Beyond Teasing: One-Third of Today's Kids Involved in Bullying

From the WebMD Archives

April 24, 2001 -- Small for his age, and the new kid on the block, 13-year-old C.J. Woodard made one big mistake at his new school last December -- he started bragging.

"I'm better than you are at everything ... I can run faster, that type of thing," says his mom, Darlene Williams. "He does have a mouth." Unfortunately, C.J. picked the wrong kid, and ended up in a fight. "Within the first week I was in the principal's office," she tells WebMD. "After that, it just escalated.

"I've been to the principal, the school board, the police, the juvenile officers, the bus company, trying to get this taken care of," Williams says. "They beat him up on the bus, swipe his stuff at school, accost him in the halls. It's constant torment. Teasing is one thing, but this is pure mean-spirited behavior. He can't even go to the store by himself without them coming after him." All the kids have been suspended at one time or another, including C.J. for trying to defend himself. But the problem still persists.

A National Snapshot

Nearly one-third of kids in grades six through 10 are the victims of bullying, bullies themselves -- or both, says Tonja R. Nansel, PhD, a psychologist and epidemiologist with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Her study of almost 16,000 students in grades six through 10 -- in both public and private schools across the U.S. -- captures a picture of bullying today. It appears in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association.

"We're concerned about the prevalence," she tells WebMD. "Thirty percent of kids are having a significant problem with peer relationships. There's a lot of evidence that those relationships are a very important part of a child's development."

In an accompanying editorial, two experts in childhood violence call for greater attention, energy, and funding of bullying interventions in U.S. schools.

"Recent tragedies and many episodes of school violence have involved the issues of bullying and revenge," write Howard Spivak, MD, a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Task Force on Violence, and Deborah Prothrow-Stith, MD, professor of public health practice at the Harvard School of Public Health and author of the book, Deadly Consequences.

"Violence prevention, including bullying ... must be a priority for all who are concerned about the health of children and youth," say Spivak and Prothrow-Stith.

In Nansel's study, students completed a 102-question health survey that also contained questions about bullying, as well as a definition: "We say a student is being bullied when another student, or a group of students, say or do nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is teased repeatedly in a way he or she doesn't like. But it is not bullying when two students of about the same strength are involved in a quarrel or fight."

Students were asked whether they had ever bullied another student, or if they were bullied in school, how frequently it happened, and what form it took -- whether they were belittled about religion or race, about looks or speech, if they were hit, slapped, or pushed, if they were the subject of rumors or lies, or if they were subjected to sexual comments or gestures.

Almost 11% of the children who completed the survey reported bullying other kids to some degree, and 9% said they bullied other kids once a week or more, which Nansel calls "frequent."

Similar numbers of children reported being bullied: 8.5% were bullied "sometimes" and 8.4% were bullied once a week or more. Six percent of the kids said they were both a bully sometimes and a victim at other times. Bullying seems to be more prevalent among boys, and it happened more frequently in grades six through eight. For girls, being bullied meant being the object of rumors and sexual comments.

The Bottom Line to Bullying

Both bullies and their victims have psychological and social problems that must be addressed, says Nansel.

"Bullies are more likely to have difficulty in school, to smoke and drink alcohol, but they do have a group of kids they get along with," she tells WebMD. "Those kids may be other bullies, but they have some sort of social group." For the victims, the problems may be loneliness and difficulty fitting in with peers -- which makes them easy prey.

So, what are the long-term results of all this bullying? How do victims and perpetrators fare as adults?

"Kids who are bullied have lower self esteem and higher rates of depression as adults," Nansel tells WebMD. "Youth who were bullies as kids are more likely to have criminal arrests in young adulthood."

As for the kid who is bullied -- and has also found someone he can pick on -- he may be at especially high risk because of his social isolation, anxiety, and aggressive tendencies. These kids are known for their anxious behavior and their aggression in starting fights -- and for finding ways to retaliate, she says.

Caring for the Crisis

Bullying is clearly at a crisis point, says Kathy Noll, who since 1998 has run a web site for the children's book, Taking the Bully By the Horns, which she co-authored with psychotherapist Jay Carter, MA, PsyD. "I must hear from at least seven different parents every day. Most often, their child is being bullied. They come to me for advice."

