What causes bullying

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John was born in Singapore to aJapanese mother and an American father. He went to preschool in Singapore and then to a Canadian schoolfor a few years. Each time his family relocated to another culture, he felt increasingly different to other children. It was stressful to balance his family's internal cultural conflicts and simultaneously deal with the cultural differences in each school. Then his father was transferred to Australia. Once he entered this new 'rough 'n ready' environment, his low self-esteem attracted the school bullies. His cultural upbringing prevented him from speaking out and obtaining help until he broke down.

There are many different causes of bullying. History and psychology have proved the power of the group to alienate and abuse those who are vulnerable or different. Bullying occurs within a context of intertwining systems. Basically these include the state system, which reflects local laws and culture, the school system and the family system. The result is that people learn how to remain aggressive or become powerless and passive. Later on (see Chapter 9) I will provide some explanations to help your child understand why he is bullied or why he bullies.

There will always be bullying. However, once you understand the causes, you can work out how to prevent it and how to intervene appropriately.

The bullying paradox

Children are competitive. They copy adult role models to be the best and get the best. They exclude and devalue to maintain their power in the tribe. Bullying has long been regarded as part of growing up. In fact, 'bully for you' is a form of support for an act of bravado. Bullying is evident in the animal kingdom, in parliament and in sport, and is known as 'survival of the fittest'. It reflects the adversarial masculine approach of the hunter and the hunted, not the collaborative, feminine approach of the gatherer.

The paradoxical attitude of prizing and protecting bullies while simultaneously condemning them fosters a conspiracy of silence. Bullying becomes secret, invisible and condoned by society

It appears that most humans are social animals who survive in their tribe when they subscribe to group norms. If they are in a tolerant tribe, they behave with respect and empathy. But if they are forced to survive in a hostile environment, they collude with the leaders, sacrifice their moral values and sabotage their peers. Most kids are affected by where they are, not who they are.

Cultural factors

From the hill tribes of Vietnam to the inner city of Leicester to the suburbs of Melbourne, schools mirror their social and cultural environment, which, in turn, influence the school community. And the social environment is less than ideal: despite human rights legislation, children are still treated as second-class citizens, and women still have less power than men. Although parts of the media and policies such as multiculturalism foster diversity, adults still bully those who are different.

The role of the school

The 'Three Monkeys' symbolise 'See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil'. Pat Ferris has applied this concept to workplace bullying; it also provides a handy description of how schools approach it.

See no evil - do nothing

Bullying is a tradition in many schools. It tends to be worse in schools that either admire, condone, tolerate, deny or do nothing about bullying. These schools do not value mutual respect and have low levels of pro-social behaviour. They allow

discrimination and favouritism. There is also a cultural element: males should be tough, it's 'weak' or 'sissy' to complain. Students who can't stand up for themselves are regarded as 'girly' and 'gutless'.

Bullies generally operate out of the teacher's sight, and will 'suck up' to teachers to fool them. Teachers become oblivious to the reality. Bullies know they can get away with it because the school won't intervene. Reporting stops when witnesses aren't protected and nothing is done.

Bullying can metastasise in any direction. In many schools, students, teachers and parents use bullying tactics in the classroom, staffroom, carpark, office or at parent social events. They can actively or passively encourage students, staff or parents to attack a target.

Hear no evil - a superficial attempt

These schools may have a written policy, and occasionally invite an expert speaker to entertain the students (who regard it as a bludge period and quickly forget it). They may force the poor target and the bully to 'talk it out' in a teacher's office, focus on one method to solve all difficulties, or discipline the bully with a word of warning. Their staff, student and parent training is limited. They may develop programmes for students while bullying staff and neglecting parents. They lack consistency across the whole school, perhaps dealing with one year level while neglecting the others. They can follow fads or fashions without proper investigation.

Many schools dislike the word 'bullying', because they fear negative publicity and object to its wider humanitarian implication. They camouflage their policies and programmes, e.g. 'building resilience and pro-social skills'. The toxic message about bullying can be lost in translation.

Speak no evil - consistent, effective measures to reduce bullying

These schools realise that bullying happens and requires constant vigilance and collaboration between staff, students, parents and the community e.g. police, law and media. The school relies upon its philosophies, policies and programmes to create a culture and climate where everyone is valued and treated with respect. They reflect safety, equality and diversity. They demonstrate to all children and their families that bullying is unacceptable. They constantly review, monitor and maintain their anti-bullying programmes.

Other school factors


The principal or headteacher is like the conductor of an orchestra. He (or she) translates the state and school board requirements and expectations into school-friendly practices. He needs to coordinate all sections ofthe school, from staff and students to secretaries, and he needs to be vigilant in monitoring the quality of respect and justice for the whole school. When the school has a responsible principal who provides a strong leadership model, there is less bullying. When he is aggressive or passive, bullying is enabled.


The research clearly shows that schools should develop a closer working relationship with parents to reduce bullying. However, schools don't systematically involve them. So one of the major circumstantial causes of bullying is not involved in the solution!


