What do we mean by bullying?

This blog summarises and improves on a couple of the speeches I have made on this issue lately – I hope you find it useful.

What do we mean by bullying?

There have been many different definitions and theories about what constitutes bullying, but it’s not helpful to define bullying purely in terms of behaviour, bullying is both behaviour and impact.

Bullying is not about just any kind of injury, nor just any negative impact. It involves a particular kind of harm. It is aimed at engendering a kind of helplessness, an inability to act, to do anything. It is an assault on a person’s agency (Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)

Bullying is a mixture of behaviours and impacts which can impact on a person’s capacity to feel in control of themselves. This is what we term as their sense of ‘agency’. Bullying takes place in the context of relationships; it is behaviour that can make people feel hurt, threatened, frightened and left out.

 This behaviour can include:  

• Being called names, teased, put down or threatened

• Being hit, tripped, pushed or kicked

• Having belongings taken or damaged

• Being ignored, left out or having rumours spread about you

• Receiving abusive messages on social media or phone

• Behaviour which makes people feel like they are not in control of themselves

• Being targeted because of who you are or who you are perceived to be

This behaviour can harm people physically or emotionally and, although the actual behaviour may not be repeated, the threat may be sustained over time, typically by actions: looks, messages, confrontations, physical interventions, or the fear of these. Bullying is both behaviour and impact.

Online bullying

Online bullying, or Cyberbullying, is often the same type of behaviour but it takes place online, usually on social networking sites. A person can be called names, threatened or have rumours spread about them and this can (like other behaviors) happen in person and can happen online.

Advances in technology are simply providing an alternative means of reaching people – where malicious messages were once written on school books or toilet walls, they can now be sent via social media sites on mobile devices making their reach greater, more immediate and much harder to remove or erase.

Some online behaviour is illegal. Children and young people need to be made aware of the far-reaching consequences of posting inappropriate or harmful content on forums, websites, social networking platforms, etc.  If a child or young person is being treated or threatened in a sexual way or being pressured into doing something that they don’t want to do, this is not bullying.  There are laws to protect children from this very serious type of behaviour.

Persistence and Intent
Bullying is not defined by persistence or intent. This is relevant because if you were to look up definitions online and in peer reviewed articles, the vast majority of these will refer to bullying as persistent and deliberate behaviour.

We would argue that these are unhelpful criteria to apply to all situations. So much time can be lost trying to apply a range of situational factors, many of which are in fact subjective. Many incidents of bullying will include deliberate and repeated behaviour but these are not in our view, essential criteria to define bullying. 

Making these an essential criteria to be met excludes a significant amount of incidents of bullying that are not deliberate or necessarily repetitive.  We know from our work with children and young people , that bullying takes many forms and something need only happen once to have a severe impact.

Let’s look at intent– if you tell me bullying must be deliberate and then accuse me of bullying, what is my first response? –  That I didn’t mean it. Intent is difficult to prove. It can tie situation up in knots and the focus on responding to what someone did and the impact it had is lost.

Schools can waste a lot of time trying to prove intent –I have been involved in examples when intent is denied the adults are stumped and do not know how to proceed. We must look at what someone actually did and the impact it had. If it wasn’t deliberate then they may be in a position to apologise or make amends sooner – of it was it may merit a more serious response.

Bullying is usually deliberate but not always – sometime children use language they hear at home and have no idea of how offensive or inappropriate it is. We should not get caught up in using this as qualifying criteria though – it’s too easily re-framed

Let us now consider persistence– that the behaviour must be repeated before it can be considered bullying – again this is something we do not agree with and neither do most young people we have spoken to. Persistence is difficult to define and also, is it more than once? twice? daily? weekly? Who defines when it’s persistent enough to intervene? Me, the person it is happening to or the intervening adult? Something need only happen once and the impact can be severe; a child may not get changed for PE after one incident were they were picked on, humiliated or threatened.
Is being humiliated by having your shorts pulled down in front of a class with 15 people laughing and pointing, some possibly taking a picture, bullying? Of course it is, is it repetitive? It doesn’t matter, we focus on the behaviour and the impact it had.

The fear of repetition can be sustained through looks or perhaps threats or just the fear of it happening again.

What you do about bullying is actually more important than how you define it.

We respond by asking;

What was the behaviour?

What impact did it have?

What do I need to do about it?

Every situation is unique. You might over hear some name calling in the corridor and discover this is chat between to close friends who are ‘winding’ each other up; it is not part of any power or dominance game.

What was the behaviour? Name calling

What impact did it have? None – made them laugh

What do I need to do about it? Nothing – perhaps remind them about language or being overheard

You may hear the same name calling ten feet further on but the person on the receiving end is upset and embarrassed in front of her peers.

What was the behaviour? Name calling

What impact did it have? Left someone embarrassed and fearful – who ran off

What do I need to do about it? Help this person get back into her routine, listen to how she feels and decide on next steps – you will need to challenge the people who called her names and look at possible consequences too

This does not mean we only focus on the impact behaviour has – this means that if someone shouts a homophobic or racist slur at someone and it bounces off them and they don’t care –this does not mean you do not need to do anything about the language used and the attempt to bully. Just because a person is not affected does not mean the behaviour they experienced should be ignored.

