How to prevent bullying?
We need to change the behavior of bystanders, and we need to understand what causes kids to repeatedly intimidate, harass, or physically harm their peers.
Condemning the behavior and arousing empathy for the victims.
What doesn't work?
Condemning the bully as a person, and attempting to shame him or her.
Whether or not it satisfies our sense of justice, personalized condemnations and blame do not seem to motivate bullies to change their behavior.
When researchers have analyzed anti-bullying tactics in schools, they've found that blaming and shaming had no effect on a child's intentions to stop bullying.
What did change a bully's intentions was a clear condemnation of the behavior, and attempts to make the bully feel empathy for the children he or she harmed (Garandeau et al 2016).
But what about other things? Like fostering social skills? Self-esteem? Problem-solving? Impulse-control? A less hostile view of the world?
There is indeed more to the story. Here's an overview of the research tells us about anti-bullying strategies: What has worked, what hasn't worked, and what might work in the future.
Researchers have tested a number of school-based anti-bullying strategies. Unfortunately, many of these strategies have performed rather poorly.
The best track record is associated with "whole school interventions," programs that battle bullying on multiple fronts. Typically this includes adopting and enforcing strict rules against bullying. It also includes training teachers, introducing anti-bullying curricula in the classroom, sharing anti-bullying information with parents, and offering individualized counseling to students .
But while "whole school interventions" show more promise, they aren't terribly successful. Yes, a few interventions have reported impressive, lasting effects. But most have not. They've either failed show any effect, or had the effect of increasing bullying among some students (Silva et al 2017).
Why haven't school-based programs been more successful?
Maybe the ideas were good, but the execution poor. In support of this idea, researchers who interviewed kids after one intervention found that students "sometimes misunderstood or misused specific intervention skills, especially problem solving and empathy" (Farrell et al 2015).
With better implementation, kids might have mastered these skills, and used them to prevent bullying.
But there is another possibility. Maybe the interventions are focused on the wrong activities.
For instance, some anti-bullying interventions seem to assume that bullies will mend their ways if they are taught social skills, or conflict resolution techniques, or self-confidence-building exercises.
The implication is that most bullies misbehave out of ignorance or incompetence. They victimize others because they don’t know how to make friends, and they have low self-esteem.
As we'll see, these assumptions may be valid for some bullies. But research suggests that other bullies aren't lacking in social savvy. They may be socially well-connected, and have high self-confidence. The cause of their misconduct lies elsewhere.
So I think it's important to take a closer look at the origins of bullying. If we want to know how to prevent bullying, the first step is to understand what types of children are at risk for becoming perpetrators.
Research suggests there are at least two types of bully:
While they may share some traits in common, they are distinctive in other respects. Let's consider the similarities first.
Not surprisingly, children who
become bullies may show early tendencies to resort to aggression -- more than
is usual for children their age (van Dijk et al 2017). But there are other commonalities.
Pure bullies -- the bullies who don't get victimized themselves -- tend to have good social skills, high self-esteem, and high social status (Pallastri et al; Andrews et al 2017).
They be more careful and risk-aversive, characteristics that could help them avoid getting caught by authority figures (Poon 2016). They may impress teachers as being sociable, popular, and self-controlled. Teachers may fail to perceive their aggressive tendencies (Dawes et al 2017).
And they don't seem to suffer difficulties in the long-term, not if they are free of childhood psychiatric problems and family hardship. In one study, child bullies meeting these criteria were no more likely to experience "poor outcomes in adulthood" (Wolke et al 2013).
But for bully-victims, things are different.
Bully-victims -- the bullies who also get victimized by other bullies -- are more likely than pure bullies to have deficits in social skills and self-esteem. Peers are more likely to rate them as unfriendly or unhelpful (van Noorden et al 2016).
As indicated above, bully-victims may be at greater risk for developing a psychiatric condition. And the same may be said for other psychological problems, including anxiety and clinically high levels of arousal, which may make it harder for kids to learn in a typical classroom setting (Juvonen et al 2003; Graham et al 2006; Woods and White 2004).
