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Some questions parents ask about school bullies.

"At every quarterly examination a gold medal was given to the best writer. When the first medal was offered, it produced rather a general contention than an emulation and diffused a spirit of envy, jealousy, and discord through the whole school; boys who were bosom friends before became fierce contentious rivals, and when the prize was adjudged became implacable enemies. Those who were advanced decried the weaker performances; each wished his opponent’s abilities less than his own, and they used all their little arts to misrepresent and abuse each other’s performances."

Robert Coram, Political Inquiries (1791)

Introduction - Overview: -- School safety has been burned into our minds by the haunting images of Columbine’s . . . .

The Triangle of Power Dynamics -- The bully, victim, and bystander social roles form a dangerous triangle. . . .

Here are some commonly asked questions about bullying at school:


King, S: Rage. In The Bachman Books. New York, NY: Signet Books, USA, Inc., 1997 (7-170)

Twemlow, SW: Profile of a School Shooter. Bulletin of the American Society of Psychoanalytic Physicians 1999; LXXXVII (2):3-9

Twemlow, SW: The Roots of Violence: Converging Psychoanalytic Explanatory Models For Power Struggles And Violence in Schools. In Press, Psychoanalytic Quarterly.

Twemlow, SW, Fonagy, P, Sacco, FC, Gies, ML, Evans, R, Ewbank, R: Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment: A Controlled Study of an Elementary School Intervention to Reduce Violence. In Press, American Journal of Psychiatry.

Twemlow, SW, Sacco, FC, Williams, P: A Clinical and Integrationist Perspective on the Bully-Victim-Bystander Relationship. Bulletin of the Menninger Clinic 1996; 60 (3):296-313

Recommended Resource Materials for Teachers

Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. United States Department of Education,

Federal Bureau of Investigation: School and Juvenile Violence: A View of the Literature. National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime, FBI, US Department of Justice, January 1999, First Edition.

Olweus, D: Bullying at School — What We Know and What We Can Do. Blackwell, MA, 1993

Randall, P: Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims. Rutledge, NY, 1997

Twemlow, S, Sacco, F, Twemlow, S: Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment: A Training Program for Elementary Schools. 77 Reed Street, Agawam, MA: T & S Publishing Group, 2001



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Introduction - Overview

School safety has been burned into our minds by the haunting images of Columbine’s students running from their school with their hands clasped behind their heads and the image of a six-year-old Michigan student who fatally shot a classmate. Modern teachers do not enjoy the respect or the safety which existed even a decade ago. The idea of assaulting a teacher or mass murders in schools was so unreal as to make for a short story by Stephen King (1997), that unfortunately became the template for a multiple homicide of a teacher and several students in Moses Lake.

Violence has plagued inner city schools for decades, and drugs, crime, and gangs have been a part of inner city public education culture for some time. Now, a new type of suburban violence is emerging in the form of school shooters who take out their retaliatory rage on students and teachers at their schools, in spite of affluence, opportunity, and relative freedom from child abuse, drug and alcohol abuse, and academic limitations. Parents and teachers are drifting apart around the issue of violence. Parents often protect their children and attack the school’s apparent victimization of their child. Gone are the days of a parent standing solidly behind the teacher in disciplining a child who is disruptive at school. Litigation has replaced cooperation between home and the school.

What do all these things have in common? Power struggles are at the root of these violent conflicts beginning in kindergarten, running a course throughout the educational lifecycle and extending into the world of work. We define power struggles as the conscious and unconscious use of power by one person or group to dominate another. Coercive power dynamics refers to the process by which the various social roles of those trapped in the power struggles are structured and how they shift, or become fixed over time.

Teachers and parents often lack information and act towards these power struggles in ways that can worsen the situation; in West Jordan, Utah a 6th grader drafted a hit list of 12 students after enduring months of taunting from classmates, including beatings and having dog manure thrown in his face! The boy was indefinitely suspended after one of his victimizers grabbed the list from him and gave it to a teacher. The school spokesman said the boy and his teachers were equally at fault for "just regular kid stuff". Needless to say, police, the boy’s parents, and the school are in an uproar. Overreaction and suspension of one culprit has continued the circle of bullying, hurt school administrators’ credibility, and worst of all, created a climate for a worsening of the power dynamics.

