Responding to Psychological Bullying

It would be nice if anytime bullying happened in a school, a large, blinking sign identified it as such. Now, you may think that that’s not necessary; that “you know it when you see it” and so it’s easy to recognize bullying when it happens. Once, that may have been true. When bullying was predominantly physical, it wasn’t too hard to identify a transgression.

But today, most bullying is psychological in nature. That makes things much tougher, because psychological cruelty isn’t always bullying – not by a long shot. Continue reading

New research: Kids are overusing the word “bullying”

Are you tired of bullying?  It seems like every time we turn around, yet another behavior is described that way.  The word is sometimes used to describe virtually any situation that involves anger or unkindness, but researchers and experts clarify that bullying is actually more than just meanness; it’s cruel, repeated abuse against a less powerful victim. Now, new data from a study of mine suggests that the term is being used too broadly, at least by teens. Over the last six months, I’ve asked more than 300 college freshmen if they were bullied or cyberbullied during high school.  An astonishing 70% answered yes.  But when I confirmed whether the incident was repeated, the percentage dropped to 40%.  It dropped even lower, to 17%, when I ruled out incidents where the “victim” felt they had as much (or more) power than their “bully.”  Incredibly, 53% of the teens in this study were using the term “bullying” to describe either fights or single acts of meanness. This doesn’t mean that they weren’t truly upset or traumatized.  It just means that the source of the trauma probably wasn’t bullying, per se.

Outside the lab, I’ve seen the same trend. Name it, and I’ve probably been told that it’s bullying. Even doctors overuse the term – one told me that being honked at on the highway was bullying.

You could argue that all this doesn’t really matter; but in reality, it does. I think that overusing the word is actually harming kids. Calling a severe assault “bullying” trivializes that crime. On the flip side, labeling an equal-power quarrel between friends as “bullying” puts all the blame on one participant – instead of both kids just making up.  After a fight, it’s difficult to say you’re sorry and repair a relationship; it’s much easier to just claim victimhood. Maybe worst of all, branding every conflict as “bullying” waters down the very real pain and trauma of a victim who’s endured a litany of vicious cruelty and who cannot defend themselves.

I’m not suggesting that anyone is trying to deliberately minimize bullying, or to prevent children from learning how to resolve conflict in their relationships. There are clearly more innocent motives at play.  Sometimes, children use the word “bullying” because they want or need adult attention. Or, they might be angry at a friend, or want to avoid the hard work of resolving a problem.  Parents may worry that if a problem isn’t “bullying,” then the school won’t take it seriously; or worse, decide that their child is partially responsible. At times, using the word “bullying” loosely can avoid difficulty or unpleasantness. But learning to deal with some of these difficulties is part of the hard work of childhood. If a child doesn’t learn how to resolve a quarrel with a friend, how will they cope with conflict as an adult?  Next column: now that we know we should tell the difference between a fight and bullying, here’s how to do it.

Do Video Games Promote Cyberbullying in Elementary School?

There’s plenty of aggression to be found in video and online games. First person shooters, war games, explosions…..You name it, and you can probably find it on a trendy game.  These games are extremely popular, with two-thirds of high school boys reporting that they play such games in my research.  But game-playing isn’t just a teenage pursuit.  Over 90% of 8-to-11-year-olds were interacting online, usually by playing games, in my 2012 study of more than 11,000 elementary-aged children. Continue reading

No Guarantees, But Some Common-Sense Guidelines

Let me begin by saying that there is no way to reliably predict violence.  Although we often identify risk factors after the fact, those risk factors are not absolute causes, meaning that they exist in many people who never become violent.  It’s when risk factors add up that we can begin to see better predictability.

Having said that, here are some guidelines.

If you are a parent or a child’s caregiver, ask yourself how many of these risk factors you see in any child. These risk factors are not your fault, but it is still your responsibility to respond to them as best as you can: Continue reading

Do Bullying Laws Help?

I returned recently from Iowa, where the Governor and other stakeholders met to discuss the state’s bullying prevention efforts. In South Carolina, a new law forbids the cyberbullying of teachers and educators. According to BullyPolice.Org, 49 States now have laws pertaining to bullying prevention. But how much do laws really matter?

It’s often said that laws cannot dictate morality, and that’s true. Certainly laws can’t make all children understand that being cruel to others is wrong. Can laws force children to stop bullying others? That doesn’t seem very likely, as most children probably don’t even know what laws exist. The idea of “deterrence” – stopping people from misbehaving because of their fear of the law, or its punishments – may not apply to children who don’t know there is a law or who can’t take a long enough view to consider the consequences down the road.

But I think that laws do matter for other reasons. It’s through the laws we pass that we focus attention on the most important issues in our society. Adults who otherwise may not have considered bullying or cyberbullying an important problem might reconsider when a law is passed.