Bully-victims tend to have poorer adult outcomes (Wolke et al 2013), and they may develop particularly cynical views. One survey found that bully-victims were much more likely than other kids—including "pure" bullies—to endorse cheating (Glew et al 2005). Another study found that bully/victims reported the least faith in human nature (Andreou 2004).
These aren't cheerful discoveries. But they can help us understand why anti-bullying programs fail. Kids bully for different reasons, and will probably respond differently to the same intervention.
If we look at what many bullies have in common, it's clear that we need to teach children that bullying is unacceptable. We need to induce empathy for victims. We need to confront children's Machiavellian beliefs and mechanisms of moral disengagement. We need to teach them new ways of thinking, so they don't assume that other people are hostile. And we need to support children in their everyday lives -- help them cope with family adversity, and screen them for psychological troubles.
But to prevent bullying, we must also avoid lumping together different types of children.
For some kids, the biggest problem may be that they fly under the radar. They are well-adjusted in many ways, and their bullying may go undetected by adults. They need to be identified, and held accountable for changing their behavior. And their non-bullying peers need to get the message, too: Bullying must not be tolerated, no matter how prestigious or powerful the perpetrator.
Other kids -- the bully-victims -- may need a lot of additional help. They may benefit more from training in social skills and conflict management. They may need support for attention problems, hyperactivity, or anxiety. And they probably need help making friends.
1. Stop bullying incidents in progress, and make it clear that bullying will not be tolerated.
Adults need to take a stand. Even kids can stop a bullying incident in progress.
In one study, 57% of bullying incidents on an elementary school playground ceased within 10 seconds of another child getting involved—by either verbally or physically defending the victim (Hawkins et al 2001). To prevent bullying, all that was needed was a single act of solidarity.
2. Don't demonize the bully. Focus on condemning the behavior.
As noted in the introduction, attempts to personalize the condemnation don't appear to motivate bullies to change. This is consistent with research on non-bullies. Most people don't respond well to being shamed. They don't think "I will turn over a new leaf, and strive to behave better." Instead, shaming tends to make people angry, resentful, or indignant. If we shame children, we might also send the message that we think they are intrinsically or innately bad. This can make kids feel that change isn't possible.
If we want children to stop bullying, we're more likely to succeed by distinguishing the behavior from the individual. The behavior is bad, and won't be tolerated. The person can grow and change. For more evidence on this topic, see my article about correcting behavior.
3. Screen bullies for psychiatric conditions and serious behavioral problems.
This is the recommendation of psychiatrist and bullying researcher Andre Sourander (Sourander et al 2007). If bullies have psychiatric problems, they should get the help of specialists trained to handle these problems. Let's stop asking teachers to perform as therapists.
4. Start conversations about the experiences of victims.
Not every bully is ready to empathize. Some may suffer from psychiatric problems that make empathy more difficult. But many bullies are perfectly capable of feeling empathy for others, and research shows that inducing empathy helps motivate them to change. For help, see these evidence-based tips for teaching empathy.
5. Teach kids about moral disengagement.
Bullies harbor anti-social beliefs and rationalizations that make it easier for them to behave in cruel or callous ways. And everybody, including kids and adult bystanders, might rely on mechanisms of moral disengagement to avoid getting involved and speaking up for victims. For more details, see my article about Machiavellian beliefs and implications for how to prevent bullying.
6. Help aggressive kids re-interpret the apparently hostile intentions of others.
Research suggests that it can be done. For example, in a controlled, experimental study, primary school boys were enrolled in a training program designed to teach kids to avoid attributing hostile intentions to peers.
After the intervention, boys who had been identified as aggressive showed marked improvements. Teachers rated them as less aggressive, and, when tested, the boys were less likely to assume hostile intentions in ambiguous situations (Hudley and Graham 1993).
More recent studies have reported similar results. Training programs helped adolescents change their attitudes about aggression. For instance, after training, kids said they were less likely to take offense if someone bumped into them. They were more inclined to assume the collision was accidental, and less likely to think they should retaliate (Yeager et al 2013). Read more about this and other tactics for handling child aggression here.
