Teasing among people may be an inevitable fact of life, and unfortunately, young children are initiated into this behaviour at a young age. Children cope with teasing in a variety of ways. For example, they may walk away or stand up to the individual who is doing the teasing or confront a teaser with friends who will stand up for them. However, when the teasing turns to taunting and the child is afraid that any attempt to stop the aggressor will cause harm, the situation is more serious and possibly crosses the line into bullying.
Teasing may not be harmful for most kids and is part of learning about group culture and peer relationships. However, it can be damaging to those who are more vulnerable and at risk for other problems. Obviously teasing can have an extremely negative impact on children who are less well equipped physically, socially, or emotionally to ride it out. More specifically, children who have an emotional or physical handicap, those who are depressed or have low self-esteem may be less robust and less able to effectively cope with teasing behaviour.
Bullying on the other hand is more than just one single act of aggressive teasing or fighting. Current definitions of bullying behaviour stem from the original research conducted with Norwegian and Swedish students by Dan Olweus, who stated, “a student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of one or more other students. Negative actions can include physical contact, words, making faces or dirty gestures, and intentional exclusion from a group. An additional criterion of bullying is an imbalance in strength. The student who is exposed to the negative actions has difficulty defending himself or herself”. Bullying behaviours them-selves have been further classified as either direct or indirect, with direct bullying characterized by open attacks and indirect bullying characterized by social isolation, exclusion, or nonselection. Thus, the hallmark of bullying behaviour is an ongoing pattern of physical or psychological aggression that is threatening, coercive, relentless, and leaves the victim feeling powerless. The bully is not necessarily bigger or stronger but rather is someone who is intimidating. Often, bullying does not occur solely in the context of a one-to-one relationship In fact there is usually more than one bully and more than one victim. Typically the bully has an assistant and an organization of helpers, referred to by Olweus as the bully’s “henchmen”, who may carry out the acts. The bully may be in charge but may not be one caught.
We do not know the direct cause of bullying, we do not know why some children who grow up in a home that could be expected to foster bullying behaviour do not succumb to following this path. It may also be that factors in children’s social environment, particularly the classroom, permit bullying to arise and continue. Just as particular parenting practices have been associated with the development of bullies, so too certain parenting techniques have been correlated with the development of victim behaviour in children. Various researchers have identified such factors as insecure attachment to the primary caregiver as being associated with victimization. Others have focused on gender differences, looking at how different behaviours by mothers and fathers relate to different victim behaviour in girls and boys. But these results are always complicated by the interaction, in specific individual cases, between parental style and child temperament.
Bullying is not just a schoolyard problem. Childhood bullies tend to have later problems in life. These can include: school attendance and performance problems, engagement in criminal behaviour. Systematic peer abuse can also have a lasting impact on victims. For instance, the peer abuse experiences can affect victims’ self esteem, sexual relationships, and vulnerability to depression and even suicide.
Children should not be expected to handle bullies on their own. Kids need to be taught that bullying is unacceptable. And because bullying often happens in peer environments, this message has to be reinforced and supported on all levels - at home and in school. Children who have friends who stand up for them against bullies are less likely to become victims. But one individual’s attempts don’t necessarily stop the bully completely because the bullying often occurs in a group situation. Furthermore, the bullying can affect everyone in a group - besides the obvious bully or victim. For example, children who have not been targeted are secretly relieved when someone else is bullied which in turn creates widespread avoidance of the bully and lack of involvement with the victim. Thus there is an unfortunate silent majority that is ill prepared, ineffective, and equally fearful. The bully system can create a group wide undercurrent of intimidation that is difficult to overcome single-handedly. Therefore it is imperative to enlist aid from adults.
Parents, teachers, and even pediatricians must become more adept and sensitive at identifying possible victims and bullies. The adults who are in a position to intervene on behalf of the victims must band together to take power away from the bully. An important step is identifying and stripping the bully of his or her power because bullies themselves are skilful at avoiding apprehension or punishment.
Thus once a bullying situation is revealed and identified, adults must act immediately, trust the victim and take a strong stand. Also they should provide a secure attachment for their child, monitor their own behaviour and aggression, provide appropriate models of conflict resolution, encourage autonomy and independence in their child, be concerned and responsive regardless of whether your child is the reported bully or victim, offer suggestions/advice for dealing with problematic peers e.g. being in more public places, involve the school if abuse continues.