What is bullying, why does it happen and how can we help our children?

When we hear the word “bully”, the usual visual picture of an older kid picking on a smaller or younger child appears in the mind. This is most certainly true, but bullying encompasses much more than that. So, when does bullying start and what is it really about?
By Itxaso Cembrero, SINEWS´s Child and Adolescent Psychologist


Actually bullying starts as soon as kids begin to socialize. So, research indicates that bullying behaviour can start as early as age 3. While it’s hard to know exactly why some children become bullies and others don’t, there is evidence to suggest that some children are genetically predisposed toward being aggressive. Research also shows that children who are exposed to aggression on a consistent basis may imitate the behaviour they observe. Most children learn to control their anger and fighting instincts, as they grow older, but not the bully. Bullying can consist of any action that is used to hurt another child repeatedly and without cause (Olweus, 1993). In order for a bullying situation to occur there must be three conditions present: First, there is a desire, on the part of the bully, to inflect some kind of physical or emotional pain. Second, there must be a difference in power between the individuals involved, whether it is physical power, or the power to exclude another from the social grouping.  Third, the behaviour should be repeated. As parents, if we want to know if our children are being bullied, we should first know the different forms it can have. There are different types of bullying: Physical: the most commonly known forms include hitting, kicking, tripping/pushing, making mean or rude hand gestures, spitting, pushing, and taking personal belongings. Verbal: includes taunting, malicious teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, threatening to cause harm and making threats. Psychological: involves spreading rumors, manipulating social relationships, engaging in social exclusion, extortion, intimidation, and embarrassing someone in public. Cyberbullying: Although this type of bullying is fairly recent, we should be aware of it, as it’s become more popular among teenagers. It is when a child, preteen or teen is tormented, threatened, harassed, humiliated, embarrassed or otherwise targeted by another child, preteen or teen using the Internet, interactive and digital technologies or mobile phones. It is very important to mention that it has to have a minor on both sides, or at least have been instigated by a minor against another minor. If adults become involved, it is no longer cyberbullying. It starts to become cyber-harassment or cyberstalking.

Why are children bullied?

As above mentioned, children are bullied because the bully wants to gain power over another person. There can be many reasons that a child will be targeted, but usually the kids being bullied have done nothing to cause the bullying.

Why are some children bullied and others not?

Most children are approached by a bully early in their school career, and/or when they change schools. It is often the child’s reaction to that first encounter with being bullied which determines whether or not he/she will be approached again. Some children, because of their looks, their temperament, their language or their disposition, display what we call “vulnerable behaviours”. Children who are victimized tend to display these “vulnerable behaviours”. However, we not only have to focus on the victim, but also on the bully himself. Bullying is a learned behaviour, and most bullies are, or have been victims as well. In most cases, they are looking to be able to gain some control in some part of their lives, wanting to look tough, to be popular, or out of jealousy. They often have greater than average aggressive behaviour patterns, low self- esteem, insecurity, and a refusal to accept responsability for his/her actions.

How could I know if my child is being bullied?

If your child is brave enough to tell you he is being bullied, then you have to assume he’s telling you the truth and act on it. However, this does’nt always happen. A child may indicate by their behaviour that he or she is being bullied. Therefore, as parents we always have to pay close attention to the behaviour patterns of our children so that when changes occur we can notice them. You may notice some changes in his or her behaviour, including:

  • Unwillingness to go to school
  • Decline to take part in school activities
  • Starting to withdraw from social situations
  • Act fearful
  • Show unusual damage to clothing or belongings
  • Feeling unwell, often with a headache
  • Begin to lose friends
  • Lower grades in school
  • Anxiety
  • Aggression towards you or others in your family
  • Irritability
  • Bedwetting

Carefull, there could also be other reasons for these signs, so try to avoid jumping to conclusions. Ask yourself the following questions: – Is there anything else bothering my child? – Have there been changes at home like a new baby, or divorce or separation? If there have not been any other changes and you suspect bullying may be the cause of the distress and anxiety, it is important to try and act as early as you can.

What can we do?

Being bullied can knock anybody’s confidence. A single insult can stay with you for a long time, to the point where you start believing that what the bullies say about you is true, it isn’t. Here are some things we could do:

  • There are some simple tools our children can use to stop the bullying cycle. We can teach them to use the bullies’ arguments against him. For instance, if a bully says to a child, “Hey, I saw you trying to play football today. You are the worst! Everyone was laughing at you!” The victim can avoid giving any power back to the bully by replying, “Yeah, I guess I’m not great at it. Are you any good?” The bully might reply, “I’m better than you!” The victim can say, “That’s cool. Do you practice a lot? Do you play on a team?” The bully might tease a bit more, but basically he has lost his power to control in this situation and ultimately he will seek out a new victim. While this is a very simplified example, the basic foundation is that the victim of bullying must avoid giving his/her power away and after a very short time the bully will get tired and stop bothering him.
  • Another tool we could use is engaging Friends to be bystanders or witnessess. All it takes is for other children to literally step up and stand next to a victim to make a bully think twice about his actions.
  • It is also very important to encourage your child to speak out. Not only for him, but also for his peers.
  • Believe what your child tells you; let them know you trust them and that they can count on you. This way you can teach them how to effectively solve a problem. It is very important to let your child come up with his/her own ideas. For examp
    le, ask your child questions like: “What do you think you can say next time? or, What do you think might work?”. Once he gives you an answer, you could ask him: “What do you think is going to happen if you do that?”. This way you can guide them in order to help him reach the best way to behave in such situations.
  • Never forget that the best strategy to address the problem is prevention. Trust your child, teach him good copying strategies, how to handle his emotions and make him respect others and himself.

Lastly, if you notice that you child’s behaviour is getting worse, and the bullying is still not stopping, you can ask the school counselor, the teachers and/or a psychologist for help.

Itxaso Cembrero carries out psychotherapy with children and adolescents in English and in Spanish. She currently works in both SINEWS´s headquarters, in Zurbano 34 and in La Moraleja. She has had specialized training in bullying and attends Schools and Parent´s Associations to give talks.

In order to schedule an appointment with Itxaso, you can call 917001979 or check out our website: www.sinews.es

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