Verbal Aggression: Coping Strategies for Children
By David Reitman, PhD, & Manuela Villa
Nova Southeastern University
Threats, teasing, criticism, and other forms of verbal aggression, all of
which are types of bullying in
general, occur in many schools and neighborhoods. This is why it is very important
teachers, and children know how to respond.
Research suggests that approximately 15% of students ages 8–16 are involved
problems with some regularity, either as bullies, victims, or both. Specifically,
about 6% of school-age
children bully other students, 9% can be described as victims, and about 17%
of the victims engage in
bullying themselves. Those children who are both bullies and victims appear to
psychological difficulties than do all others. Victims appear to suffer social
isolation and depression at
rates higher than their peers, even after the bullying has stopped. Also, it
remains unclear whether
bullying generally causes victims to become socially isolated and withdrawn or
if victims are selected for
bullying because they are socially isolated.
Verbal aggression may be an ignored and under-reported problem. Perpetrators
information, victims don’t usually report the verbal aggression, and adults
generally don’t perceive it as
a problem. Other students may refuse to speak out for fear of becoming targets
themselves. The shame
associated with being victimized is so strong that many children will refuse
to admit it, even to their
parents and siblings. Because such a large number of children will experience
bullying and verbal
aggression, and because these problems are often not reported, teachers and parents
need to take an
active role in prevention and intervention when it occurs.
Definition. Verbal aggression can be defined as deliberately harmful behavior
that is typically both
unprovoked and repeated. It is an intentional abuse of power, such as teasing,
taunting, or threatening,
that is initiated by one or more individuals of relatively greater status or
power (by virtue of their
numbers or size) against a victim of somewhat lesser status or power.
Relevance to bullying. Verbal aggression is similar to bullying except it
does not include physical
aggression. It is the use of words or gestures to cause psychological harm
that differentiates verbal
aggression from physical bullying. Many bullies rely on verbal, social, and
physical methods of
intimidation and harassment. These actions frequently occur on the playground
or in the hallways
between classes, so they usually don’t disrupt class and therefore rarely
come to the attention of adults.
Sometimes bullying is witnessed by school personnel and parents, but it may
because bullying is considered by many to be a natural part of growing up.
Verbal aggression may also
be downplayed sometimes because it is misperceived as good natured teasing
that is done within the
structure of the peer group. Some adults even regard verbal aggression and
bullying as events that help
children toughen up for the real world.
Researchers describe two types of bullying that are relevant to verbal aggression:
direct or overt
bullying and covert or indirect bullying. Direct or overt bullying consists
of taking things, hitting, kicking,
pushing, tripping, and shoving, as well as cursing, yelling, and threatening.
Covert or indirect bullying,
consists of secretive actions, typically involving others. Covert aggression
is intended to harm the victim
without confrontation. Girls are more likely to engage in covert or indirect
bullying by spreading rumors
(which is covert or indirect aggression). An example of this type of indirect
aggression is the devaluing
statements written in notes about a student with the intent to hurt or make
fun of the student. Other
verbal behaviors, such as taunting, cursing, and threatening, better fit the
Developmental factors. Research suggests that
verbal aggression and bullying may start in the
preschool and early elementary years. Perpetrators tend
to become repeat offenders because their verbal and
sometimes physical aggression (such as name-calling or
biting and hitting) results in other children surrendering
desired objects (such as toys) or because the offending
child enjoys the effect produced by verbal aggression on
other children. For example, the perpetrator’s criticism
or teasing may cause the victim to cry and nearby peers
or adults to laugh. Interestingly, children who stand up
to such verbal aggression or bullying by counterattacking
in the same way (with teasing, taunts, or
physical aggression) sometime go on to become bullies
themselves. In any case, once initiated, bullying
behaviors are likely to continue, with the frequency of
verbal aggression and bullying peaking in the middle
school/junior high school years.
Outcomes of Verbal Aggression
Children identified as bullies often have difficulties
in forming genuine relationships, although some appear
relatively well adjusted. Bullies may also be skilled at
orchestrating events to minimize discovery and blame,
and they may develop a pattern of resisting accepting
responsibility for their actions. Boys are more likely than
girls to advance to more serious forms of violence, such
as sexual harassment and partner abuse.
Research suggests that children who are merely
bystanders in bullying incidents experience feelings of
anxiety and powerlessness similar to that of victims.
