Bullying, Interventions, and The Role of Adults

By and — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

Bullying is a relationship problem that requires relationship solutions. Over the past 20 years, the dominant perspective has been to view bullying as an aggressive behaviour problem that requires consistent punishment of those who bully (1, 2). Recent research has demonstrated considerable diversity among children who bully. Although some have serious problems with aggression and behavioural regulation, others are socially skilled and central members of a peer group who have learned to acquire power through bullying (3, 4, 5). Given such diversity, behavioural management and punitive approaches may not be well- suited for those socially competent children who understand the dynamics of their peer group and use power and aggression to keep their high-status position. Punitive approaches also fall short of meeting the needs of children who bully because they have not acquired the skills, motivation, and understanding that are essential for positive social behaviour and healthy relationships.

Bullying as a Relationship Problem

Through our research, we have come to understand bullying as a relationship problem, suggesting that this behavior arises from complex interpersonal dynamics rather than an individual child’s problem with aggression or another child’s inability to defend him or herself. When viewed within a relationship context, those children who bully are learning how to use power and aggression to control and/or distress their peers. While children who are repeatedly victimized become trapped in abusive relationships that are increasingly difficult to escape. A relationship problem requires relationship solutions. The goal of interventions, then, is to enhance children’s interpersonal capacity in order to promote healthy relationships both in the present and throughout life. In addition, we must consider children’s age and gender, so that our relationship solutions match the students’ developmental needs.

Children develop the capacity to form healthy relationships from moment-to-moment learning experiences starting at birth (6). The lessons for successful social interactions are complex: they require understanding of one’s own behaviors and emotions and those of other people. The people children interact with are highly variable and often unpredictable; even a single person varies from day to day in warmth, responsivity, and emotionality. Given the complexity of social interactions, there can be no simple recipe for finding the appropriate relationship solutions. Adults need to provide extensive, dynamic, and ongoing support to youth to enable them to learn how to relate to others positively, be effective in achieving social goals, and use power in a positive manner.

Interventions for Children Who Bully

Children who bully others are asserting their social power and have learned to use their power aggressively (7). The lessons of power and aggression learned in playground bullying can transfer to sexual harassment, dating aggression and may extend to workplace harassment, as well as marital, child, and elder abuse (8). The challenge, then, is to redirect this leadership potential from the negative strategies of bullying to positive leadership skills and opportunities. These children require support to find positive ways of gaining power and status within their peer relationships. They need to be provided with formative, rather than punitive consequences – interventions that provide a clear message that bullying is unacceptable, but that also build awareness, skills, empathy and insights. These interventions also must provide appealing alternatives to bullying. Children who bully others could be encouraged to read a story or watch a film, and write about how hurtful bullying can be. Or they might be called upon to help implement anti-bully programs in younger grades. The key for children who bully is to turn their use of power from negative to positive leadership (9).

  • For the majority of children (70-80%) bullying problems are temporary (10). With minor intervention and support (e.g., anti-bully programs offered in schools) these children will understand bullying problems and learn to engage positively with peers.
  • A smaller proportion of children (10-15%) will have ongoing problems with bullying (10). These children may require support beyond the standard class lessons on bullying, character development, and citizenship. They may require specialized interventions to learn the essential building blocks of healthy relationships.
  • For a small proportion of children (5-10%) bullying problems will persist and require comprehensive intervention, such as mental health support and parental engagement (10). These children require education in positive relationship skills since they have missed the essential lessons in healthy social development. Early intervention may divert them from a pattern of lifelong relationship problems.
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