Bullies are aggressive children who repeatedly physically or emotionally abuse, torment, or victimize smaller, weaker, or younger children.


Bullying usually involves an older or larger child or children victimizing a single child who is unable to defend himself or herself. Bullying is generally viewed as a form of harassment committed by a child or children who are older, stronger, or otherwise more powerful socially, upon weaker adolescents. Often, the power of the bully is dependent on the perception of the victim, with the bullied child often too intimidated to effectively resist the bully.

Although the stereotypical bully is male, girls engage in bullying behavior almost as often as boys. Their tactics differ, however, in that they are less visible. Boys who are bullies tend to resort to one-on-one physical aggression, while girls tend to bully as a group through social exclusion and the spreading of rumors. Girls who would never bully individually will often take part in group bullying activities.

Bullying begins at a very early age; it is not uncommon to find bullies in preschool . Until about age seven, bullies appear to choose their victims at random. After that, they single out specific children to torment on a regular basis. Nearly twice as much bullying goes on in grades two to four as in grades six to eight, and, as bullies grow older, they tend to use less physical abuse and more verbal abuse.

Bullies are often popular among their peers until about sixth grade. They average two or three friends, and other children seem to admire them for their physical toughness. By high school, however, their social acceptance diminishes to the point that their only "friends" are other bullies. Despite their unpopularity, bullies have relatively high self-esteem , perhaps because they process social information inaccurately.

For example, bullies attribute hostile intentions to people around them and therefore perceive provocation where it does not exist. "What are you staring at?" is a common opening line of bullies. For the bully, these perceived slights serve as justification for aggressive behavior .

Children who become the targets of bullies generally have a negative view of violence and go out of their way to avoid conflict. They tend to be "loners" who exhibit signs of vulnerability before being singled out by a bully. Being victimized leads these children, who already may lack self-esteem, to feel more anxious, thereby increasing their vulnerability to further bullying. Being the target of a bully leads to social isolation and rejection by peers, and victims tend to internalize others' negative views, further eroding their self-esteem. Although bullying actually lessens during adolescence , this is the period when peer rejection is most painful for victims.

Sometimes the victims of bullies are larger, stronger, or older than the bully but allow the bullying to continue because they are intimidated, do not believe in violence, or are taught non-violence by their parents.

Studies show that students who are gay or bisexual or are perceived as gay or bisexual experience an extremely high rate of bullying, not only by other students, but often by teachers and other school personnel. Also, bullying against gay and bisexual students is often ignored or sometimes encouraged by homophobic school staff members.

According to the American School Health Association, students who discover they are gay or bisexual often experience rejection, discrimination, isolation, and violence, and this fact makes it all the more important for teachers and administrators to be supportive and sensitive to them. Schools are obligated under federal law to protect students from discrimination and harassment, from other students as well as teachers and all other school employees. In 1996, a federal appeals court ruled that school officials can be held liable under the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution for not protecting gay and bisexual students from harassment and discrimination. The ruling still stood as of 2004.

Extensive long-term research indicates that bullying is not a phase a child outgrows. In a study of more than 500 children, University of Michigan researchers discovered that children who were viewed as the most aggressive by their peers at age eight grew up to commit increasingly more serious crimes as adults. Other studies indicate that, as adults, bullies are far more likely to abuse their spouses and children.

Modern schools tend to discourage bullying with programs designed to teach students cooperation and train peers in bullying intervention techniques. However, some schools have a zero tolerance for violence so if two students are discovered in a fight, both are disciplined, often by suspension, even though one may be the bully and the other the victim.

Experts say that school violence often is rooted in bullying. While bullying is often verbal threats and harassment, it can get out of control and turn into violence, including the use of weapons.

