Children can be bullied for just about any arbitrary reason you could dream up, and there is no rhyme or reason behind the things kids are bullied over. Children can be teased for being overweight or acting “strange,” or merely for being too small, dating the wrong guy, or playing the wrong sport.
That said, there are clear and discernible subjects that bullies prefer to target and tend to taunt a child about. There are also some common attributes in the kids themselves that tend to be targeted by bullies. This information will help parents and educators understand just what kind of taunting bullied children encounter, and also some of the different attributes that can get a child targeted by bullies in the first place.
The top 3 subjects of bullying
It’s been found that most bullying tends to involve taunting revolving around one of these 3 general subjects:
1. Physical appearance
2. Sexual orientation (real or perceived)
3. Masculine or feminine appearance (PBS, 2010)
Nothing creates bullying behavior or hostility towards others quite like personal insecurity. So it’s no surprise that 2 of the top 3 general subjects for bullying in American society have to do with sexuality, and the third (physical appearance) partially does. We raise our children in an atmosphere that teaches them to be profoundly ashamed and embarrassed over their body and sexual matters in general, and so as kids enter adolescence, it’s no surprise that sexuality becomes the preferred weapon of choice for delivering the most painful sting in the area of the psyche where every child is most vulnerable. Making matters worse, society behaves in ways that both directly and indirectly condone and encourage sexual bullying. (Read more on this topic in our section on Sexual Bullying.)
Other Main Reasons for Bullying
A Kidscape survey identified the following as the primary reasons for why adults reported being bullied as children:
- Shy, didn’t answer back
- Too short or too tall
- Too good looking or bad looking
- Not interested in or bad at sports
- Too sensitive or cried easily
- Parents divorced or were in prison
- Too intelligent or too stupid
- A minority race or religion in their school or neighborhood
- Too skinny or fat
- Talented in music, art or poetry
- Too poor or too rich
- Posh or “lower class” accent
- Wrong type of clothes (Kidscape, 1999)
Since this study involved adult recollections of childhood bullying, some of the reasons cited since then may have changed in the current generation. Yet most of these reasons are likely to stay prevalent from one generation to another. Notice how many kids were bullied at both ends of the same subject: being the “ugly” girl could get you bullied, but so could being especially attractive, likely because it may inspire jealousy or insecurity among other girls, which can lead to bullying. This is consistent with the findings of other researchers, who have found that the most frequent reason cited by youth for school bullying is that they “didn’t fit in.” Any deviation from what is considered the norm, (whether for better or worse), or anything that causes a child to stand out, can lead to them being targeted by bullies.
The prevalence of school bullying over race or religion
Many things that parents assume would be frequent subjects of bullying, such as race or religion, tend to be less prevalent today than in decades past. Nansel et al. (2001, pp. 2096-97) report that although “being bullied through belittling one’s looks or speech was common for both sexes . . . Being bullied through negative statements about one’s religion or race occurred with the lowest frequency for both sexes.” This isn’t to say it never happens; Muslim youth in particular have seen a pronounced rise in religious bullying since 9/11. It’s just that, as Nansel & company point out, “it may be more socially acceptable for a youth to taunt peers about their appearance than to make derogatory racial statements.” (ibid, p. 2098) This should also be a word of caution for adults: children really do follow your lead and mimic your behavior, taunting others for the same or similar prejudices that they see society at large making a mockery of.
The bullying of special needs kids
Youth with special needs are often targeted by bullies. In their survey of school bullying, Garbarino & deLara report that “teenagers told us that ‘autistic kids’ and other ‘handicapped kids’ get it the worst. Kids with ‘mental problems’ or who are ‘slow or dim’ are targeted for harassment.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 71) On the bright side, they do report that kids felt guilty about this in group discussions, stating it was wrong for these kids to be picked on because they have “an unfair advantage.” It should also be noted that despite being targeted for harassment, it’s been our observation that special needs kids are bullied proportionately less today than they were 20 years ago.
Bullying over appearances
Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004) identified three gender “types” that were at particular risk for being bullied:
- Girls seen by their peers as exceptionally attractive
- Girls regarded by their peers as unattractive
- Boys whose behavior/dress style seems feminine or who appear by peer stereotypes to be gay.
Students who are overweight or obese will also experience far more bullying than their healthy-weight peers. (Hellmich, 2010) Children with red hair, commonly referred to as “gingers,” can also be targeted more often, particularly in the early grades. Bullies can focus upon “any characteristic of a child that gives a tormentor an opening. Big ears? A stutter? Noticeable clumsiness? All these ‘differences’ can provide that opening.” (Garbarino & deLara, 2002, p. 9) If a child appears to stand out from the crowd, either because of their physical appearance or behavior, they are more likely to be bullied.
Bullying out of seniority
In high school, bullying can be a matter of seniority. Many high schools have a culture that promotes this type of institutionalized bullying based upon status. Seniors consider it their right and privilege – even their duty – to harass and bully the freshman.
Bullying kids because of poverty or family disadvantage
Being poor is associated with a low social status, and bullying is all about picking on others you perceive as having a low social status. So kids living in poverty or those who are less well-off than their peers can find themselves the target of bullying. Their lack of resources may also set them apart from peers – less fancy clothing, no money to go out on weekends, etc.
Family issues such as coming from a single parent household, having a parent in prison or one who is disinvolved, or coming from a foster care situation can also become the subject of a bullies taunting. Bullies tend to attack those areas where they know it hurts the most, and so kids from these situations tend to be taunted about their predicament.
“Many reasons are given for why adolescents get bullied: there is certainly no shortage of excuses for the behavior. …Most bullying is indiscriminate and is not caused by or the result of obvious differences between students. …Bullying is random. …it can happen to anyone at any time: while there is some predictability, there is also a massive element of chaos.”
-Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004, pp.14, 6, 3)
Other reasons that kids have been bullied:
- One teen was harassed because he liked to play golf
- Pop singer Lady gaga was bullied as a teen for being
too tan, leading others to call her “orange”
- Other children have been bullied because they are too
white or lack a tan.
- Teens with bad acne are more likely to be bullied
- Youth are commonly bullied for being less intelligent
or doing poorly in school.
- Others may be bullied for being too smart or getting