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The Bullying Triangle

by Gail DAurelio, Ed.S., LMFT


Childhood and adolescent bullying has been around since time in memoriam and has
been viewed as part of growing up. Fortunately, our understanding and tolerance of
bullying has progressed. Bullying was assumed only to involve the interaction between
the aggressor and the victim. Now bullying is recognized more often as a triangle
consisting of three components: the bully, the target and the bystander. Bullying is not
always physical, but can be verbal, and is now complicated by the use of technology
named cyber bullying through the use of texting, sexting, instant messaging, email
and often social networks such as Facebook, MySpace, etc. Bullying occurs in the
presence of an audience of peers about 85% of the time (Craig & Pepler, 1992) and is
most likely to occur where there is a lack of adult presence.
To understand bullying, one must understand the players:
The Bully
Bullying has been defined as unprovoked, repeated and aggressive actions or threats
of action by one or more persons who are perceived to have more power or status than
their victim in order to cause fear, distress or harm (Kim & Logan, 2004). These
actions can leave the victim feeling ashamed, fearful and powerless. Bullying accidents
are not accidental and are intended to inflict harm upon the victim. Most children and
adolescents do not hurt other kids bullies do. In bullying, negative behavior is
continuous and can escalate until stopped.
The Target
Bullies are adept at identifying other students who lack the social skills, abilities or
personal characteristics to defend themselves or mark them as vulnerable. The target
can react negatively to conflicts or losing; targets are typically cautious, sensitive, quiet,
anxious and insecure. Targets frequently lack the necessary social skills to use humor
and assertion, nor are they particularly adept at developing peer relationships. Targets
may be difficult to recognize because they do not ask for help nor do they stand up for

themselves. Ongoing and pervasive bullying affects self-esteem and the ability to
perform at school. Often the target suffers in silence.
The Bystander
Bystanders are the witnesses to a bullying event and are never innocent. Some
bystanders may be excited or entertained by the action. Other bystanders may think
that the bullying is cool and identifies with the bully. Other bystanders may believe they
will be spared as the bully is not turning on him/her. A bystander might believe that
speaking up would not help and that the bully cannot be deterred. At very least, the
bystander feels conflicted about his or her lack of action.
What do we do to address bullying in schools?
First, we need to provide schools where students are treated with respect in a warm and
nurturing environment. Clear limits and expectations by all staff members are essential.
The environment should have a clear consensus of what it means to be a good person,
that all members of the school community be treated with dignity and respect, and that
staff can be approached when there is a problem.
Secondly, we must teach the courage to face and overcome bullying in the face of fear.
Bullying is an injustice and imbalance of power. It takes self-confidence and strength
for a target to resist and avoid bullying. As adults, we need to help our students find the
strength to intervene when witnessing a bullying event and to care about the target. It is
not suggested that a student physically intervene in such an event, but to look for
assistance from an adult if necessary. Teaching our students that to be a bystander to
bullying and not doing anything to stop it is part of the victimization of a fellow student.
It is essential for us to help students to rise to the challenge to take safe and intelligent
action to protect themselves as well as others.
Gail DAurelio, Ed.S., LMFT is Clinical Director of the Boonton, NJ Campus of Sage Day
Schools. You can reach Gail viaemail or call 973-402-4700.