7. Teach stress management.
Research has identified effective relaxation therapies and stress management techniques. Bully-victims with clinically high levels of arousal might benefit from them.
8. Promote helpful parenting practices.
Authoritarian parenting seeks to enforce a kind of unthinking obedience. It also features punishments that may seem overly harsh or arbitrary.
By contrast, authoritative parenting encourages kids to regulate their own behavior. It’s about setting clear limits, explaining the reasons behind the rules, being responsive, and treating kids as independent, rational, cooperative family members.
Studies show that children are less likely to bully if their parents are warm, communicative, and involved. Kids who perceive their parents as authoritative may be less likely to bully their peers (Rican et al 1993). And a meta-analysis of studies published between 1970 and 2012 found that warm, communicative, involved parenting had a small-to-moderate protective effect against the development of bullying behavior (Lereya et al 2013).
9. Encourage family counseling.
Studies suggest that some forms of family counseling—sessions that address how to improve communication between family members—may help reform adolescents who bully. After 12 weeks of a program called "brief strategic family therapy” (BSFT), kids report fewer acts of bullying and less anger. They may even have changed their patterns of stress hormone secretion (Nickel et al 2005; Nickel et al 2006).
10. Protect kids from trauma, abuse, and bullying at home.
The more kids get abused or experience other adverse life events, the more likely they are to develop anti-social personalities.
So not only is protecting kids a matter of morality, it's also a way to disrupt the cycle of violence.
For more evidence-based information on this topic, see the following articles
Andreou E. 2004. Bully/victim problems and their association with Machiavellianism and self-efficacy in Greek primary school children. British Journal of Educational Psychology 74: 297-309.
Andrews NCZ, Hanish LD, Santos CE. 2017. Does an aggressor's target choice matter? Assessing change in the social network prestige of aggressive youth. Aggress Behav. 43(4):364-374.
Bagley C and Pritchard C. 1998. The reduction of program behaviours and school exclusion in at-risk youth: AN experimental study of school social work with cost-benefit analysis. Child Fam Soc Work 3: 219-226.
Baldry AC. 2003. Bullying in schools and exposure to domestic violence. Child Abuse Negl. 27(7):713-32.
Bauer NS, Herrenkohl TI, Lozano P, Rivara FP, Hill KG, and Hawkins JD. 2006. Childhood bullying involvement and exposure to intimate partner violence. Pediatrics. 118(2):e235-42
Bollmer JM, Milich R, Harris MJ, and Maras MA. 2005. A friend in need: the role of friendship quality as a protective factor in peer victimization and bullying. J Interpers Violence. 20(6):701-12.
Dawes M, Chen CC, Zumbrunn SK, Mehtaji M, Farmer TW, Hamm JV. 2017. Teacher attunement to peer-nominated aggressors. Aggress Behav. 43(3):263-272.
DeRosier ME. 2004. Building relationships and combating bullying: effectiveness of a school-based social skills group intervention. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 33(1):196-201.
Espelage DL, Bosworth K and Simon TR. 2000. Examining the social context of bullying behaviors in early adolescence. Journal of Counseling and Development 78: 326-333.
Farrell AD, Mehari K, Mays S, Sullivan TN, Le AT. 2015. Participants' Perceptions of a Violence Prevention Curriculum for Middle School Students: Was It Relevant and Useful? J Prim Prev. 36(4):227-46.
Garandeau CF, Vartio A, Poskiparta E, Salmivalli C. 2016. School Bullies' Intention to Change Behavior Following Teacher Interventions: Effects of Empathy Arousal, Condemning of Bullying, and Blaming of the Perpetrator. Prev Sci. 17(8):1034-1043.
Georgiou SN, Fousiani K, Michaelides M, Stavrinides P. 2013. Cultural value orientation and authoritarian parenting as parameters of bullying and victimization at school. Int J Psychol. 48(1):69-78.
