Bullying: the Child’s View-by Jean la Fontaine

Jean La Fontaine (1991) Bullying: the child’s view London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 0 903319 58 6Interest in bullying had been stimulated during the 1970s by the work of Heinemann and Olweus (1978) in Norway but only in the 1980s had interest extended to indirect and relational bullying (Smith, 2010). The studies described in this book had been prompted by an analysis of the first three years’ calls to Childline, which had led to the establishment of two short-term bullying helplines, one funded by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, which had mainly attracted calls from day school pupils and a second funded by the Department of Education and Science (DES) aimed at boarding school children who had been notably absent from the first helpline. The report covers the results of analysing calls to both lines.

Key ideas

  • Children define bullying differently from adults.
  • Girls outnumbered boys two to one, reflecting the pattern on Childline’s main helpline, but not the pattern of bullying revealed in other studies.
  • However, calls to the boarding school line more closely reflected the pattern revealed in other studies.
  • Girls were more likely to report psychological and recent bullying.
  • Bullying does not disappear with age, but children over 13 tend to think they should deal with it themselves.
  • Children emphasised the effects of bullying rather than the bullies’ intentions.
  • Bullying often followed a quarrel, a perceived breach of loyalty or a failure to conform.
  • Serious physical bullying affected about a quarter of children, more often in boarding schools, whereas theft or extortion was more likely in day schools.
  • Most bullying occurred at school but the most serious occurred on the way to/from school or in dormitories or at the weekend at boarding schools.
  •  Two-thirds of bullying involves groups.
  •  While girls tend not to bully boys, boys bully both girls and boys.
  •   There was little difference in the proportions subject to teasing but more boys suffered violence and more girls theft.
  •  For girls bullying related to peer problems increased with age.
  •  Though comments about ‘difference’ are often included in bullying, the reasons are more likely to be to express power, to carry out retribution or to enforce conformity.
  •  Other than in boarding schools, adult interventions that do not identify the victim tend to be successful; however, adults are often unwilling to intervene and children are reluctant to disclose bullying.
  •  Over half of the children who used the helplines had already told an adult.
  •  Lack of confidence or silence should be seen as despair at the possibility of a solution to the problem.


In Chapter 1 Background, she explains that during its first 3½ years Childline had received over 91,000 telephone calls and several thousand letters, of which over 3,000 had been about bullying. This led to the decisions to open the Bullying Line from 1 March to 31 May 1990 and, because most calls came from day school pupils, for the DES to fund a line for boarding school children from January to July 1991.

Over 7,600 calls to the Bullying Line (BL) were logged, of which 2,054 were long enough to result in case notes being written; there were 10,315 calls to the Boarding School Line (BSL), of which case notes were written for 1,012; 213 of these cases involved bullying. In addition a questionnaire was sent to a representative sample of children in boarding schools.

In Chapter 2 The results from the lines, she notes that the number of calls to the BL in three months was two-thirds the number of calls about bullying in the previous 3½ years and wonders whether the lower number of calls about bullying to the BSL reflects the lack of privacy at boarding schools in view of the high number of logged calls.

She points out that, unlike other studies, there was no adult definition of bullying; the children defined what it was by calling the line and their descriptions covered a wider range of behaviours than in other studies. While the confidentiality of the helpline may have generated more data, on the whole it did not contradict what was already known.

Hitherto, UK research had been based on day schools and, though the data in these two studies was not from a representative sample, it was drawn from the national population and was thus the nearest thing so far to a national survey, something only Norway had attempted to date.

In Chapter 3 The callers, she reports that children were overwhelmingly talking about their own problems; only a few percent said they were calling on behalf of a friend; a number of parents called, along with adults recalling their boarding school days and staff who had views about the BSL; adults reporting bullying are included in the results.

Girl callers outnumbered boys two to one, a pattern not found in other studies of bullying but consistent with the pattern on Childline’s main helpline, suggesting that girls are more likely to take advantage of an opportunity to talk to someone about a problem in confidence. However, bullying accounted for only slightly more of the problems girls phoned about (20%) on the BSL compared to the boys (16%). Moreover, girls were more likely to report psychological bullying and short-term bullying than boys, both of which were often excluded from bullying studies.