Educators and counselors are outnumbered by the shear number and diversity of problems that are now being carried from the home into schools by trouble children from public schools and the elite private schools on a daily basis. Solutions require that large groups be impacted within the existing resource allocation since medical referral is too expensive an alternative. Teachers need to be able to teach rather than be made into victims or bystanders by the shear weight of the non-creative and ultimately violent group climate within the school. How power dynamics are handled within a school sets the tone for the quality of the overall learning environment.

There are many emerging programs and ideas about bullying, but few concise answers to specific questions asked by parents and teachers alike. This article collects the most commonly asked questions about bullying and offers answers for teachers to use for their own information as well as a resource for answering questions from parents about this topic.

A school is a complex mini-community. Like all communities, it has its leaders, followers, and troublemakers, as well as all those who have defined roles to keep the school functioning in a useful way. In our previous work in schools (Twemlow, Sacco, Williams 1996, Twemlow, Fonagy, Sacco, Gies, Evans, Ewbank in press) we have found that within the school community these power struggles between children very much interfere with the degree to which a child feels safe and happy, looks forward to coming to school and progresses academically. Even peaceful schools have covert power struggles. We consulted with a parochial school without serious disciplinary problems and with very high academic achievement, but where the young children in the school didn’t like going to school. Eventually, disgruntled parents forcefully brought the matter to the attention of the principal. It turned out that small children were being bullied by older children, who would exclude them from games on the playground and make them feel small and unappreciated. A peer mentor approach sponsored by the older student council students remedied the problem quite quickly.

The final common path for this cataclysm results from a long developmental process of build up of rigid coercive power dynamics in the school environment. To make a school a place where you child can learn, teachers and students must be able to get along with each other with mutual respect, not merely comply with school rules. We have found that these power dynamics evolve from attention-getting struggles which appear first in kindergarten, as children make a transition from being at home with a parent or caretaker they relate largely to teachers as if they are parental figures. Thus power struggles in kindergarten through third grade are usually to get the attention of the teacher. By about the fourth and fifth grade, peer leaders emerge and these unique leaders themselves often have great power and control over the body of their peers. Physical bullying peaks in middle schools. It is thought that by about the tenth or eleventh grade of high school, the bully loses social power as children’s discriminatory and symbolic abilities develop, and children become more independent as they begin to plan their adult life beyond the intense social dynamics of the school environment. Instead, in high schools, powerful social group bullying can lead to lethal violence. In the Columbine school shootings, a favored social group, the athletes, seemed to contribute to the build up of the killing spree of Klebold and Harris. In spite of the multiple and complex factors involved in these school shootings, we have no doubt that school power dynamics play a major role in the lethal outcome (Twemlow in press, Twemlow 1999).

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The Triangle of Power Dynamics

The bully, victim, and bystander social roles form a dangerous triangle.

A bully repeatedly uses force, either physical or non-physical to shame, humiliate and dominate a victim. Thus a victim is the target for the bully’s force and can become depressed, hopeless and enraged at the mockery. The bystander is the audience for the bully-victim drama. It should be noted that these are dialectically determined roles, not people, and can switch around often very rapidly. Like an audience for a play, the bully needs applause, since it increases the humiliation of the victim and makes the bully feel more powerful. In this way, the more the bystander enhances the bullying. The bystander role is an important and often unrecognized part of the problem and also the solution. The Bully-Bystander gets a vicarious thrill by watching the bullying. Our research has shown that 10-20% of all children in grades 3 through 9 have admitted Bully-Bystander qualities. The less common Victim-Bystander is often an abused child, who is too frightened to resist the bullies’ demands for help. Avoidant bystanders are sometimes teachers who deny the existence of the problem, while ambivalent bystanders can be recruited to interrupt the power dynamic.

