Credible studies argue about the percentage of children targeted by bullying behavior, with study numbers ranging from as low as 20% to nearly 90% — and for children engaging in bullying tactics from as low as 15% to as high as nearly 50%. Regardless of which numbers are “more accurate”, even the low-ball numbers suggest two of every ten children are being “put in their (social) place” by despotic means.
How can we predict which children are at greatest risk — both for being targeted and for being bullies?
Risk Factors for Bullying:
According to the National Institutes of Health, “children who are at risk of being bullied have one or more risk factors”:
- Are seen as different from their peers (e.g., overweight, underweight, wear their hair differently, wear different clothing or wear glasses, or come from a different race/ethnicity)
- Are seen as weak or not able to defend themselves
- Are depressed, anxious, or have low self-esteem
- Have few friends or are less popular
- Do not socialize well with others
- Suffer from an intellectual or developmental disability
And, if you Google “risk factors for bullying” or “warning signs of bullying” you’ll find all sorts of lists of specific things, like diet changes, mood changes, grade changes, social group changes, activity changes, and sadness. In other words everything a normal adolescent may experience is a warning sign or risk factor for bullying.
To me, these laundry lists sound like an old Jeff Foxworthy skit.
What these “dummy lists” don’t reveal are the underlying structures and emotional patterns of bullying, or of being targeted. What we need is to decode the dynamics of the underlying system…
Let’s start off with some examples to get the basic understanding, then graduate to a bigger picture understanding. You may be surprised by which of these are risk factors for being targeted and which are risk factors for being a bully.
We’re going to call the Risk Factors “Sick”, “Strange”, and “Social Status”.
“Sick” is going to refer to every kind of physical or mental infirmity, lack, or delay of any typical ability, including:
- Allergies (food allergy bullying is now common)
- Fears & Phobias
- Small stature
- Special needs of any kind
- Physically clumsy
- Socially awkward
The “sick” category includes children who are different in some way that is inherently (biologically / psychologically / developmentally) weaker relative to others in their age group. Members of the “sick” category are at risk for BOTH being targeted and for being bullies (really).
“Strange” is going to refer to children who are strange in any way relative to the main group:
- Large stature
- Likes & Dislikes (incl. gender identification)
In American youth-speak the code-word for the “strange” category is “gay”. That term, in the context it is used, does not necessarily refer to gender identification or sexual orientation — just to “strangeness”. The typical language is: “That [haircut / shirt / shoes / book, etc] is gay.”
The “strange” category includes children who are different in ways not inherently weaker or more vulnerable compared to the main group. Some of those differences may be cultural, or even cosmetic. Like the “sick” group, members of the “strange” category are at risk for BOTH being targeted and being bullies.
“Social Status” refers to children at either end of the socio-economic scale. The farther a child is from center — the less “average” they are compared to the larger group — the more vulnerable they are to either being targeted or to bullying others.
Higher Social Status places children at risk of perceiving others as objects, and therefore treating them like objects (bullying). It also makes them obvious targets for those who would try to raise their own status through despotic means.
Lower Social Status places children at risk of being “kept in their place” by those with higher status. Lower social status children are vulnerable from the beginning, due to various expectations (biases) by teachers, administrators, etc. They are also vulnerable to the temptation of climbing the social ladder through aggressive means (bullying).
So, whether a child is nearer the high end or the low end of the scale, other-than-average social status raises that child’s risk for BOTH being targeted and being bullies.
And, this is where we graduate from specifics to a general understanding: If we draw enough bell curves on enough different days, based on enough different criteria, any child is going to appear as an outlier. And, the outliers of ability and status are more likely to engage in the three behaviors of the bullying dynamic:
- Advantage (taking advantage)
- Aggression (using aggression)
- Acceptance (of mistreatment)
With this understanding (and the statistics above) I want to dispel the image of the stereotypical bully or target. We must understand that these roles — like the motivations and opportunities related to them — are not static across time. These are reactions to situations — actions that if repeated consistently across time will become the character and identity of a person.
The mission of adults cannot be to prevent every occurrence of social organization through despotic means. We cannot prevent every abuse of advantage — or every aggressive response to perceived disadvantage. We cannot make every child feel like standing tall at all times. Telling children to “play nice” — and punishing them for not being nice — is a strategy not based in reality — and one that causes harm.
What Can I Do?
The mission of adults must be to recognize natural human vulnerability to making short-sighted choices. We must recognize that temptations to make poor, or emotional choices are highest whenever a person is farthest from the middle of the pack — on any measure — whether that shows up as temptation to abuse an advantage, or to use unacceptably aggressive means to win, or gain status.
It is when emotions run highest that we find the best opportunity to both see and to mold character.
Notice that we witness “unsportsmanlike conduct” far more often at the extremes of standing, score, or time — when emotions are high. We see poor conduct less often in the players, coach, or parents at the middle of the running.
Wayne Gretzky is famous for saying he “skates to where the puck is going to be rather than where it is”. If we look for “warning signs” that a child is already being targeted — or bullying others — then, we are too far behind to win this game. We must understand how to see “where the puck is going to be” — and to go there. We must understand it is most often going to be away from the middle of the pack — near the upper and lower ends of bell curves that relate to status :
- Physical size and ability
- Economic status
- Intellectual ability
- Health and Handicaps
Outliers on these scales are at (higher) risk for either bullying or being bullied. This understanding should help narrow our focus to other indicators, and invite us to apply preventative strategies that have additional far-reaching advantages in their own right.
- Where is your child on scales like these?
- On any scale where they’re “far from average” (either above or below), what is their social interaction like with other kids?
- How do they handle the emotional and social stresses of being “far from average”?
This is where bullying happens; it’s where character shows — and where it also grows. So, it’s worth knowing the answers to those questions.