I was bullied very badly when I went to boarding school at the age of 10. I remember well the anxietyprovoking feelings, and the enduring belief that there must be something profoundly wrong with me to be treated this way.

Overwhelmed by feelings of isolation, and having been told not to tell or I’d die, I’d lie awake, staring out of the little window opposite my bed, aching for a connection with someone who cared. My tear-filled eyes would scan the night sky and be drawn to the bright light of the moon, which offered a glimmer of hope. I’d seen the historic landing of Neil Armstrong and team when I was about five years old, and in my naivety I thought there was still a man on the moon.

‘It’s happened again,’ I’d whisper. Of course I never received a response, but somehow that didn’t matter. Just knowing someone was listening (or so I thought), was a great source of comfort. As those who work with children, I wonder how aware we are of the extent of bullying, the impact on the child being bullied and the reasons behind why children bully? Do we know how best to act when we suspect, or find out for certain, that a child is being bullied?


Indicators of bullying

According to Bullying UK’s 2006 National Bullying Survey, 69% of children are bullied at school and, of course, children are bullied in many other contexts too. Perhaps even in the groups we run at church. Being bullied is a nightmare from which the child longs to wake and yet fails to do so.

The American Book Bank Foundation says that in the USA, a child is bullied every seven minutes. And only 25% of these children experience some form of intervention. The targeted child lives in fear, wondering what’s going to happen next and consequently, often, turns to unhealthy ways of coping such as under or over-eating, self-harm, withdrawal, pretence and even attempts on their life.

We owe it to the children with whom we are involved to be aware of the signs of bullying, to listen to what children are saying and to try to discover what they are not saying. And we owe it to them to know how best to act when we are faced with a child whose life has been tormented by the cruel actions and words of another.

The signs that a child is being bullied are there long before a child dares to tell. Telling runs risks of the bullying getting worse and causes young minds to wonder if adults will think they are lying… so best keep it a secret. ‘Perhaps it will go away,’ the child thinks, but it rarely does.


The changing face of bullying

Bullying has been around for as long as history. The well-known story of Joseph in the book of Genesis is a classic account of bullying by siblings: jealousy-driven humiliation by brothers who acted in extremes to get rid of a young, gifted lad. Of course we all know that the story ended well, with Joseph becoming an advisor to Pharaoh (the Egyptian King) but this doesn’t detract from the reality of the trauma at the time. Little has changed: children still treat other children badly, be it in the family, at school or elsewhere. What has changed is the means by which children bully. The digital world (computers, social networking, mobiles and other devices) has brought another dimension to bullying, removing bullying from the time-limited playground and into the target’s home 24 hours a day. Cyber-bullying is like a dark, oppressive cloud that follows the child around and leaves them with no safe place.

Of course the ‘old fashioned’ ways of bullying, physical and psychological attack, still exist and are used extensively. School grounds, cafeterias, toilets, classrooms, halls, corridors and dormitories are all common places of attack, and the journey to school by public transport has a magnetic pull. Outside school, streets, alleys and parks all have been favoured spots for shaming an innocent target.


Physical bullying

People tend to think of boys being more physical in their bullying and girls prone to cruel comments and emotional blackmail, but girls can be physical too. Physical bullying involves repeatedly carrying out the following, or threatening to do so:

  • Hitting another child
  • Pushing the child over
  • Tripping the child up
  • Pulling the child’s hair
  • Harming the child’s body in some way
  • Hiding or stealing the child’s possessions or ruining their belongings

We all know the childhood saying, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.’ The fact is it’s not true. Words can and do inflict more pain than the biggest stick or the heaviest stone. Equally powerful is the silent treatment and disapproving looks of the bully which can slice a child in two in seconds.

Carrie was humiliated by her peers at school: ‘The people that I so desperately wanted to be friends with used to humiliate me by putting grass in my lunch and making me eat it in front of the class. They said I was a cow so had to eat the grass. If I refused, then they would corner me in the toilets later and push the sandwich into my mouth.’

69% of children are bullied at school



Signs of being bullied

  • Change in mood or personality
  • Change in eating habits – under or over-eating
  • Withdrawal, depression, secrecy
  • School phobia or truancy
  • Lowered grades or not concentrating
  • Increased fear and anxiety
  • Unexplained bruises, scratches, cuts
  • Coming home with missing possessions or money
  • Not wanting to walk or take the bus to school
  • Nightmares or difficulty sleeping
  • Self-loathing and loss of confidence and self-esteem  

The story of Joseph (in Genesis) is a classic account of bullying 



Psychological bullying

There are many different approaches to psychological bullying, including:

Control Constantly bossing the bullied child around, giving the impression that they can’t do without the bully and blaming their anger or wrong actions on the bullied child.

