Posted by: l2bb | March 26, 2010

Bullying: the early warning signs

McGrath (2007) discusses what she identified as the three phases of bullying or “abuse”.   If we know these signs it can help us avoid the escalation of bullying to the point where it is destructive and hard to stop.

It is not only teachers and parents who need to know the signs.  Children, as they grow into the middle primary years – the tween and teen years – can learn to recognise these signs themselves and avoid a cycle of escalating physical or emotional violence.

Phase one: “Trolling”

McGrath identifies the first phase of bullying as “trolling” (p12).  She suggests that this is when the person is looking for “easy targets”.  McGrath describes these as children who “are easily intimidated, and kids who don’t resist or fight back” (p12).

It is at this stage when children with low self-esteem, poor coping, language or problem-solving skills, or limited physical strength may be identified as targets.

It is also at this stage that if we teach children to stand up for themselves they are passed over as an “easy target”.  Standing up for yourself could include:

Dave is Brave

  • ignoring, walking away (the child who is bullying won’t get the response they want)
  • speaking firmly, but calmly (show no fear, but no anger or annoyance either as an emotional reaction may “feed” the bullying behaviour)
  • using humour
  • staying close to supportive peers and/or teachers
  • telling someone (friend, family, teacher)

Telling someone at an early stage could be more effective than waiting until it gets to a point where the child who is bullying feels the balance of power is in their favour.

Phase two: “Campaign Phase”

“The victim is still hoping for relief and trying to fit in.  He experiences guilt, self-blame, and shame at not being able to stop the behaviour or stand up for himself.  Bullying becomes more frequent and more pervasive” (McGrath, 2007 p12).

It is important that we discuss bullying with children before they ever start experiencing it because of this phase.  For example, a child who is fully understanding what is going on may try to laugh it off.  Or they may feel it is some kind of initiation rite needed in order to belong.

Other children who don’t understand what is going on may become part of the perpetrator’s plan.  They may be enlisted as supporters by the child who is bullying, simply by being an audience to incidents – an audience which builds the perpetrator’s power and does not defend the child being bullied.

Being a bystander who doesn’t do anything means that you are part of the bullying incident.  There is no neutral territory.

The other part of this phase is the beginning of the threats about what will happen if the child being bullied tells anyone about what is happening.

Phase three: “The Bully-Victim Relationship”

It is when things get to this phase that we start fearing for the life of our children.  Not just because of physical threats.  Because at this phase the bullying is so pervasive, frequent and increasingly public that the child being bullied feels helpless and unsupported.  It is at this point that thoughts of suicide as being the only way out occur.

Without action on the part of adults, McGrath states that “the victim experiences a growing sense of despair… [and] the bully gets an unrealistic sense of his power and may take greater risks.” (p12)  If adults are aware of what is happening and are seen as helpless or indifferent by the child who is bullied, their mental health can be threatened.

Get in early

If we can get in early and help our children resist or stand up for themselves in the “trolling” phase of bullying then we are on the way to bully-proofing them.  Teaching protective behaviours is important so that a child looking for a “victim” will not find one in your child.

Just remember: If someone looking for power or control can make you react angrily, get you visibly upset, or get you alone and scared they will be well on the way to getting what they want.


McGrath, M.J.  (2007).  School Bullying: Tools for Avoiding Harm and Liability.  Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks.



  1. […] This is a visual way of teaching children to stand up for themselves in the different phases of bullying (as discussed in the previous post). […]

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