Bullying: what & why?

What is bullying?

Bullying is repeated, unwanted, overtly or subtly aggressive behaviour used to physically or mentally control or harm others.

Examples of bullying include making threats, spreading rumours, excluding someone from a group, or attacking someone physically or verbally.

Who is affected by bullying?

Bullying usually starting in childhood and children who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting physical and emotional problems. Bullying patterns can continue into adulthood.

Those affected by bullying include children and adults who:

  • Are bullied
  • Bully
  • Assist bullying
  • Reinforce bullying
  • Are bystanders

In addition, homes, schools and workplaces are affected.

Those who are bullied suffer a range of effects that we’ll look at later.

The effects of bullying are profound and statements such as ‘bullying is just a part of growing up’, ‘bullying helps children toughen up’, ‘it’s just part of the real world’ are entirely unhelpful and leave more people to suffer.

In this overview, we’ll look at bullying in childhood, bullying in adulthood and then at what we can do to help ourselves and others.

Types of bullying

There are many types of bullying; these can be roughly divided into overt bullying, subtle bullying and cyber bullying though there is often some overlap.

Overt bullying

This is where those being bullied are directly harmed. They may be

  • Threatened
  • Insulted or ridiculed
  • Called nasty or demeaning names
  • Pushed around, hit or beaten

They may also have things stolen and nasty tricks played on them.

Subtle bullying

This sort of bullying is not so easy to spot but it is insidious and harmful. Those being bullied may be:

  • Deliberately left out of social gatherings, trips and groups
  • Ignored
  • ‘Sent to Coventry’ (ostracised and not spoken to at all)
  • Blackmailed

They may also have rumours, stories or nasty lies told about them.

Cyberbullying

This type of bullying takes place using electronic means, such as mobile phones, emails and social media. Those being bullied have, without their permission:

  • Their private email, instant mail or text messages forwarded to someone else
  • Their private email, instant mail or text messages posted where others can see them
  • Rumours spread about them online
  • Embarrassing pictures posted online without their permission

They also may be sent threatening, aggressive or upsetting messages.

The effects of bullying on individuals

Children who are bullied

Children who are bullied can experience negative physical, social, emotional and mental health issues and adverse effects on their academic progress. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience:

  • Anxiety
  • Bedwetting
  • Feelings of shame
  • Higher risk of illness
  • Loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Poor eating habits
  • Poor health habits (smoking, drinking, poor hygiene)
  • Poor school performance
  • School avoidance
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Social isolation

These issues may persist into adulthood. In addition, those being bullied are more likely to suffer from somatic illnesses, such as colds, and psychosomatic illnesses, such as stomach aches, headaches, muscle aches and other physical complaints with no apparent medical cause.

If bullying persists or the children who have been bullied aren’t helped process and overcome their ordeals, long-term effects can occur, such as poor general health, lack of confidence, anxiety disorders, depression, self-harm, alcohol and substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, plans and attempts. In addition, they may have difficulty establishing healthy, trusting, stable friendships and relationships.

People who bully

Our instinct is usually to view a bully with a range of negative emotions and the thought of feeling empathy towards them can be difficult. However, bullies bully for a reason and without help, their behaviour can worsen and extend into adulthood.

Children who bully are more likely to badly in school or drop out and carry the following behaviours into adolescence and adulthood:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Drug and substance abuse
  • Fighting
  • Vandalism

They are also more likely to engage in early sexual activity and other risky behaviours, have criminal convictions as adults, suffer poor physical and mental health, have poor job prospects, have difficulty maintaining social relationships, and be abusive toward partners and children.

Other children

People who bully and people who are bullied are not the only ones to be affected. Children who witness bullying include those who:

  • Assist
  • Reinforce
  • Defend
  • Remain separate

Each group is affected by bullying.

Children who assist bullying may not start the bullying but may assist, encourage and sometimes join in.

