Bullying at School: What Is It?

Who are these bullies and what are they on about?

It’s interesting to find that there are in fact, a number of words to describe those at school (and other places too!) who we might class as very, very difficult – the bullies:


  • if any situation can be turn into a battlefield, they will do it
  • you are targeted by the tank as part of the problem
  • the attack can be a full frontal assault, loud and forceful or it can have the quiet intensity of a laser
  • the intent is to get results by propelling you back on course or eliminating the obstacle that you represent


  • they shoot from the cover of humour (their cover is given to them by their victims who pretend nothing is happening and who may smile and laugh along with everyone else)
  • are “friendly” but are critical and usually in the form of a joke (at your expense of course)
  • use sarcasm, putdowns and digs
  • they have shots at you


  • they use false rumours
  • they are always looking over their shoulders and whispering some gripping truth that they alone know and will share only with you
  • give them any information at all and it will become their next “top secret” meeting with someone else


  • they throw temper tantrums, and swear
  • often are stand-over merchants
  • can use finger-pointing and gesturing
  • typically can be blunt and abrupt


  • generally rude and unpleasant to those around
  • non-cooperative
  • puts others on the defensive


  • they communicate that those around them are the unwashed peasants who are fortunate to be in the presence of a truly big deal
  • they are legends in their own minds
  • they are arrogant and self-important and are genuinely convinced that the whole universe revolves around them


  • they may as well be mannequins in a department store display
  • they act in the most superficial manner imaginable
  • their goal is to look better than you and make sure that you know it


  • their goal is simple – to control everyone and everything
  • they intend to manage your life, their lives and anything and everything that you have the misfortune of sharing with them
  • they dominate all of their interactions
  • they will use you and everyone around them to get what they want
  • if you or anyone else becomes a casualty, that’s a minor inconvenience — they will just go and get someone else


  • There’s only one way to do it…..and it’s my way
  • have a need to prove that they are right
  • base their decisions on their own personal facts and not the facts from any other source
  • give into me and I’ll pretend that we get along

Know anyone like these in your schoolyard, workplace or community?  Sad, but they abound and ma either currently or previously?

Anyone know of anyone else who has experienced someone like this at work?

Why Are Bullies Like This?  How Come?

Let’s be aware of an important Life Rule = “People Do What Works for Them”

The truth is that you don’t and won’t behave in ways that reap only negative, unwanted results.  Instead, you act or behave in ways that at some level, you perceive works for you i.e., you get some kind of “pay-off”

So, what is the Goal or pay-off for these “bullies?”

= Power and Control = To Feel Good

What is Bullying?

Unfortunately, there is the general consensus that we all know what bullying is and we just need to get on and eradicate it.  It is assumed that we all somehow know what it is and the real issue therefore is what actions we should take to stamp it out.  But let’s make sure that we know what it really is.

An initial definition of bullying proposed by Tattum & Tattum in their book “Social Education and Personal Development” (1992) was that:

“Bullying is the wilful, conscious desire to hurt another and put him/her under stress.”

In other words, bullying was conceived as a desire.  By implication therefore, anybody who wants to hurt somebody, and knows it, is then, by definition a bully.  If you think about it though, almost all of us at some stage have felt like hurting somebody else (but we don’t, we just feel like it).  We do not actually bully, but the thought certainly crosses our mind.

Hence, having a desire is not a sufficient condition underlying bullying.  Most recent writers have conceived bullying as the kind of the behaviour characterised by intentionality and hurtfulness.  For example, Dan Olweus in his 1993 book “Bullying at School: What we know and what we can do” defined bullying as “negative behaviour” referring to behaviour which was intended to inflict “injury or discomfort”.  Typically, this behaviour is also repeated through successive encounters over days, weeks and even years.

The “injury or discomfort” could well be a physical blow, an insult, an offensive gesture, the spreading of rumours or socially excluding someone from play or from the group.

Now, we can ask, is that a full definition of bullying?  What if for example, to people of equal strength have the occasional fight walk quarrel?  Is this bullying?  Olweus indicated that a prime ingredient of bullying is that there must be an “imbalance of power”.  In other words, the aggressor or group of aggressors are more powerful in some way than the person(s) they are targeting.  Of course, this would be obvious if a bully for instance, was cowering over a frightened victim.

In other instances though, the power differential may not be as obvious.  For example;

  • one person has a sharp, cutting tongue with a better command of language
  • one individual can call upon his or her supporters (and the other knows it)
  • one individual (maybe even a school principal) has status and can “pull rank”

The victim to may have hidden vulnerabilities such as;

  • a specific phobia (eg., spiders, blood) that can be exploited
  • clumsiness or poor coordination in PE or sport
  • a stammer under pressure
  • a mother or father who has been in court and/or jail
  • an interest in poetry or art that can be mocked or scorned

Furthermore, another consideration that assists in identifying bullying relates to the feelings of the bully’s target or the victim.  Overall, there is a sense of oppression that the victim of bullying invariably feels.  The victim feels distressed and finds the interaction or outcome painful.  As the English criminologist, David Farrington wrote in 1993,

“Bullying is repeated oppression, psychological or physical, of a less powerful person by a more powerful person”.

