Standing up to bullies

CANADIANS everywhere are taking a stand on Wednesday (February 24) against bullying by participating in Pink Shirt Day. UBC’s Shelley Hymel, a professor in the faculty of education, explains why the effects of bullying can last a lifetime, and offers insight into how to address it.

How is bullying defined?

Bullying is a unique form of aggression characterized by three things: it’s intentional, in that the bully wants to have an impact on the victim; it’s repeated over time, which provokes extreme anxiety in the victim; and there is a power differential at play—whether it’s to do with size, age, popularity or in numbers.

There are four different major types of bullying: physical, verbal, cyber, and social such as exclusion or spreading rumours. Boys are much more likely to engage in physical bullying and girls are more likely to engage in cyber bullying and social bullying, although boys do it too.

How prevalent is bullying?

In Canada, about one third of kids will acknowledge that they bully others or are bullied. The good news is that bullying is on the decline across many countries, according to the World Health Organization. However, the decline is less than 10 per cent over the last decade. Data in the U.S. also shows that while physical bullying is on the decline, cyber bullying is up, owing in part to growing access to social media.

There is no typical bully. There’s a mental-health link, and there’s some research from Greece to show that kids with elevated psychopathy or conduct disorders are much more likely to bully. However, this accounts for only a very small portion of the population (less than three per cent), while in some schools up to 50 per cent of kids admit that they bully others. Bullying is also likely among high status and socially competent kids; in one study over half of the peers identified by students as bullies were among the most popular.

Bullying is not just a problem inherent in the child. It is also developmental. School-aged children are very gradually developing their social skills; they are learning about power, about how to find their place within the group, and a lot of kids are going to stumble upon bullying because it works. Research also shows that many students who bully do not see their behavior as bullying; they justify and rationalize their behavior in a number of ways. It is important for adults to identify such behaviour as bullying and as unacceptable.

Can you “bully-proof” your child?

There is no way to fully protect your child against bullying, but you can give them skills and connections. We repeatedly find that the most important thing for kids is to have a trusted adult they’re connected to, that they trust, and to whom they can go if something happens. Establishing such relationships before bullying becomes a problem is an important first step, for both educators and parents.

One recommendation is to start the conversation before it happens. There are a lot of really good books and resources out there (listed below). Make your night reading about bullying and have the conversation so that they know you’re sympathetic, open and available. And if it does happen, be there to support your child.

If bullying occurs repeatedly and the school has not been able to make a difference, consider moving your child to another school. Once a child’s reputation as a victim is established, it’s very difficult to change things. And the effects of bullying can last a lifetime.

What are the effects of bullying?

There are life-long challenges for kids who are bullied. For instance, kids who are victimized do not show the typical cortisol response to stress and danger, which regulates the flight-or-flight response. This “blunted cortisol response” is also found in repeat rape victims and Holocaust victims.

Bullies are also at risk. They show many of the same mental-health problems as victims. One study out of Finland showed that, after controlling for depression, bullies are more at risk for suicidal thoughts than victims. So neither bullies nor victims are kids who are in great shape. It is up to us as adults, educators and caregivers to find ways to promote positive social and emotional skills in all children, and we can start now.


Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network ( is a national network of researchers and organizations working to stop bullying in Canada. Their website has resources for parents, kids, teachers and researchers. was launched in the fall by the UBC faculty of education. It includes a collection of resources on social and emotional learning (SEL) resources (including anti-bullying resources) for educators and other adults who work with children and youth. is an online magazine for parents out of the U.S. that features a series of special issues on bullying which summarizes research from across the globe on bullying geared toward parents and educators.


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