Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Why is my child being bullied?

The Bully Relationship

A few days ago, I got a chance to listen to and meet SuEllen Fried at a bully seminar she spoke at in my city. I attended not realizing that she was a guest speaker, but was pleasantly surprised as I happened to be in the middle of reading her book "Banishing Bullying Behavior" that she co-authored with Blanche Sosland. One of the things she talked about that intrigued me, were the profiles of bullies and of targets. After reading this chapter in her book, I was able to surmise that bullies and their targets seem to have a sort of dysfunctional relationship. It is most definitely a relationship, even if it is one that the target isn't a willing part of it.

A relationship, by definition is 1. connection, association, or involvement; 3. emotional or other connection between people.1

According to Fried, who has amassed many years of research and made bullying the primary focus of her lifes work, bullies and targets fall into different profiles. This is part of the problem when addressing the issue of bullying in blanket terms and not focusing on the different dynamics and motivations behind bully behavior. It is so very important to get to the root of the behavior and discover the underlying causes, to diffuse the bully relationship at it's center.

Profiles of Bullies:

Reactive Bully - these are naturally aggressive children with poor impulse control. They see the world through a paranoid lens, and often view benign acts as provocation. They may see an accidental brush as a direct assault, and typically feel justified in their response. They do not view themselves as aggressive, but feel they are protecting themselves and their space.

Proactive Bully - is more calculated and intentionally hurtful. They often choose targets who will give a more rewarding response to their harassment, and frequently behave in a unemotional, controlled, deliberate manner.

Elitist Bully - see also Rankism. People of privilege, whether real or perceived often feel justified in abusing others.

Profiles of Targets, as defined by Dan Olweus(2):

Passive Targets - are often insecure, quiet and shy. They do not invite attention, nor do they defend themselves against attack.

Provocative Targets - are hot tempered and easily provoked. They are often restless and tend to annoy others. Fried and Sosland assert that they typically have disorders such as Aspergers or ADHD, which prevent them from picking up on social cues that other children read instinctively. These children do not usually realize that they are irritating others, and if they do realize it, they could not tell you why.

According to Gary Ladd PhD, a noted phsycologist, bullies (who are not reactive) will often engage in shopping behavior for targets. They will test the waters with various children in a group and form a bully relationship with those who reward him or her the most. This is also what Dr. Izzy Kalman says in his online pamphlet "How to Stop Being Teased and Bullied Without Really Trying"(3). Bullies tend to look for targets who will Cry, Comply, Deny, or Fly Off the Handle:

Cry - When a target is made to cry, this makes the bully feel very powerful. Some children are naturally sensitive or defensive and made to cry easily. This is why bullies usually target children who are more emotional and require little effort to move to tears. Many parents try to stamp out this sort of behavior - especially in boys, because they do not want their children to be teased. While telling a child to not cry in front of a bully is typically a good move, it's very important for the child to know that there is nothing wrong with them being sensitive and that's just how some people are. It can be easy to imply to a child that they bring the bullying on themselves because they just can't control their emotions.
I've known some parents to actually taunt their children while they are little and call them "cry-baby" or other mean names in an attempt to toughen the kid up and teach them to hide their tears. Parents do this out of fear (and the idea that they are doing what is best for their child) because they know if the child is easy to cry, they are easy to bully. But this behavior from parents to their children is NOT a bully deterrent, in fact, it will make children more susceptible to bullying because now the child believes that they have a flaw (the flaw of feeling their feelings) and that if only they were more normal (if they weren't such a sissy), others might like them more. This increases their insecurity (sensitivity) and anxiety and they have lost their strongest weapon against bullies - emotional assurance.

Comply - Many children are nonconfrontational and while they are not easily moved to tears, they can be very compliant when being coerced. They easily give up their homework, lunch money, or anything else the bully demands. This can lead to extremely humiliating scenarios as a bully may demand more than tangible objects. They may demand for a compliant child to engage in behaviors or perform stunts for the bullies amusement. This is why many parents will try and toughen up their children and teach them to stand up for themselves. While building confidence is imperitive for any child, bullies can sense false confidence. Building self esteem through validation (teaching children to trust and honor their feelings) is the best way to give children the confidence they need to stand up for themselves when bullies to try make them to something against their will.

Deny - Bullies will look for targets who will accept their behavior easily, and also who will not tell on them. Many children are so frightened of their bullies that they will deny anything is wrong even when an adult asks them directly. Many children are advised to tell an adult if they are being bullied, and when they do, the bullying often becomes worse therefore it's a given that most children who are targeted by bullies will deny they are being picked on.

Fly Off the Handle - Some children who are naturally hot tempered and typically tend to be "Provocative Targets" can be easily manipulated to explode on cue. These children can have very predictable behavior patterns and other children know just how to push their buttons to get them to explode. When they do, they are the ones who get into trouble which further alienates them. These kids are often ostracized by most of their peers, and know they cannot turn to adults as they learn to mistrust them. They are often disbelieved when they try to tell their side of the story and the adults get so tired of the trouble they stir up that they stop trying to get to the bottom of the equation and punish the one who everyone else is pointing at out of hand. The adults in charge also tend to separate this problem child, to limit their contact with the other kids they are so at odds with. This often causes the target to break down over time and isolate themselves emotionally.

While these are a good general guide to bully relationships, it's important to bear in mind that a relationship is as unique as the individuals who make it up. Targets are people; bullies are people - both have many qualities and assets that define and motivate them. While it may seem to take an inordinate amount of time to sit down and assess a bully relationship, it will save so much more time and headache (not to mention emotional distress on the part of the children) than to simply isolate or give out punishments and expect that to fix it.


1 - Definition of relationship,

2 - Dan Olweus is a Swedish phsychology professor, and has spent the past 30 years focusing on bullying behavior and prevention.

3 -

In your personal experience with bullies, are you able to connect those within that bully relationship to any of the profiles described by Olweus or Fried? Do you think that identifying these traits can help to resolve conflicts between a bully and a target?



  1. The definition of a provacative target fits my oldest son to a T. And now that I realize it, it's hard for me to face how unsupportive I was. He has ADHD and always rather at odds with his peers. From the time I started him in school, I was getting constant complaints from the teachers. I tried to look at it from their side, and get to the bottom of the issue. But year after year, through different teachers, different schools, it was the same complaints about him. He was always being separated, always being removed from his peers aned isolated. By the time he was in third grade, I had begun to feel very frustrated with him. It was always his word against everybody else. I couldn't convince the teachers that his actions were harmless, blown out of proportion, or flat out lies, and I began to feel that he was causing the problems afterall.
    By the time he ended his third grade year, I decided that school was the worst place for him to be and took him out to homeschool. It was the absolute best thing for him and my only regret was not doing it sooner - and not being 100% supportive.

    If parents have a child who is "labeled" by the school and constantly getting into trouble, arguments with peers, and just seem to be at odds with the people around him, they may very well be a provocative target of classmate bullying - singled out by all of their classmates and adults. I caught on early enough to repair the damage that was caused in those 3 years of public school and my understanding of the situation as well as my honesty with my son has helped him to fully grasp what was going on and he has moved onto jr. high and high school seamlessly, and makes strong fulfilling relationships with his peers.