Understanding Bullying

Being informed about bullying is the first step to working together to address bullying behaviour and promote healthy relationships.

What is Bullying?

Bullying is a repeated pattern of unprovoked, deliberate and aggressive physical or verbal behaviour, marked by an imbalance of power and intent or threat to harm. Bullying is therefore a relationship problem. It is about power and the abuse of power. Bullying is always unwanted, unwelcome and uncomfortable to the person who is bullied. Read More...

Helping or encouraging someone to bully another person is also bullying.

Verbal bullying may include taunting, name calling, sarcasm, gossiping, teasing, threatening, or negative comments about a person’s culture, race, ethnicity, religion, gender or sexual orientation.

Physical bullying may include hitting, pinching, chasing, shoving, coercing or unwanted sexual touching.

Social bullying (sometimes called relational aggression) may include leaving someone out on purpose, telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumours about someone, or embarrassing someone in public.

Cyberbullying includes the use of email, text messages, social media and Internet sites to embarrass, socially exclude, or damage reputations or friendships in a deliberate, repeated and hostile way.

Two things make bullying different from bugging. The first difference is negative intent. What makes bullying different from everyday conflict is that those who bully deliberately cause repeated and deliberate hurt, either physical, social or psychological.

The second difference is that there is always an imbalance of power. It may be physical stature, peer position or personality traits, such as aggressive versus passive characteristics. One or more students act as the aggressor(s), and the person who is bullied does not have the skills to cope with the aggression.


Indicators of Bullying

Because adult intervention is the key to bullying prevention, parents and educators need to be aware of the behaviours and signs that young people are being bullied. Since bullying is a relationship problem, parents and educators must also look for signs of bullying within the young person’s relationships. Read More...

Indicators may include:

  • Unexplained injuries, bruising or damaged clothing
  • Absenteeism that is too frequent and may involve skipping school
  • Belongings or money that mysteriously disappears
  • Appearing anxious or fearful
  • Withdrawal from family or peer group
  • Uncharacteristic difficulty completing school work
  • Trouble sleeping, nightmares
  • Reluctance to go to school or ride the bus to school
  • Reluctance to take part in other activities
  • Complaints of feeling unwell (headaches or stomach aches)
  • Apathy or depression
  • Low self-esteem
  • Being hungry after school
  • Crying at night or in secret
  • Threats to hurt themselves

Indicators that a young person is engaging in bullying behaviour may include:

  • Aggression with parents, siblings, pets and friends
  • Easily frustrated and quick to anger
  • Low concern for others’ feelings
  • Bossy and manipulative behaviour
  • Positive view of aggression
  • Not recognizing impact of behaviour on others
  • Unexplained articles or money
  • Secretive about possessions and activities
  • Friends who bully and are aggressive
Bullying Statistics

Research suggests that in a class of 25 students, two-to-four are engaging in bullying behaviour or are being bullied. At some point, the majority of students will engage in some form of bullying behaviour, or experience bullying themselves. Read More...

According to statistics posted by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research:

  • 47% of Canadian parents report having a child who has been bullied.
  • At least 1 in 3 Canadian adolescents has reported being bullied recently.
  • Among adult Canadians, 38% of males and 30% of females have reported being bullied during their school years.
  • The rate of discrimination experienced by students who identify themselves as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans-identified, Two-Spirited, Queer or Questioning (LGBTQ) is three times higher than heterosexual youth.

According to Statistics Canada, almost 10% of Canadian adults have a child who has been the target of cyber-bullying. In 40% of those cases, this bullying was done a classmate.

The majority of incidents of bullying and harassment do not get reported.

Students report that teachers take action to intervene in situations involving bullying or harassment 25% of the time. 71% of teachers believe they always intervene.

Effects of Bullying

There is growing evidence that exposure to bullying behaviour leads to symptoms of depression, loneliness, anxiety and, in extreme cases, suicide. Being bullied also leads to difficulty sleeping, tiredness and apathy, along with a higher incidence of headaches and stomach aches. It can also lead to feelings of helplessness Read More...

Bullying has a direct effect on the brain. Research shows that when a person feels under threat, heart rate and blood pressure increase. Reason is suspended as the brain seeks ways for the body to escape the impending threat.

