An Overview of Bullying

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When it comes to identifying bullying, it helps to have a clear definition in mind. For instance, not every mean action is bullying. In fact, some people have a tendency to label every rude thing a child says or does as bullying. The danger with this belief is that it can dilute the message about bullying. When that happens, people become immune to the severity of bullying and the problem escalates.

Meanwhile, other people do not realize that there are several types of bullying. As a result, they may believe that only physical aggression constitutes bullying and forget about the other forms such as relational aggression, cyberbullying, verbal bullying, and sexual bullying.

When it comes to defining bullying, the best alternative is to look for the three most common components of bullying such as power imbalances, repetitive actions, and intentional acts. It’s also important to know what tactics or forms of bullying that bullies use when targeting other people. 

Components of Bullying

Most bullying experts agree that what sets bullying apart from mean behavior is that bullies intend to harm their targets. There is also an imbalance of power and the acts are usually repeated.

Bullying usually isn't a one time act. Rather, it represents an ongoing pattern of behavior.

Power Imbalance

When there is an imbalance of power, it is hard for the target to defend him/herself against the bully’s attacks. This difference in power can be physical or psychological. For instance, in cases of physical imbalances, the bully may be older, larger, or stronger. Or, there may be a gang of bullies targeting the victim.

Meanwhile, psychological imbalances are harder to distinguish, but examples include having a higher social status, a sharper tongue, or more influence at school. The result of any power imbalance is that the target of the bullying feels weak, oppressed, threatened, and vulnerable.

Repetitive Actions

Typically, bullying is not a single act of meanness or rude behavior. Instead, it is usually ongoing and sustained. Bullies often target their victims multiple times. Sometimes the bullying will be the same act over and over like demanding a child’s homework or lunch money. Other times, it will include a variety of actions such as calling the target names, tripping them in the halls, and posting mean comments online.

Even patterns of relational aggression are repeated over time. This can involve excluding a person from activities, posting mean things online, spreading rumors, and other subtle methods of emotional bullying. The point is that kids can say and do mean things, but an isolated incident does not constitute bullying. A situation becomes bullying when the torment is consistent and happens more than once.

Intentional Actions

Another aspect that sets bullying apart from other mean or rude behaviors is that the bully intends to harm the target. Bullies harass other people on purpose. Their behavior is not accidental and it is not a “joke.”

There is nothing funny about bullying for the victim. Instead, the consequences of bullying are steep. Victims may feel embarrassed, ashamed, upset, afraid, sad, or even angry. Additionally, bullying can become so mean that the target can begin to feel anxious and worry about going to school.

Tactics Used by Bullies

There are many different ways bullies harm other people. But these incidents can be divided into several categories including physical bullying, verbal bullying, relational aggression, sexual bullying, prejudicial bullying, and cyberbullying.

Physical Bullying

This form of bullying is often the easiest to identify because it often involves some sort of physical act like hitting, shoving, kicking, and destroying or stealing property. Physical bullying also includes threats of violence as well.

Verbal Bullying

Instead of hitting with hands, fists, or feet, the bully will hurt another person with words. This type of bullying includes name-calling, insulting, threatening, mocking, intimidating, and taunting. Even making racist remarks and sexist comments is considered bullying.

It can be hard to distinguish between teasing and bullying. A good rule of thumb? If the person on the receiving end isn't laughing or having fun, they could be feeling bullied.

Relational Aggression

This type of bullying is insidious and uses relationships to control or hurt another person. Some common tactics of relational aggression including excluding or ostracizing other people, talking behind another person’s back, spreading rumors and lies, and participating in gossip.

Relational aggression is especially hurtful because it deprives kids of the opportunity to form meaningful connections with their peers—something that is especially important during the tween and teen years.


This type of bullying usually takes place off of school grounds by utilizing technology. Some common tools of technology include cell phones, instant messaging, YouTube, social networking, e-mail, chat rooms, blogs, and so on.

These tools are used as a way to engage in relational aggression and verbal bullying. Bullies insult, harass, spread rumors, and impersonate others. They may even threaten to physically harm other people.

The challenge with cyberbullying is that it can take place 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And it is done, at times, anonymously. As a result, the effects of cyberbullying are significant.

Sexual Bullying

This type of bullying involves humiliating words and actions that target a person sexually. For instance, slut shaming is a relatively common form of sexual bullying. Other examples of sexual bullying include making crude comments, vulgar gestures, and propositioning. Even uninvited touching, exposure to pornographic materials, and sexual name-calling are considered forms of sexual bullying.

In most cases of sexual bullying, it involves boys bullying girls or girls bullying girls. In rare cases, girls will bully boys sexually. For instance, a boy might make a crude comment about a girl's body while a girl might spread rumors about another girl's sexual activity.

Prejudicial Bullying

When kids have prejudices over different races, religions, or sexual orientations, then prejudicial bullying usually takes place. In these cases, kids are targeting another person because they are different in some way.

They also may use other tactics to accomplish their goal such as verbal bullying, physical bullying, and cyberbullying. While some races, religions, and sexual orientations are targeted more than others, it is important to recognize that anyone can be bullied for being different.

Awareness of Bullying

When it comes to spotting bullying in your child's life, remember that most kids do not readily talk about bullying. Instead, they keep the details to themselves and try to handle it on their own. Consequently, it is essential that parents be able to identify the warning signs that bullying is taking place.

Signs of Bullying to Look For

  • Change in eating habits
  • Headaches and stomachaches (especially if accompanied by asking to stay home from school, skip practice, or avoid another social activity)
  • Interrupted sleep schedule
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Mood swings

There also may be a noticeable drop in grades, changes in friendships, and missing possessions.If you notice any of these things, be sure you start a conversation with your child. Then, stop and listen. Let your child do most of the talking and only ask questions if you need to clarify something.

Make sure your child knows that you are proud of him/her for sharing with you. And remind him/her that it took courage to talk about bullying. Then work together to address the situation including reporting the bullying to the school.

A Word From Verywell

Remember, bullying can happen to anyone and at any age. It is not just limited to middle school and high school. In fact, many people experience bullying in college and in the workplace.

If your child is experiencing bullying at school or you are experiencing bullying at work, it is important to take steps to bring it to an end. Contrary to what some believe, bullying does not go away on its own and it does not make a person stronger. Intervention is needed to resolve the situation and to begin the healing process.

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