Researchers who have studied bullying have concluded that up to 15 percent of children say they are regularly bullied, and it occurs most frequently at school in areas where there is inadequate or no adult supervision, such as the playground, hallways, cafeteria, and in classrooms before lessons start. Bullying usually starts in elementary school, peaks in middle school, and drops in high school. It does not disappear, however. Although boys are more often the perpetrators and victims of bullying, girls tend to bully in indirect ways, such as manipulating friendships, ostracizing classmates, and spreading malicious rumors. Boys who are regularly bullied tend to be more passive and physically weaker than the bullies. In middle school, girls who mature early are commonly victims of bullying, according to some findings.


Bullying behavior can be seen as early as preschool. However, little data exists regarding the prevalence of bullying in preschool. Preschool-age children may bully others to get attention, show off, or to get another child's possessions, such as toys , clothing, or use of playground equipment. They may also be jealous of the children they are bullying or may be getting bullied themselves. Preschool bullying usually begins with name-calling and can escalate into physical violence if left unchecked. Preschool teachers are urged to intervene immediately to stop bullying and to teach acceptable behavior. If teachers or staff at a preschool do not do enough to stop bullying, parents should find another preschool.

School age

A 2001 report by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) found that 17 percent of the respondents had been bullied sometimes or weekly; 19 percent had bullied others sometimes or weekly, and 6 percent had both bullied others and been bullied. The researchers estimated that 1.6 million children in grades six through 10 in the United States are bullied at least once a week and 1.7 million children bully others as frequently.

The survey, the first nationwide research on the problem in this country, questioned 15,686 public and private school students, grades six through 10, on their experiences with bullying. In a study of 6,500 middle school students in rural South Carolina, 23 percent said they had been bullied regularly during the previous three months, and 20 percent admitted bullying another child regularly during the same time.

Bullying appears to be rapidly increasing, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice. Among sixth-grade students, rates of bullying rose from 10.5 percent in 1999 to 14.3 percent in 2001; among eighth-grade students victimization by bullies went from 5.5 percent in 1999 to 9.2 percent in 2001. In the tenth grade, bullying rose from 3.2 percent in 1999 to 4.6 percent in 2001, and among twelfth graders, it doubled from 1.2 percent in 1999 to 2.4 percent just two years later.

A bully's behavior does not exist in isolation. Rather, it may indicate the beginning of a generally antisocial and rule-breaking behavior pattern that can extend into adulthood. Programs to address the problem, therefore, must reduce opportunities and rewards for bullying behavior. The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, developed, refined, and systematically evaluated in Norway in the mid-1980s, is the best-known initiative designed to reduce bullying among elementary, middle, and junior high school children. The strategy behind the program is to involve school staff, students, and parents in efforts to designed to develop awareness about bullying, improve peer relations, intervene to stop intimidation, develop clear rules against bullying behavior, and support and protect victims.

The program intervenes on three levels:

  • School: Faculty and staff survey students anonymously to determine the nature and prevalence of the school's bullying problem, increase supervision of students during breaks, and conduct school-wide assemblies to discuss the issue. Teachers receive in-service training on how to implement the program.
  • Classroom: Teachers and other school personnel introduce and enforce classroom rules against bullying, hold regular classroom meetings with students to discuss bullying, and meet with parents to encourage their participation.
  • Individual: Staff intervention with bullies, victims, and their parents to ensures that the bullying stops.

The Bergen research showed that the program was highly effective among students in elementary, middle, and junior high schools: Bullying dropped by 50 percent or more during the program's two years. Behavior changes were more pronounced the longer the program was in effect. The school climate improved, and the rate of antisocial behavior , such as theft, vandalism, and truancy , declined during the two-year period.

Common problems

The NICHD study found that bullying has long-term and short-term psychological effects on both those who bully and those who are bullied. Victims experience loneliness and report having trouble making social and emotional adjustments, difficulty making friends, and poor relationships with classmates. Victims of bullying often suffer humiliation, insecurity, and a loss of self-esteem, and often develop a fear of going to school. The impact of frequent bullying often accompanies these victims into adulthood; they are at greater risk of suffering from depression and other mental health problems, including schizophrenia . In rare cases, they commit suicide .

