The causes and effects of bullying in schools and how to help

man with purple hair is leaning back while a bully points toward them showing the effects of bullying

While some have long considered bullying as 'normal childhood behavior', research into the long-term effects of bullying shows that the reality is far more serious. According to a longitudinal study1, victims face higher risks of depression up to 36 years after the bullying happened. Far from a harmless rite of passage, the long-term effects of aggressive behavior by school bullying can follow victims into adulthood. If your child is experiencing bullying, we've put together this resource to help you understand the causes of bullying, the negative consequences of bullying, and what you can do about it.

Table of contents
What is the definition of bullying?
What are the signs of bullying?
What are the causes and effects of bullying in schools?
Who is at risk of bullying?
Advice for parents whose children are experiencing bullying in school
How can you help someone with bullying behaviors?
What are the main causes of online bullying?
How should you deal with common forms of bullying in schools?

What is the definition of bullying?

Bullying is the ongoing and intentional misuse of power in relationships.2 It involves repeated verbal, physical, or social actions aiming to cause harm. Bullies exploit power imbalances, using tactics like demeaning comments, violence, aggression, intimidation, cyberbullying, and abuse. Notably, bullying is characterized by its continuous and one-sided nature, impacting the victim's mental health.

For example, two young people engaged in an argument, on a level playing field, isn't necessarily bullying. In fact, this may be an important part of social development related to conflict resolution skills. On the other hand, an older or bigger child intimidating a smaller or younger child, on an ongoing basis, is bullying.

Above all else, bullying can be identified by the impact it can have on your child's mental health.

Parents should be alert to signs of bullying, recognizing the importance of swift intervention for their child's well-being. If you believe your child has fallen prey to bullying, here are some signs you need to look out for.

What are the signs of bullying?

One of the most commonly reported effects of bullying is an overwhelming sense of shame3. Victims can learn to internalize the sense that they are to blame, and they may feel reluctant to discuss it, even with their parents.

If you suspect your child is being bullied and you ask them, they may deny it. This is why knowing the telltale signs that a child is being bullied is an important step towards keeping your child safe.

According to the National Centre Against Bullying, here are some signs that a child is being bullied4:

  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Mood swings
  • Absenteeism, or reluctance to attend school
  • Social withdrawal or antisocial behavior
  • Unexplained marks, cuts or bruises
  • Missing, or damaged belongings
  • A change in demeanor or posture

While some of the above may be a natural part of adolescence, if several of these are true of your child, it is possible that they're being bullied.

What are the causes and effects of bullying in schools?

Causes of Bullying:

There are numerous risk factors that can increase the likelihood of bullying behavior. Research5 has shown that these behaviors stem from environmental factors at home.

If a child is predisposed to the following, they are more likely to display bullying traits:

  • Parental Neglect or Negative Perception: Children who experience neglect or are viewed negatively by one or both parents (or primary caregivers) may be prone to bullying others.
  • Fractured or Dysfunctional Family Units: A disrupted family environment can contribute to a child's inclination to engage in bullying behavior.
  • Authoritarian Parenting Styles: Parents with overly controlling or authoritarian approaches that include harsh treatment can inadvertently foster aggression in their children.
  • Abusive Home Life: Exposure to any form of violence, including an abusive home environment can lead to aggressive behavior at school. This includes emotional or physical abuse.
  • Poor Academic Performance: Struggling academically can be a source of frustration for children, leading some to vent their feelings through bullying.

Further, the research points to bullying as a school-wide phenomenon that can be fostered by the school climate. If school staff are bullies, or they tacitly support bullying behavior by believing that it's 'not a big deal', bullying can become ingrained in the school environment. Disciplinary action and support for both the victim and the bully must be provided to address the behavior and minimize the negative outcomes.

Effects of Bullying:

The consequences of bullying can affect victims in a wide range of ways. These effects of bullying can include10:

  • Lower Academic Performance: Victims of bullying often experience difficulties in concentrating and learning, leading to lower academic achievement.
  • Lower Self-esteem: Bullying erodes a victim's self-worth, leaving lasting negative outcomes on their confidence and self-esteem.
  • Increased Risk of Mental Health Issues: Bullying victims are at a heightened risk of developing depression and anxiety, which can persist into adulthood.
  • Long-Lasting Effects: Adults who endured bullying as children are at a higher risk of suicidal ideation, substance abuse, depression, anxiety, and other adverse effects that can have a profound impact on their physical and mental health.

It's important to clarify that bullies, themselves, are the cause of bullying at school. Many victims of bullying feel that they are responsible, or have in some way brought the bullying upon themselves. This is not true and should be reiterated to the victim.