Glew GM, Fan MY, Katon W, Rivara FP, and Kernic MA. 2005. Bullying, psychosocial adjustment, and academic performance in elementary school. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 159(11):1026-31.
Houlston C and Smith PK. 2008. The impact of a peer counselling scheme to address bullying in an all-girl London secondary school: A short-term longitudinal study. Br J Educ Psychol. 2008 Apr 23. [Epub ahead of print]
Hudley C and Graham S. 1993. An attributional intervention to reduce peer-directed aggression among African-American boys. Child Dev. 64(1):124-38.
Jansen DE, Veenstra R, Ormel J, Verhulst FC, Reijneveld SA. 2011. Early risk factors for being a bully, victim, or bully/victim in late elementary and early secondary education. The longitudinal TRAILS study. BMC Public Health. 11:440.
Juvonen J, Graham S, Schuster MA. 2003. Bullying among young adolescents: the strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics. 112(6 Pt 1):1231-7.
King KA, Vidourek RA, Davis B, and McClellan W. 2002. Increasing self-esteem and school connectedness through through a multidimensional mentoring program. J Sch Health. 72(7):294-9.
Knowler C and Frederickson N. 2013. Effects of an emotional literacy intervention for students identified with bullying behaviour. Educ Psychol (Lond). 33(7):862-883.
Lee S, Kim CJ, Kim DH. 2015. A meta-analysis of the effect of school-based anti-bullying programs. J Child Health Care. 19(2):136-53.
Lereya ST, Samara M, Wolke D. 2013. Parenting behavior and the risk of becoming a victim and a bully/victim: a meta-analysis study. Child Abuse Negl. 37(12):1091-108.
Loeber R and Stouthamer-Loeber M. 1986. Family factors as correlates and predictors of juvenile conduct problems and delinquency. In M Tonry and N Morris (eds): Crime and Justice: An annual review of research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Lomas J, Stough C, Hansen K, Downey LA. 2012. Brief report: Emotional intelligence, victimisation and bullying in adolescents. J Adolesc. 35(1):207-11.
Nickel MK, Muehlbacher M, Kaplan P, Krawczyk J, Buschmann W, Kettler C, Rother N, Egger C, Rother WK, Loew TK, and Nickel C. 2006. Influence of family therapy on bullying behaviour, cortisol secretion, anger, and quality of life in bullying male adolescents: A randomized, prospective, controlled study. Can J Psychiatry. 51(6):355-62.
Nickel M, Luley J, Krawczyk J, Nickel C, Widermann C, Lahmann C, Muehlbacher M, Forthuber P, Kettler C, Leiberich P, Tritt K, Mitterlehner F, Kaplan P, Pedrosa Gil F, Rother W, and Loew T. 2006. Bullying girls - changes after brief strategic family therapy: a randomized, prospective, controlled trial with one-year follow-up. Psychother Psychosom. 75(1):47-55.
Obermann ML1. 2011. Moral disengagement in self-reported and peer-nominated school bullying. Aggress Behav. 37(2):133-44
Ohene SA, Ireland M, McNeely C, and Borowsky IW. 2006. Parental expectations, physical punishment, and violence among adolescents who score positive on a psychosocial screening test in primary care. Pediatrics. 117(2):441-7
Olweus D. 1994. Bullying at school: basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. J Child Psychol Psychiatry 35: 1171-1190.
Olweus D. 1980. Familial and temperamental determinants of aggressive behavior in adolescent boys: A causal analysis. Developmental Psychology 16(6): 644-660.
Orobio de Castro B, Slot NW, Bosch JD, Koops W, and Veerman JW. 2003. Negative feelings exacerbate hostile attributions of intent in highly aggressive boys. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 32(1):56-65.
Orobio de Castro B, Veerman JW, Koops W, Bosch JD, and Monshouwer HJ. 2002. Hostile attribution of intent and aggressive behavior: a meta-analysis. Child Dev. 73(3):916-34.