The stress caused by bullying behaviour can actually damage or destroy brain cells in the part of the brain where memories are stored or retrieved. Stress and anxiety caused by bullying and harassment affect learning in the following ways:

  • Reduced learning and ability to engage in high-level thinking
  • Impaired ability to focus and maintain attention
  • Increase in rote behaviours
  • Increased difficulty storing or retrieving information from memory

Bullying behaviour therefore has a major negative impact on the learning environment. Research shows that students who are bullied in school have trouble concentrating on their work and have lower levels of academic achievement.

Studies also show that students who are bullied are more likely to simply stay away from school and have a higher dropout rate. There is also evidence that long-term stress or threat weakens the immune system. Students who are bullied are more likely to require mental health assistance or other social assistance, and are more likely to engage in substance abuse and delinquent behaviours.

Studies in Scandinavia, Japan, England, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States confirm:

  • Bullying causes a great deal of emotional distress to others, and its effects on those who are bullied last for decades, perhaps even a lifetime.
  • Negative effects are not limited to those who are bullied. Though not always immediately obvious, people who engage in bullying behaviour also suffer negative consequences, and those consequences increase over time.
  • Many people who engage in bullying behaviour have a downwardly spiraling course through life, their behaviour interfering with learning, friendships, work, intimate relationships, income and mental health.
  • Children who engage in bullying behaviour can grow into anti-social adults and are far more likely to commit crimes and physically abuse their spouse and their children; they also pass on bullying behaviour from one generation to the next.
  • Bullying behaviour can be a desperate and damaging way for some people to maintain a circle of human contacts.
Misconceptions About Bullying

There are many misconceptions about bullying behaviour. Here are some of the most common. Read More...

Misconception: Students who engage in bullying behaviour struggle with self-esteem and have no friends.

Reality: There are many types of students who engage in bullying behaviour. Some are confident and socially successful. Bullying behaviour is motivated by a need for social power. Bullying behaviour is seen as a way to control and manipulate the social order.


Misconception: Students who engage in bullying behaviour are just looking for attention. Ignore them and they go away.

Reality: Students who engage in bullying behaviour are looking for control. They rarely stop if they are ignored. In fact, the bullying behaviour is likely to increase unless it is addressed by adults.


Misconception: The best way to stop bullying behaviour is to just hit back harder.

Reality: Getting physical only invites escalation of bullying and harassment and increases the potential for serious physical harm. Also, this gives students the idea that violence is a legitimate way to solve problems.


Misconception: Being bullied builds character.

Reality: Young people who are bullied tend to feel isolated and lonely, and do not trust others. They are more likely to experience depression and anxiety. They struggle in school and experience health-related issues. They may even contemplate suicide.


Misconception: Young people need to handle bullying on their own.

Reality: If a young person knew how to handle it, they probably would. An adult who is aware of a bullying situation has an obligation to address it in some way. Without adult intervention, the bullying behaviour is likely to continue.


Misconception: If bullying were a serious problem, I would hear about it.

Reality: Young people often stay silent about bullying. Even children with excellent relationships with their parents stay silent. They are either too embarrassed or afraid that the bullying will get worse if they speak up. That’s why it’s important that parents and teachers are able to spot the signs of bullying behaviour.


Misconception: Bullying is easy to spot.

Reality: The fact is that students who engage in bullying behaviour often know where parents and teachers are most of the time. As a result, bullying often happens when adults aren’t around to witness it. Students who engage in bullying behaviour are often smart socially. They are able to manipulate parents, teachers and administrators using the same skills they use to bully other students. For this reason, adults often need to look to bystanders to understand the situation.


Misconception: There have always been people who bully and there always will be.

Reality: By working together, students, teachers and parents have the power to change how things have been and create a better and safer future for all students.


Misconception: Bullying is a natural part of growing up. Kids will be kids.

Reality: It is not natural or acceptable for a student to bully others. It is a learned behaviour, and with the right intervention it can be unlearned.

The Role of Bystanders

An important insight into bullying prevention focuses on understanding the role of so-called ‘bystanders’ – those who watch bullying happen or hear about it. Read More...

Depending on how bystanders respond, they can either contribute to the bullying problem or be part of the solution. Bystanders rarely play a completely neutral role, although some may think they do.

Hurtful bystanders may instigate the student who bullies or encourage him or her by laughing or cheering the bully behaviour. Some may actually join in the bullying behaviour once it begins. Most often, bystanders simply passively accept bullying by watching and doing nothing.

