Teasing and Bullying

Helping children deal with teasing and bullying: for parents, teachers and other adults

Marilyn Langevin
Institute for Stuttering Treatment & Research
Affiliated with the University of Alberta
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

Sadly, bullying is pervasive in our society. It occurs in school, in the workplace, and essentially wherever people gather or are in relationship. Fortunately, writings about bullying and research into bullying have burgeoned in the last decade. We now know much more about the extent of bullying, the nature of bullying, the long-term emotional, psychological and health-related consequences of bullying, and the effectiveness of various school-based intervention programs. Many wonderful people are passionately committed to bullying awareness and prevention and there are now many resources. Thankfully, the myth that schoolyard bullying is a rite of passage is in our past. In this summary, I will review some research, discuss some principles of intervention, describe some strategies, and provide some references for additional reading and resources.

What is bullying?

Definitions of bullying vary. At present there is not an agreed-upon definition and there are differences in how the term is used. However, the following are key elements of bullying:

  • a power imbalance,
  • an unjust use of power,
  • the intent to harm,
  • the victim's distress or feeling of being oppressed,
  • (typically) repetition over time which results in a consolidation of reputations and the power differential, and
  • evident enjoyment by the aggressor.

Is a one-time event of "bullying" really bullying?

A question sometimes asked is, "If the bullying occurred once, is it bullying?" Some will answer, "No, bullying includes only those aggressive acts that occur repeatedly." The key issue may not be the determination of whether or not to call the event one of "bullying". Rather, the key issue may be the victim's distress and what to do about it. Teens and adults have described one-time events of humiliation that occurred in school that changed their lives in terms of how they felt about themselves, how they thought about themselves and others, how they acted, and consequently how they functioned in relationships, academic life, and life in general. These events of humiliation took different forms: a malicious tease, a dirty trick, a malicious rumour. It is important that, as adults, we do not underestimate the potential emotional and psychological consequences of a one-time event. In some cases the event of bullying is truly one-time in terms of the actions of the child who bullied and the experience of the victim. In other cases it is a one-time event for the victim but not for the child who bullied or vice versa. As with repeated or chronic bullying, what to do requires an understanding of what has happened and consideration of possible options.

What are some types of bullying behaviours?

Bullying can take many forms and has been categorized in many ways:

  • physical aggression (e.g., pushing, tripping, spitting);
  • social alienation (e.g., excluding, coercing others to reject or exclude a person);
  • verbal aggression (e.g., name calling, taunting, teasing);
  • intimidation (e.g., threats, intimidating phone calls or text messages; coercing one to do things that they would not ordinarily do); an
  • relational bullying - bullying that damages relationships (e.g., gossiping, spreading rumours, making racial slurs).

Bullying can be also be direct or indirect, overt or very subtle, and it ranges in severity from mild to severe 6,7. There is overlap in the categorizations and again there is no one agreed-upon categorization.

How extensive is bullying?

Although there are differences among schools, investigations using self-report questionnaires provide an estimation of the extent of bullying. 1,8,9,10,11,12,13 Estimates of victimization, bullying, and of those who bully and are victims vary.


  • Approximately 50% of children are bullied at school at some time or other.
  • Somewhere between 3% and 32% of students are bullied once a week or more often.

Children who bully:

  • Between 7% and 56% of children reported that they bullied others at some time.
  • Between 2% and 14% reported that they bullied others once a week or more often.


  • Between 17% and 43% of those who reported being victims also bullied.

Children with differences:

In contrast to Olweus,1 who asserted that children with differences were not bullied more than those without differences, our research indicated that children who stutter are bullied more frequently than other children. It was found that: 14

  • 81% of the children who stutter reported that they were bullied at school at some time, with 56% of those children being bullied about their stuttering once a week or more often;
  • parents are not always aware of the bullying; and
  • name-calling and having one's stutter imitated were the most frequently reported types of bullying experienced.

The frequency data reported above are in accord with those reported in a retrospective study of adults who stutter.15 And, like children who don't stutter, those who do stutter suffer short- and long-term effects of bullying.15

What are the consequences of being bullied?

Bullying can have short-term and long-term psychological impact.8,15,16,17

  • Short-term consequences can include loss of confidence, increased worry or anxiety, truancy, changing routes to school, and many other coping responses.

