Bullying has been in the headlines a lot lately, and for good reason. October is National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month and many articles have focused on awareness efforts. A brief search of recent headlines turned up many examples of real-life situations involving reported bullying in schools – and this list of recent headlines barely scratches the surface:
- South Eugene High School graduates settle bullying, discrimination lawsuits with school district
- Maury County schools investigate video purportedly showing bullying on bus
- Lee’s Summit students walk out of class after alleged fight, bullying of LGBTQ student
- Mom says school fight caught on camera points to bigger bullying issue
- 12-year-old student recalls painful experiences of bullying at Ascension Parish school, parents speak out
- Parents sue Louisiana school, saying son faced 'hell day' bullying. School denies allegations
A comprehensive deep dive into bullying is way beyond the scope of a blog post, but this post will attempt to provide the general facts and offer some suggestions and resources for school mental health professionals.
How common is bullying?
Bullying is prevalent in the United States; according to research cited by the CDC, “about 20% of students between the ages of 12 to 18 experienced bullying nationwide” (CDC, n.d.). Additional statistics and discussion can be found at StopBullying.gov.
How is bullying defined?
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive, and repetitive” behavior which includes “an imbalance of power” between the bully and the victim. Bullying can take the form of any or all of the following, and can be direct or indirect (Rossen & Cowan, 2012; NASP, 2019a):
- physical bullying (examples include punching, slapping, kicking, spitting, pushing, tripping, hair-pulling)
- verbal bullying (examples include name-calling, making harassing comments, making threats)
- social/relational bullying (examples include spreading rumors, intentional exclusion)
- cyberbullying (examples include bullying/harassment via texting, email, social media, or other internet sites)
What are the potential consequences of bullying?
In addition to the direct physical injuries from bullying (cuts, scrapes, bruises, etc.), bullying can also lead to potential long-term consequences for victims, including negative psychological, physiological, academic, and social effects (NASP, 2019a).
Long-term consequences are also possible for students who are doing the bullying, as well as for bystanders. The CDC reports that students who bully others are at increased risk for: drug or alcohol use, other conduct problems (such as vandalism or fighting), dropping out of school, and early sexual activity. Also, according to the CDC, bystanders are at increased risk for: drug or alcohol use, mental health problems, and missing/skipping school (CDC, n.d.).
What is the relationship between suicide and bullying?
The relationship between suicide and bullying is often emphasized by the media in headlines, but the connection is “not linear” (Espelage & Holt, 2013, as cited in NASP, 2019b). According to the CDC, although youth who are bullied are at-risk of suicide, “bullying alone is not the cause”; and “most youth who are bullied do not have thoughts of suicide or engage in suicidal behaviors.” Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including “depression, problems at home, and trauma history” (CDC, n.d.). Of course, as always, all suicidal ideation, statements, or behaviors should be addressed immediately and comprehensively, regardless of whether it appears to be related to bullying. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/; 1-800-273-8255) is a helpful resource.
What are some of the warning signs that a student might be being bullied?
According to NASP (2019b), the warning signs of being bullied are varied, and can include the following:
- Unexplained injuries
- Lost or destroyed possessions
- Increased complaints of illnesses or aches/pains or other physical symptoms
- Changes in eating or sleeping habits
- Increased school absences or tardiness
- Declining grades
- Loss of interest in school/schoolwork
- Sudden changes in social group/seemingly sudden loss of friends
- Avoidance of social situations
- Decreased self-esteem; negative self-talk
- Feelings of helplessness/hopelessness
- Self-destructive behaviors including self-injurious behaviors, running away, or talking about suicide
Also, it should be noted that students who are perceived as “different” are at an increased risk for bullying, including youth who are LGBT+; students who have physical, emotional, and/or mental disabilities; and others who may be targeted as being “different” due to other perceived characteristics, including, but not limited to: clothing, appearance, weight, socioeconomic status, weakness, and low self-esteem (NASP, 2019b).
What are the warning signs that a student may be bullying others?
According to NASP (2019b), there are several potential warning signs for parents and teachers to be aware of:
- Frequently being involved with physical and/or verbal altercations; becoming increasingly aggressive
- Hanging around with peers who are involved in bullying incidents
- Frequently getting into trouble at school; being referred for disciplinary action
- Being unable to explain the presence of extra money and/or new items
- Not accepting responsibility for own actions; frequently blaming others
- Being overly competitive
- Being overly concerned with reputation/popularity/social status
What can be done about bullying?
Although bullying is prevalent and can lead to significant consequences, there are some general recommendations that can be implemented to help prevent and address bullying (NASP, 2019b):
- Parents and school personnel can teach, model, and reinforce prosocial, respectful behaviors.
- Schools should create, implement, and enforce anti-bullying programs, including specific policies and procedures to address bullying, and schools should share this information with parents to continue reinforcement of these concepts in the home setting.
- Recognize the warning signs and consequences of bullying and approach all incidences pro-actively, providing mental health support as needed to bullies, victims, and bystanders.
- Teach and reinforce respectful behavior and personal safety online; clearly defining what constitutes cyberbullying and/or other inappropriate online contact.
- School personnel should be open to all reports about bullying and should be prepared (through already-established policies/procedures) to deal with situations immediately.
- Be aware of and address the needs of marginalized youth through such possibilities as school clubs/associations/organizations, extracurricular programming, mental health services if needed, community resources/services, and/or peer support groups.
- Encourage students to be “upstanders” (rather than bystanders) by teaching and encouraging specific techniques and behaviors to address bullying, such as reporting bullying to a trusted adult, intervening directly (NOTE: only if safe to do so), and/or comforting, supporting, or befriending the target.
In summary, it is important to address bullying directly, proactively, and systematically. Participation from school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, and community mental health providers, as well as teachers, other school personnel, community stakeholders, medical community members, parents, and other family members is vital to preventing and addressing bullying and its consequences.
- CDC Bullying Information and Resources: https://www.stopbullying.gov
- Cyberbullying Research Center: https://cyberbullying.org
- National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) Bullying Prevention Resources: https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/school-violence-resources/bullying-prevention
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). Effects of bullying. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/stop-bullying/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). Facts about bullying. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/stop-bullying/index.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (n.d.). How to prevent bullying. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/stop-bullying/index.html
Espelage, D. L., & Holt, M. K. (2013). Suicidal ideation and school bullying experiences after controlling for depression and delinquency. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53, S27–S31. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2012.09.017
National Association of School Psychologists. (2019a). Bullying: Brief Facts and Tips for Children and Adults. National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/school-violence-resources/bullying-prevention.
National Association of School Psychologists. (2019b). School Safety and Crisis: Supporting Victims and Perpetrators of Bullying: Guidelines for Parents and Educators. National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved October 5, 2021, from https://www.nasponline.org/resources-and-publications/resources-and-podcasts/school-climate-safety-and-crisis/school-violence-resources/bullying-prevention.
Rossen, E., & Cowan, K. C. (2012). A framework for schoolwide bullying prevention and safety [Brief]. Bethesda, MD: National Association of School Psychologists