There was no evidence that bullying ‘disappears with age’; it peaks among the 11–13 year olds but victims over 13 tended to think they should deal with it themselves. However, the figures may also reflect access to or shyness about using the telephone, particularly among younger children.

In Chapter 4 What bullying means to children, she notes that definitions of bullying often exclude short-term bullying or emphasise the bullies’ intentions, whereas the children emphasised the effects of anything from teasing to serious physical harm and saw in bullying rejection and hostility.

Victims tended to feel powerless and, since bullies generally had greater strength or greater numbers, empowerment was not normally a viable strategy. They also tended to see the cause as some difference in themselves but it was by no means clear that the difference caused the bullying.

The causes of bullying were more likely to be a quarrel, a perceived breach of loyalty or suspicion of having informed staff (whether or not they had); the result was the victim felt alone and vulnerable. Often friends were encouraged to bully after a falling out – this was more common among girls – or following a failure to conform to the peer group. Such bullying prevents the establishment of relationships. 10% of girls reported bullying following quarrels but the problem was the persistence of any consequent bullying.

There was little evidence of institutional bullying in boarding schools but 60% of bullying was by older children of younger and many victims thought they would not be believed by staff. There was also evidence of xenophobic and racist bullying in boarding schools.

Serious physical bullying affected around a quarter of children, more often boys, especially in boarding schools where it appeared to be linked to a ‘macho’ image of boys. Theft and extortion, which might be an end or a means, was more likely to be mentioned on BL calls, perhaps because there were fewer opportunities in boarding schools.

Among the problems in using the term ‘bullying’ to cover such a wide variety of behaviour are that theft and assault are more than just ‘bullying’ and should not be ignored, while dismissing forms such as ‘teasing’ or seeing it as a transient problem may involve underplaying the link between bullying and later criminal behaviour.

In Chapter 5 Where children are bullied, she reports that 75% of those calling the BL were bullied at school, 7% on the way to/from school and 9% in the neighbourhood. The most violent bullying took place on the way to/from school, some of it by siblings, but most of it by school-mates. At boarding school, 9% of the attacks, among them the most serious, took place in the dormitory or at weekends meaning that the child had no safe place to go.

In Chapter 6 The duration of bullying, she points out the weaknesses in defining bullying by duration; some recent bullying is more serious than some long-term and duration is more likely to be related to having someone to talk to. Moreover, there was no evidence that it became more serious with time or that minor problems ‘sort themselves out’ (p. 18); 10% of children had suffered for years and half for months. Long-term bullying was more likely to be reported in boarding schools.

Children tend not to tell because of fear of retribution, humiliation, a belief that they deserve it and the stigma associated with ‘grassing.’ One problem is that asking for help may fail because the adults cannot or will not deal with the situation.

In Chapter 7 Bullies, she notes that a small number of bullies and former bullies called the BL but that the data is mostly taken from victims; nearly two-thirds had been bullied by a group, though it was not clear if the members of the group were active participants or passive supporters; in the light of the hostility this generates, one should consider the dynamics of children’s lives rather than their individual characteristics.

While boys and girls were mentioned equally as bullies, twice as many girls were victims because, while girls rarely bully boys, boys are more likely to be bullies and to bully girls and boys though, in mixed sex boarding schools, children were more likely to be bullied by their own sex.

Slightly more bullies were age-mates rather than older except in boarding schools where there were more older bullies; it appeared that age-mates were more likely to be involved in ‘teasing’ and older bullies in more abusive bullying. Sibling bullying was more likely to occur at home but otherwise followed the patterns of school bullying

In Chapter 8 Kinds of bullying, she reports that there was little difference in the proportions of girls and boys teased but more boys were assaulted and more girls were victims of theft; almost all boys and 58% of girls accuse boys of violent bullying. Violence from girls tended to be associated with peer problems but it was not clear if violence between boys involved friends.

