Many parents assume that a few scuffles with other kids are par for the course during childhood, and that dealing with a bully or two builds character, especially if a son or daughter learns to stand up to the offender (with or without a punch or two being thrown in the process). These themes have driven crowd-pleasing movies such as The Karate Kid and Back to the Future, but what happens off the silver screen is another story.
In everyday life, bullying is abusive, ugly and disturbingly common, with profound and sometimes lethal consequences. Indeed, its physical and emotional impact on children is now being addressed as a serious health issue by professional organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians and the American Medical Association, as well as by governmental agencies.
To be specific, bullying involves ongoing aggressive behavior intended to cause harm or distress in a relationship where there is an imbalance of power, physical or otherwise. Bullying is literally "as old as sin" and can occur at any stage of life, but it is particularly common — and destructive — during childhood and adolescence.
Sadly but not surprisingly, the targets of bullying are often those who are poorly equipped to deal with it: the small, the weak, those who look or act a little different from the crowd, and those who have difficulty making and keeping friends. Bullying goes well beyond the usual horseplay, verbal and otherwise, of childhood and adolescence. It is essentially child abuse perpetrated by peers, and it may take a variety of forms:
Statistics about bullying are based primarily on survey data, which have typically found that at any given time between 20 and 30 percent of students are involved, either as perpetrators, victims or both.2 For example, one national survey of more than fifteen thousand adolescents in the sixth through tenth grade found that 11 percent reported being bullied, 13 percent admitted to bullying others, and another 6 percent said they both bullied others and had been the targets of bullying themselves.3 Bullying is ubiquitous: It is not restricted to any particular geographic location, community setting (urban, suburban or rural), ethnic group or socioeconomic status. It is more common at school — in the classroom, hallway, playground or lunchroom — than on the way to or from school.
Unfortunately, statistics only dimly reflect the pain endured by victims of bullying. Aside from any physical injuries they might sustain, they are also more likely to suffer from anxiety, depression and physical complaints such as headaches, abdominal pain and fatigue.
Needless to say, reluctance to go to school (or wherever the bullying is taking place) is a common manifestation and may result in numerous missed days of school. When a child or adolescent is experiencing frequent school absences, especially due to physical complaints for which a medical evaluation reveals no specific cause, victimization by bullying should be considered as a possible — or likely — cause. Unfortunately, all too often a child or teen will be reluctant to report what has happened to parents or school officials — even if asked directly — because of a conviction that nothing can be done about it, lack of confidence that teachers or administrators will take effective action and (most importantly) fear of retaliation.
Even more worrisome is the connection between bullying and violence, by both the perpetrator and victim. Children and teens who bully are more likely to be involved or injured in fights, and to steal, vandalize, smoke, use alcohol, drop out of school and carry a weapon. Furthermore, those who have been repeatedly victimized may decide to seek spectacular and tragic revenge. In 2002, the United States Secret Service and the United States Department of Education evaluated thirty-seven mass school shootings that had occurred between 1974 and 2000. Of the forty-one attackers involved, three out of four had felt persecuted and bullied prior to the incident.4
What can be done about bullying? Preventing, detecting and responding to bullying require involvement of parents, schools, churches and (when necessary) law enforcement.