In Massachusetts, we can see that the law has made a difference. While some states only require that schools have policies about bullying, in several states (including Massachusetts) the law mandates education and training about bullying and cyberbullying, and that education appears to be making a difference. First, children seem to just know more facts about bullying. In 2010, 24% of the children MARC surveyed didn’t know what the word “cyberbullying” meant. But by 2012, that percentage had dropped to only 10%. Also, more elementary-aged children are reporting to others when bullying or cyberbullying happen. Sometimes they report to parents, sometimes to educators, and sometimes to friends and peers, but the rate of reporting increased between 2010 and 2012. The only group that shrank in size were the children who didn’t report to anyone.

I also found that education was related to being either a bully or a cyberbully. When children reported going through more education, they weren’t as likely to also say that they had bullied or cyberbullied other children. For example, the children who were repeatedly cruel to their peers on the Internet were the least likely group to report that their class in school had gone through bullying and cyberbullying education.

So perhaps if laws make a difference, it’s by bringing problems to the front and center of our attention. And it’s that increase in awareness that drives our other actions, like providing education, and talking to children about bullying and cyberbullying. Ultimately, that’s how we’ve tackled some of the biggest difficulties we’ve faced when raising children, and hopefully we’ll be able to do so again.

Handling your own emotions when your child is bullied

Were you bullied at school as a child?  If so, learning that your own child has been bullied may generate a groundswell of feeling that you have a hard time controlling.  Even if you were never a target yourself, you may feel angry, vulnerable, frustrated, helpless and overwhelmed.  It can be hard to control these feelings.

Does it matter if you control your own feelings about this matter?  It does.  “Taking over the room” emotionally – dominating the room with your own feelings – puts you in the center and takes focus away from your child.  Thinking and controlling your emotional reactions, on the other hand, can help your child resolve hers, too.

So how can you help yourself resolve your own feelings?  What will make you feel better?

The first rule is to make sure, before becoming upset, that you’re dealing with a genuine bullying episode.  Many episodes of meanness between children involve brief, transient, and less serious behaviors.  Sometimes your child may be suffering from inadvertent meanness – such as when they’re not invited to a friend’s birthday party.  It can be helpful not to over interpret these kinds of events.  However popular your child is, I can promise you that there will be birthday parties that he or she won’t be invited to.  Try not to take it personally when this happens.  Most children simply cannot invite the entire third grade to their party, or even every one of their friends!

Another important thing to remember is that children tend to call everything “bullying.”  They’ve picked up on the fact that adults sit up and panic when that word is uttered, and they know that this is a great way to get your attention.  Is the incident a repeated, targeted, intentional attack from a more powerful child?  If so, it could be bullying – but if it’s one-time, accidental, or not from a more powerful child, then generally it isn’t bullying.  It’s still a problem, but a different kind of problem.

It’s also useful to remember that however much the incident is impacting YOU emotionally, it may not be impacting your child the same way.  In our research, we’ve found that more than 20% of incidents are classified by victims as not upsetting at all, or as only very mildly upsetting.   The key is to make sure that you have every single fact straight, and to ask how your child feels about what happened.

All right, so you’ve spoken with length with your child and you feel sure that this is truly a bullying situation.  Now comes a hard part: being sympathetic and sensitive with your child, while not escalating the emotional temperature of the incident.  Ranting and raving about the unfairness of it all will only make your child sorry that they told you.  But taking them on your lap or in your arms for a cuddle and a long talk will help both of you handle it better emotionally.

Get ready to feel some more anxiety about bullying

Two important documentaries are out this month:  “Speak Up,” on Cartoon Network, and the documentary “Bully” which will be released at the end of March.  Both films play a very important role in sensitizing people to the pain endured by bullying victims and in helping those victims feel heard by others.

But it’s also true that watching such media can make parents – even those whose children haven’t been bullied – feel more anxiety over the topic.  The association between bullying and suicide implied in the films can ramp you up to DefCon One! So today I thought we could try to reduce that anxiety.  Let’s consider what actions parents can take, and some ways to reframe this issue that might put it in perspective.

1.  All children WILL encounter casual cruelty at school or in other places.  This cannot be avoided, nor should it be.  It’s true that even one episode where a child is mocked and taunted cruelly can hurt enormously, but it won’t permanently damage your child.  Dealing with mean people is one thing we all need to learn about.  Mother Nature ensured that children have to deal with some meanness so that they can learn to deal with the more serious varieties that they will encounter later in life.  Bottom line: Accept that you cannot protect your children 100% from meanness, and that even if you could, it wouldn’t help them in the long run.  It hurts, yes, and that is no fun.

2.  It graduates to a bullying episode when the attacks are orchestrated, repeated, intentional, and caused by a more powerful child.  Bullying is a form of abuse.  Children need to be helped and they need to feel that they have people who care about them and value them.  There are steps you can take with the school, and make sure your child has warm and affectionate support at home.  Remind him or her of their strengths, skills, friendships, and family. Download free steps to take (see below).

3. Remember that resolving the issue is job #1 – whether it’s bullying or just a one-time cruel incident.  Don’t get into an argument with the school about whether or not it qualifies as truly “bullying.”  The label’s not what’s most important – it’s the resolution that’s key!  School administrators are people too. Work cooperatively with them.