Children who reinforce bullying may not be directly involved but give the bullying behaviour an audience by laughing at the actions or directly encouraging people who bully to continue.

Children who defend those being bullied try to help by comforting the those who have been bullied or coming to their defence.

Children who remain separate tend not to show sides, so neither reinforce the behaviour, comfort the person who has been bullied or give an opinion on what is happening. They may wish to but don’t know how to.

Most children will have been in one or more roles. For example, they have been bullied at one time, engage in bullying behaviour at another time and been an assistant, reinforcer, defender or outsider at other times.

Children who witness ongoing bullying can feel powerlessness, fear and guilt. They are also more likely to skip school, smoke, drink, use other drugs, miss or skip school and have increased mental health problems.

This highlights the need to engage all children in prevention efforts rather than just those who are directly involved.

Adults who are bullied

Bullying can be overt, such as bosses shouting at team members and making unreasonable demands on them or showing inappropriate behaviour to a colleague when there are no witnesses. It can be subtle, such as ‘forgetting’ to email important details to an employee or excluding one member of a team from a work evening out together.

Adults don’t always realise they are being bullied (or feel too ashamed to acknowledge it) and can put feelings of stress and burnout down to the demands of the job.

The effects of bullying on institutions

Schools and colleges

Schools, colleges and universities that don’t have sound bullying policies in place and who fail to take significant action against bullying are more likely to see:

  • Low self-esteem, poor engagement and lack of ambition in students
  • Poor staff retention
  • A negative environment where fear and disrespect are evident
  • Poor parent satisfaction

Schools, families and communities must work together to understand the issues around bullying and to decrease (and hopefully even eradicate) bullying in schools, homes and communities.

Workplaces

The effects are similar to those in schools:

  • Low self-esteem, poor engagement, lack of ambition and decreased productivity
  • Increased absences through ill-health and stress
  • Poor staff retention
  • A negative environment where fear and disrespect are evident

Bullying doesn’t just occur in schools. Workplaces must have sound policies in place and must enforce them.

Signs of bullying

Children

Not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs, but look out for:

  • Change in demeanour (becoming quiet, withdrawn, morose, tetchy, etc)
  • Changes in eating habits (not eating, binge eating or eating sugary foods)
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Decreasing self-esteem
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Self-harm, running away from home, talking about suicide
  • Unexplained injuries, headaches, stomach aches, nausea, pretending illness

If you know someone in serious distress or danger, don’t ignore the problem and get help right away.

Adults

Not all adults who are bullied exhibit warning signs, but look out for:

  • Decreasing productivity
  • Decreasing self-esteem
  • Increasing absences from work
  • Increasing levels of drinking, smoking and maybe drug-taking
  • Increasing tendency to shout or cry
  • Looking ‘low’
  • Not mixing
  • Reacting badly to stress levels which were handled well before

If you suspect an adult is being bullied, encourage them to seek help.

Why don’t people ask for help?

Children

Statistics from the 2018 Indicators of School Crime and Safety show that, worryingly,  only 20% of school bullying incidents were reported. Similar reports show similar statistics.

Bullied children don’t tell adults about bullying for many reasons; they can feel that they

  • Are helpless, isolated, embarrassed, humiliated
  • Should be able to handle it themselves
  • Will be not believed, judged or punished
  • Will be rejected by their peers
  • Will be seen as a ‘sneak’
  • Will face more retribution

Children need a safe place and safe emotional space to talk about the bullying they are suffering.

Adults

Adults don’t admit to being bullied for a number of reasons, some of which are similar to children’s reasons. They:

  • Are afraid of losing their job, not being promoted or getting a bad reference
  • Do not know who would be able to help
  • Don’t want to admit it even to themselves
  • Don’t want to worry their loved ones
  • Feel helpless to change things
  • Feel intimidated
  • Should be able to handle it themselves
  • Think they are imagining it or won’t be believed

Adults may also use alcohol, tobacco and other drugs to alleviate the feelings of anxiety and persuade themselves that ‘it’s better all round’ not to talk about the bullying.