"We've seen the tragic results of extreme bullying, which appears to be a factor in some of the recent school shootings across the country," says David Fassler, MD, an adolescent psychiatrist and member of a work group on consumer issues for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

"It is important for schools and parents to be alert to the warning signs of bullying and to intervene as early as possible," Fassler tells WebMD.

It's also important to understand the psychology of bullies. Bullies usually have been victims themselves, says Leon Hoffman, MD, a child psychoanalyst and co-director of The New York Psychoanalytic Society's Parent-Child Center. "Or they have been put to shame by someone else -- either a teacher who humiliates him in class, or a parent who is trying to discipline him. Shame is one of the worst feelings to experience. Effective discipline is within the context of a loving relationship, not in the context of trying to shame your kid into some kind of obedience. Shaming creates a terribly vicious cycle. Kids feel compelled to take it out on somebody else."

In New York schools where Hoffman is a consultant, bullying and teasing are not tolerated, he tells WebMD. "The rules are made very clear, very explicit. Nobody makes fun of anybody, nobody calls anybody else names, there's no sexual teasing. If it does occur, everything immediately stops and it's dealt with in a group manner. 'Look what happened when you pushed so-and-so around.'"

Dealing with the problem in a group setting -- with bystanders around -- helps create empathy, and helps get rid of the good-guy, bad-guy mindset. The lesson is absorbed as part of the group identity. "It's not important who started it, who the instigator was," Hoffman says. "What's important is that something happened, and that has to be tolerated."

European schools have been most progressive in curbing bullying, and studies report up to 50% reductions in reported bullying, say Spivak and Prothrow-Stith. In these interventions, students are schooled in social skills; counseling services have been set up for both bullies and those being bullied. Clear rules and consequences of bullying are outlined, and parents are expected to increase their supervision of children's behavior.

Such strategies are encouraging, more humane, and more appropriate for kids than punitive measures used in U.S. schools today, they say. "Currently a tendency exists to blame children for problem behaviors rather than trying to understand what may be underlying their behavior," they write.

The Bully Pulpit

Fassler's advice to parents of kids being bullied:

  • Create an open atmosphere at home. "Talk to your child about what's going on. Create an open and honest environment in which your child trusts you, in which he knows that if he is having a problem, he can come to you," says Fassler.
  • Figure out a game plan. If your child is being bullied, find out what he or she has tried to stop the bullying, what's worked, what's not worked. "Parents can help their child practice what they'll do or say next time they run into the bully at school," Fassler tells WebMD. "Sometimes, simply asking the bully to leave you alone is all it takes. If your child practices being assertive at home, he will have more confidence."
  • Encourage your child to be with friends when going to and from school, while shopping. "Bullies tend to pick on kids who are isolated; they are less likely pick on a child in a group," Fassler tells WebMD.
  • If there's still trouble, get the school involved - go to the child's teacher or counselor.
  • Get kids involved in after-school activities. Provide good role models for them at an early age. Establish peer mediation and anger management programs.
  • Look for signs that the problem may be serious. "Kids who are bullied can get depressed, become reluctant to go to school," Fassler says. "If you notice significant emotional and behavioral changes in your child, if his grades are dropping, he has trouble sleeping, has lost his appetite, seems to be anxious or withdrawn, you should get it checked out by your pediatrician or family doctor. If there is a problem, ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience with children."
  • Ultimately, don't let the problem fester too long. "The longer the bullying lasts, the greater risk of long-term consequences are," Fassler tells WebMD.

As for C.J., things are "kind of in limbo," says his mother. "At home, he's still not allowed time out of the yard because when he heads down the block, they'll be there. He's like a caged animal. It's not fair. When a kid's already dealing with feeling lonely and left out, it seems they become even more targets."

Some bullies are just plain mean, says Williams. For bullies - and their victims -- self-esteem is the real issue, she thinks. "We need to be rebuilding whatever was lost from the start. Parents need to be aware that if kids are bullies, it's a control issue. If they're being bullied, it's not knowing how to take control. And there's a fine line there."

Williams is relocating her family this summer, and enrolling C.J. in a smaller school where he's less likely to get lost in the crowd, she says. "That'll be better for him."