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Playground behaviour


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This week Lieutenant General David Morrison AO has been invited to my healthcare network to talk about bullying and harassment.  Before considering it in the medical profession it is worth looking over what bullying means to children.

Bullies have been around since before school even began. There have been many examples from page to screen that have struck fear into all of us – be they Gripper Stebson, Biff Tannen or Draco Malfoy.

Cady: [narrating] Calling somebody else fat won’t make you any skinnier. Calling someone stupid doesn’t make you any smarter. And ruining Regina George’s life definitely didn’t make me any happier. All you can do in life is try to solve the problem in front of you                                                                                                                                                                                                      – Mean girls  (2004)

Bullying can occur in many forms. Whilst it is often physical it can also be emotional. It can occur in person in the playground or anonymously through the internet. In the medical text it is defined as :-

“intentional, unprovoked abuse of power by one or more children to inflict pain or cause distress to another child on repeated occasions”

How common is bullying?

It is hard to get accurate figures at it is so often under-reported but at least 5-15% of primary school aged children and up to 10 % off adolescents are victims of bullying on a weekly basis, with boys more likely to be involved than girls. These figures are based on Finnish data. Australian data suggested that up to 23.7% of students bullied others on a weekly basis and around 12.7% of children are victims. Incidence  does seem to decrease with age though with much less going on in senior school, despite what television would have us believe

What sorts of bullying go on?

The majority is verbal in nature – name calling and teasing. This covert bullying may be accompanied by whispers and blackmailing. Only a small proportion involves overt physical violence.

Cyber-bullying – doing so by electronic means – presents unique challenges, though research suggests that victims of cyber-abuse are also more likely to be victims of traditional bullying. The cyber-bullies are more likely to be older due to ease of access to the technology. One of the biggest challenges of online bullying is that it does not require the perpetrator to be present and so is with the victim 24/7 even if they are in a traditional place of safety – the family home.

Bully and victim represent primitive archetypes for which there are stereotypical behavioural patterns. Bullies are seen as aggressive and dominant whilst lacking in empathy. Victims are (perhaps) introverted, with self-esteem issues and a tendency to blame themselves for events outside their control.


Bullying rarely occurs in isolation. It occurs in groups. According to Sutton and Smith, those that witness the behaviour may belong to any one of a number of participant roles.

Assistants – join in the ribbing

Reinforcers – laugh and point fingers, providing social reinforcement and positive feedback

Outsiders – stay away and don’t take sides, but their lack of condemnation may be seen as silent approval

Defenders – are anti-bullying and stand up to be counted

Perhaps this generalized diffusion of social responsibilities that can occur in a crowd (otherwise known as the bystander effect) might account for the high proportion of outsiders.

RoleSixth gradeEighth grade
No clear role12.7%8.2%

Looking at this table of participant roles in grade 6 and 8 children we can see that participant role allocation seems to be stable and not vary wildly with increasing age.  It would suggest that any intervention to change role to that of defender would then require group participation. Some methods proposed are:-

General awareness training

Identifying the various participant roles strikes to the heart of the matter – the self-concept of the participants. Students may not be aware of how they have been encouraging bullying, even if they deny they had been.  By talking about group conformity it makes it clear that everyone is responsible, not just the bully or the assistant.


Class members should be given a chance to reflect on their own roles in bullying situations, to see where they fit in the group. By viewing dramatized acts of bullying, in a safe setting they can reflect and work towards change.

Rehearse better behaviour

It’s not enough for someone to recognize that something needs to be done, students need to be given the appropriate tools to change their behaviour. This may involve role-play to evoke empathy as well as general assertiveness training.  Psychologists have shown that a nonchalant attitude, on the part of the victim, is more likely to make the bullying stop. Conversely, an attitude of helplessness or even retaliation is more likely to fuel the flames.

What are the potential causes of bullying?

Many doctoral theses have been written on the origins of bullying.  Let’s break down some of the candidates.

Developmental theory

Those of you that have toddlers are fully aware of their desire/need to assert their authority over all they survey. Like a mini Joffrey they lash out at anything and anyone, especially those smaller than them (the cat, for instance). As they get a little older they see this as a normal way to act to get the attention they deserve.  Some would suggest that power-assertive child rearing techniques may also lead to modelling of inappropriate behaviour.

It is much more likely a multi-factorial problem.

Psychological theory

We’ve covered, briefly, stereotypical patterns above. Victims are often introverted, with low self esteem and lack assertiveness.  Whether this is a result of, or caused by, bullying is difficult to tease out. This does not mean that all introverts with low self esteem are victims or that all un-empathic children become bullies. It does mean though that it is possible to identify some of the more vulnerable children and equip them with more effective social skills.

Olveus proposed the concept of the passive or submissive victim – the person who is seen as weak and will not retaliate and the provocative victim – the sort that gets easily irritated and hyperactive as a result of bullying.

Sociocultural theory

We have a niche in society based on culture, gender, race and ethnicity. Recent presidential nominations aside, we live in a predominantly patriarchal society with  the Joffrey’s preying on the Sansa Stark’s and feeling culturally justified in their oppression of girls/women. Does this account for why boys are much more likely to become bullies than girls and why they are more likely to bully girls than boys?

This “construction of hegemonic masculinity” is also posited as a reason why boys lacking in stereotypical masculine behaviour may be bullied more often.

