By Yvonne M. Asher, Ph.D.
Autumn holds excitement for many students – heading back to school to see old friends, meet new teachers and learn new skills. However, for some, a new school year holds more apprehension than enthusiasm. Students worry that their teacher will be mean, their math homework will be hard or that their recess time cut short by bad weather. One fear that is described more and more often by parents and children is the fear of bullying.
What is bullying?
There is no single definition of bullying, but most researchers describe the following necessary and sufficient characteristics:
- unwanted, intentionally aggressive behavior that is aimed at harming another person
- carried out repeatedly
- in a relationship where there is a power differential
The quintessential example of this is the hulking, five-foot-five elementary schooler who pushes, shoves and steals the lunch money of a short, scrawny younger child every day. Luckily, this kind of aggression is rare; however, the rarity of “classic” bullying requires us to be somewhat more mindful of what childhood behaviors are (and, are not) considered bullying.
First and foremost, behavior must be unwanted and intended to harm. This means that the rambunctious children rough-housing on the playground is generally not a bullying situation. Playful acts, or acts with the intent of friendly, physical play, are not bullying. Certainly, there are times when children may misunderstand the intent of their peers or friends and perceive an action as hurtful. In that case, a frank discussion of intended message versus experienced consequence is required, but there is no immediate concern for bullying. If a child did not intend to hurt their peer, bullying is not the issue.
When researchers use the term “aggressive behavior,” it should be clarified that aggression is not always physical. Aggression comes in three forms: physical, verbal and relational. Physical aggression is exactly what you are imagining – punching, kicking, hitting and similar behaviors. This kind of aggression occurs in very young children (think: toddlers), most often as a means of communication due to their limited verbal skills. By early childhood, kids rarely use physical aggression to communicate, as most children are able to talk and verbalize their wants, needs and feelings.
The second type of aggression is verbal aggression. This can involve things like yelling, screaming, swearing, threatening and name-calling. This kind of aggression occurs throughout childhood and adolescence, with the frequency decreasing as children mature.
The last form of aggression is the most complex. It is called relational aggression. Researcher Nicki Crick defined relational aggression as any act that uses the social relationships, social standing or social experiences of an individual to harm them. The stereotypical examples of relational aggression come from films like Mean Girls. Gossip, social exclusion, humiliation, embarrassment, rumor spreading and intentional ignoring are all examples of behaviors that fall into the category of relational aggression. This frequency of relational aggression generally increases as children develop, as relational aggression requires more sophisticated verbal and social skills to carry out. In addition, relational aggression is rarely noticed by adults and often does not carry the same disciplinary consequences as physical or verbal aggression. Children learn quickly that refusing to play with a peer or spreading a nasty rumor is unlikely to get them “in trouble,” making this type of aggression far more effective for older children and adolescents.
It is important to note that both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior. Girls tend to start using relational aggression younger, and use it consistently throughout their lives. Boys tend to start out using physical aggression, and shift to relational aggression as they mature. However, both boys and girls engage in aggressive behavior at all developmental stages.
Back to our definition of bullying – the next element is “happens repeatedly.” Bullying is not a one-time occurrence. The behavior, or harm caused by the behavior, must happen over and over. Two children who are angry and get into a fight in the cafeteria may well be intending to harm one another. However, if the fight is a one-time occurrence, there is no immediate concern for bullying. One challenging aspect of this part of the definition is how we handle online or cyberbullying (i.e., bullying that happens through electronic media such as text or social media). Because posts to social media, texts and images online can be viewed multiple times by multiple people, a single act carried out online may meet the definition of bullying. For example, posting a message that conveys a nasty rumor about a peer to one classmate’s profile can have untold impact on the victim’s social relationships depending on how many times that post is forwarded, tagged, “liked,” discussed or otherwise shared across the social network.
The last part of the definition of bullying is that it occurs “in a relationship where there is a power differential.” Power differentials exist in many relationships – parent/child, teacher/student, employer/employee, landlord/renter, therapist/patient and so on. In children, power differentials may exist when a child is:
- physically larger
- more popular
- more socially skilled
While this is not an exhaustive list, these are the most common situations where we find power differentials in children. Without a power differential present in the relationship, bullying is not an immediate concern. It is not uncommon for children to have challenges in their friendships, such as teasing, unwanted horseplay, sitting with other friends at lunch and choosing to work with a different partner on a project. However, these challenges typically do not meet the “power differential” criterion of bullying. They are better defined as normal, healthy obstacles in relationships that, when worked through productively, can help children develop more sophisticated social problem-solving skills.
What to do when it is bullying
We’ve discussed many examples of what is not bullying, so what should happen when behaviors are best characterized as bullying? First and foremost, assess your child’s safety. If physical aggression is part of the bullying, consider immediate action, such as talking to your child’s teacher or school administrator. Note that bullying is now a legal matter in many states, including Massachusetts. When talking to your child, remember that bullying comes with plenty of shame and anxiety, so make every effort to ask simple, clear, direct questions with as calm a tone as possible.
If your child’s safety is not a primary concern, ask your child if they want your help to solve the problem. If so, consider helping your child map out the social dynamics of what is happening. Who is saying what? To whom? Is it just you who is the victim, or are the bullies doing the same thing to other children? Does the teacher notice? If so, do the bullies get in trouble? Depending on the answers, help your child work toward a strategy to solve the problem. Younger children may require more adult intervention, such as a parent reaching out to the teacher. Older children and adolescents may be able to try out problem-solving strategies independently, with your support at home.
If your child does not want your help, consider letting them try to solve the problem on their own. Remind them that you love and trust them, and have confidence in their ability to figure out tough situations. Encourage your child to participate in other social activities where they experience more positive interactions, such as martial arts, Girl or Boy Scouts, team sports or clubs outside of school. Having strong, positive friendships is one of the most important resiliency factors when a child is the victim of bullying.
It may help to know that upwards of 90% of adults report having been the victim of bullying at least once in their lifetime. Interestingly, over 70% also report having bullied someone else.
About Pediatric Neuropsychologist Dr. Yvonne Asher:
Dr. Yvonne M. Asher enjoys working with a wide range of children and teens, including those with autism spectrum disorder, developmental delays, learning disabilities, attention difficulties and executive functioning challenges. She often works with children whose complex profiles are not easily captured by a single label or diagnosis. She particularly enjoys working with young children and helping parents through their “first touch” with mental health care or developmental concerns.
Dr. Asher’s approach to assessment is gentle and supportive, and recognizes the importance of building rapport and trust. When working with young children, Dr. Asher incorporates play and “games” that allow children to complete standardized assessments in a fun and engaging environment.
Dr. Asher has extensive experience working in public, charter and religious schools, both as a classroom teacher and psychologist. She holds a master’s degree in education and continues to love working with educators. As a psychologist working in public schools, she gained invaluable experience with the IEP process from start to finish. She incorporates both her educational and psychological training when formulating recommendations to school teams.
Dr. Asher attended Swarthmore College and the Jewish Theological Seminary. She completed her doctoral degree at Suffolk University, where her dissertation looked at the impact of starting middle school on children’s social and emotional wellbeing. After graduating, she completed an intensive fellowship at the MGH Lurie Center for Autism, where she worked with a wide range of children, adolescents and young adults with autism and related disorders.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 617-658-9800.