What is the system of bullying?

A menacing boy roughly grabs the arm of a smaller, frightened boy on the school grounds, to the amusement of his two smiling friends. Meanwhile, three girls cup hands to their mouths as they whisper, laugh and look toward an unhappy girl sitting alone. Other students stand by and watch these events.

This is a daily occurrence for these children at this school, and it illustrates the social network of power dynamics. Unless someone or something intervenes, these aggressors, their victims and bystanders will continue to play out the same scenario day after day after day.

Bullying can be a single incident but is most often the repeated aggression of a more powerful person toward a physically or socially weaker person with deliberate intent to cause emotional or bodily harm. It is a power play to assert authority or raise the aggressor’s status in the eyes of bystanders.

Bullying can manifest as embarrassing sarcasm – even by a teacher. It includes taunting, physical assaults, harassment, social exclusion, name-calling, derogatory comments, online rumors and outright lies.

This behavior can be found anywhere. It occurs in homes, classrooms and the workplace. It occurs between adults and children, adults and adults, and youth and youth. It occurs in small schools, large schools, rural schools and urban schools.

It exists openly in cafeterias, on buses and in classrooms, and more secretly as intimidation lurking in unsupervised hallways, bathrooms and school property. The commonality is the imbalanced power dynamics and permission of onlookers — the audience for the aggressor.

Can adults bully children?

Yes, both parents and teachers can bully a child. Dr. Twemlow, a psychiatrist who directs the Peaceful Schools and Communities Project at the Menninger Clinic in Houston, defines teacher bullying as “using power to punish, manipulate or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure.

In 2010, he surveyed 116 teachers at seven elementary schools. More than 70 percent believed bullying was isolated, but 45 percent admitted to bullying a student. The study, published in The International Journal of Social Psychiatry, suggests that bullying by teachers may occur more often than commonly believed.

Why don’t children report bullying to adults?

Students often don’t tell adults about bullying behavior because they don’t want to be called snitches or tattlers by their peers. When investigating school shootings, the United States Secret Service found a code of silence observed by youth.

At least one person had some knowledge of the attackers’ plan in 81 percent of the incidents, and more than one person knew in 59 percent. Of those who knew, 93 percent were the attacker’s peers, according to the Secret Service report (Source: Youth Violence Project).

Some keep quiet, feeling that adults won’t help. In 2009-2010 the Youth Voice Project conducted an online study of students in grades 5-12 at 31 schools across the United States. More than 13,000 students participated.

One-fifth of the students who reported mistreatment and trauma said the adults they told about the abuse said to “stop tattling.” The study found a positive correlation between students who said they felt close to an adult at school and the effectiveness of telling an adult.

Children who suffer from panic attacks or depression are most vulnerable to the emotional effects of bullying, according to Barbara Coloroso, author of The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Preschool to High School – How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle. (This 2009 international bestseller was published by Harper Collins).

The very nature of bullying renders victims fearful, frozen and incapable of defending themselves, Coloroso says. Children become terrorized as severe bullying continues and are unlikely to fight back. “The bully, who can act without fear of retaliation, counts on bystanders to either join in or at least do nothing to stop it,” she says. Click here to view an article about the dynamics of “fighting back.”