Christian Parenting and Family Resources with Biblical Principles

Bullying Defined

  • Paul Coughlin Contributor
  • 2008 12 Nov
Bullying Defined

The American Psychological Association estimates that a shocking 90 percent of fourth through eighth graders report being victims of some form of bullying.  Sometimes parents (usually father), when they discover their kid is being kicked around, tell him to respond in kind.  This is generally not good advice, though, because being bullied, by definition, means one person has more power than another, whether physical, verbal, social, financial, or whatever gives one power over another in a given culture.  This is why the majority of school shooters shoot: they use technology in a desperate attempt to bridge and surmount the power gap.

Bullying, in most cases, is not when two kids of roughly equal power go toe to toe.  Such a standoff, or face off, or square off, does not get a parent’s disdain for injustice roaring.  The state of inequality that’s innate to bullying is why kids who are physically, verbally, or socially bullied must be shown more effective ways of handling their situation.  Otherwise they will likely receive increasing humiliation, or worse.

Bullying deploys aggressive behavior with negative intent from a more powerful child to a lesser.  This is why in many ways bullies are cowards: They launch their attacks of humiliation from a superior position with assurance of victory.  The uneven playing field, tipped in their favor, emboldens them; bullies rarely go after someone of their own size in physical stature, verbal acumen, or social status.  This is why adults must step in and level the field: fear and humiliation are as substantial obstacles to learning as poor nutrition, bad study habits, and lack of sleep.  Bullying often does not sort itself out naturally.

Most bullying is not physical, but in other ways it still shoves, pushes, and punches.  It’s often social, like spreading rumors and lies about another through spoken or written words (via electronic media, called cyber-bullying).  As a journalist, I’m amazed by what bullies think they can publish without considering their victim’s rights under the law.  Hubris is a blinding force that can be key to their defeat; as bullying among youth the world over receives more scrutiny, we can expect libel laws to modify and become more applicable.

A bully’s teasing is not good-natured—it intends to sting, pierce, and degrade.  Bullying is the use of power to marginalize, discredit, and exclude.  It’s not the putting up of boundaries against something dangerous or cruel; it’s rejecting and abusing someone because she’s different and frequently not as fortunate.  Bullying is superior power wielded by an individual or group for unjust reasons and in unjust ways.

Churches are far from exempt, according to counselors who work with those bullied within congregations.  Counselor and bullying expert Barbara Coloroso, after helping numerous people damaged from this form of mistreatment, says everyone who witnesses examples of bullying in churches, especially among leadership, has “an obligation to speak, to make the church a safe place.”  She recommends that congregations develop a code of conduct and make it public.  Otherwise, says the former Franciscan nun, “religion can be an instrument of” bullying, which has three common elements: the liberty to exclude, intolerance for difference, and a sense of entitlement.

Bullies are the most disliked group of children in any given classroom.  The kids they pick on come in second (more on this later).

Bullies are often both abuser and abused.  They frequently receive parenting that uses unhealthy force to get them to behave a certain way.  School bullies are often bullied at home, where their will, wants, and desires are overridden and trampled.  In turn, they override and trample others.

This is what Brigham Young University professors Clyde Robinson, David Nelson, and Craig Hart wanted people to understand from the results of the study that inspired the movie “Mean Girls.”  They concluded that much of children’s behavior does not depend on their own thoughts but on the way they see their parents and older siblings acting at home.

That helps explain the bewilderment, dismay, and anger some parents experience when they try to reason with a bully’s parents.  An appeal to a common good—respect for personal boundaries—isn’t sufficiently respected by coercive parents.  They don’t believe or acknowledge that trampling occurs.  To them, coercion is normal and natural, possibly even right.  And their children are following suit. 

A regular perception is that bullies have more testosterone in their bodies than others.  One study shows the opposite: they actually possess less than bystanders and victims.  Hormones aren’t required for the doling out of abuse.  A deflated sense of others and an inflated view of self is far more common.  Research shows that bullies possess a positive view of themselves even when their peers unanimously don’t More so, they actually believe their peers think highly of them as well.  Their self-deception would likely be met with pity by other parents if it weren’t for the behavior they unleash.  Bullies in many ways are a tragic study in self-delusion.

