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Monday, August 02 2021

Indirect Bullying

The first two Newsletters in this series addressed a major problem in most schools – bullying (There’s More to Bullying than Meets the Eye – 21 March 2017 and Bullying and Power – 27 March 2017).  I was recently going back through my work and I was reminded about the phenomena of Indirect Bullying presented by Anna Wallace who was at the UTS Psychology Unit.


There are many definitions of bullying and the NSW Department’s definition sums it up in the following way.  Bullying behaviour has three key features:

  • It involves the intentional misuse of power in a relationship
  • It is ongoing and repeated
  • It involves behaviours that can cause harm

It is relatively easy to identify direct bullying, when you see it, it is over and is directed at the victim.  Of course, direct bullying does happen in the playground and before or after school and it is not easy to eradicate.  The advantage in dealing with direct bullying is the perpetrator really has no defence when their behaviour is exposed.


Indirect bullying can be expressed openly but more likely to be a sneaky attack on another’s self-esteem or social relationships.  In most cases, all aggression is designed to get the other person to change their behaviour, there are exceptions with students diagnosed with narcissism or socio/psychopathy; dominating others is their primary drive.  However, bullying is a cover for those who are being challenged by the presence of another and they behave in a way that they hope will force the ‘victim’ to change.  Those who feel superior to others will directly attack them with threats of physical or psychological aggression.  There is no real subtlety in their behaviour.


Indirect bullying more often than not enlists the support of others.  They do this by:

  • Talking About the Victim – gossiping, spreading rumours and breaking confidences, they do this in a way they know the victim will find out.
  • Exclusion – They commandeer the group to ignore the victim, hang out in a ‘special’ part of the playground, etc.  Exclusion is an extremely powerful technique and taken to extremes will devastate the victim.

The silent treatment is another classic attack.  How can I be in trouble because I didn’t speak to him/her?

  • The ‘Death Stare’ – Every teacher worth their salt has had a student complain that another child in the room was ‘looking at me’!  This non-verbal behaviour seems ridiculous but the effects of being stared at are damaging.  The easy advice is to tell them to ignore it but that won’t solve the problem.  Along with this non-verbal behaviour is the use of sarcasm, ‘why would I look at you’ and when the teacher’s back is turned they use an intimidating gesture!
  • Social Media – the telephone has been around for years and the prank call has been a weapon for bullies however, the explosion of social media and the almost universal ownership of mobile phones provides the ‘perfect’ medium for indirect bullying.  All the techniques mentioned above are catered for through all of the media platforms.

If there is an ‘advantage’ to be found in the use of social media is that victims can and should collect the messages, they can use a ‘screen shot’ of the offending message and present it as evidence.


Dealing with indirect bullying is difficult for the teacher.  In a class of over twenty there is plenty of opportunity for the most determined bully to make a move on their victim without the teacher knowing.  It is also difficult for the teacher to understand just how damaging it is for the victim.  As an adult, receiving a ‘death stare’ from a child should not be threatening.  However, one thing we often overlook when dealing with aggression towards a child is the difference in physical presence between the perpetrator and victim.  I use the following example when presenting workshops on child abuse.  As a full-size adult (say about 1.8 metres tall) you go and stand under a basketball hoop and then imagine someone about 3.0 metres, fill out in proportion with muscles, etc. was attacking, you would be scared.  For children the contrast is even more frightening. The point is we should never under estimate how vulnerable little kids are, not just physically but psychologically.  Never dismiss things like the ‘death stare’.


Teachers understand that physical and verbal assaults or forcing people to do things they don’t want to do is bullying!  There is less agreement about the seriousness of name calling, gossip or non-verbal behaviour.  They agree this is not good but, in some cases, they feel dealing with this level of bullying is not their ‘business’ it is part of ‘toughening-up’ and think the kids should learn to sort out these behaviours.


There is an assumption that all kids come with the same level of resilience and healthy sense of self.  Followers of these Newsletters understand that so many of our children come to the classroom already suffering a range of mental health issues we unite under the designation of suffering toxic shame (see Toxic Shame – 31 August 2020).  These kids have the common belief that they are bad and not deserving of belonging.  Being excluded by others adds to this destructive belief pattern and takes them away from any form of rehabilitation.


This is not to suggest that children with a history of abuse are not capable of bullying.  On the contrary they can be unrelenting in their attacks on others.  You have to remember ‘in most cases bullying is a cover’ for how the obvious success of a particular student will show-up the bully’s insecurities.  This is not an excuse for bullies but a clue for dealing with them.


So, what to do.  First the teacher should teach their class about bullying, what it is, what people do it and the damage it can do.  The students need to understand that bullying is real and what might be happening to them now is not a ‘unique’ behaviour.


The next thing I would do is teach the kids about boundaries, I would contend that teaching effective boundaries to your students would provide them with one of the most powerful defence mechanisms they could have (see Teaching Practical Boundaries – 31 July 2017).  It would pay to remind us of what these are:


1. Recognition that your Boundaries are being Challenged

Be conscious of your feelings towards the class and the lesson. If you can sense your feelings are changing, becoming frustrated or worried your boundary is being challenged; this change of feelings is a ‘stress attack’.


2. Actively Stay Calm

We are well aware that if we become too stressed we lose our objectivity but be grateful for the initial onset because it alerts you that there is a problem.

It is important that you learn to quickly control that stress.  There are many techniques to learn how to evoke a quick relaxation response. The use of neuro- linguistic programming is excellent for this however any short relaxation technique followed by the establishment of an associated cue (the anchor) will do.


3. Ask the Questions

  • ‘What is really happening’?  This is often not the obvious event.
  • ‘Who is responsible’?
    • If ‘me’ then I must take responsibility, take action to address the cause of the stress.
    • If not ‘me’ then I ask a further two questions:
      • ‘What is causing the attack’?
      • 'What do I have to do to change this situation in the long run’?

4. Take Action

Assert your right without threatening the other person.  You can use the statements:

  • ‘When you ……’
  • ‘I feel…………….’
  • ‘Because………’

Other follow-up newsletters on boundaries are:

  • Boundary Considerations – 22 October 2018
  • Respecting Other’s Boundaries – 26 November 2018


Bullying occurs across our community, in schools, work places and homes.  Teaching kids to stand-up to bullies in an appropriate way not only builds their sense of self it also strengthens the bonds across our community.

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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