  • Long-term consequences of bullying include diminished self worth, compromised school performance, social rejection, depression, and feelings of helplessness and loneliness.

For children who stutter, the usual consequences are made worse by a vicious cycle of increased speech struggle, more negative listener reactions, heightened shame, and an intense desire to avoid and hide stuttering.

How are bystanders affected?

Peers who witness bullying are traumatized as well. They are often afraid to report bullying and may in fact participate in the bullying18 for fear of being the next victim. They also tend to show more respectful behaviour toward children who bully.18 Although many children would like to intervene,8 few do so. When given strategies, the peer group can be a powerful ally in the work to stop and prevent bullying.

Are some children more likely than others to be bullied?

There is no definitive "victim" profile or stereotype. A wide variety of children are bullied, but children who are anxious and insecure, less socially confident, have a combination of aggressive and anxious reaction patterns, or are different in some way may be more at risk. 1,19

What about the children who bully?

Children who bully also need help, for they are at risk for criminality, delinquency and substance abuse.1 However, not all children who bully will go down that path and it is important not to stereotype them. Among other things, a typical "ringleader" in bullying will likely be of average popularity, have a tendency to be lower in empathy, have a capacity to manipulate or intimidate others, and have a positive attitude toward coercion.19

What can we do?

Firstly, we must look at how the environment reinforces bullying and our roles in that environment.

  • Bullying is reinforced at many levels in society. Children and adults who do not report or address bullying may inadvertently reinforce it.

  • Fear of adults under-reacting or over-reacting and of revenge by the child who bullies often prevents children from telling adults about the bullying. Sometimes fear prevents adults from becoming actively involved.

  • As adults, we have a responsibility to be role models and to make it safe for children to talk about bullying with an adult rather than suffer in silence.

Recently Andrew Mellor (personal communication, 2003) made the following important point "…we must seek to create a variety of opportunities for children to talk about sensitive matters: we must strengthen our relationship of trust with them so that when they have a serious problem…talking to an adult about that problem will be the natural thing to do."

Secondly, work will need to be done individually with children who are currently caught up in the bullying-victim cycle. However, an unchanged environment may serve to perpetuate bullying. It is thus important to work with the bystanders since they are powerful reinforcers of behaviour and are integral to the process of creating a climate of awareness and prevention of bullying and a climate of respect.

Thirdly, work must be done at the whole school level, and indeed at the community level. There are many resources that focus on systemic change, some of which are referenced below.

In our work with children who stutter we have taken a broad-based approach.

  • Children learn conflict resolution strategies, and if they are being teased and bullied, specific strategies that they can use are identified.

  • Parents learn to facilitate problem solving and make decisions about levels of intervention.

  • Visits to children's classrooms are made to help students understand stuttering and learn how they can support their classmates who stutter.

In addition, we have undertaken a broad student education initiative to change attitudes toward bullying and children who stutter.

A classroom bullying awareness and prevention resource called Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behaviour (TAB)20 was developed.

  • The goal of the program is to improve attitudes toward children who stutter, change attitudes toward bullying, and help all children deal with bullying.

  • In addition to a variety of discussion ideas, exercises, and take-home activities dealing with bullying in general, a unit devoted to stuttering and other differences helps students understand what stuttering is, why children stutter, and how they can help children who stutter.

Prior to making the program available for distribution, we evaluated its effectiveness using the Peer Attitudes Toward Children Who Stutter Scale (PATCS-40)21 and the Pro Victim Scale22 which measures attitudes toward victims and approval of bullying. Field testing involved 900 students in 37 classrooms in urban and rural districts in Alberta, Canada. Post-testing revealed that, after participation in the TAB program, student attitudes toward children who stutter and toward victims had improved and students were less approving of bullying.9

What are some guiding principles of intervention to manage teasing and bullying?

In working with children it is important to consider the following principles of intervention:

  • Each teasing/bullying event will require a different solution.

  • The strategies used by the child must suit the child.

  • Role playing is fundamental for the child to be assertive and use the strategies with confidence.

  • Children must not simply be rescued; they need to learn coping or reactive strategies and conflict resolution strategies. They need to be helped to build resiliency - it is important not to inadvertently promote or perpetuate helplessness or victimhood. However, children do need the continuing support of adults in the process of dealing with bullying and bringing it to a stop (see the next point).