As children get older, the intensity of the power dynamics and the degree of humiliation, shame and rage become much greater as groups of children adopt the bully-victim-bystander roles. Competition for leadership of groups and later on as the child grows up and becomes sexually mature, gender and ethnic battles and games, all add fuel to this fire. Thus being humiliated in front of a girlfriend or being rejected by a boyfriend has very intense emotional implications, leading often to despair and humiliation and sometimes suicide, or revenge and retaliation and sometimes homicide, as the recent spate of school shootings so dramatically illustrates.

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Is all fighting bullying?

No, it is not. If two individuals of equal skill get into a fight, either verbal or physical, where humiliation and harm is not an important part of the process, then that is fighting, not bullying. In young children, especially boys in the first grade, aggressiveness is sometimes a way that psychological growth is facilitated so that not all fighting and not all bad behavior in children is due to bullying. Thus fighting or disruptive classroom behavior does not mean that your child will necessarily become a bully. Remember, the "goal" of bullying is to draw attention to one’s power by a process of putting somebody else down. Didactically, it might also be helpful to further distinguish a violent act from bullying or fighting. Violence implies the intent to harm, thus bullying is violent, but a playground fight is not necessarily violent.

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Is all fighting and anger abnormal?

The answer to this is unequivocally "no". Anger is a normal emotion. It is not a pleasant emotion, it is not an emotion we enjoy, but it is perfectly normal, as is sadness or happiness, for that matter. Thus, fighting between children is not necessarily abnormal, it could be a normal outlet for children’s aggressiveness. An environment that is entirely too quiet is in many ways also abnormal. Physical contact is a way children often sublimate their energy, and anger is a way of communicating a very important mental state. Anger can be quite constructive, if people are willing to examine themselves, and the emotion is not too extreme.

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Who are the bullies?

In elementary and middle school, typically, the schoolyard bully is a boy, usually much bigger and physically stronger than other children, although a little kid can also be a bully if motivated. In high school, bullying goes underground, is expressed more subtly, and is perpetrated equally by either gender. It should be remembered that teachers also bully students and students bully teachers, and that administrative staff, secretaries, custodians, lunchroom aides and coaches can all be part of the power dynamics triangle with each sometimes occupying Bully, Victim, or Bystander roles. It’s only by self-observation and self-awareness that such troublesome and misery-producing interactions can be stopped. It’s our opinion that if the total social climate of the school is not addressed, including not only children, but also all others working in the school, then any programs to reduce violence in schools will fail. Girls bully more indirectly by verbal attack, ostracizing and rumor mongering. In recent years, girl gang leaders have become much more physical in their desire to dominate, even in middle and elementary schools.

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What are the major forms of bullying?

Young children tend to bully physically, but usually the physical component is not serious. If, for example, a bully seriously injures a victim, he will get blamed and the victim gets the sympathy. Most physical bullying is repeated poking, slapping, pushing, groping and shoving, to embarrass and humiliate the victim, but not cause serious injury. In elementary schools, repeated name calling, tattling, butting in line, rumors, and leaving someone out of a group are the most common bullying behaviors. Bullying incidents last only a few seconds and tend to occur in unstructured settings; hallways, bathrooms, lunchrooms, playgrounds. As children get more verbal and more skilled symbolically, then the forms of bullying become more subtle, although in many ways can be even more destructive. Verbal bullying involves the public humiliation of a victim by name calling, poking fun at a physical characteristic or disability such as stuttering, limping, blinking, or other oddity of movement, speech, or appearance. Verbal bullying can also involve racial slurs, attacks on parents, "your mother is a . . . .", or mean comments about styles of dress, hygiene, or other "styles" of dressing or acting. There is nothing more miserable than a young teenage girl crying in her bedroom because she has been excluded from a clique by her so-called friends, or the child who becomes anorexic and bulimic because of fears of exclusion from the group of thin popular girls who are the model of attractiveness to boys. Ostracism, excommunication and blackballing are all ways that adults humiliate and bully each other and are unfortunately institutionalized in many of our communities. We perhaps do not need to make the obvious point that children are not born bullies, but learn the pattern. Who they learn from includes parents, teachers, media and many other social influences.