Sociocultural theory may also account for bullying along ethnic or racial divides.  Those cultures that have fallen victim of colonial expansion are more likely to be bullied, perhaps by a process of cultural transmission. Certainly Aboriginal children are more likely to be bullied by their non-indigenous peers but this does not seem to hold true outside of Australia.

Peer group pressure theory

Rather than breaking things down by gender or race, this theory suggests that bullying is a locally cultural response to the ethos of the group or school. Small groups band together to protect themselves from the threat of the outsider. In this sense the bullying is not performed by individuals but by the group or mob. Bullies may see themselves as not to blame for their actions.  This can be difficult to counteract but utilizing the group towards a comm,on goal of shared concern may stamp out the unwanted activity.

Dan Olweus has done a huge amount of research in this area, looking at data from over 130,000 questionnaire datasets. His data has also helped bust a few myths about bullying.  It does not depend on class or school size (though bigger schools and classes have a proportionally higher absolute number of bullies and victims).  There was no association between poor grades and bullying activity. And finally there appears to be no link between external appearance (freckly, wearing glasses, being overweight) and bullying.

What happens to the bullies?

According to one popular behavioural theory, bullying may be part of a larger cluster of problem behaviours that includes disliking school, smoking and drinking to excess. These individuals are liable to take anti-social conduct into adult life. They are more likely to have criminal convictions and be involved in serious crime.

What happens to the victims?

Victims of bullying may suffer from a wide range of psychological, psychosomatic and behavioural problems. This role may be replayed throughout many scenarios in later life as their feelings of chronic adversity and lack of social support lead to further psychological consequences such as depression.

They may present to the general practitioner, emergency department or general paediatrician with a number of symptoms that are not easily explained away including:-

  • seizures
  • faints
  • vomiting
  • limb pain
  • limb paralysis or weakness
  • headaches
  • abdominal pain

A thoughtful and thorough HEADSS screen may pick these up but it is worthwhile explicitly asking questions about traditional and online bullying.

Although it has not been systematically studied, low self-esteem and depression, brought on by peer victimization, may lead to increased risk of self-harm or suicide among adolescents.

It must also be remembered that some bullied students also go on to bully others.  These boys (because they are invariably male) often rated highly for the presence of psychosomatic symptoms – such as headaches or dizziness – during periods of bullying.

The National Schools Safety Framework sets about a set of guiding principles that reflect the fact that all schools are supposed to safe, respectful and supportive communities.

Bottom line

Bullying is very common, much more common than you would think, especially in primary school aged children.  The short and long term impacts need to be considered on psychological and somatic health of the victim.

Having read this post about bullying in children I’d like you to indulge me and go over it again and think of the bullies and victims, not at school, but in your place of work.  That’s what I’m going to cover next time.


Bullying – No Way – the Australian governments official anti-bullying site

Reach Out – Practical support for young people going through tough times

Beyond Blue – This excellent online resource is primarily related to depression and anxiety

Bully Blocking


Salmivalli C. Participant role approach to school bullying: Implications for interventions. Journal of adolescence. 1999 Aug 31;22(4):453-9.

Sutton J, Smith PK. Bullying as a group process: An adaptation of the participant role approach. Aggressive behavior. 1999 Jan 1;25(2):97-111.

Salmivalli C, Karhunen J, Lagerspetz KM. How do the victims respond to bullying?. Aggressive behavior. 1996 Jan 1;22(2):99-109.

Kaltiala-Heino R, Rimpelä M, Rantanen P, Rimpelä A. Bullying at school—an indicator of adolescents at risk for mental disorders. Journal of adolescence. 2000 Dec 31;23(6):661-74.

Forero R, McLellan L, Rissel C, Bauman A. Bullying behaviour and psychosocial health among school students in New South Wales, Australia: cross sectional survey. BMJ. 1999 Aug 7;319(7206):344-8.

Perren S, Dooley J, Shaw T, Cross D. Bullying in school and cyberspace: Associations with depressive symptoms in Swiss and Australian adolescents. Child and adolescent psychiatry and mental health. 2010 Nov 23;4(1):1.

Rigby K. Addressing bullying in schools: Theory and practice. Australian Institute of Criminology;; 2003 Jun 1.

Olweus D. Bullying at school: basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. Journal of child psychology and psychiatry. 1994 Oct 1;35(7):1171-90.

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5 thoughts on “Playground behaviour”

  1. Don’t forget that children who are being badly bullied can also be ill.. Parents may often attribute recurrent physical symptoms to the bullying. I saw a child with recurrent fainting.. parents convinced was due to bully & wanted letter to take to school principal.. ECG showed WPW. Don’t forget clinical basics.

  2. Firstly, I’d like to upvote this article on the basis that it includes a quote from Mean Girls.
    Secondly, I think at heart we are herd based mammals, and we seek out a rigid social hierarchy very early in childhood.
    I think often bullying isn’t done by deep cruelty, but rather that instinctive urge kids have to find their place in the pack, whether to establish self as an alpha or prevent yourself from being on the bottom rung.
    Preventing that tribal behaviour is hard, as reflected in your comments about the behaviour going into adulthood.
    Thanks for the article,

    1. Thanks Ben.
      Sometimes it takes a while for me to come up with an appropriate cultural reference. I was thinking about Tom Brown’s Schooldays, or Oliver Twist but then I thought, why not go for what you know – the oeuvre of Rachel McAdams.



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