“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 (younger and older) 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 boyfriend/girlfriend…”
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 intervention.
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 (or she) 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.