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Are bullies mentally ill?

Coercive power dynamics, or bullying tendencies, can be present in many different forms of mental illness, so bullying is not a diagnosis as such, anymore than a headache is, but instead is an expression of a dysfunctional mental state. There is no treatment for bullying, but if it continues into adult life, and the individual continues to humiliate and mock others, all sorts of interpersonal problems will result that might lead them into psychiatric care, or even prison.

It is our opinion that frequently, children who kill themselves or others often may have mental illness with a predisposition to loss of impulse control, but the straw that breaks the camel’s back frequently is to be the object of significant bullying and feeling of being excluded or rejected by the group to which the child by nature and right belongs. There is nothing more devastating to the human mind than being shamed and mocked by others in front of a peer group and there is no other assault that can produce homicidal or suicidal rage as easily as shaming and mockery, since being mocked is much more enraging than serious physical injury.

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Is competing to be number one a form of bullying?

It is true that we live in a dog eat dog, highly competitive free market society. Schools can help reinforce an obsession with competitive sports. Horror stories have been told more than once about the impact of sports failures on the peace of mind and happiness and education of the child. Some of us believe that extreme competitiveness is not at all desirable for the growth of children, although balanced non-bullying competitiveness can lead to excellence. It is our view that it’s not desirable to encourage children to win at all costs, since all costs may invoke bullying, humiliation and attendant possibilities of serious violence, or at the very least unhappiness and academic failure. A child who learns to achieve their goals by vicious competition will likely end up unempathic and friendless. It is long known that the master/slave relationship (as in the bully/victim relationship) may involve compliance on the part of the slave, but not willingly and certainly not happily. Much is missing from the life of a child who only knows how to win at all costs.

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How do children learn to bully?

Children are not born to bully. Modern psychological theory suggests that human beings are not born with instincts, unlike animals, but loss of control over impulses comes mainly from responses learned during upbringing counterpoised with certain genetic pre-dispositions. Parents that express anger physically will likely produce children who tend to express anger physically. Children from homes where there is domestic violence tend to over or under-estimate violence, thus very much affecting their later relationships with others and their own children. Unfortunately, significant adults are often inadvertently a bad example to our children; we frequently ostracize those whose customs and patterns we do not like. The senior author was subjected to ostracism in a small community. Dr. Twemlow’s first job out of medical school was to work in a small coal-mining town where he diagnosed several cases of tuberculosis due to contaminated milk. When he asked the health department to pasteurize the milk, he did not realize it would shut out local milk suppliers. The town acted against him rather viciously, by avoiding his medical practice and by refusing to serve him and his family in local shops. He and his family were pretty miserable. Anybody who’s been blackballed by a union for crossing a picket line experiences institutionalized bullying, not to speak of excommunication by religions and many other exclusion rituals, including country clubs and special groups that maintain themselves a cut above everybody else. This form of institutionalized bullying conveys the idea to children that it is alright to establish a hierarchy of "good people" and "less good outsiders" and to humiliate and enslave others. Yes, unfortunately, children learn to bully, but they can also unlearn bullying. It all depends on us, the significant adults.

About one percent of all bullies have a serious sadistic nature, in that they enjoy the pain of others. Such children tend to be rather unfeeling when they bully and are not anxious, nor is their self-esteem low. Such children often have serious problems with criminal behavior later, and can become quite abusive. Obviously, most bullies do not necessarily grow up to commit crimes or abuse other people, since we all have been bullies, victims, and bystanders!

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Are children who complain about bullying just whining and don’t they ask for it anyway?

