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April 2017
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During both childhood and adolescence, it is very difficult to insert yourself into a group of equals, therefore searching for social confirmation by means of emulating negative models represents a solution, even though it is unstable. For these reasons, this type of behaviour is often at the root of the growing phenomenon of bullying. Thus, a child/adolescent’s need to find a ‘place’ in life (in this case the place is being a bully) can turn into a problem for another child as he/she may become the victim of a bully. 

Bullying at school and on the street

The word bullying means behaviour between children or adolescents involving physical or psychological oppression that is carried out by one person or a group for a period of time on one or more victims. The ‘bull’ part of the word obviously refers to the animal to highlight the role the bully has on others, that is, strong and instinctive.

Persistence over time

As with all types of persecution of people, bullying is also characterised by episodes of abuse and persecution repeated over time and somewhat regularly, so as to establish long-lasting negative emotions in the victim, especially insecurity and fear.

The chosen victims

Even authoritative sources tend to point out that bullying is different from other types of behaviour which result in crime, such as vandalism or theft however, in reality, this does not mean that bullying is not a crime, as is often reported. Bullying can involve taking the victims belongings and damaging things or people, acts which are done to specific peers and who are targeted and subjected to systematic persecutions. Therefore, bullying primarily involves one or more bullies who bully, harass or even carry out acts of somewhat serious violence on one or more victims who, differently from hooliganism, have been chosen previously. The criterion for the ‘designated victim’ is thus a discriminating element compared to other behaviour which appears to be similar.

Infant and adolescent contexts

In some countries, like in Scandinavia, this phenomenon was originally described with the term ‘mobbing’, which is a similar phenomenon to bullying but which refers to the work place and adulthood. The word bullying was therefore coined to refer to this sort of experience but which happened in childhood, including both infant childhood and adolescence, usually experienced at school, but sometimes also experienced outside of school, like in the street, in neighbourhoods and even in the gyms and leisure clubs.

Different forms of bullying

There are three main actions which come under the term bullying:

  1. physical bullying – this is often what makes the headlines and is more known to the public. It can range from mild attacks (pulling hair or shoving) to taking or damaging other people’s belongings, or even more serious forms of physical violence involving fists or weapons;
  2. verbal bullying – this can take the form of threats, insults or teasing about school subjects, aspects of the victim’s personality, physical features (including disabilities and the colour of one’s skin) and aspects regarding sexuality; 
  3. indirect bullying – this is the most subtle form of bullying and is often based on gossip and slander and is aimed at isolating or excluding the victim from a group.

The first two types are usually done by males, whilst verbal and indirect bullying is usually how females conduct bullying.

Asymmetry in the bully-victim relationship

Generally there is an imbalance between the bully and the victim that is based on physical strength, psychological differences regarding self-confidence and power in a group. In fact, bullies are usually physically strong and their victims are thin, weak peers or, conversely, the victims are chubby and awkward. In addition, the bully usually appears to have a ‘bigger internal strength’ which is based on the self-confidence fuelled by his/her bullying, which is aimed at submissive victims. This does not mean, however, that the bully really does have bigger psychological strength, rather bullies feel a compensatory sense of superiority and unstable security and this comes from around them and their small, daily victories which are based on bullying and which, at the same time, can create the opposite sense of insecurity in the victim, which further increases the asymmetry that often fuels the power of a bully within a group.

The psychological profile of a bully

Bullies generally hide relationship problems behind their apparent confidence, and these problems tend to get worse over time if their relationship methods do not change. One of the major risks in adult life is developing psychopathy.

Bullies’ relationship interactions, according to the results of numerous studies, are characterised by deficits relating to certain ‘emotional intelligence’ abilities and, in particular, bullies suffer from a poor development of empathy. Children and teenagers who carry out physical or verbal bullying have been shown to be less able to correctly label the emotions of others, a problem which explains the tendency to respond in an aggressive way to neutral or positive behaviour shown to them by other children and adolescents. In addition, it appears that bullies cannot recognise their own emotions very well and, since awareness of one’s own emotional state is a fundamental requirement for managing one’s emotional life, this become characterised by knee-jerk reactions that take precedence over any other rational alternative.

There are other characteristics which bullies have in common which explain their relationship difficulties, such as reduced verbal abilities: reduced linguistics capabilities appear to be directly connected to an observation of the tendency to constantly behave in an aggressive way when ambiguous relationship situations arise, since the bully does not have sufficient speaking abilities to clarify such problems.

Recent treatments on bullying have also shown that more aggressive children have problems with executive functions. Research has shown that such children have difficulties with regard to key behaviour traits which are useful for relationship contexts. They are not able to do the following things:

  • plan their actions and predict possible consequences;
  • control any possible impulsive behaviour which might affect achieving objectives;
  • adapt their behaviour to different contexts;
  • put off immediate gratification in return for future success and benefits; 
  • learn from previous experiences.