  • Children and parents must use judgment in responding. Different levels of intervention will be required. Given appropriate problem solving strategies, children may be able to resolve bullying that is less serious. In other cases the power imbalance between the victim and child who is bullying will require intervention from parents, teachers, administrators, and, if necessary, police personnel.

  • Intervention must be tailored to meet the needs of the child, parents and classroom peers.

  • Any proposed intervention first MUST BE DISCUSSED FULLY with the child who is being victimized and the child must be asked whether or not he or she thinks the proposed plan will be helpful or if it will make things worse. Some interventions by well-meaning adults have made things worse for children in the past. As Mellor (personal communication, 2003) has stressed, in order for a child to have full confidence in an adult at a troubled moment, he or she should be encouraged to see the process as two-way.

How can I encourage children to report bullying responsibly?

Children need to understand the difference between tattling (or dobbing as it is called in some countries) and responsible reporting. The following was drawn from Pepler (personal communication, 1999), work with teachers during the field testing of TAB,20 and discussion with other colleagues in the field of bullying.

"Tattling is when you tell to get someone into trouble and you tell in front of others.

Responsible reporting is when you talk to an adult to get someone out of trouble and you talk with the adult in private."

It may be that a change in terminology is needed. Rather than use the term "reporting," perhaps we should be using the term "action" and stress that it is important for children to talk with an adult if they are concerned about bullying, whether or not they are the child being bullied. Perhaps the following could replace that which was suggested above:

"Tattling is when you tell to get someone into trouble and you tell in front of others.

Responsible action is when you talk with an adult if you are concerned about bullying or want to get someone out of trouble, and you talk with an adult in private."

Perhaps this changed terminology and the focus on "talking" will help to alleviate the fear and stigma associated with reporting.

How can I facilitate discussion to learn what children are thinking, feeling, and doing about teasing and bullying?

Following are some ideas that can be used to facilitate discussions with children individually and in groups:

  • Teasing/Bullying Webs. The goal of this exercise is to help children become aware of the usual bullying behaviours and to differentiate between teasing that is fun and teasing that is bullying. Have the children draw two webs. Then ask the children to complete the bullying web by writing down what kids say or do when they bully. On the teasing web ask the children to write down what kids say or do when they tease. Most often name-calling or examples of name-calling will appear on both webs. This is a perfect example that can be used to illustrate that if teasing is hurtful and upsetting it is bullying. This also is an entry point to a more in-depth discussion about:

    • the kinds of teases that are fun,
    • the kinds of teases that are bullying behaviours,
    • the fine line between teasing that is fun and teasing that is bullying,
    • how teasing can quickly turn into bullying,
    • how children who are teased may not show their distress,
    • how children might determine whether a child is upset, and
    • the essence of bullying, which is an intent to cause harm. Any teasing that is intended to embarrass, hurt, taunt, or poke fun at a student is bullying.

  • Other discussion questions include the following:

    • Why do you think a person teases and bullies?
    • How does it feel to be teased and bullied?
    • How can you help a student stop bullying?
    • What could you do if you were being bullied?
    • What could you do if a classmate was being bullied?
    • How do children who bully acquire power? How can you maintain your power or get it back?

Children's most common responses to the question, "What could you do if you were being bullied?" are "ignore it," "run away," "tell the teacher," "do the same thing back," "punch them," and "don't let it bother you." It is important to allow expression of all possible responses so that the usefulness and consequences of the proposed strategy can be discussed. Other commonly suggested strategies include "making a comeback" and "using humour." Following are some comments regarding three of the commonly suggested strategies.

"Ignore it."

It is important to emphasize that ignoring the incident of teasing or not giving a reaction may be the most helpful thing to do at that moment, but "ignore it" does NOT mean that the child should not tell anyone about the bullying. Children should continue to talk with an adult and keep talking until they get some help and support. Thus to "ignore it," as we talk about the strategy, is an active decision based on good judgment.

"Making a comeback"

Making a comeback or saying something witty or unexpected back will be appropriate for some children but not others. It may work in some situations for some children who can carry it off - in other situations and for other children making a comeback may make the problem worse. If this strategy is encouraged, have the child practice what to say and how to say it to be effective.

"Using humour"

Again, using humour can be effective if the child can carry it off. However, the child must not use humour in a self denigrating way.

