly easy
answers. We used to know which children were bullies and were reasonably clear
about when normal behavior crossed the line into bullying, but no more.

What is a bully? That is a child who frightens or tries to
dominate other children by threatening or intimidating them. Bullies use
threats or implied threats to compel or deter behavior, compliance, or whatever
else the bully wants.

Fundamentally, bullying is a psychological strategy used to exercise
power and control over other children. The bully may need to occasionally
follow through with the implied threat to maintain credibility but only does
that when the victim is clearly weaker. For the most part, though, the threat
remains implied.

There are, of course, children who are violent and whose
aggression is not mediated by social norms, values, and interpersonal
influences. Their interest is not in intimidating and controlling. Rather they
attack anything or anyone who stands between them and what they want, whenever
they want it. They are truly dangerous but the behavior is not bullying. It may
be a product of severe emotional disturbance, socialization and life
experience, or a myriad of other factors. Whatever the cause, to call it
bullying is to miss its significance. These children are a very real menace to
other children and to the community.

Bullies may use physical threats or intimidation as in, “If you
don’t comply with my wishes, I will hurt you.”

They may use positional intimidation as in, “If you don’t comply
with my wishes, I will tell on you, get you in trouble, get other people to
reject you… and I can do that because I am in a position to be more credible
than you.”

They may use personal intimidation as in, “If you don’t comply
with my wishes, I won’t like you, won’t hang around with you, won’t be your

Bullying ranges from mild and occasional to serious and chronic
and for some children, it may evolve into more violent behavior. For most
children who bully, though, the tendency may continue into adolescence and
adult adjustment but does not go beyond bullying and persisting use of
intimidation strategies and approaches with people who are not in a position to
do much about it.

That was the easy answer to the “What is a bully?” question. The
more difficult answer is to the secondary question, “Which children are
bullies?” It would seem that we would only need to identify those children who
frighten or try to dominate other children by threatening or intimidating them
but it is no longer that simple.

Within society in general and schools in particular, bullying
has become a major focus for concern, discussion, educational emphasis, and
disciplinary intervention. This is likely prompted by much more attention to youth
violence, well-publicized tragedies in schools and communities, and an
insidious discomfort with and fear of young people. Whatever the origin of the
increased emphasis and whether it is warranted or unwarranted, there is an
unintended but nonetheless unfortunate outcome. The use of the bullying concept
is expanding to include more and more children. Behavior that was previously
seen as normal and as part of the typical development and socialization of
children is being redefined as bullying and thus as deviant. Normal children
who are struggling with normal social and emotional issues are being
reclassified as having behavior and adjustment problems that require a variety
of adult interventions.

The problem with this expanding inclusion of more and more
children into the bully circle is twofold. First, children whose development
and adjustment are quite normal and healthy as they struggle along the often
confusing and conflicting path to adulthood are confronted with the added
pressure of being classified as bullies and being treated as if there is
something wrong with them. They need support, guidance, and direction but do
not need or benefit from being grouped with children who do need corrective

Second, by expanding the definition and concept, children who do
frighten or try to dominate other children by threatening or intimidating them
and who need corrective intervention get less attention and focus.
Additionally, their behavior is interpreted as more deviant than when the bully
concept was understood more narrowly. When large numbers of children who do not
frighten or try to dominate other children by threatening or intimidating them
are included, those who do are immediately more deviant than most members of
the group. Instead of being bullies, they are now the “worst case” bullies. In
that position, they are likely to be punished more severely and treated less
sympathetically than they would have been before the bully concept expanded.

The result of this is that far too many children are being
counseled and subjected to interventions they do not need and find confusing.
At the same time, children who do need thoughtful and careful evaluation and
intervention are being treated with a punitive and harmful degree of
insensitivity that may exacerbate their adjustment problems instead of
correcting them.

Everyone would do well to refer to a child as a bully only if he
repeatedly frightens or dominates other children by threatening or
intimidating them. The majority of children who occasionally are insensitive,
inconsiderate, rood, inappropriate, socially and emotionally hurtful,
negatively impulsive, and who sometimes have bad judgment and are not very nice
need to stay in the “normal kid” classification where they receive the firm and
understanding support and guidance they need and deserve, without being seen
either by adults or by themselves or other children as deviant.

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