Where's the bully? - Part 1

If you’ve spent any time watching TV, reading a newspaper or magazine, or talking to colleagues who work with kids, the topic of bullies has surely come up. Among the important issues to address:

  • How to recognize and respond to bullies in a program.
  • How to eliminate the likelihood that bullying will occur in the first place.

The answers might surprise you. To begin, the term “bully” refers to more than the stereotypical brute who pushes, punches, and relentlessly insults victims. That type of bully stands out. Plus, most youth programs have rules and procedures to address this situation. The bullies who are a real danger to participants are more subtle and skilled. They are often viewed by adults as “good kids” who are well-liked and don’t cause trouble. It’s these less-obvious, or “hidden” bullies (as my psychologist wife labels them), who have the power to inflict more sustained and damaging torment unless adults are prepared to recognize and respond to this insidious behavior.

So, how do you find and thwart a hidden bully? First, recognize where and when bullies are already at work in programs. Second, understand the subtle ways bullies harm their targets. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—think about how to prevent opportunities for covert bullying.

Hidden Bullies

Whenever new groups are formed at the start of a season, school year, or camp, social hierarchies are established. This ordering process is as old as human existence, but its prevalence doesn’t always make it healthy. Establishing social hierarchies can fuel significant conflicts among group members. Conflict is not necessarily bad if it is kept in check. Indeed, conflict resolution is an important life skill. However, opportunities for bullying arise when one or two kids wind up at or near the bottom of the social hierarchy and then become targets. And it’s the individual or group that is unsure about maintaining their top-shelf status—or who perhaps have been bullied themselves in other settings—who are the likely perpetrators.

Unfortunately, sometimes the adult group leader or coach lets down his or her guard right after hierarchies have been formed or a conflict has been resolved. At this point, the adult may believe the group members have worked themselves out of any initial awkwardness in the getting-to-know-you phase. By blindly trusting the supposed stability and security of the group, the leader may become complicit in allowing the bullying to begin.

For example, after the first couple of weeks of swim practice at the municipal pool, the coach may turn his or her attention to individual skill development, spending less time with the group. This can inadvertently give bullies the opportunity to act. The best tool to guard against this happening is to establish relationships with every participant so each child feels comfortable coming to you if issues arise. Additionally, checking in with the larger group, ideally at different times, limits a bully’s window of opportunity.