Exclusion Sending the bullied child to ‘coventry’ or intentionally leaving the child out, ignoring them or stopping talking when they come into the room. Jacob was nine years old when he was bullied at a small private boys’ school. ‘There was one main bully in the school and he not only “sent me to Coventry” himself but forbid any of the other boys to speak to me as well for two weeks. It was the worst two weeks of my life.’

Humiliation The child bully doesn’t only laugh at those whom they bully, but taunts and shows them up in front of their friends, telling tales and pointing out vulnerabilities.

Criticism The bully uses any way possible to drum inferiority into the bullied child. Clothes, hair, looks, skin colour, accent, ability, habits and hobbies are all criticised, resulting in the bullied child feeling not good enough, acceptable or wanted.


Why do children bully?

The child bully tends to question authority, break rules, be confrontational, persuasive and push boundaries to their limits. Some child bullies are dominant and ‘full of themselves’, pushing other children around and believing they are the best. Other bullies are actually insecure and put ‘weaker’ children down in order to make themselves feel better or to gain kudos and attract group members.

There are lots of reasons why children bully: the need to be in control, a chaotic, violent home life where they themselves are being treated badly, feelings of inferiority, jealousy, anger, to gain followers, to ensure they do not become a target themselves etc. The bully needs help just as the targeted child does.

John, who bullied others when he was a child, said: ‘My father had a temper and my older brother used to humiliate me and beat me up. I usually picked on the kids that were a bit “weird” or loners. Most of them didn’t seem to respect themselves, so it was easy to bully them. It started with joking and winding people up and then progressed. It felt “cool” to bully and others seemed to admire me for my toughness. I didn’t really respect myself and I only felt good if I was top dog. I revelled in people’s helplessness, perhaps because it made me feel more powerful. I carried on bullying anyone who let me.’


The impact of bullying

The victimised child feels helpless and worthless, convincing themselves that there’s something wrong with them. Other children may side with – or appear to side with – the bully, because deep down they fear that not doing so potentially puts them in the firing line. The already ostracised targeted child ends up feeling ‘disliked’, not only by the bully but by others, perhaps even by children they thought were friends.

Whatever the nature of the bullying, it has catastrophic effects. The childtarget is particularly susceptible to psychological damage due to not having the same resources and ability to reason as an adult. Childhood is an important time in the shaping of identity, confidence and relationships; bullying can quite literally savage the building blocks of a person’s life.

The damage can continue to affect the person throughout adulthood, especially if the bullying has been severe and sustained. Research indicates that victimisation in childhood is associated with mental health problems in adulthood; those who have been victimised are said to have higher levels of anxiety and experience greater sadness, sleep difficulties, low selfesteem, headaches and generalised tension. In addition they are more prone to depression, panic attacks and lowered resistance to infection (due to high stress levels). 


What you can do

  • Talk about bullying with the children in your group, so that they do not feel it is a forbidden subject
  • Ask the children for ideas of what they think bullying is
  • This YouTube clip includes a biblical response to bullying
  • Explore the story of Joseph (Genesis 37) together and explain how Joseph’s brothers bullied him
  • Teach children to become more confident in saying ‘No’ and walking away from bullies. Ask the children to get into pairs for a role play. Tell one to say, ‘You are horrid!’ (remember to say this is not for real!) and then ask the other to say, ‘No!’ in a strong voice, turn around and walk away
  • Explain that whilst the Bible teaches as not to hurt another person, Jesus himself was angry when people did the wrong thing (he turned the table upside down when the people were selling things in the Temple (Matthew 21:12). He said in a loud voice, ‘No! This is not right!’ But he didn’t harm anyone
  • Help the bullied child to realise that the more they appear fearful, the more the bully will carry on
  • Help the child to develop confident body language; not to react, but to walk away
  • Become acquainted with local school anti-bullying policies
  • Encourage the child not to respond to abusive messages even if they are being coaxed, but to show them to an adult
  • Reassure the child that you won’t take any action without talking it through with them first
  • If the bullying is at school, help the child to find a way to tell a teacher or consider assisting the child to do so
  • If the bullying is taking place in your own group then seek to help the bully and the bullied child, and to find out why the bully has the need to bully others.