Mental and behavioural characteristics of the victim

Victims of bullying often have psychological and behavioural features in common. One of the main relationship characteristics is a lack of assertiveness, that is, the ability to express themselves without being passive or aggressive, an aspect which bullies are also missing. Victims of bullying often develop symptoms of anxiety and depression which are more or less obvious and are in the form of somatic symptoms (temperature, headaches, stomach problems, etcetera), which are ways to distance themselves from places where they can be persecuted. Other times, signs of being psychologically ill can be more clear, for example, anxiety attacks, crying or having recurring nightmares relating to what the victim is subjected to.

Alongside the bully: the role of the group

One of the main factors which can trigger or sustain bullying behaviour is represented by the importance the bully has in his/her group of peers. Each child or adolescent shows a strong tendency to want to be part of a group with which he/she can do things with. This group can be a group which behaves aggressively or is led by a bully who does certain (inappropriate) things in order to fulfil an aim. These types of conduct can cause various reactions within the group: although the bully is often isolated and distant from the rest of the group at the beginning, he/she is often able to find another ‘non-dominating bully’ to support them, or someone who is simply not affected by strong behaviour, who is often condescending. The more or less comprehensive support from the bully’s peers is a good method of support for his/her persecuting behaviour. However, paradoxically, the group’s refusal of said behaviour works in the same way; the group tends to express their thoughts through negative comments about the bully’s attempts to get their attention and be a part of their group by bullying, but this means that the ‘aspiring leader’ is getting attention anyway.

Risks factors for the family

It is also important to underline that family characteristics tend to promote bullying behaviour. Studies about the families of bullies showed that rigid or, vice versa, very inconsistent discipline is common. In addition, leadership at home tends to reinforce oppressive and aggressive behaviour and, more precisely, the children’s requests are met with initial inflexibility from the parents, which results in the children behaving badly and the parents becoming less inflexible, teaching the children learn that they can get what they want if they behave badly. Sometimes the family situation can be complicated by aggressive models that are imitated and these situations represent the more significant examples when children imitate and reproduce this behave outside of the family.

Many actions for solving a complex problem

The possible types of treatments to prevent and deal with bullying are endless, however they are not all equally effective and they can involve various recipients depending on the objectives proposed.

Treatments aimed at decreasing a bully’s aggressive behaviour can be personalised or more general. 

Treatment for single bullies

In the first case, considering that the bully is missing some aspects in psychological and behavioural areas, treatment is initially aimed at improving these areas with specific programmes like so called social-emotional literacy training, that is, specific courses aimed at improving the insufficient emotional intelligence and social-relational skills, paying particular attention to developing social skills.

As far as treatment for individual bullies is concerned, the less effective approaches appear to be punitive and sanctioning types since these approaches tend to force the bully, in his/her inability, to find different prospects and conducts to better deal with their relationships. These types of treatment systems can even make the situation worse because a suspension could, for various reasons, be considered a positive reinforcement for the unwelcomed behaviour. In the context of these treatments, the family and school are taught to avoid and isolate bullies, as well as be very inflexible in terms of bad behaviour. The objective is actually to encourage the emission of positive behaviour in the bully and reward him/her, mainly through social reinforcements that he/she was originally looking for with the negative behaviour.

Treatment for bully-victim relationships

Remedial treatment techniques seem to be more useful, that is, techniques aimed at mediating the conflict between the victim and the bully, encouraging current and future communication between the two, just like what happens with ‘the method of shared interest’ which supports the development of empathy in the bully by stimulating a sense of responsibility by making them see what emotional consequences his/her actions have had on the victim.

Group-spectator treatment

Other effective treatments, which are similar to the ones already described, are carried out in groups, just like with no-fault approaches which do not try to solve the problem with the treatment alone, which involves both bullies and victims, rather it is aimed at developing the group’s ability to react effectively to bullying actions, learning not to put up with, even subconsciously, the persecutory actions and developing overall responsibility.

Treatment for individual victims

Sometimes psychological support focused on developing assertiveness can be useful for a victim, along with improving self-esteem, which has often been worn down by continuous attacks and criticisms.

Treatment for the family

Many current day treatments can be used for many means, dealing with both the prevention of bullying as well as recovery from it and some also involve the families, especially in contexts where bullying has happened before. These types of treatments, called parent training, consist of parental help courses aimed at providing information about more effective parenting methods which stop the development of bad behaviour in children.

Undoubtedly, the best results are those following treatment which is drawn out over time (at least a year), and which are aimed at prevention, as well as recovery from single, negative episodes, in addition to involving all the people who have played a role in reinforcing the problematic behaviour.

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