Information about bullying and other forms of peer mistreatment: Overview

What do we need to know about peer mistreatment?

First, we need to know that it includes many different behaviors, including:

  • Physical aggression, including sexualized aggression;
  • Threats;
  • Taking or breaking property;
  • Name calling of many kinds, sometimes focused on personal or family characteristics including disability, race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, family income, intelligence, body shape, or appearance;
  • Exclusion and ostracism in many forms, all of which may have the effect of stopping someone from having friends or social connections;
  • Digital and online behaviors that parallel most of the above list.

Second, we need to remember that some kinds of peer mistreatment are already prohibited by State and Federal law. These behaviors may meet criteria for being considered:

  • Assault;
  • Criminal Threatening;
  • Legally-defined harassment focused on race, religion, disability, gender, sexual orientation, and other real or perceived characteristics, as stated in law.When peer mistreatment is actually assault, criminal threatening, or harassment, it is crucial to follow legal and policy requirements.

When I first created this website in 2001, it seemed to many of us that it was also important to differentiate between bullying and non-bullying peer mistreatment. Numerous definitions of bullying have been developed over the years. While they are all somewhat different, most include at least two of these four elements. Definitions of bullying tell us that:

  • Bullying behavior is done by a person or a group who have more social status or physical power than their targets.
  • Bullying behavior is repeated by the same aggressor toward the same target.
  • Bullying youth intend harm.
  • Bullying  behavior does harm or is unwelcome.

I, along with some others in this field, have changed my thinking about the usefulness, and feasibility, of making these distinctions, for the following reasons:

  • It is quite difficult to define or determine power differentials, since social and physical power takes many different forms and is often expressed in subtle ways. In addition, it is difficult and often unproductive for schools to allow low-status youth to do things that would be considered bullying if high-status youth did them, or to allow students to carry out identical actions toward some of their peers but not toward others.
  • Repetition is difficult to determine since much peer aggression happens out of the sight of adults. In addition, one incident of peer aggression can have serious effects.
  • Intent to harm may be the most troublesome of these criteria. Having been a therapist for more than forty years, I am convinced that few of us truly know the motivations behind anyone’s actions, including our own. Even if young people know whether they themselves intend harm, few of them will admit this, and it is very difficult to determine with any certainty what a student intended by his or her actions. Even more to the point, as with drinking and driving, there is no connection between the intent of an act of peer mistreatment and the potential harm that can be done. Actions truly intended as jests can have serious outcomes. For these reasons, I think we do better to focus on stopping actions that are likely to harm others rather than only trying to stop actions that we can determine are intended to harm others.
  • Harm is difficult to determine, as there is often significant social pressure for mistreated youth to pretend that they are not really bothered by the mistreatment. An alternative problem is associated with youth or families who claim emotional harm following trivial negative behavior, and who then demand that the school call this behavior bullying and mete out serious consequences. Again, as with drinking and driving, we can focus our consistent efforts on stopping actions that a reasonable person would see as likely to lead to harm.

One more difficulty with the word “bullying” comes from the two nouns associated with it. When most people think of bullying they see it as happening between a “bully” and a “victim.” In my experience training educators and other professionals in 31 US states, Canada, Africa, and India I have consistently found that people think of “bullies” as mean, conscienceless youth who have suffered significant mistreatment themselves. In talking with youth and families, I find almost no one who considers themselves or their children to be bullies.  Yet almost every human being sometimes acts in mean or excluding ways toward other people.

As I see it, the concept of “the bully” focuses the problem of peer mistreatment on identifying and dealing with a small subgroup of mean people. Schools put up signs showing that their schools are “no-bully zones.” Yet many of the youth who agree to “stand up against bullies” in discussions or assemblies could have a more positive effect on their school’s climate if they focused on changing their own occasional hurtful or excluding behavior. They could do more good if they included and supported peers who are excluded. We would make little progress in our efforts to curb drinking and driving if we focused solely on getting alcoholics off the road. To make our roads safe, we also need to reduce the frequency of drinking and driving by social drinkers. For these reasons, I and many others in this field believe that the noun “bully” has no place in our discussion about peer mistreatment. We also believe that this word should never be used to label a youth or to determine whether action should be taken to stop behavior.

Parallel to this difficulty is the negative effect of using the word and concept “victim.” Early studies in this field showed that most youth who were mistreated consistently over a long period of time tended to be more socially withdrawn and helpless than youth who were not mistreated, Some of these “passive” youth were also found to be highly emotionally reactive, that is, they cried easily. A small subgroup of youth who were mistreated and excluded consistently showed irritating and aggressive patterns of behavior. From these studies, many have concluded that passive, reactive, and irritating youth attract mean peer actions. This conclusion can easily lead us to blame these “victims” for what is done to them or to attempt to solve the problem of peer mistreatment by changing the behavior of youth who are mistreated.

Two key factors are, I believe, neglected in this analysis.

  • Almost all of the studies done to determine the characteristics of “victims” were done after mistreatment had been going on for some time. Thus, it is impossible to determine whether the passivity, helplessness, emotional reactivity, or irritating behavior seen in these studies was a cause or an outcome of persistent peer mistreatment. I find it more likely that these behaviors are an outcome of mistreatment.
  • Even if quiet, introverted, and anxious youth, and youth with unusual social behavior that some may find irritating are  more likely to be mistreated by peers, the decision to mistreat them is made solely by their peers, who are fully responsible for their choices. As with a homeowner who is robbed, even if the locks were not the most effective ones available, the person who broke into the house is fully responsible for the immoral decision to break and enter. The homeowner should not be blamed for this event.

There are three basic principles:

  • Some actions of peer mistreatment are likely to cause harm and thus should be stopped whenever possible, whether there is a power differential or not, with or without overt and provable intent to harm, or whether harm can be proved.
  • The young person who mistreats someone should not be labeled a bully. On the other hand, youth mistreating others should be held fully accountable for their potentially hurtful actions. The person who is mistreated should not be blamed for causing the mistreatment. If people who are mistreated have also done something potentially harmful they should be held accountable for those actions.
  • When peer mistreatment rises to the level of assault, harassment, or other criminally defined categories, we should proceed in accordance with applicable policy and law. Even if this is not the case, we should use all appropriate interventions to stop the mistreatment and to stop the harm it can do.

For more information about what we can do about bullying and prevent harm, see my latest book with Dr. Charisse Nixon, Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment.


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