When you think about the typical bully, it's easy to imagine a loner or a mean kid who uses physical force, makes threats or calls people names to get his way. Although this picture is accurate, it's also incomplete, especially in the early teen years.
In fact, research shows that sometimes the most popular and influential kids bully others. At this age, bullying is a form of social power. Kids in their early teens bully to protect their status or reputation by taking advantage of the social vulnerabilities of others.
Trends in Middle School and Early Teen Bullying
Although bullying can start as early as preschool, by the time kids reach middle school, it has often become an accepted part of school. In fact, bullying increases around fifth and sixth grade and continues to get worse until around ninth grade.
Bullying occurs more often in the middle school and early teen years because kids are transitioning from being a child to an adolescent. They have a strong desire to be accepted, to make friends and to be part of a group. As a result, they feel pressure to look and act like their peers.
This desire for acceptance leads to bullying because kids are intensely aware of what it takes to fit in. As a result, they easily spot others who are don’t fit the accepted norm and focus on that. Kids bully others who look, act, talk or dress differently.
Bullying also is a way to fit into a group or with the cool crowd. Kids who aren't popular or don't have a high social status may bully others as a way to gain power, to direct bullying toward others, or to counter bullying that is directed towards them.
As a result, nearly 30% of kids in grades six to 10 in the United States are estimated to experience bullying either as a victim, a bully or both. But this figure may not reflect the complete picture. Researchers have found that about half of all bullying incidents go unreported.
Effects of Middle School and Early Teen Bullying
Bullying victims often suffer academically. Their grades may drop and they may miss school with health problems like headaches, stomachaches and difficulty sleeping. When bullying occurs over a long period of time, this leads to lowered self-esteem, anxiety, depression, loneliness and even suicidal thoughts. What’s more, depression and self-esteem issues often last into adulthood.
Meanwhile, kids who witness bullying struggle with anxiety and may fear that they will become the next target. They also feel guilty for not stepping in and helping the person being targeted. As a result, these feelings distract them from schoolwork and lead to poor academic performance.
Even bullies are affected. They are more likely to display antisocial behavior and violence later in life. They also are prone to alcohol and drug abuse. And research shows that bullies are more likely to commit criminal acts.
In fact, research shows that bullies are four times more likely than non-bullies to be convicted of crimes by age 24. And, 60% of bullies will have at least one criminal conviction in their lifetime.
Solutions for Middle School and Early Teen Bullying
When it comes to addressing bullying, parents, teachers and community leaders must think long-term. Short-term solutions like punishment, conflict resolution and counseling alone will not solve the problem.
Instead, educators must establish school conditions that limit bullying and give students adequate means for reporting bullying. Prevention programs are the best place to start.
When bullying does occur, schools need to respond quickly, consistently and firmly. The idea is to deter bullying by having steep consequences for the behavior. Students will continue to bully others if nothing significant happens. Additionally, bullying escalates over time if it’s not addressed.
Meanwhile, parents of bullies need to focus on spending quality time with their children. They also must set firm limits, institute consequences and support school discipline when bullying occurs.
And parents of bullying victims should help their children report incidents and ensure that the issue is resolved. Counseling also might be needed to help the victim regain self-confidence.
Children cannot handle bullying on their own. They need help from school staff, their parents and sometimes even the community.