Bullying behavior has been linked to other forms of antisocial behavior, such as vandalism, shoplifting, skipping and dropping out of school, fighting, and using alcohol and other drugs. Research suggests that bullying can lead to criminal behavior later in life: 60 percent of males who were bullies in grades six through nine were convicted of at least one crime as adults, compared with 23 percent of males who did not bully; 35 to 40 percent of these former bullies had three or more convictions by age 24, compared with 10 percent of those who did not bully.

The NICHD study found that those who bully and are bullied appear to be at greatest risk of experiencing the following: loneliness, trouble making friends, lack of success in school, and involvement in problem behaviors such as smoking , illegal drug use, and drinking.

Parental concerns

Parents should be aware of common signs that a child is being bullied. These include trouble sleeping, bedwetting, stomachaches, headaches, lack of appetite, fear of going to school, crying before or after school, lack of interest in social events, low self-esteem, unexplained loss of personal items and money, unexplained bruises and injuries, and acting out aggressively at home.

Parents should teach their children proper communication skills that they may need to seek assistance if they are being bullied, according to the Web site http://www.bullying.org. Other advice for parents from the Web site include:

  • Be involved with the child's school and talk to other parents about the problem.
  • Meet with school officials and make sure the school has an anti-bullying policy and that it is strictly enforced. If a child is being bullied, meet with school officials to find out what they are doing about it. If no action is being taken, demand that it be done.
  • Talk to the child's teacher or teachers to determine if they have seen any bullying problems in the classroom or playground.
  • Talk to a school counselor and ask that person to discuss bullying with children.
  • Report all verbal or physical threats against a child to school authorities and insist they take action. If they do not take action, report the problem to local police.

When to call the doctor

Bullying is violence. If both bullies and their victims are not offered help, there can be serious long-term consequences for both. Bullies and their victims may need professional counseling or psychological help. Parents should seek immediate help for children who are depressed or suicidal. Parents of bullies also need to seek psychological help for their child if the bullying continues for even a short period of time.


Antisocial behavior —Behavior characterized by high levels of anger, aggression, manipulation, or violence.

Harassment —The persistent annoying, attacking, or bothering of another person.

Schizophrenia —A severe mental illness in which a person has difficulty distinguishing what is real from what is not real. It is often characterized by hallucinations, delusions, and withdrawal from people and social activities.

See also Antisocial behavior .



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Dorn, Michael. Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child. Macon, GA: Safe Havens International Inc., 2003.

Katch, Jane. They Don't Like Me: Lessons on Bullying and Teasing from a Preschool Classroom. Boston: Beacon Press, 2004.

Lee, Chris. Preventing Bullying in Schools: A Guide for Teachers and Other Professionals. London, UK: Paul Chapman Educational Publishing, 2004.


"Anti-Gay Bullying Widespread Among Teens." Mental Health Weekly (January 27, 2003): 6.

Dake, Joseph A., et al. "The Nature and Extent of Bullying at School." Journal of School Health (May 2003): 173–180.

Fink, Paul J. "Treating Bullies." Clinical Psychiatry News (December 2003): 5.

Jellinek, Michael S. "Treating Both Bullies and the Bullied." Pediatric News (June 2003): 10.

"Report Cites Harm to Bullies and Victims." Health & Medicine Week (September 29, 2003): 706.


Bullying Prevention Program. Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, Clemson University, 158 Poole Agricultural Center, Clemson, SC 29634. Web site: http://www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/index.asp..

The Healthy Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Students Project. American Psychological Association Education Directorate, 750 First St. NE, Washington, DC 20002. Web site: <www.apa.org/ed/hlgb/&gt;


"Bullying." Available online at http://www.bullying.org (accessed October 12, 2004).

"Bullying, Harassment, School-based Violence." The Safe Schools Coalition. Available online at http://www.safeschoolscoalition.org/RG-bullying_harassment_schoolbasedviolence.html (accessed October 12, 2004).

Ken R. Wells

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