The cool, sporty, tough, popular group occupies the idolised position, the middle group represents the majority of students, and the less popular groups ('nerds', 'losers') gather in the rejected zone. Students use the group to establish their social status. They connect, devalue and exclude to raise their profile. The groups, gangs or cliques change constantly. Bullies use the group to maintain their power and social status. If the peer group giggles out of fear, embarrassment or amusement, it rewards the bully. Some reinforce the bully's power by joining in. When bystanders do nothing, the bullying escalates. When bystanders intervene and challenge, it stops.

Review your child's school

• Does the school implement anti-bullying policies for everyone?

• Is the school vigilant and consistent in its actions?

• Does the principal actively discourage bullying?

• Does the school follow through on complaints?

• Do children feel safe or do they leave because of bullying?

The role of the family

Children are a reflection of their family. They inherit genes, predispositions, attitudes and behaviours that affect their likelihood of remaining resilient in the face of bullying or increase their likelihood of becoming a target, a bully or both. Let's look at this major influence on their behaviour.

The deluxe model

The democratic family functions best with the stresses of today's society. Children receive encouragement, praise, rewards and consequences. In this family, activities and duties, skills and difficulties are discussed openly and regularly. Children are heard and respected. They learn how to discuss problems and how to obtain help in solving them. Parents who use democratic discipline don't need to bully. These family systems have firm, fair, clearly established boundaries and guidelines. If children break the rules and hurt others, they face consequences.

They also learn from their families how to accept, respect and protect themselves. They are less likely to be bullied because they are accustomed to having their say, standing up for themselves and dealing with difficult people. Likewise, they are less overprotected and less likely to bully because they are brought up with firm, consistent behaviour boundaries. When they treat others without empathy, there are consequences for inappropriate behaviours.


A child is affected by her position within the family and the ages of her siblings. A significant age gap between the siblings positions the younger one to become a 'pseudo-adult', overprotected but socially neglected. She confronts less competition and fewer responsibilities, and has less opportunity to develop assertive social skills. Single children may lack the social survival techniques that come from daily skirmishes with siblings.

Parents' ages

Many parents are having children later nowadays, due to re-marriage and career reasons. Although older parents may have more time, they often treat their children as equals: they have less energy to establish firm behaviour boundaries, and they become lax, overprotective or overcontrolling. Generally, older parents mix with their friends unless they can socialise with others who have children of similar ages, so their children have less opportunity to mix with their peers, but relate well to adults.

The family jigsaw

Parenting is disrupted when there is only one main parent. Separation, divorce, re-partnering and stepsiblings also disrupt traditional parenting and discipline patterns. The child may feel vulnerable, confused, angry, guilty and abandoned. Her self-esteem is lowered and she has less energy to deal with school problems. The child who spends time with both parents has to adjust to different parenting styles, including the handling of love and discipline. Some children rely upon one parent but, unlike other kids, they can't afford to stress their main caregiver. They have fewer boundaries but less opportunity to challenge their sole parent, and thus to develop assertiveness skills.


Some children are raised mainly by grandparents. Unfortunately, grandparents can confuse the child and sabotage the parents' role. They can spoil, overprotect and indulge, but provide fewer boundaries and less discipline. Inadvertently, this lowers a child's self-esteem and her ability to handle difficult people. If grandparents are traditional, overcontrolling and less flexible, they won't provide opportunities for the child to challenge them, which is essential for an assertive, confident child.

Parental difficulties

When parents have difficulties, their children are affected. The social child goes out with friends and switches off; the sensitive, shy, enmeshed child stays at home and worries. Parents with difficulties use this child to balance the tension between them, and the child become emotionally entrapped or involved with adult problems that she is ill-equipped to handle. Her self-esteem suffers and she has less energy to deal with school problems like bullying. If one parent, generally the mother, is bullied by the other, usually the male partner, children learn aggression and powerlessness.

Family changes

Unfortunately, many children don't develop social survival skills naturally. I cite three reasons to explain this.


Since World War Two the extended family has experienced huge changes. Close extended families provide children with opportunities to express their real feelings and relate at a more intimate level. Regular family get-togethers oblige them to relate to different types of people, nice and nasty, simple and complicated. At any family function, children banter and tease, argue and fight, then make up and laugh together - all within a brief period. Whereas, in families who encounter their extended family only at weddings, funerals, or for a toxic few hours at Christmas, Thanksgiving or Easter, their opportunities to relate are severely handicapped.


Over the past few decades this close, core unit has changed and now functions differently, including the obvious change of divorce and re-marriage. Many children have no father, while their single mother is stressed, depressed or traumatised. Modern technology has reduced the need for regular family activities like washing the dishes together. Most parents are very busy, and many are bogged down by their responsibilities. They rely on their partner, relatives or childcare, and are unavailable for hands-on involvement with their children. They create fewer opportunities to develop consistent discipline systems. Their children lack the opportunity to learn how to respect others and to then internalise their personal and social boundaries. Alternatively, parents belong to the 'me' generation and often spend more time developing their own needs, which leaves less time for parenting their children. They overcompensate by spoiling their children, turning them into 'PIT' ('prince/princess-in-training') bullies.

