Growing up in today’s multicultural society, a child must learn to deal with ethnic and cultural differences in a positive way. However, these differences sometimes lead children to look at their peers who don’t share a majority ethnicity or cultural heritage as “others”—which can lead to negative behavior, such as bullying. Different ethnic and cultural groups may have different motives, requiring adult intervention and action to prevent bullying.

Bullying is a relationship problem characterized by aggressive behavior that includes intentionally inflicting harm on someone, repetition of harassing behavior, and an imbalance of power (such as a popular kid targeting a less socially powerful outcast).

This group phenomenon is determined not only by characteristics of bullies and victims, but also by the different roles kids take within a group of peers. Bullies may tease, isolate, hit, kick or shove their victims at school.

Bullying in a Multicultural Setting

In a school with kids from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds, bullying can include a complex web of racially motivated incidents, and disputes based on cultural heritage, ethnicity and immigration status. Relationships are extra important for immigrants, since establishing friendships in their new home is often considered an important goal.

Reactive and Proactive Bullying Motives

Psychologists talk about reacting aggressively—such as a former victim retaliating against an offender—and proactively acting aggressively, which includes unprovoked bullying incidents. Some reactive kids have a higher tendency to be easily frustrated and angry as a result of a (perceived) provocation. These students, who are more likely to be victims, protest strongly to changes in class curriculum, and become angry easily—and sometimes get so furious that they don’t know what they‘re doing. This rage can stem from multiple sources, such as teacher criticism, losing a game or not getting their own way.

In contrast, proactive aggressive students have the tendency to plan an aggressive behavior to reach a particular goal, such as power and elevated social status among their peers. These aggressors report feeling pleasure and stimulation after bullying others. Bullies seeking social power like to get others to make a fool of themselves, enjoy it when another student is afraid of them, and threaten others to get what they want. Conversely, students who are motivated by relationship buildingdo things that they know are wrong to fit in with others, feel that they gain friends when they exclude other peers, tease someone or bond by participating in illegal activity together.

Proactive aggression is considered to be the main motive for bullying behaviors—especially within groups of immigrant boys, who want to feel a bond or connection with others. Contrastly, groups of native boys mainly bully others because they want to dominate and humiliate their victims.

How to Stop Bullying Among Immigrants

By knowing that immigrant boys bully their peers mainly because they want to feel affiliated with other aggressors, it’s possible to tailor prevention and intervention efforts towards this particular group. To prevent bullying in immigrant boys, encourage your school to:

  • Build connections. Provide alternative ways for immigrant kids to feel connected with their native peers. Encourage immigrant students to join school clubs, sport teams or extra curricular activities, which can promote friendship building skills and alleviate the need to use bullying as a strategy to feel connected with others.
  • Work on team building. Facilitate a class atmosphere where immigrant children feel accepted and liked by others because of common goals or successes. Organizing team games in class or encouraging classmates to work together toward an enticing goal (such as a class party) will help unite otherwise uncommunicative groups of kids.
  • Pay attention to group dynamics. If you notice a group of aggressors bonding over a common target, split them up. Changing a group dynamic can weaken the bonds between bullies, and make them less likely to victimize others. Such interventions are likely to be the most successful in stopping bullying behaviors.

Immigrants often escape their native lands to build a better future for their families—and it’s crucial to ensure that kids who are thrown into an unfamiliar school setting give and receive respect from their peers. By advocating for kids who are bullied based on their ethnic or cultural backgrounds, you’ll help ensure these students grow up happy, secure—and without feeling the need to bully.

This article is based on this reference:

Fandrem, H. Strohmeier, D. and Roland, E. (2009). Bullying and Victimization among Native and Immigrant Adolescents in Norway: The Role of Proactive and Reactive Aggressiveness. Journal of Early Adolescents, 29 (6), 898-923.

The study was later replicated in Austria:

Strohmeier, D., Fandrem, H., Stefanek, E. & Spiel, C. (2012). Acceptance by Friends as Underlying Function of Aggressive Behaviour in Immigrant Adolescents. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology. 53, 80–88