Guide to Bullying Prevention

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Think about the variety of ways young people express themselves and develop unique opportunities for students to contribute to a positive school environment.

Myth #6: “Bullies have low self-esteem.”

Studies by leading bullying researcher Dan Olweus show bullies are generally as popular and possess similar levels of self-esteem and intelligence as more well-adjusted young people.27 While the prevalence of bullying peaks in middle schools, many researchers believe the tendencies to such aggression arise in early childhood and are then reinforced through the early grades. By the time bullies are in middle school, they have already established clear patterns of abuse.28 Rewarded for their aggression by small clusters of peers and others (and often the victims themselves), many bullies have an inflated sense of their own power and worth.

The roots of bullying are complex, and research indicates a combination of factors are involved. While the temperament a child is born with is a risk factor, the majority of the contributing factors for bullying are related to socialization. Bullies are not born bullies––they learn bullying behavior. Many bullies learn to be aggressive from the way they are treated by bigger or more powerful people in their lives—usually their parents or other authority figures, but also peers.

Bullies tend to come from families characterized by what Olweus calls “too little love and care and too much freedom.” These families’ parenting is usually characterized by inconsistencies. Parenting that relies on freedom where there should be guidance, and physical punishment or violent outbursts where there should be consequences and calm instruction, leaves children confused, at risk for similar outbursts, and dependent on power assertion to get their needs met. Research shows children are born with the capacity for empathy, but erratic and unsympathetic parenting and the resulting anxious attachments to their caregivers can inhibit its development. Many bullies seem to show little concern for their victims, are unable to take the perspective of others, and lack the everyday filters of conscience that keep other young people from hurting others. Many bullies also tend to misinterpret social cues from other children, seeing the threat of aggression in neutral acts. A brush against someone in the hall can feel like a threat to a bully and therefore serve as a justification for his or her behavior, beginning a pattern of abuse and leading to a proclivity to blame the victim: “He had it coming to him.” 29 Research reported the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology suggested bullies are sometimes created by peer pressure that repeatedly reinforces their aggressive behaviors.30

Widening out from the immediate context of peers and family surrounding the bully are the cultural messages from wider society. Popular music, TV shows, movies, and video games often glorify violence and aggression and reinforce a bully’s actions. Racism, sexism, ageism, classism, homophobia, and other institutionalized forms of oppression are also common themes in pop culture, and in turn are often part of the dynamic between bullies and their targets. Such power dynamics may arise at the most insidious and unconscious levels, making it difficult for adults and children to name and address what is really happening in many incidents of bullying and harassment. (See “Is it a Hate Crime?” on page 20 for more information.)

Sometimes even otherwise well-behaved children engage in bullying behavior. Research shows this is more likely to happen when certain group dynamics are in place:

  • Students have seen bullying modeled and rewarded.

  • Students’ sense of individual responsibility is decreased because other young people are also doing it. (That is, joining in with a group tends to ease each person’s sense of guilt—spreading it across the group.)31


“Environmental factors including the attitudes, beliefs, and actions of adults in schools can determine the extent to which bullying problems manifest themselves.”

––Dan Olweus, bullying Reseacher

Myth #7: “Once a bully, always a bully”
“When I stopped, I felt bad, and I thought to myself, next time I’ve got to stop and think about what I’m doing.” — from a bully
Research shows that without intervention, myth #7 is often a reality—bullies who are identified by around age eight are at risk of a lifetime of bullying32. But prevention and intervention efforts can make a difference.

Because bullies learn to be bullies, they can also learn alternative pro-social skills. Many bullies get locked into their behaviors by their own lack of skills and the expectations of others. They need help finding a way out. While it’s true that in many cases bullies lack a sense of remorse for their actions, other bullies (and bystanders who join in on the abuse) express discomfort about their actions. Some bullies are actually seeking social connection through their actions, and underlying their behavior is the need for acceptance from peers and the approval of others. We can teach bullies alternate ways to meet these needs by:

  • Intervening immediately with constructive discipline

  • Creating opportunities for bullies to feel powerful in positive ways (e.g., making a difference in the life of others, protecting more vulnerable youth)

  • Nurturing empathy

  • Teaching pro-social skills (e.g., communication, expression of feelings, problem solving, nonviolent conflict resolution)

(See Chapter 4, “Interventions for Helping Bullies, Targets, and Their Families.”)


Think about the bullies in your school. What are the common characteristics among them? What social skills could you help them acquire? How can you help them acquire such skills?

Myth #8: “Boys will be boys”

Like all gender stereotypes, myths abound when it comes to who does the bullying in schools. When many people hear the term bullying, their first image is that of physical violence and intimidation by boys. But studies show girls are involved in bullying almost as often as boys. Girls are more likely to suffer from cyberbullying.33 A study reported in Educational Leadership showed some differences––girls’ bullying is more often related to social aggression such as exclusion and gossip and boys’ to physical aggression34––but it’s important that stereotypes about who bullies are, be challenged whenever possible.

