While bullying might seem like it occurs without rhyme or reason, it often follows similar and predictable patterns. This cycle can be brutally self-perpetuating at times and also incredibly difficult to stop as a victim, bystander, or even as an adult.
The good news is that because bullies do often act predictably, the pathway to putting an end to their behavior becomes much more manageable once we understand the life cycle of bullying.
1. Bullying Begins
As there is so many different forms of bullying, it can also begin many different ways. Online, it can take the form of social media shaming or spreading rumors about others in group chats. In-person, it can be physical victimization at school or during sports, hazing, or intimidation. It can also be more indirect, such as with gossip and social exclusion.
The reasons bullying begins are equally diverse. Sometimes it’s a matter of ‘monkey-see-monkey-do’, as in hanging around other bullies and then mimicking that behavior. Similarly, being neglected at home can result in a teen acting out simply because they crave attention or feel the need to pass down the same sort of verbal abuse they hear at home. Often, it’s due to insecurity, and the bully’s behavior is a reaction to the threat of others finding out they are filled with fear and weakness.
2. Identifying Victims
According to the Pacer National Bullying Prevention Center, 25% of all students will experience bullying during their academic careers.
While no kids are exempt from the risk of being bullied, the favorite victims of bullies are those that are sensitive, socially withdrawn, physically weak, anxious, passive, or that have poor self-esteem. These groups tend not to be retaliatory, another reason why kids with disabilities are 2-3x more likely to be bullied than their peers. As of 2013, more than 74% of LGBT students reported being bullied because of their sexual orientation.
3. Fueling the Fire
Bullies crave reaction, be it from their victims, peers, or bystanders. And when bullies get a reaction they find desirable without any sort of negative repercussion, this further incentivizes them to continue their bullying behavior. The control they are able to exert over others also fuels continued bullying behavior.
Conversely, bullies who don’t achieve their desired reaction or who are confronted by adults and/or peers who stand up for the person being bullied typically back down and either change their behavior or move on to other targets.
4. Effects of Bullying
Bullying affects victims in myriad physical, emotional, and mental ways. Victims of bullying often have lower self-esteem, may withdraw socially, or become more anxious. These are the same traits bullies target to begin with, which makes victims even more vulnerable to continued bullying. Victims can then also have difficulty concentrating at school or practice due to fear of being bullied again, or due to replaying previous incidences over in their head.
All these things can lead to a downward spiral in which a victim becomes depressed and their school work, athletic performance, and even personality and outlook on life are negatively impacted.
5. Coping Mechanisms
Once bullied, victims may engage in a number of different coping mechanisms. Sometimes these are healthy, such as reaching out for help, seeking strength in numbers, or supporting anti-bullying programs.
But more commonly a young person’s coping mechanisms are forms of avoidance, like coming up with reasons to miss school or practice, becoming more socially withdrawn, downplaying the effect bullying is having on them, or even starting to bully others.
6. Putting A Stop To Bullying
As long as a bully feels powerful and in control, they’ll continue bullying a victim (or multiple) as long as there are no negative repurcussions. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution to stopping bullying and it may take a variety of different methods to truly bring it to an end.
It’s important for victims to realize being bullied is not their fault. It is similarly important for schools, sports organizations, and parents to realize stopping the bullying is not the responsibility of the person being bullied. The most effective anti-bullying interventions originate with adults and institutions like schools and sports clubs. While kids being bullied should be encouraged to seek help, seek safety in numbers, stand up for themselves, and even avoid situations where the risk of being bullied is highest, comprehensive anti-bullying programs led and supported by adults key to protecting all kids.
Although bystanders may not want to interfere as to avoid becoming a target themselves, intervening in a bullying situation can play a crucial role in ending it. Intervening can be done directly, such as by expressing disapproval, defending the victim, or otherwise changing the situation to distract the bully. In group situations, just one person standing up for another can often be enough to encourage others to join in. Indirectly, bystanders can also go tell a trusted adult (a parent, teacher, or coach) who can influence on the situation.
Parents and coaches should take the time to learn from bullying prevention resources like those at Pacer to figure out how they can best help their child. Often the best solutions involve talking with and supporting the child, and meeting with the school to come up with solutions if bullying persists.