Because of their passive participation in bullying,
bystanders may have a tendency to minimize their role
or rationalize the bullying. Ultimately, even passive
exposure may diminish children’s empathy for victims
and possibly contribute to a more general acceptance of
this behavior in the school environment.
What to look for in a child who has been a target
of verbal aggression
- Being afraid of walking to or from school/changing
route every day
- Having nightmares or other sleep disturbances
- Showing a marked drop in quality of school work
- Being unwilling to go to school
- Missing possessions
- Asking for or beginning to steal money
- Returning home from school very hungry
- Frequently losing pocket money
- A period of bedwetting after the child has
established the ability to sleep without accidents
- Refusing to describe changes in mood or
personality or attitudes about school
- Frequent crying • Giving improbable excuses for behavior
- Developing stomachaches or headaches before
Strategies for parents
- Teach your child to avoid children who bully and
tease, that walking away is a sign of strength, and
that you can’t tease someone who isn’t there.
- Build your child’s self-esteem, giving your child lots
of specific praise and physical affection, reminding
your child of his or her strengths, and encouraging
participation in social activities where bullies are
not present and children are well supervised.
- Help your child understand why other children bully
and tease. Explain that many bullies are unhappy,
confused, insecure, or are themselves victim of
someone else’s verbal aggression. The bully may also
be satisfied with the role of intimidator of others.
- Encourage your child to use peer mediation through
participation in the school’s Peer Mediator program
if one is available. Make sure that the program is
well supervised by an adult who will not allow the
bully to continue to maintain power over the child
who has been targeted.
- Teach your child to use positive self-talk when
bullied such as, “I’m okay, I like myself. What he or
she (the bully) thinks doesn’t matter.”
- Be a model for your child, by avoiding watching
violent TV programs, by not being verbally
aggressive yourself, and by modeling good
problem-solving and communication skills.
- Brainstorm solutions with your child, and agree on a
possible solution to the problem, as well as a backup
- Teach your child to be assertive by encouraging
your child to ask the bully to STOP.
- Role-play how to deal with bullying and teasing by
practicing how to handle difficult situations by
walking away or ignoring teasing.
- Be an advocate for your child. If problems continue,
get involved yourself by meeting with school
personnel or neighborhood parents to discuss the
problem and possible solutions.
Strategies for educators
- Conduct a school-wide survey to determine the
number and frequency of incidents and areas where
bullying and verbal aggression are occurring.
- Discuss bullying and verbal aggression (nature,
sources, signs, prevention) at class meetings, on a
school/community-wide level, and at PTA/PTO
- Conduct role-plays of appropriate responses to
bullying and teasing.
- Discuss bullying and verbal aggression at both
school-wide and grade-level assemblies.
- Inform your class that you will use non-violent
sanctions in response to any form of bullying or
verbal aggression that you observe. • Increase the
quantity and quality of student monitoring and supervision
in all areas of the school.
- Encourage students to be helpful
bystanders/informants when bullying or taunting
occurs and make it clear that this is not tattling but
acting in a reasonable and responsible manner.
- Develop a school policy on bullying behavior of any
kind, and distribute it to all staff, students, and
- Form support groups for those students who have
been targets of bullying or verbal aggression.
- Create a school-wide climate in which reporting
incidents of bullying or verbal aggression is
encouraged and approved. Use a phone hotline, an
anonymous mail drop, or other methods as
- Increase the use of cooperative learning for
curriculum delivery and use art, stories, and
activities to communicate and promote appropriate
- Conduct regular staff meetings to exchange
information and monitor the effectiveness of
- Allow students to participate in the disciplinary
process through the initiation of a student-faculty
court to deal with students who have been
identified as bullies through specific incidents.
- Develop and disseminate rules for appropriate
social behaviors and publicize the rules on posters
and in school newsletters and staff memos.
- Monitor the students’ understanding of and
compliance with school-wide anti-bullying policies
and rules, and contract with the students for
compliance with those rules.
- Establish separate times for student breaks for
younger and older students.
- Develop school-wide positive consequences to
support both the rules and those students who
follow the rules aimed at reducing bullying and
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David Reitman, PhD, is Associate Professor and Director
of the ADHD Assessment, Consultation, and Treatment
(AACT) Program, Center for Psychological Studies, at
Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, FL.
Manuela Villa is a graduate student in the School
Psychology program at Nova Southeastern University.
© 2004 National Association of School Psychologists, 4340 East West Highway,
Suite 402, Bethesda, MD 20814—(301) 657-0270.