Despite the grim outlook, it is crucial to recognize that with the right support, coaching, and training, people who have been bullied can recover and even thrive after enduring the challenging experience of bullying. Understanding the causes and effects of bullying is the first step toward creating a safer and more supportive school environment for all students.

Who is at risk of bullying?

While it's true that anybody is at risk of bullying, there are common characteristics that place some children at a higher risk of being bullied9.

Research has shown that racial differences, sexual orientation, and physical disability10 are common risk factors associated with being a victim of bullying. Other qualities, such as children who are perceived as over or underweight, small in stature, or have social anxiety may also make some students a bigger target for bullies.

Advice for parents whose children are experiencing bullying in school

When your child is experiencing bullying, it is crucial to lend an empathetic ear and engage in open conversations with them. By doing so, you can gather information about the situation and take steps toward resolving the problem. Creating a calm and caring environment during these discussions will give your child a sense of love and support.

Here are some steps you can take to help a victim of bullying.

Seek therapy

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has been found to be an effective intervention for children who are prone to bullying6. A study has children who had personality types that are known risk factors for bullying (anxiety, sensitivity, impulsivity, sensation seeking) were at a reduced risk of being victimized after a period of CBT.

Join a support group

Many bullied children feel as though they lack strong peer relationships. For this reason, joining a bullying support group where they have a safe space to discuss their issues, and also develop crucial skills can be invaluable. In these spaces, bullied children can build social skills and a sense of comradery. They report feeling stronger, safer, and happier while working together as a team to solve their issues7.

Journal

Encourage your child to express their thoughts and feelings. Journaling can be an excellent way to reflect and process what is happening while increasing their emotional intelligence. Best of all, it can lead to understanding and provide solutions.

Writing down thoughts at the moment and developing a consistent journaling practice is the best way to see results.

Carving out some family time and using an expression deck is an excellent tool. It will guide you with journal prompts that include questions to help you with self-growth so your child can listen to their inner voice and build confidence. They are a great tool to help kids communicate with their families on a deeper level. If some of your family values include self-expression and communication give it a try!

expression deck cards shows prompts with journal to help with bullying

How can you help someone with bullying behaviors?

If your child is a bullying victim, it can be hard to think of a bully as someone who needs help. However, young people who engage in bad behavior aren't always 'bad kids'. With the right intervention, they can see the error of their ways and recognize their own negative behaviors.

According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the first step towards helping a child with bullying behaviors is to know the signs8.

  • Impulsivity
  • Prone to physical violence
  • Coming home with items that don't belong to them
  • Difficulty expressing feelings or understanding others' feelings
  • Social relationships marked by conflict or aggression
  • Rough or aggressive in their social interactions
  • Unwilling to accept responsibility for their actions

If you suspect your child has an involvement in bullying, it's important to make it clear to them that it isn't acceptable. Remember that as a parent, you can make it clear that treating others with mutual respect is one of your core values.

Understanding motivations for bullying

If you suspect that your child is bullying others, it's important to understand what motivates them to do so. This is where F4S free assessment can help you to understand your child's motivational traits.

F4S dashboard shows traits and motivations
F4S dashboard

With a better understanding of what is causing the behavior, you will be empowered to take positive action toward behavioral change. You can set a goal and then AI Coach Marlee will create a personalized coaching plan to support your success. 90% of users meet their goal when they finish their coaching program!

For example, someone with bullying tendencies might benefit from increasing their emotional skills with our EQ coaching program. While someone who is being bullied might want to strengthen their personal power.

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What are the main causes of online bullying?


One of the most disturbing trends that has become more common over the past 10-15 years is the rise of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullying has been defined by Unicef11 as:

"Bullying with the use of digital technologies. It can take place on social media platforms, messaging platforms, gaming platforms, and mobile phones. It is repeated behavior, aimed at scaring, angering or shaming those who are targeted."

This can include spreading rumors, posting humiliating images or videos, and sharing unpleasant comments, threats, or derogatory remarks.

Alarmingly, cyberbullying has been shown to be more prevalent than playground bullying. Research has found that up to 60% of US students have been victims of cyberbullying, a figure that's 30% higher than that of playground bullying12.

But what causes cyberbullying?

While the motivations of cyberbullies appear to be similar to those of traditional playground bullies, research suggests that the sense of anonymity may, in some cases, embolden people to say or do things they wouldn't do in real life. There also appears to be a dovetailing between cyberbullying and the growing issue of social media addiction among teens13. For instance, a bullying child who also has a social media addiction may compulsively post demeaning comments, or harmful rumors in the same way that others might compulsively share or scroll. Considering that the cyberbully can do so at any time, and in some cases, under the veil of anonymity, means that the frequency, and therefore, the danger of bullying increases for the victim.