Our expectations for young people can be powerful self-fulfilling prophecies. Many schools ignore the more indirect forms of bullying girls engage in, instead creating policies that only address physical aggression and violence. But research shows indirect bullying can have effects just as devastating on their targets as more direct forms.35

Inherent to this myth is what William J. Pollack, M.D., calls “The Boy Code.”36 His book Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myth of Boyhood explains that boys are socialized into a narrow range of behaviors that glorify aggression, violence, and toughness. Much of bullying and teasing in middle school centers on children’s attempts to enforce the “Boy Code” among their peers. Boys whose behavior or appearance falls outside of this narrow definition of masculinity are mercilessly shamed.

Girls have their own narrow definition of acceptable behavior and shame to contend with for behavior or physical appearance outside the norm. For adolescents grappling with sexual and gender identities, teasing of this type can be particularly painful, creating a legacy of humiliation that is carried into adulthood. Psychologists believe it is these adults with a legacy of shame and unresolved issues who most strongly reinforce such stereotypes for young people.

By the Numbers

Researchers J. B. Kupersmidt and C. J. Patterson found that boys with low self-esteem who were not accepted by their peers were at greatest risk for bullying; and girls who were unpopular with their friends and were aggressive were most likely to bully.37

Delve Deeper

See Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons (Harcourt, 2002) and Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood by William Pollack (Random House, 1998) for more information about the impact of gender and gender stereotypes on bullying.

How Bullying Affects Young People

There are high costs for everyone involved in bullying. In schools where there is rampant bullying, a culture of shame and fear permeates.

Young people quickly learn that to be different or to speak up in defense of another opens them to the risk of being targeted. Some students have compared the feeling of being in such schools to walking on eggshells. They are ashamed of their own inability to act when faced with the humiliation of others. And they frequently voice their belief that adults in the building either “don’t know what’s going on” or “will do nothing to change it.” Faced with such a lack of effective adult intervention, a sort of self-regulating system develops within the group: a system whereby young people maintain and police the prevailing norms and values themselves. Only the smallest percentage of students at the top of the social order benefit from this system. Rigid rules develop that dictate aspects such as dress, appearance, interests, and manner of speech. At the very least, a lack of adult intervention results in what is called “learned helplessness.” Students describe themselves as resigned to the prevailing adolescent social pressures. The difficulty is that they do not always possess the skills or resources needed to be resilient.

The line between target and bully blurs as the cycle of shame is perpetuated. A 2002 Washington Post article stated that 30 percent of students reported being somehow involved in bullying, and 6 percent of students reported they were both a target and a bully.38 Researchers are often most worried about the last population––one that may be at risk for violent outbursts such as those evidenced in high-profile school shootings. It isn’t known which comes first, being a target or being a bully; but many researchers concur that these bullies are most likely passing along behaviors they experience from important adults in their lives or from peers.
The Effect on Targets

  • Approximately 160,000 school children stay home each day out of fear, often without telling their parents why.39

  • Targets of bullying experience higher than normal levels of insecurity, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and other physical and mental symptoms.40

  • The stress brought on by chronic bullying leads to a diminished ability to learn.41

  • In extreme cases, targets can resort to violence and suicide.

The Effect on Bystanders

  • 75% of students report feeling ashamed when they witness bullying.42

  • 48% of students agreed that coming to the aid of a victim reduces their social standing.43

  • Being exposed to violence and maltreatment is associated with “increased depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress, alcohol use, and low grades.”44

The Effect on Bullies

  • Adults who bullied as children have higher rates of substance abuse (including alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes), domestic violence, and other violent crime.45

  • Bullies identified by age 8 are six times more likely to be convicted of a crime by the time they reach age 24 and five times more likely to end up with a serious criminal record by age 30.46

  • Bullies achieve less academically, occupationally, and personally.47

  • Bullies can be quite popular in middle school, but by the time they get to high school bullies are less popular. In adulthood, they tend to have few friends and appear to perpetuate the cycle of violence in their children by rewarding aggression.48

  • Bullies have more negative attitudes about school and tend to pass those attitudes on to their children.49

  • One study showed bullies have higher rates of suicide than their targets.50

How Do You Know It’s Bullying?

Barbara Coloroso, in her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, identifies four markers for bullying:

  • Imbalance of power between target and bully

  • Intent to harm

  • Threat of further aggression

  • Creation of an atmosphere of terror.51

Dan Olweus defines bullying as repeated exposure, over time, to negative actions from one or more other students. Negative actions can include physical, verbal, or indirect actions that are intended to inflict injury or discomfort upon another including hitting, intimidation, taunting, exclusion, or spreading rumors.

While one-time incidents of taunting, exclusion, or aggression between young people who are peers tear at the fabric of your community, they do not in themselves constitute bullying. As you launch your bullying prevention efforts, it’s helpful to explore what constitutes bullying with administrators, students, parents, and all involved constituents so everyone has a common definition.

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