At dinnertime, instead of chatting around the kitchen table, children are confronted with a kitchen bench, a television or meal shifts. There is less family time for talking and mutual support.

Stressed children are forced to share their school problems during the time available between their parents' flexi-working hours, chauffeuring to numerous after-school activities, the car radio or between mobile phone calls. Unless the shy, insecure target is given the opportunity during a meal or at other special sharing times (like bedtime), she may try once or twice to tell her parents, but then give up.


Instead of encouraging valuable socialising time, many parents want their children to be 'safe' inside, so they replace the social void with the toys of the electronic revolution: all-day cyber babysitting screens, computer games and television.

Too much electronic time can lead to depression, social isolation and loneliness. The microchip seems to have created a generation of angry boys who have little exercise or emotional release, except to fight back, while girls watch enormous amounts of television instead of playing with siblings or neighbours (see Chapter 6). In fact, the microchip itself has created a new type of abusive power. Cyber bullying is devious, unavoidable, and invades a child's safest retreats. Malicious rumours can be spread quickly to a large audience at any time; anonymous messages can be devastating.

The core issues

It is sometimes hard to understand the formation of targets, bullies and children who use both types of behaviours. Here are some guidelines.

The target

Dan Olveus, the Norwegian anti-bullying pioneer, believes that many targets come from overprotective families. This includes the cautious, sensitive child who has a close relationship with Mum and an emotionally distant father; and families who cocoon their children, e.g. the 'special' child. Others come from caring but quiet, shy homes with little need to practise confronting stressful encounters and restricted opportunities for socialising outside their nuclear family. Some have controlling, traditional or insecure parents who can't tolerate a difference of opinion. Others have parents who experience(d) victimisation and powerlessness, and transmit their fear to their children. Many children believe that their health, financial and other family difficulties make the bullying insignificant, so they don't tell their parents about the bullying. Help is delayed or denied. Finally, if a child can't stand up to the parents he loves and say 'No', then he can't stand up to bullies he hates and say 'Don't'.

The reactive target

This child is a target and a bully at different times. She is unpredictable; many such children are self-involved, show minimal interest in others, and have poor self-esteem and social difficulties. Some react to a personal, family or other difficulty, past or present, by becoming aggressive instead of assertive. They are often disliked by adults. They may have learning difficulties, concentration difficulties or be immature, hyperactive, attention-seeking. They are overly sensitive to banter or criticism; they blame the absence of justice and fight back, thereby prolonging the bullying game.

Their parents may provide opposing or inconsistent role models. They can't express their feelings in a constructive, assertive manner, so their children resort to a cocktail of passive and aggressive behaviours at school and at home. Some angry parents then maintain this role model by sabotaging or suing the school.

The bully

The trend is clear. Although a few children are born with psychopathic tendencies, the majority learn how to be bullies from the role models at home and school. They are trained by unhappy, dysfunctional or broken families. Love, acceptance and respect are disguised or conditional. They can be victimised or bullied themselves. The child learns that bullying is okay because his parents don't expect him to show empathy for others. Nor does he learn how to respect those who are handicapped, different or gifted. He becomes intolerant, racist, chauvinistic, homophobic or discriminatory

Others have passive parents who deny, who show little interest in their child's misbehaviours, and who won't discipline them. They spoil them in order to compensate for their difficulty in providing on-the-job parenting. These children have no behaviour boundaries or consistent guidelines: one day they can get away with bashing their younger brother, the next day they can't. Some learn from their families how to enjoy watching targets suffer, while some parents value aggression in their child - 'You showed them'.

The end result is obvious. The bully copies his significant role models. No-one has made him accountable for his bullying behaviours or demonstrated more effective ways of releasing negative feelings and relating to people. The cycle then continues when the bully is shamed and blamed.

Some questions for your family

• How does the family enable a child to become a target, a bully or both?

• What influences cannot be changed? (e.g. older parents, siblings)

• What influences can be changed? (e.g. role models, discipline)

• Who is being unfairly blamed?

• What skills does the target or bully need to learn?

Key points

Aggression has a cultural and a biological foundation.

Bullying is enabled by state and local cultural systems.

School action ranges from denial and tokenism to consistency.

Schools must involve all parents and students to combat


The family has had many structural changes in the past


Family role models can facilitate vulnerability and abuse.

What to do

• Consider how your family can assist your child.

• Consider how the school can involve students, staff, family and community.

• Investigate local and state-wide anti-bullying guidelines. Are they constructive - e.g. do they respect natural and restorative justice, and have adequate funding? Or are they destructive - e.g. is there zero tolerance (which enables bullies and takes targets' power away), limited funding, and tokenism?

• Check out other useful community structures - e.g. the school board directors' responsibilities, school-police services, the media.

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  • james
    What causes mother bullying?
    9 years ago
  • Wm
    What causes bullie at work?
    9 years ago

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