Where's The Bully?

By Zach Mural
Photo: © Can Stock Photo Inc. / tammykayphoto

If you’ve spent any time watching TV, reading a newspaper or magazine, or talking to colleagues who work with kids, the topic of bullies has surely come up. Among the important issues to address:

  • How to recognize and respond to bullies in a program.

  • How to eliminate the likelihood that bullying will occur in the first place.


The answers might surprise you. To begin, the term “bully” refers to more than the stereotypical brute who pushes, punches, and relentlessly insults victims. That type of bully stands out. Plus, most parks and rec departments have rules and procedures to address this situation. The bullies who are a real danger to participants are more subtle and skilled. They are often viewed by adults as “good kids” who are well-liked and don’t cause trouble. It’s these less-obvious, or “hidden” bullies (as my psychologist wife labels them), who have the power to inflict more sustained and damaging torment unless adults are prepared to recognize and respond to this insidious behavior.

So, how do you find and thwart a hidden bully? First, recognize where and when bullies are already at work in programs. Second, understand the subtle ways bullies harm their targets. Finally—and perhaps most importantly—think about how to prevent opportunities for covert bullying.

Hidden Bullies
Whenever new groups are formed at the start of a season, school year, or camp, social hierarchies are established. This ordering process is as old as human existence, but its prevalence doesn’t always make it healthy. Establishing social hierarchies can fuel significant conflicts among group members. Conflict is not necessarily bad if it is kept in check. Indeed, conflict resolution is an important life skill. However, opportunities for bullying arise when one or two kids wind up at or near the bottom of the social hierarchy and then become targets. And it’s the individual or group that is unsure about maintaining their top-shelf status—or who perhaps have been bullied themselves in other settings—who are the likely perpetrators.

Unfortunately, sometimes the adult group leader or coach lets down his or her guard right after hierarchies have been formed or a conflict has been resolved. At this point, the adult may believe the group members have worked themselves out of any initial awkwardness in the getting-to-know-you phase. By blindly trusting the supposed stability and security of the group, the leader may become complicit in allowing the bullying to begin.

For example, after the first couple of weeks of swim practice at the municipal pool, the coach may turn his or her attention to individual skill development, spending less time with the group. This can inadvertently give bullies the opportunity to act. The best tool to guard against this happening is to establish relationships with every participant so each child feels comfortable coming to you if issues arise. Additionally, checking in with the larger group, ideally at different times, limits a bully’s window of opportunity.

Recognizing Subtle Bullying
Bullying is an aggressive act meant to keep other people down. So, to start, let’s look at two major types of aggression: physical and relational. Physical aggression, like pushing while waiting in line for drills, hazing in a locker room, or intimidation on the playground, is easier to recognize and stop immediately. The second type—relational aggression, (meant to lessen social status)—can be easy to miss. This type of aggression allows some bullies to remain hidden in plain sight.

Perhaps the most common forms of relational aggression are teasing and name-calling in a playful, “just kidding” manner. You might be surprised at how frequently this type of behavior is tolerated and even condoned by adults under the guise of “boys will be boys” or “that’s just how girls are.” A playful verbal jab at a basketball game, such as “Were you actually aiming for the basket?” might seem harmless. However, when one or two individuals are frequent targets, what appears on the surface as good-natured teasing can quickly become bullying. If the comment above is made to a competent player who just launched a half-court shot, then it’s funny. If the remark is directed at a player who is struggling to make shots and the jab is part of a pattern of pointing out deficiencies, then it’s an act of bullying.

A second common form of relational aggression involves limiting the target’s access to group activities, telling inside stories or jokes, or withholding desired resources (the good basketball, the yummy snacks, etc.). This type of aggression becomes bullying when certain individuals are consistently excluded, even in small matters. For example, never being invited to parties or gatherings that most of the class or team attends, or not being told the funny stories that happened there, gives the target the sense of being an outsider.

Presence = Prevention
What else can you do to prevent bullying? Consider the first time a group comes together at a class, practice, or other youth program. What do you typically do? Go over rules? Set boundaries and expectations? Sort the group by position, skill level, or experience? None of these approaches are necessarily wrong, as they do begin to establish a social hierarchy. But a first meeting can be a missed opportunity to define a culture that makes bullying less likely to occur. To avoid this, set up an environment with cooperative instead of competitive goals.

I can hear the groans. But I am not advocating a touchy-feely or everyone-has-to-get-the-same-trophy-for-everything approach! In fact, I encourage you to recognize and celebrate differences in youngsters’ skills and accomplishments. What I am advocating—and what can stop bullying from ever getting started—is establishing teams, classes, and groups where each individual is necessary to accomplish the major goals of the group. It’s a “we all sink, or we all swim” mentality that is rare in today’s world.

What I am advocating cannot be reduced to a single prescriptive set of instructions. It takes time and skill for adult leaders to know every member of the group well enough to tap their individual talents or skills. For example, the more skilled participants can mentor and coach those who are less experienced.  Encourage the novice members to demonstrate persistence and effort. Seek out the better communicators and ask them to monitor how the group interacts. Finally, use the most competitive participants to help inspire and motivate the entire group. If the T-ball team’s goal is that everyone needs to help their teammates improve, and that each player is responsible to ensure others have fun, then there won’t be a place for bullies.

If your parks and recreation culture is competitive, my proposed solution to hidden bullying will be new and challenging. But what organization doesn’t want to diminish relational aggression, boost fun, and increase return rates? Once staff members are trained to identify and deal with hidden bullying, you’ll be surprised by how much enjoyment, growth, and confidence participants will experience.

Dr. Zachary Mural is a professional educator and youth-development professional with more than 20 years of experience. He has his Ph.D. in Educational Psychology and Technology, a M.A. in Youth Development, and is currently the CEO of Youth Development Consulting, Regional Director of Private Schools for Minnieland Academy in Manassas, Va., and an Expert Online Training faculty member. Reach him at zach@youthdevelopmentconsulting.com .