Just as not all attempts to bully are successful, people can feel bullied but not be – it is possible some people over react –you still need to deal with their reaction and their feelings but you might not need to do much about the behaviour the experienced – it could have been a harmless comment not aimed at them but they have assumed it was and got into a terrible state over it.

Focussing our response

Bullying and Agency

So when we look at impact – things like feeling hurt, angry, scared, frightened, that knot in your stomach- what is happening there? What do these reactions tell us?

Young people have reflected to us over the years in a range of ways that they feel unable to speak out and feel trapped when bullied – they draw pictures of themselves in large rooms feeling caged and so on. This learning helped us articulate the notion that bullying actually takes something away from people.

All of these feelings which are regularly articulated reflect a loss of being in-charge of yourself, of being capable of taking effective action, of making choices and of being an effective actor or agent in your own life.

When we use our agency, we have a degree of choice over what we do and how we respond within structures like families, communities and schools.

Young people get this notion  – as it can be a bit if a head scratcher the first time you hear it – though when you explain a ‘typical day’ of meeting friends, going to school, laughing, joining in and knowing what is happening and how you’ll respond most children and young people recognise this day. Bullied children don’t have the same kind of day. Someone else is in charge of how they feel, where they go even or how they will participate in certain things, if they get on the bus or eat alone. They cannot exercise the same choice nor have the same autonomy as when they were not being bullied.

We learn from our past experiences, from imagining what we would do in future similar situations and what is happening to us now – these elements combine and enable us to make choices and act – this is agency.

Managing change and responding to challenges requires hope, a belief you can handle things – and agency and these underpin resilience.

If we re-visit the quote –

Bullying is not about just any kind of injury, nor just any negative impact. It involves a particular kind of harm. It is aimed at engendering a kind of helplessness, an inability to act, to do anything. It is an assault on a person’s agency (Sercombe and Donnelly 2012)

– we can see bullying is not even the establishment of dominance. The person bullying is not satisfied with dominance. Bullying can involve the attempt to deny another any settled place, even a subordinate one. It goes beyond subjection. In bullying, the goal is abjection

What does this mean for how we respond?

Considering that bullying is both different types of behaviour and a particular impact this should re-focusses our understanding of the dynamic – this can re-define an approach to bullying in a way that helps practitioners’ responds to feelings and actions. This is always more effective than checking off criteria and having uniform sanction based responses based on our view of the person who is doing it.

If we can accept that bullying takes something away from people, that they can no longer take effective action our response must focus on helping get that back.

This is the real shift in anti-bullying practice – how do I help someone get back a feeling of being in control of themselves and in a place to take effective action to feel safe and get on with their day?

Things like moving desks or even just excluding people won’t on their own help restore agency – young people must be included in what will happen next and given the chance to steer what direction it goes in. They need to be asked what they would like to happen and we need to take that seriously.

This is not always easy but it must remain our goal with every intervention – to help young people get back to a place where they are in control and can take effective action.

In reality – what does that look like? What does it sound like? You will need to ask questions like

What would you like to happen?

What do you think will happen if I tell his or her parents?

What will happen if I tell your teacher?

What are you worried about?

Be prepared for them to say

Don’t tell my dad – you will out me to him and I’m not ready for that

I just want you to know what is happening and if I need you I will come and get you

If you talk to his dad he will get a doing/beating and it’ll get worse

So you explore what options they do have and sometimes that means pointing out that you need to do something as not doing anything is dangerous

Open conversations like these promote communication – this promotes positive relationships and they promote and role model problem solving behaviours –these relationships can become stronger and children become more resilient to what is happening because of this strong purposeful relationship – even with just one person.

The process of listening and consciously trying to get back agency – a sense of being on control – won’t always lead to a perfect outcome but it will help the person being bullied


Bullying is not defined by the type of person who did it either

Care needs to be taken because labelling is not without its risks, labelling a child or young person on the basis of bullying behaviour can result in a confirmed identity as a ‘bully’ or ‘victim’ resulting in ongoing behaviour patterns based on this identity.

This is not to dilute behaviour but is to keep the focus of the adult’s responses on the behaviour that is problematic, rather than the assigning characteristics to those involved. This is a solution focussed approach that is designed to help people change the way they behave, rather than attempt to change who they are. We help people change by telling them the behaviour that is unacceptable, being clear that what they are doing is bullying and that it needs to stop.

It is a fundamental part of behaviour management that we tell people what the behaviour was they did, why it is not acceptable and help them figure out what to do the next time they feel that way.

All of this promotes respectful relationships, this approach builds a young person’s capacity to respond more effectively, when we are helping young people learn to negotiate tricky relationships and when we involve them in finding solutions and repairing those that can be fixed, we help them to become more resilient.

Brian Donnelly

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Location Glasgow Phone 07792743165 E-mail brian@orbistc.com Hours Orbis Training and Consultancy Ltd. Company Number 586700 VAT Registered 321056057 ICO Reference ZA680713
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