At the end of this article is a compilation of commonly suggested strategies found in the literature.

What are some general conflict resolution strategies?

In developing TAB20 the following conflict resolution strategies were drawn and adapted with permission from the Grace Contrino Abrams Peace Education Foundation Inc. Some are applicable to teasing and bullying, and some are not.

  • The first is called the "I can speak up - 5 Finger Strategy". A hand is used to depict the following five steps:

    • Say the person's name….Steven
    • Tell how you feel ……I don't like it
    • Describe the behaviour…….when you call me names
    • Be respectful…………..please
    • Tell what you want……………stop
      Or - Steven…I don't like it.. when you call Sally names…her name is Sally… please…call her Sally.

  • Teachers report that younger elementary school children resonate well to the 5-finger strategy in its pure form. Older elementary children often shorten it. The essence is that children learn that a first level of intervention is telling the aggressor to "stop." This strategy will work in some but not all situations.

  • Another set of strategies is called "Rules for Working it Out." It consists of the following:

  • Rules for Working it Out

    • Identify the problem; focus on the problem
    • Attack the problem not the person
    • Listen with an open mind
    • Treat a person's feelings with respect
    • Take responsibility for your actions


    • Blaming
    • Name-calling
    • Threats
    • Put-downs
    • Bossing
    • Making excuses
    • Not listening
    • Getting even
    • Bringing up the past
    • Sneering
    • Not taking responsibility
    • Hitting

    Teachers report that this strategy provides a common language that facilitates the process of problem solving.

How can I deal with an acute bullying problem?

Unfortunately, as we know, there are no definitive answers and there is no one way to deal with bullying. As said earlier, each bullying event will require a different plan of action. In dealing with an acute bullying problem, parents are encouraged to:

  • find out as much as possible from the child about what is happening and who is involved; and
  • with the child determine if adult intervention is needed or if the child will attempt to solve the bullying using an agreed-upon strategy.

If adult intervention is not required, decide with the child which strategy will be used and practise it. If adult intervention is necessary, parents are encouraged first to go to school personnel rather than the parents of the child who is bullying. First going to the parents of the child who is bullying can result in a worsening of the problem. With the child who is being victimized and school personnel, decide on a plan of action that protects the child from retribution.

What is the very basic thing that we all can do?

In closing, I think we all have a role to play, whether or not we have children and whether or not we are teachers, or other professionals working with children. Being a good role model and creating a relationship of trust with the children are at the very core of that role. Respect for ourselves and for each other is fundamental! We are the children's most important resource.


Bully Free Classroom. Beane, Allan L. (1999). MN: Free Spirit Publishing Inc.

Bullying and the Dysfluent Child in Primary School. British Stammering Association (in conjunction with the Psychology Department of Sheffield University).

Bully-Proofing your School. Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camili, C. L.(1994). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Bully-Proofing your Child. Garrity, C., Barris, M., & Porter. W. (2000). Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

Focus on Bullying: A prevention program for elementary school communities. Available from B.C. Safe School Centre, 5325 Kincaid Street, Burnaby, B.C., Canada, V5G 1W2.

P.E.A.C.E. Pack: A programme for reducing bullying in our schools, 3rd Edition. Slee, P. T. Flinders University, Adelaide, Australia.

Shared Concern Method. www.pikas.se/scm

Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behaviour (TAB). Langevin, M. (2000). Available from the Institute for Stuttering Treatment & Research, 3rd Floor, 8220 - 114 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2P4. Website: www.tab.ualberta.ca

Tackling Bullying in Your School: A Practical Handbook for Teachers. (1994). Sharp, S., & Smith, P. K. London: Routledge.

Websites: www.bullying.org, www.antibullying.net, www.bullyingnoway.com.au

Appendix: Commonly Suggested Strategies

Following is a compilation23,24,25 of commonly suggested strategies found in various sources. They are being presented for information only. They have not been evaluated for effectiveness.

Suggestions for children

  • Ignore (see comments above)
  • Walk away but hide your fear
  • Pretend the bully isn't bothering you
  • Look right through the bully - giving him/her a stone-faced look
  • Don't give the bully an emotional payoff
  • Be assertive
  • Say something unexpected
  • Talk to the bully: say calmly or forcefully "I don't like it when….stop"
  • Stay with a group
  • Leave valuable possessions at home
  • Tell someone….get a counselor involved
  • Treat bullies the same way you treat other people - if they do not respond stay away from them

Suggestions for parents

  • Enroll your child in a leadership course
  • Strengthen your child's friendships
  • Get help from school authorities
  • Enroll your child in something he or she is good at


1 Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.