4.  Kids today know that claiming to be “bullied” is one way to avoid getting in trouble.  It’s ok to find out that it really was a fight or quarrel.  That is normal.

5.  Don’t forget the online world.  In our research we found that by high school, it’s very unlikely that any bullying incident is only occurring at school.  You’ll help more by talking about that too.

We have LOTS of free information at in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Haitian Creole.


Is It OK to Get My 11-Year-Old A Cell Phone?

Cell phones are devices that have been strongly associated with cyberbullying.  Yet, they’re also extremely convenient and help busy parents keep in touch with their children.  I’m often asked by parents, “What is the right age to get a child a cell phone?”

What is a cell phone?  By the early 1990s, the first wave of real cell phone use began in the United States, but those phones were very different from the cell phones of today – they were large (about the size of a banana), and just made phone calls.

Today, what we call cell phones are actually not “phones” – they are mobile computing devices that, as it happens, are able to make phone calls.  It’s notable, though, that more than half of the college freshman in our research at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University said that they use their “cell phones” to make phone calls 20% of the time or less.  Eighty percent of the time or more, they’re using the devices for texting, for surfing on the Internet, for posting information on their social networking profiles, or for taking electronic pictures or videos.  When you get your child a “cell phone,” what you may really be getting them is a small, mobile computer.

Not every “cell phone” has Internet and texting, and that’s the first decision you need to consider.  Is the phone for safety?  Does your child need texting and Internet access?

In our research, it’s not the phoning part that gets kids into bullying or into being bullied.  The problems around cyberbullying are associated with texting and posting things online.  Kids sometimes text or post cruel or unkind remarks about each other.  They may reveal someone’s secrets or personal information or spread rumors.  Cell phones make it easy to take pictures or videos, and to send those to anyone.  Many kids today know that when they send information or pictures electronically, it can potentially be sent to anyone and everyone; but being kids, it’s very hard for them to picture this happening, perhaps sometime in the hazy future.  Kids today may even send obscene text or pictures, feeling sure that the only person who will ever see the highly personal photo is the one person they send it to.

Every cruel, or obscene, piece of information sent electronically can be kept forever.  It can be posted, shown to anyone, or used to start legal trouble.

The younger kids are, the more likely they are to make these kinds of mistakes.  But you can get your child a “cell phone” without giving them powerful technologies.  If you feel like your child might not understand how easily electronic information can be shared, you can still get them a cell phone for safety – but ask the cell phone company to turn off the Internet access and texting.


Dr. Elizabeth Englander is the Director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University.  Do you have situations or questions you’d like addressed?  Email them to


Is it really bullying?

You’re probably reading and hearing the word “bullying” every time you turn around.  Two boys fight, and a third boy posts the video of the fight online.  A girl is threatened at school by another girl; it turns out the two were in a long-standing argument.  A second grader throws crayons at her classmates.  Is it always bullying?  Of course not.  Kids use the word “bullying” to describe all kinds of behaviors, because they know that adults sit up and take notice.  It raises our blood pressure and results in lots of phone calls to schools.  But what is bullying, precisely?

The term bullying is really a euphemism for abuse – it describes repeated, cruel, intentional victimization of a target by a more powerful person.   To be bullying, a mean behavior can’t be an accident, can’t be unintentional, can’t be a mistaken communication, and can’t be a one-time incident (even a cruel one).  Bullies used to be primarily physically powerful kids, but today, bullying is most often perpetrated by socially powerful (i.e., popular) kids upon less popular and self-confident peers.

A few generations ago, bullying was usually a physical attack and you had to hide it from grownups, because hitting was easy to spot.  But bullies today don’t have to hide; they’re typically using psychological cruelty that isn’t against any rule.  Hitting still gets you in trouble, but rolling your eyes and giggling cruelly with your friends while pointedly excluding another girl isn’t, strictly speaking, a violation of any school rule.  Staring fixedly at someone you’re intimidating isn’t a physical attack.  So if bullying isn’t obvious any more, and a bully isn’t breaking the rules, how do we identify it and how as parents do we address it?  We can’t tell our kids, “What do you care if they laugh?” because of course it hurts.

Luckily, we can help kids cope with bullying problems with a few concrete messages.

Rule #1:  It’s not always bullying.  If it’s an accident, a miscommunication, or just being mean one time, it’s probably not bullying.  Understanding what we’re dealing with will help us be more effective in resolving it.

Rule #2:  If you decide that it really might be bullying, ask the school to explain how they decided what it was.  Remember that they may not have all the information you have.

Other rules are good for ensuring that your kids don’t engage in bullying behaviors.  Today, when any child might try out bullying to enhance their popularity, every child needs to discuss these rules with their parents.

Rule #3:  Rude, insolent and mocking behaviors are never ok.  We don’t care if all the other kids do them.

Rule #4:  Being a good person is what we prize most highly. (In your own life, show your children how you admire people who are kind and giving.  It’s almost the holiday season – the perfect time of year to send this message!)

Next month: what to do if your child reports they are being bullied at school or online.  Do you have situations or questions you’d like addressed?  Email them to