Canadian research suggests that 85% of bullying behaviour is witnessed by other students. But bystanders only try to stop bullying between 11 and 22% of the time. Helpful bystanders directly intervene or get help, by rallying the support of peers or by reporting the bullying to adults.

Bystanders who don’t intervene may think that the bullying is none of their business. Or they may fear getting involved, or feel powerless to stop the bully. They may not want to draw attention to themselves or they may think that telling adults won’t help or may actually make things worse.

Bystanders who don’t intervene or don’t report the bullying often suffer negative consequences themselves. They may experience anxiety about speaking to anyone about the bullying, powerlessness to stop the bullying, vulnerability to becoming the target of the bully or guilt for not defending the person being bullied.

It’s important to empower students to feel confident that they can be helpful bystanders. Parents can talk to their kids about how they can have a positive impact on a bullying incident. Young people need to know they will be supported by adults and this will make their proactive bystander’s role easier.

Young people also need to know that it is not wrong to let an adult know about a bullying incident. This is not ‘telling tales’ to trying to get someone else into trouble. The message has to be that it is the right thing to do.


Cyberbullying includes the use of email, text messages social media and Internet sites to embarrass, socially exclude, or damage reputations or friendships in a deliberate, repeated and hostile way.

Cyberbullying is becoming increasingly common as young people gain access to information technology. Unlike physical bullying, cyberbullies can remain virtually anonymous by using temporary email accounts or pseudonyms in chat rooms. In some cases, young people may actually know more about technology than their parents or guardians, enabling them to bully without concern of being discovered.

Cyberbullying can be particularly difficult to deal with because people tend to carry their cell phones all the time, and may need to leave them turned on. That leaves no refuge for the person being bullied.

In 2014 the Government of Canada is expected to pass legislation – the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act – which will make it a crime to distribute intimate images online without consent of the person.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment is unwanted sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or other behaviours of a sexual nature that intimidate, coerce, humiliate or in any way create a hostile school environment.

Some examples of sexual harassment include:

  • unwelcome leering and sexual propositions
  • sexual slurs, threats, derogatory comments or unwelcome graphic comments about a person’s body
  • unwelcome sexual jokes, gestures, touches, cornering or blocking normal physical movement in sexually suggestive ways.
Relational Aggression

Until recently, the word “bully” often conjured up images of sullen, physically aggressive boys with social problems and low self-esteem. While this type of individual who engages in bullying behaviour does exist, reality is much more complicated. Many individuals who bully resort to hidden, indirect social aggression to harm others. They often have well-developed social skills, high self-esteem, and are masters at manipulating adults in order to appear innocent. Read More...

As Rachel Simmons puts it in her book Odd Girl Out, “Covert aggression isn’t just about not getting caught; half of it is looking like you’d never mistreat someone in the first place,” (2002, 23). This type of behaviour is called relational aggression, and it is more commonly attributed to females than males.

Relational aggression is psychological (social or emotional) aggression between people in relationships, whereby “the group” is used as a weapon to hurt others. This can take the form of gossip, rumours, social exclusion, manipulative friendships, and even negative body language. Relational aggression is devastating to the self-image of the person who is the target of this behaviour because it undermines some of the most significant personal needs and goals of youth: the need for social inclusion, a positive sense of esteem and identity, and the development of meaningful friendships.

This information includes scenarios that highlight the impact of relational aggression on children and youth, an overview of its causes and effects, tips on how to identify when it is happening, and a summary of strategies that can be used to address it. This information is designed for teachers, parents, and anyone who is concerned about this problem.

Relational aggression isn’t just “girls being girls,” and it isn’t a normal part of growing up. It can happen in classrooms and playgrounds, at home or on the Internet. It starts at an early age, but it is by no means limited to youth and can occur among adults and in the workplace. As such, relational aggression is everyone’s problem. Let’s learn how to deal with it.

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Preschool Children and Bullying

This information distills the insights of experienced teachers, early childhood educators, parents and social researchers on early learning and aggression and outlines some general approaches that parents and other caregivers can use to teach appropriate behaviour, emotional recognition and control, and social interaction skills that support healthy relationships. If you are reading this information because you are concerned about your child’s aggression, please see a professional, such as a public health nurse, doctor, psychologist or social worker. Read More...