How should you deal with common forms of bullying in schools?

As we've seen, bullying comes in different forms such as physical bullying, verbal bullying, and cyber bullying. There is no single solution to bullying. Depending on the type of bullying, the culture of the school, and the environment, dealing with bullying may be on an individual basis, or it may require widespread cultural change within the school to reduce the prevalence of school bullying.

Dealing with a bully

While the causes and explanations for bullying vary, the one thing experts agree on is that bullying is about power. According to bullying expert Dr. Amy Cooper Hakim, bullying comes from a place of insecurity and self-doubt14. Learning to respond to their taunts with confidence and self-assurance can be a highly effective way of taking their power from them.

Another important thing to remember is the power of connection. Bullies often target those who don't have a close social circle or 'loners'. Remind your child that they are loved and that they have a close family unit.  Encourage them to take positive action such as spending more time with their friends. As a parent, you can go a long way to facilitate your child's social network to ensure they maintain solid relationships.

Addressing bullying culture in your school

A literature review on school culture and bullying found that values and norms promoted by schools have a strong impact on the prevalence of bullying. Children re-create the social world around them through their social interactions with peers. If the school actively promotes anti-bullying messages and encourages positive behaviors, it can reduce bullying among students.

If you're concerned that your child's school is creating a climate of tolerance towards bullying, here are some steps you can take toward addressing the issue.

  • Write to the school principal to discuss your concerns
  • Get involved in Parent-Teacher Association meetings and suggest changes
  • Ask your child about their experiences and perceptions of bullying at school

As awareness of the issues grows, school administrators may seek to rectify the issues and engage in new practices to stamp out the cultural factors that give rise to bullying.

Understand the motivations that could be contributing to bullying

Both bullies and victims alike often have traits that predispose them to either role. With an understanding of your child's unique motivational traits, it's possible to begin to curb the issue of bullying and create positive and lasting change.

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  1. Ttofi, M. (2011). Do the victims of school bullies tend to become depressed later in life? Available at: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/254192616_Do_the_victims_of_school_bullies_tend_to_become_depressed_later_in_life_A_systematic_review_and_meta-analysis_of_longitudinal_studies#:~:text=Findings%20The%20probability%20of%20being,CI%3A%201.71%E2%80%902.32)

  2. National Centre Against Bullying. Definition of bullying. Available at: https://www.ncab.org.au/bullying-advice/bullying-for-parents/definition-of-bullying/

  3. Beduna, K. N. (2019). Recalled Childhood Bullying Victimization and Shame in Adulthood: The Influence of Attachment Security, Self-Compassion, and Emotion Regulation Available at: https://self-compassion.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Beduna2019.pdf

  4. National Centre Against Bullying. Signs of bullying. Available at: https://www.ncab.org.au/bullying-advice/bullying-for-parents/signs-of-bullying/

  5. Australian Institute of Family Studies. Children who bully at school. Available at: https://aifs.gov.au/resources/policy-and-practice-papers/children-who-bully-school

  6. Kelly, E. (2020). A Novel Approach to Tackling Bullying in Schools: Personality-Targeted Intervention for Adolescent Victims and Bullies in Australia. Available at: https://www.jaacap.org/article/S0890-8567(19)30278-3/fulltext

  7. Kvarme, L. (2022). Support group for a bullied schoolchild: A case study. Available at:https://www.journalofchildhealth.com/content/research/support-group-for-a-bullied-schoolchild-a-case-study/

  8. Australian Institute of Family Studies. Children who bully at school. Available at: https://aifs.gov.au/resources/policy-and-practice-papers/children-who-bully-school

  9. Anti-Bullying Alliance. Identity-based bullying. Available at: https://anti-bullyingalliance.org.uk/tools-information/all-about-bullying/at-risk-groups/identity-based-bullying

  10. Wolke, D. (2015). Long-term effects of bullying. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4552909/

  11. Unicef. Cyberbullying: What is it and how to stop it. Available at:https://www.unicef.org/end-violence/how-to-stop-cyberbullying

  12. Pew Research Center. (2018). A majority of teens have experienced some form of cyberbullying. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/09/27/a-majority-of-teens-have-experienced-some-form-of-cyberbullying/

  13. Giordano, A. (2021). Understanding adolescent cyberbullies: Exploring social media addiction and psychological factors. Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/23727810.2020.1835420?journalCode=ucac20

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