Why Does Bullying Continue?

Bullying continues to occur as a result of a number of factors, both individual and social. It is important that we understand that bullying is a learned form of behaviour. By that we mean that people are not born bullying others. It is not inevitable that they will spend their lives doing so.

This raises the question: where and how is bullying learned? The answer is complex, as bullying behaviour may be learned in many ways and contexts.

Links Between Different Forms of Abuse

We know that bullying is linked to other forms of aggression that exist on a continuum, all of which share the following definition: an abuse of power with the intention to dominate another person. Young people may learn to bully through various experiences of abuse and powerlessness that they experience to different degrees throughout their lives.

For example, as adults we have power over young people that we strive to use in a positive way to ensure young people’s health and well-being. In some cases, adults may inadvertently use their power in ways that compromise the healthy development of children and youth in their care, exerting control to meet their own needs at the young person’s expense; in other cases, this is intentional. Abuse or misuse of adult power in any form is known as “adultism”. Child abuse in all its manifestations is an extreme example of adultism.

Common forms of adultism which often occur in daily life are:
  • Holding a double standard of behaviour for young people and adults (for example, behaviour that is acceptable for an adult, such as assertiveness, is viewed as impolite in the case of a young person);
  • Making decisions that affect young people’s lives without involving, informing or consulting them;
  • Limiting or eliminating opportunities for discussion and self-expression among young people.

Cycle of Abuse

Some young people who experience abuse may go on to abuse others, having learned through observation and experience that there are only two modes of relating to others: either as victim or aggressor. Rather than remain powerless, and perhaps as an outlet for their anger, they seek power over others, thereby perpetuating a cycle of abuse. Many choose to break this cycle by seeking help or making a conscious choice to stand up against all forms of abuse, including bullying.

The cycle of abuse may also be perpetuated through cultural messages - at home, at school, in our communities or in our larger society.

At the root of bullying is the association of differences with vulnerability, inferiority and weakness. Young people learn attitudes that foster bullying when differences are met with hostility, hatred and fear. Celebrating diversity with your children can help counter these messages.

Blaming the Person Being Bullied

Bullying and the cycle of abuse are also perpetuated by a common tendency in our society to “blame the victim”. This trend is evident when we focus our attention and our efforts to stop the bullying on the person who is bullied, inciting them to change their behaviour or way of acting (especially when children or teens are perceived as "different" or "weird"). We may label or judge the person being bullied as weak, passive or vulnerable.

Our tendency to blame the target is enhanced when people who are responsible for acts of bullying have a high social status, and when they make excuses for their behaviour (e.g., It was just a "joke"). Witnesses and even young people who are being bullied will often justify the reasons given by the child or teen who uses bullying (e.g., to protect themselves). Bullying (and all forms of abuse) is an abuse of power with the intent to harm that is entirely unacceptable in any form and in every case. The person doing the bullying is always responsible for their behaviour.

There is no justification for bullying, ever. No one deserves to be bullied.

Challenging the Code of Silence

One of the biggest obstacles to ending bullying - and all forms of aggression - is secrecy. Those who bully force those they target, along with the bystanders, to keep the bullying a secret. They may do so through explicit threats of retaliation should the ‘’code of silence’’ be broken.

This is one of the most important reasons why very few young people ever tell anyone when they experience or witness bullying. Unfortunately, this allows bullying to become further entrenched, and for feelings of fear, shame and guilt to flourish.

The Culture of Silence Among Teens

The fear of being labeled a "rat" is high in adolescence. It is useful to remind teens that while those who bully may seem really powerful, in reality, those people – young or old - who denounce these actions as negative, are more numerous. We can encourage teens to come together with others who think like them rather than to expect that young people who are fearful take a stand individually.

The key is to ensure that young people who are bullied or witness bullying have access to reliable and concrete help from adults.

Tattling vs. Telling

Peers - and sometimes adults - encourage younger children not to be a "tattle tale." Here are some definitions that can help students and adults learn to differentiate between the various ways of reacting in a bullying situation :


Speaking to an adult in order to get someone else in trouble.



Speaking to an adult to get help if someone’s actions are intended to hurt another person or to deprive them of their right to be safe, strong and free.

Tattling is trying to get someone into trouble. Telling is trying to get someone out of trouble.

(NB: These definitions adapted from The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso (2002))

Safe Telling

It is important to acknowledge and honour the risk children and teens take when they tell us about a bullying situation – whether they are being bullied, witnessing it, or bullying others. Respecting a young person’s confidentiality and guarding their anonymity (wherever possible) is pivotal to creating a safe environment for telling. In this way, we can begin to break the cycle of violence by lifting the destructive shroud of secrecy that allows bullying to take root and grow.