Signs of people bullying others

Signs can be overt (you see it happening so obviously that there is not other explanation than ‘bullying’) but often quite subtle. Some signals can be confusing as a person who is bullying can also be being bullied.

Children

Signs children may be bullying others include them:   

  • Becoming increasingly aggressive
  • Becoming less inclined to listen to reasoned discussions around behaviour
  • Being reprimanded at school and home more frequently
  • Blaming others for their problems
  • Hanging around with friends who bully others
  • Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
  • Not accepting responsibility for their actions
  • Split some children away from their peer groups
  • Starting or joining in with physical or verbal fights

They may also become increasingly competitive and demand leadership.

Adults

Signs adults may be bullying others include them:   

  • Showing continued aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour
  • Giving the ‘silent treatment’ by ignoring the person or refusing to give them answers
  • Controlling what people are allowed to say and do
  • Manipulate someone so they isolate themselves, or manipulate others to isolate the person
  • Show variable reactions so a person is ‘walking on eggshells’
  • Continually belittling or undermining a person to look better themselves
  • Gossiping and spreading malicious rumours behind someone’s back

They may also become increasingly competitive and demand leadership.

Why do some children and adults become people who bully?

Before we look at ways to help overcome bullying, we need to understand why people start to bully others in the first place. People who bully have often been bullied themselves and have come away with poor self-esteem and poor learned behaviours.

People who bully all want to feel good about themselves but don’t feel:

  • Accepted
  • Connected
  • Important
  • Significant

They may feel they don’t belong and that they don’t matter enough to stand out on their own merits. The situation is painful, so the feelings are squashed away and blocked by using bullying behaviour. Ironically, people who are bullied often suffer from the same unmet needs.

Strategies to overcome bullying

Just before we look at some simple strategies, be aware of the importance of using the right words.

For example, labelling someone a ‘bully’ can send the message that the person’s behaviour cannot change. It also does not recognise the multiple roles people have in different bullying situations and side-lines other contributing factors such as peer influence or the school/work climate.

Likewise, calling the person being bullied a ‘victim’ disempowers them and disregards the other factors just mentioned.

It is better to use phrases

  • ‘The child/adult/person who bullies’ or ‘The child/adult/person who bullied’
  • ‘The child/adult/person who is bullied’ or ‘The child/adult/person who was bullied’
  • ‘The child/adult/person who is both bullied and bullies others’

That means we focus on the behaviour rather than a label.

In the next post, we’ll look at ways to overcome bullying. Here’s one way:

Five steps to calling out a bullying message

I often share these steps from Marisa Peer, the founder of Rapid Transformational Therapy (RTT). They work whatever age you are.

  • If they say something hurtful, reply, ‘Thank you for sharing that’

Here you are acknowledging their opinion (and dialling down any negative tension) and you don’t have to let it in or accept it

  • If they carry on, say, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t hear all of that; please can you repeat that slowly?’

This makes them take stock of what they are saying. At this point they may take it back.

  • If they still carry on, say, ‘Are you trying to hurt my feelings? Are you trying to make me feel bad about myself?’

If they say yes, ask, ‘Why would you do that?’

Either way, it helps you understand the motivation behind the words.

  • If they still carry on, reply, ‘Well, that’s not going to work, I am not going to let that in.’

You are the one holding the power and you just as don’t have to accept a gift, you don’t have to receive the hurtful words or let them in; that is, you may not be able to stop people criticising, but you can change the way it affects you.

  • And if they still carry on, say, ‘While we are sharing, did you know that critical people have the most criticism reserved for themselves? They don’t like themselves; they are their own worst critic. Your words and behaviour reveal a lot about what’s going on inside.’

It’s empowering to know that it’s their issues and not yours.

Guided recording – I am enough (17 mins)
This guided hypnosis is to help people who are being bullied or simply feel not enough. Listen to it once or twice daily.

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