Why Does Bullying Happen & What Can We Do About It?

November 4, 2022
Sad student with hands over face

Bullying, whether it is in the schoolyard, workplace, or any other environment can have devastating effects on victims. Evidence shows that those who are bullied are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and sometimes long-term damage to self-esteem. Victims can often feel lonely and some may fight back with extreme, sudden violence which could then have serious implications for themselves.

It is likely that we have all at some time in our lives experienced being bullied or know someone who has. We may also have fallen prey to bullying others ourselves. Anti-bullying week seems a good time to dig a bit deeper into understanding and finding solutions to bullying. So, why do people bully, what can we do to prevent it, and how can we support people when it happens?

What is bullying?

Bullying can include:

  • Physical intimidation or harm – tripping, hitting, pushing, or spitting on a victim 
  • Social exclusion, making fun of the victim, teasing, name calling and/or insults
  • Threats, property destruction, making the victim do something s/he doesn’t want to do
  • Spreading rumours or lies about the victim

Bullying involves holding power or control over the other person, or ‘putting someone down’ for the perpetrator to feel superior in some way. So, to better understand bullying we need to consider why these feelings are important to those doing the bullying.

Why do people bully?

Research shows that stress can play a large part. People who do not know how to positively manage stress may default to bullying others as a coping mechanism. Some people bully to mask negative feelings about themselves and focus attention on someone else. They are essentially trying to avoid negative attention being directed onto them by deflecting onto others. Evidence has shown that those who have experienced being bullied are twice as likely to go on and bully others.

A lot of bullying used to go on in the school where I went and when I look back I realise that it was often when people did not receive the emotional support they needed, so they then began to target individuals and bully them. Those targeted were often different in some way, identifiable to others, but really it was nothing to do with them, it was a vehicle for getting rid of the bad feelings of the bully.

What does research tell us? Those who bully often carry feelings of rejection from others, particularly those who should love them unconditionally. They may come from violent households, characterised by lots of arguments and hostility. Their friendships and family relationships are likely to be less secure. They are more likely to feel that those closest to them make them do things they don’t feel comfortable doing and are not providing them with comfort and support.

What can we do about bullying?

Providing good reliable support for the victims of bullying is vital. Helping them to understand that the reason why they are being bullied is not about them, it is not their fault, but rather down to the bully’s past experiences and unmet needs. This is a very important starting point. Addressing the bullying in a clear, decisive manner using an effective procedure that involves positive work between the victim and bully is essential.

Also essential is continuing to offer direct support whilst keeping communication ongoing to ensure the bullying has been effectively addressed. There is no quick fix, a real long-term commitment is needed to establish ongoing change.

Remember our principles of trauma-informed care? These seem very pertinent in the light of what we know about bullying. If we can see the bully as a person in distress and try to understand the reasons for this distress, including past trauma, can we then try to address their needs to make it less likely they will need to continue to bully? We cannot change the experiences they have had which may have led to current feelings of inadequacy, but what we can do is try to meet their needs now and help them to increase their self-worth perhaps to dissipate these feelings. We can:

  • Be there for them as someone they can talk to
  • Give them the message that they are respected by giving them positive opportunities to take responsibility for important tasks
  • Give them choices and empower them in positive ways by including them in important decision making so they can gain control appropriately in their lives
  • Help them to understand what makes them stressed and encourage them to use productive ways of managing this stress such as meditation, exercise and talking therapy.

The restorative approaches we use in the COPING model could be effectively used so that those bullying and those affected can better understand both themselves and one another and be brought together rather than separated to achieve long term effective solutions. Part of helping the situation will be aiding the bully to build not only a better understanding of themselves but also how their behaviour impacts on others. Help build their empathy for others and start to explore with them what they can do to put things right. Combining these approaches whilst supporting them to learn better ways to manage their stress in the future can offer a positive, more sustainable, way forward.

Like everything positive in life, collaborative and harmonious relationships are the key, and the principles for building these as a bedrock for change apply to managing bullying, just as much as they do to all the other aspects of building healthy lives for ourselves and others.

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