2 Pepler, D., & Craig, W. (1999). Making a difference in bullying (On-line). Available: www.yorku.ca/research/lamarsh/articles.htm

3 Rigby, K. (2002). New perspectives on bullying. PA: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.

4 Roland, E. (1989). Bullying: The Scandinavian research tradition. In D. P. Tattum & D. A. Lane (Eds.), Bullying in Schools, (pp.21-32). Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books.

5 Tattum, D. P. (1989). Violence and aggression in schools. In D. P. Tattum & D. A. Lane (Eds.), Bullying in Schools (pp. 7-19). Stoke-on Trent: Trentham Books.

6 Rigby, K. (1996). Bullying in schools: And what to do about it. Victoria, Melbourne: The Australian Council for Educational Research Ltd.

7 Garrity, C., Jens, K., Porter, W., Sager, N., & Short-Camilli, C. (1994). Bully-proofing your school. Longmont, CO: Sopris West.

8 Charach, A., Pepler, D., & Ziegler, S. (1995). Bullying at school: A Canadian perspective. Education Canada (Spring, 1995).

9 Langevin, M. (1998). Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behaviour: Field testing report - September 1998. Unpublished report, available from the Institute for Stuttering Treatment & Research, 3rd Floor, 8220 - 114 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2P4.

10 O'Moore, A.M., & Hillery, B. (1989). Bullying in Dublin schools. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 10, 426-441.

11 Rigby, K., & Slee, P.T. (1995). The peer relations questionnaire. Adelaide: Institute of Social Research. University of South Australia.

12 Ziegler, S., & Rosenstein-Manner, M. (1991). Bullying at school: Toronto in an international context (Research Services No. 196) Toronto, Ontario: Toronto Board of Education (Ontario). Research Dept.

13 Mellor, A. (2003). School bullying - Problems and answers. Paper presented at "The best years of our life…or are they? conference, National Coalition Against Bullying Melbourne, Australia.

14 Langevin, M., Bortnick, K., Hammer, T., & Wiebe, E. (1998). Teasing/Bullying Experienced by Children who Stutter: Toward Development of a Questionnaire. Contemporary Issues in Communication Science and Disorders, 25, 12-24.

15 Hugh-Jones, S., & Smith, P. K. (1999). Self-reports of short- and long-term effects of bullying on children who stammer. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 141-158.

16 Neary, A., & Joseph, S. (1994). Peer victimization and its relationship to self-concept and depression among school girls. Personality and Individual Differences, 16(1), 183-186.

17 Callagahan, S., & Joseph, S. (1995). Self-concept and peer victimization among school children. Personality & Individual Differences, 18(1), 161-163.

18 Craig, W. M., & Pepler, D. (1995). Peer processes in bullying and victimization: An observational study. Exceptionality Education Canada, 5(3 & 4), 81-95.

19 McGrath. (2003). Bullying in Workplaces and Schools. Keynote address presented at "The best years of our life…or are they?" conference, National Coalition Against Bullying, Melbourne, Australia.

20 Langevin, M. (2000). Teasing and Bullying: Unacceptable Behaviour. Available from the Institute for Stuttering Treatment & Research, 3rd Floor, 8220 - 114 Street, Edmonton, Alberta, T6G 2P4.

21 Langevin, M. & Hagler, P. (in press). Development of a scale to measure peer attitudes toward children who stutter. In A.K. Bothe (Ed.), Evidence-based treatment of stuttering: Empirical issues and clinical implications. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

22 Rigby, K., & Slee, P. T. (1993). Children's attitudes towards victims. In D. P. Tattum (Ed.) Understanding and managing bullying, (pp.119-135). Melbourne: Heinemann.

23 Zarzour, K. (1994). Battling the school yard bully. Toronto, Canada: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

24 Berry, J. (1984). Lets talk about being bullied. Danbury: CT: Grolier Enterprises Inc.

25 McCoy, Elin. (1992). Bully-proof your child. Reader's Digest, Nov., 199-204.