Finally, the last consideration that assists in identifying bullying relates to the bully him or herself.  Without exception, the bully gains a sense of triumph or pleasure at achieving the desired outcomes of injury or discomfort to the victim.  In short, the bully feels good when he or she has reduced the victim to tears.

Hence, we have a description of what constitutes bullying:

Bullying involves a desire to hurt + hurtful action + a power imbalance + (usually) repetition + a sense of being oppressed on the part of the victim + enjoyment or pleasure on the part of the aggressor.

What are the Various Forms of Bullying?

  • Physical g., pushing, kicking, hitting, pinching, violent threats or extortion (e.g., “if you don’t give me your lunch money, you’ll be sorry)
  • Verbal g., name calling, sarcasm, putdowns, rumours, teasing, intimidation
  • Emotional g., excluding others, tormenting (eg., hiding books, pens, bags)
  • Racist g., racial taunts, graffiti, gestures
  • Sexual g., unwanted physical contact, suggestive comments

What are the Characteristics of a Bully?

  • have a need to feel powerful and in control
  • gain satisfaction from inflicting injury and suffering on others
  • show little, if any empathy for their victims
  • defend their actions by saying that their victims provoke them in some way
  • are generally defiant or oppositional towards adults
  • are generally antisocial
  • are apt to break school rules
  • appeared to have little anxiety
  • contrary to a belief that they victimise others because they feel bad about themselves, instead, they tend to possess strong self-esteem

What Causes Bullying?

A number of different factors have been identified which contribute to bullying problems.

Family Factors:

  • a lack of attention, warmth and love
  • poor supervision of the child
  • poor parenting skills
  • come from homes where physical punishment is used
  • modelling of aggressive behaviour at home including physical and verbal aggression toward the child by the parents and/or use of physical and verbal aggression by the parents towards each other

Individual Factors:

  • difficult temperament e.g., moody, temper tantrums
  • active, impulsive temperament e.g., on the go, acts as if driven by a motor
  • physical strength (with boys)
  • do not take responsibility for their actions (e.g., blame the victim for provoking them)

School Factors:

  • low levels of supervision, particularly in the playground, schoolyard and hallways/corridors.
  • appropriateness of interventions by adults when they witness bullying or are made aware of it
  • curricula and administrative policies that are clearly defined on bullying

Do Bullies Grow out of It?  What Happens to them in the Long Term?

In short, the long-term outlook for bullies is not good.  The pattern of bullying often becomes a habit as the bully gets older.

Bullies have average social popularity up to approximately age 14 or 15 years.  In fact, some children even look up to bullies in some ways because they seem to be powerful and do what they want to, to get their own way with their peers.

By late adolescence however, the bully’s popularity begins to wane.  By senior high school, if a bully is still attending school, he or she starts to hang around with other bullies or more seriously, he or she becomes part of a gang.  By this stage, regular bullying incidents are often a thing of the past, but all victims know who the bullies are and avoid them.  By late high school, school-yard bullying continues to be a rare occurrence, but what takes its place is often more serious.

By age 24, studies show that up to 60 percent of people who are identified as childhood bullies have at least one criminal conviction.

A longitudinal study across 35 years by psychologist E. Eron at the University of Michigan found that children who were identified by their classmates, at age eight years, as being bullies, generally continued to be bullies throughout their lives.  These bullies typically required more support from government agencies, had more court convictions, more alcoholism, more antisocial personality disorders and used more of mental health services than did their peers.

In a milestone study conducted by Patterson in 1976, he found over a ten-year follow-up survey that 100% of a sample of children rated as being in the 95th percentile or above in aggressive behaviour at 3 years of age were also perceived as aggressive 10 years later.

A review of literature by Dr Darryl Cross in 1985 concluded that “unless direct treatment intervention is applied, it is highly probable that the child’s disruptive behaviour will persist over time, evidencing itself in delinquency and later, as adult adjustment antisocial disorders” (Records of the Adelaide Children’s Hospital, 1985-86, Vol 3, No 3, pg 247).

It should be noted to, that some bullies learn to refine the art of bullying in their professional lives and typically use it in situations where there is a power imbalance with their subordinates for example, at their place of work.  Bullies create major stress for their underlings in the workplace.  They often continue to bully their partners at home as well as their children.  They typically leave a trial of victims.