The incidence of teasing (c. 40%) is the same across ages and genders but physical assaults decline with age for girls, and theft and extortion are less likely among younger and older children while peer problems increase for girls but not for boys.

In Chapter 9 ‘Reasons for’ and ‘causes of’ bullying, she says that there is no evidence that individual characteristics ‘cause’ bullying even if restoring confidence may contribute to ending it. References to difference may not be the ‘cause’ but the means of bullying and the number of children saying there was ‘no reason’ for the bullying suggests that one should not look for the reason in the victim but in the social context, for example, to reinforce group identity when any scapegoat will do.

Bullying may be used to:

  • demonstrate power (older bullies),
  • persecute an erstwhile friend (peer bullies),
  • punish deviance or enforce compliance (peer bullies).

It is important not to dismiss relationship problems as just ‘growing up;’ children need to learn how to get on with others.

In Chapter 10 Doing something about bullying, she reports that adult interventions which do not identify the victim usually have positive effects except in boarding schools. Victims’ reluctance to tell may be because of loyalty, fear of getting another child into trouble, fear of retribution or lack of confidentiality. There also appears to be a shared assumption among adults and children that children will deal with it themselves as they get older.

Some children do not believe telling an adult will help; they do not trust adults and some adults are unsure what to do or their interventions had been ineffectual. 50% of callers to the BL and 58% to the BSL had already told an adult and only a third (BL)/16% (BSL) had told no-one.

There are a variety of options for counselling depending on a child’s situation but the worst outcome of telling is no action.

In Chapter 11 Conclusions, she points out that children’s definitions are broad and inclusive; they do not regard bullying as part of growing up and they want it to stop. They often doubt adults’ ability to stop it (justifiably) and are put off by adult trivialising of bullying; any lack of confidence in adults and silence should be seen as symptoms of despair at the lack of a solution to the problem.


This short, succinct report, published the year before Andrea Adams highlighted the issues for adults in Bullying at work (1992), set out most of the issues relating to bullying on which subsequent research (Mora-Merchán and Jäger, 2010) has elaborated. Girls are slightly more likely to be victims than boys, particularly in respect of psychological bullying such as cyberbullying, and boys are slightly more likely to be involved in physical bullying but bullying is not a problem that goes away with age, nor is it one that young people should be expected to deal with on their own.

Moreover, the variability of its incidence in different countries (Mora-Merchán et al., 2010) offers support for La Fontaine’s suggestion that context may be more important than individual characteristics.

While it is reassuring that children are more likely to disclose bullying than adult victims of domestic abuse (Walby and Allen, 2004), the reluctance or inability of adults to take it seriously when it is disclosed can create a barrier of distrust between child and adult which can have long-term adverse effects for the child.

However, the key reason for dealing with bullying and for making it easier for children to deal with it is that children need to learn to make and maintain pro-social relationships with other children. Those who are unable to do this are like to suffer social, emotional and intellectual disadvantage which will affect them throughout their lives if they get no relief from it (Ladd, 2005).


Adams, A (1992) Bullying at work: how to confront and overcome it London: Virago

Ladd, G W (2005) Children’s peer relations and social competence: a century of progress London: Yale University Press

Mora-Merchán, J A, del Rey, R and Jäger, T (2010) Cyberbullying: review of an emergent issue In J A Mora-Merchán and T Jäger (Eds) Cyberbullying: a cross-national comparison, pp. 271–282 Landau: Verlag Europaische Pädagogik e.V.

Mora-Merchán, J A and Jäger, T (Eds) (2010) Cyberbullying: a cross-national comparison Landau: Verlag Europaische Pädagogik e.V.

Olweus, D (1978) Aggression in the schools: bullies and whipping boys London: Wiley

Smith, P K (2010) Cyberbullying: the European perspective In J A Mora-Merchán and T Jäger (Eds) Cyberbullying: a cross-national comparison, pp. 7–9 Landau: Verlag Europaische Pädagogik e.V.

Walby, S and Allen, J (2004) Domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking: findings from the British Crime Survey Home Office Research Study 276 London: Home Office Research, Development and Statistics Directorat

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.