Peachey AA, Wenos J, Baller S. 2017. Trait Emotional Intelligence Related to Bullying in Elementary School Children and to Victimization in Boys. OTJR (Thorofare N J). 37(4):178-187.
Perren S, Gutzwiller-Helfenfinger E, Malti T, Hymel S. 2012. Moral reasoning and emotion attributions of adolescent bullies, victims, and bully-victims. Br J Dev Psychol. 30(Pt 4):511-30.
Pollastri AR, Cardemil EV, O'Donnell EH. 2010. Self-esteem in pure bullies and bully/victims: a longitudinal analysis. J Interpers Violence. 25(8):1489-502.
Poon K. 2016. Understanding Risk-taking Behavior in Bullies, Victims, and Bully Victims Using Cognitive- and Emotion-Focused Approaches. Front Psychol. 7:1838.
Renati R, Berrone C, Zanetti MA. 2012. Morally disengaged and unempathic: do cyberbullies fit these definitions? An exploratory study. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 15(8):391-8
Rican P, Klicperova M and Koucka T. 1993. Families of bullies and their victims: A children’s view. Studia Psychologica 35: 261-266.
Shakoor S, Jaffee SR, Bowes L, Ouellet-Morin I, Andreou P, Happé F, Moffitt TE, and Arseneault L. 2012. A prospective longitudinal study of children's theory of mind and adolescent involvement in bullying. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2012 Mar;53(3):254-61.
Shields A and Cicchetti D. 2001. Parental maltreatment and emotion dysregulation as risk factors for bullying and victimization in middle childhood. J Clin Child Psychol. 30(3):349-63.
Silva JLD, Oliveira WA, Mello FCM, Andrade LS, Bazon MR, Silva MAI. 2017. Anti-bullying interventions in schools: a systematic literature review. Cien Saude Colet. 22(7):2329-2340.
Solomon BS, Bradshaw CP, Wright J, Cheng TL. 2008. Youth and parental attitudes toward fighting. J Interpers Violence. 23(4):544-60
Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Sillanmäki L, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and Almqvist F. 2007b. What is the early adulthood outcome of boys who bully or are bullied in childhood? The Finnish "From a Boy to a Man" study. Pediatrics. 120(2):397-404.
Tippett N and Wolke D. 2015. Aggression between siblings: Associations with the home environment and peer bullying. Aggress Behav. 41(1):14-24
van Dijk A, Poorthuis AMG, Malti T. 2017. Psychological processes in young bullies versus bully-victims. Aggress Behav. 43(5):430-439.
van Noorden TH, Haselager GJ, Lansu TA, Cillessen AH, Bukowski WM. 2016. Attribution of human characteristics and bullying involvement in childhood: Distinguishing between targets. Aggress Behav. 42(4):394-403.
Wolke D and Samara MM. 2004. Bullied by siblings: association with peer victimisation and behaviour problems in Israeli lower secondary school children. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 45(5):1015-29.
Wolke D, Copeland WE, Angold A, Costello EJ. 2013. Impact of bullying in childhood on adult health, wealth, crime, and social outcomes. Psychol Sci. 24(10):1958-70.
Yeager DS, Trzesniewski K, Tirri K, Nokelainen P, and Dweck CS. 2011. Adolescents' implicit theories predict desire for vengeance: Correlational and experimental evidence. Developmental Psychology: 47, 1090-1107.
Yeager DS, Miu AS, Powers J, and Dweck CS. 2013. Implicit theories of personality and attributions of hostile intent: a meta-analysis, an experiment, and a longitudinal intervention. Child Dev. 84(5):1651-67.
Portions of this article are derived from an earlier piece, "How to prevent bullying: An evidence based guide."
Content of "How to prevent bullying" last modified 10/17/17
Image credits for "How to prevent bullying":
Image of boys making faces copyright Jani Bryson / istock
image of of masked boys by Cliff Parnell / istock
image of preschoolers by John Wilkinson / flickr
image of teen bully violence by Diego Grez of the Instituto Regional Federico Errázuriz / wikimedia commons