Though bullying peaks in the middle-school years, it often doesn’t end there.  A Rowan University Study found that elementary school bullies frequently persist throughout their high school and college years.  Not surprisingly, physical bullying is replaced with verbal bullying, since physically assaulting another adult is far more likely to results in real trouble with the law.

Other characteristics of bullies:

~They do not take rejection to heart or learn from it the way other kids do.

~They deny their maladjustment and often blame others for their problems.

~Boys are more prone to physically bully; girls tend to bully by attacking social status and ties—through damaging, manipulating, or controlling their relationships.

~Female bullies are more likely to become mothers prone toward maternal irritability, says psychiatrist Sue Bailey.  They’re more likely to become teenage mothers, enter into violent relationships, and suffer infection and injuries.

~A child who is a bully by age nine or ten—and possibly long before—is likely to remain a bully into adulthood.

~They have a strong desire to dominate.

~They lack empathy, the ability to fully grasp the feelings of others, and therefore come to deny the suffering of others.

~They are untroubled by anxiety, which can be a source of restraint when experienced in the right quantity.

~Up to the sixth grade, they are of average popularity, which then sharply declines with each passing year.  They tend to have two or three friends, usually other aggressive kids.

~By high school they are marginalized and not well-liked, which they don’t usually realize.

~They’re expert for their age in getting short-term payoffs, but lousy at long-term thinking and planning.

~Their verbal intelligence is lower than their peers.

~As they age they become increasingly selective with their targets.

~They’re less interested in the speed of surrender than in the pomp of pain and suffering.

We currently call what bullies do “antisocial.”  This is true, but it’s highly euphemistic.  If adults experienced what school victims endure, they wouldn’t call it antisocial—they’d label it criminal.  Those who’ve been bullied in the workplace know how it drains their soul.  For some absurd reason we collectively don’t think such draining takes place with children, or if it does, that it’s not as damaging.

Today, thanks to the blessing and curse of highly personalized electronic media, there’s even less easy escape from bullying.  Where students used to worry about being bullied at school, now beginning in middle school, they also fear that everyone at school will see them bullied all over cyberspace—for example, on MySpace or Xanga, or through instant messaging, text messaging, e-mail, blogs, cell phones, or chat rooms.

Cyber-bullying (also called online bullying) is willful, recurrent harm inflicted through the medium of electronic text; it’s using the cyber world to harass through personal attacks or other means.  One of the more recognized instances occurred when Eric Harris, one of the killers in the 1999 Columbine massacre, put up a Web site that discussed murdering fellow students.  Another was “the Star Wars kid,” whose classmates uploaded video of him posing as Darth Maul onto Kazaa in 2003.  The footage was downloaded and modified extensively, causing him extensive embarrassment, resulting in psychiatric treatment and his dropping out of school.  In 2005, People magazine noted that a thirteen-year-old boy had committed suicide after his classmates taunted and teased him about his size for a month via instant messaging.

One national poll revealed that at least a third of teens have had mean, threatening, or embarrassing statements made about them online.  In Illinois alone, researchers estimate that a half million kids have been victimized by cyber-bullying.  Ten percent were threatened with physical harm (which is a crime).  There’s even software that allows people to text and instant message people as if they are someone else.  There is no conventional way of tracking down the impostor.  The anonymity allows bullies to be even more malicious.

Australia’s Department of Education and Skills reported that one in five students have been victims of cyber-bullying.  Yet one in three students never reported the incident.  Canada has taken a lead in this arena with tougher laws; under its Criminal Code, it is a crime to communicate repeatedly with someone if your communication causes them to fear for their own safety or the safety of others.  IT is also a crime to publish a “defamatory libel,” writing something designed to insult a person or likely to hurt a person’s reputation by exposing her to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.

Next time:  The uncomfortable truth about victims.

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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