Why is Bullying Difficult to Change?
Bullying and victimization are problematic behaviors with negative consequences for everyone: the victims, the bullies, the other students in the classroom and school, the teachers, the parents of the bullies and the victims, and perhaps even the neighborhood in which the school is located. Thus, much is at stake to reduce bullying. Yet, we find that the roles that children and adolescence have in their peer group, and bullying and victimization specifically, can be quite stable over time. Without intervention, there seems to be little change in the occurrence of bullying and victimization. We have also examined the reasons why bullies and victims do not change easily. Understanding these reasons is necessary to create change.
Stability of Peer Reputations
The reputation of a child or adolescent in the peer group tends to be stable over time. Reputations of being well-liked or popular, but also aggressive, rejected, or victimized are quite consistent over multiple years, even when children or adolescents move to new schools and the peer group changes (1).
In one study, we followed children from age 9 (the end of elementary school) to age 18 (the end of high school). The most aggressive 9-year-olds tend to be the most aggressive 19-year-olds (2). Children who are victimized as youngsters also tend to be victimized as they get older (3). For victims of bullying, it is difficult to improve their position from one school year to the next.
The Rewards of Bullying
Why do bullying and victimization repeat themselves? One reason for the stability of bullying are the rewards that bullies get for their behavior. Bullying is power (4). Being aggressive to others is reinforced by becoming dominant in the peer group (5).
Bullies do not work alone. Some peers assist the bully; others watch and do nothing (6). The bully forms a coalition with the assistants that increases their status and helps the bully stay in charge (7). Because of such rewards, the bullying continues.
What Peers Expect of Bullies and Victims
Second, children’s perceptions of themselves and others contribute to the stability of bullying and victimization. Children expect their peers to behave in the same way they always do and thereby help them to continue their behavior (8). Problem children such as bullies often do not perceive their own behavior very accurately (9). Instead, bullies may think that they are cool and entitled to their behavior (10). Victims inaccurately believe that they cannot escape their fate (11). Peers’ expectations of bullies and victims, and bullies’ and victims’ expectations of themselves, help to continue their roles in the peer group, even across school transitions (12).
Is Change Possible?
The story of stability may suggest a bleak picture. Is change ever possible? Change is possible (13), but to create it, the factors that contribute to stability need to be taken into account. The rewards for the bully in the peer group need to be counteracted. It is also necessary to change how bullies and victims see themselves: to make bullies aware of their aggression and its consequences on their peers, and to make victims understand that change can happen.