There are a variety of types of bullies and victims. The bully-victim is a child who tends to provoke trouble and then begins to feel very sorry for themselves when they are attacked. Such provocative children can become despairing very quickly, especially if their peers and teachers and those in charge do not pay attention to the extent of the humiliation. Sometimes people just don’t pay attention to it because it isn’t very physically serious. There probably never was a statement less true than, "Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me." Girl victims sometimes in high school develop a pattern of dating that often paradoxically attaches them to bullying boys. They sometimes feel as though they have to rescue their macho bullying boyfriends, who are seen as "a really good boy underneath". Sometimes, children may even become martyrs, as if it is a greater cause to support the boy against all who do not like or understand him. These complex relationships are part of forms of lovesickness or crush. Whether or not children "ask for it" in the sense of acting to encourage it makes no more sense as a justification for bullying than it does to say that because a victim of sexual harassment, including rape, is sexually aroused or even seductive, that they asked for it.

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What makes a child a target for bullying?

The key behavioral ingredient for being a victim is SUBMISSIVENESS. A bully quickly picks small, shy, frail, or whiny children who are loners. A bully needs to feel in control and requires that the victim provide the bystanders a show of shame or humiliation. Victims are made to feel like fools and often try to submit to the bully in an attempt to stop the bullying. The net effect is that the victim’s submission fuels the bully and increases the entertainment for the bystanders.

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What is the harm in being a bystander?

Many parents teach tDo movies, video games and the Internet depicting violence encourage bullying?heir children to "not get involved", to "stay out of it", "to mind your own business." When a child becomes an audience to bullying, a process of being part of the "Triangle of Power Dynamics" begins. Watching someone squeal in shame as a bully humiliates can create a thrill in the bystander, who becomes vicariously identified with the bully, i.e., a bully-bystander. Eventually, this child might identify with the bully and passively feel empowered by the negative actions of the bully, being ensnared into the pathological power play without even realizing it.

The bystander may also identify with the victim and become afraid of the bully or support the bully so they do not become a victim (victim-bystander). The practiced bully will always be on the look out for new targets, and the victim-bystander is an excellent recruit. Bystanders can also deny any bullying is going on and become avoidant-bystanders. Many adults fill this role. Bystanders may also be confused and not know what to do. This ambivalent-bystander is distracted because they are trying to figure out what part to play in the unfolding destructive power dynamic. This is the group of potential achievers who will not achieve potential because they are distracted by the ongoing power plays.

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Do movies, video games and the Internet depicting violence encourage bullying?

The answer to that is complex, but in summary, is yes. Why wouldn’t it? It is amazing when one looks at the research which shows that children view an average of 10,000 acts of violence yearly on television alone, including South Park, Beavis & Butthead, and the Simpson's! Children spend 16-20 hours a week playing video games, and 4-8 hours watching movies. In general, 57 percent of all TV programs have violence in them, 73 percent of which goes unpunished, and for 58 percent no pain is registered at the violence. Research at the Menninger Clinic shows that children who have conduct problems show responses to violent movie clips that indicate a type of numbing out of violence. Sometimes a smile indicates that responses to the violence have been suppressed. Whereas this could be a survival tactic of some value when conscious, if it becomes too much of a habit, it creates an apparent remorseless and lack of empathy in the child. Overall, the evidence is that repeated, merciless violence in the media; newspapers, movies, television, or Internet, may predispose a child to violent thoughts and acts both in their current and perhaps even later life.

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What can be done to stop bullying?

The first step is developing an awareness of the bully-victim-bystander power dynamic and how it is being played out. It does little good to label any one child as the one who needs help or discipline. Bullying is a complex social dynamic that requires a combination of large group interventions that target improving the school and home social climate by having a zero tolerance for the bully-victim-bystander behaviors. Interventions need to target the school climate because the problem is caused by children who are not mentally ill and provide ways to encourage positive alternatives to negative power struggles. Bullying needs to be exposed as destructive behavior rather than glorified, modeled, and ignored by adults. Just like tobacco or AIDS, bullying is a health and educational epidemic that threatens the minds and education of our children.

Children need to learn how to cope with bullies. Simply bullying back will not work. Parents often advise their children to fight back against the bully. Again, victims are often no match for the bullies. Productive responses to bullies are based on teaching children verbal and mental techniques that lead to assertive, not provocative responses to bullying. The child needs to learn how to use assertive stances, language, postures, and some verbal and physical escapes from bullying.

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