What is Bullying?

“Bullying” is certainly a buzz-word in today’s culture.  It’s the headline of countless news stories, the concern of parents around the world, and the reason why 1 in 6 students skip school every day (for fear that they will be tormented).  What is bullying and what can be done to stop it?

The word “bullying” was first coined in 1560.  It’s a middle-Dutch word that meant “friend” or “loved one”.  Today the word has morphed to mean the exact opposite, often describing a person who is mean, heartless, and (some would even say) downright evil.  You may wonder how this abstract word changed so much over time.

In 1970, a Norwegian researcher, by the name of Dan Olweus, took the word “bullying” (which meant “anything good” at the time), and decided to verbally re-engineer it to describe the aggression that he had observed between students in schoolyards.  This bold move by Olweus, known as the “Father of the Modern-Day Anti-Bullying Movement”, was successful at re-defining the word “bullying” for generations to come.  His research laid the foundation for how we both define and describe the repeated aggression that often takes place between children to this day.

According to Olweus, there were three criteria that behavior had to meet in order to be considered “bullying”.  This is illustrated in the infographic below.

Academic Definition of "Bullying"
While this definition seems simple enough, it fails to identify specific behaviors.  The practical definition of bullying, also published in “State Laws & Policies to Address Bullying in Schools” by Limber and Small, explains that bullying can include behavior such as “words, actions, gestures, and social exclusion as well as subtle indirect attacks against a victim”.

Believe it or not, these definitions only account for two out of the three most-recognized definitions of bullying.  What remains is a legal definition, which changes from state to state and over the years.  It also expands the definition to include criminal behaviors such as physical assault, stealing, and vandalism/destruction of property.

In reviewing these various definitions, it should be noted that today “bullying” could mean anything from someone rolling their eyes at you from across the classroom, to being beaten to a bloody pulp at the bustop, near death.  Believe or not, today “bullying” is even being used to refer to sexual assault because one of it’s definitions includes “coercion”.  Confusing, isn’t it?  “Bullying” is certainly an abstract word to describe a myriad of behaviors ranging from subtle annoyances to violent acts of aggression.  No wonder it’s been nearly impossible to address and solve this problem!  Even though time has passed, it seems that advice on how to respond to this problem hasn’t changed much, until recently.

Common Advice for Targets of Bullying

In researching the status-quo approach to bullying, it seems that there is little that a victim of bullying can do to solve their social problems. Most anti-bullying programs teach students to report all incidents of bullying and hold adults accountable to thoroughly investigate and punish kids that display aggressive behavior.  These efforts make it the adult’s responsibility to solve the social problem for the child.

The modern-day anti-bullying movement, which caught fire after the Columbine massacre in 1999, has taken a legal approach to handling aggression among children.  The question is, “Has this been effective”?  The University of Texas Arlington found that it hasn’t.  A 2013 comprehensive research study showed youth are more likely to be bullied at schools with anti-bullying programs, than schools with no program at all.

What might happen if we looked at dominance behavior/social aggression (clearer names for what we call “bullying”) not through the eyes of an attorney, but rather through the eyes of a mental health professional?

Legal vs. Psychological Mindset to Bullying

If our goal is to raise emotionally strong children, then we must equip our kids with the social and emotional skills that empower them to face adversity, grow in resilience, and solve their own social problems.  Only then will they be prepared to navigate aggression in the real world.

Introducing the ‘”Peace Sign Approach” to social aggression…

The Peace Sign Approach to Bullying



The Peace Sign to Stop Bullying



Letter from Jeff

“Ignore it, walk away, tell an adult…”  For years, kids have heard the same message when it comes to ending bullying, yet the problem has gotten worse.  This year alone, 3.2 million young people will be victimized, making it the largest issue impacting youth in America today.  After all, 1 in 6 students (that’s 160,000) skip school every day for fear of being bullied.  Millions of dollars have been spent to eradicate social aggression, yet the problem grows worse. What might happen if we taught kids how to solve their own social problems?

As a mental health professional and former victim of social aggression and abuse, the response to this issue has always puzzled me.  In the mental health field, I was trained to help victims of trauma by equipping them with social and emotional skills that would help prevent or respond to adversity in the future.  It was clear to me that most anti-bullying programs weren’t helping victims directly, but rather they focused on trying to change the environment around the victim and eliminate social conflict entirely.  While these efforts were noble, often targets of aggression were left feeling weak and hopeless, waiting for another person, policy, or program to solve their problem for them.

The “Peace Sign Approach” faces social aggression head-on, and provides targets with practical skills that they can use immediately to stop mean behavior, and ultimately solve social conflicts.  Rather than relying on adults, policies, and programs to stop negative behaviors, the “Peace Sign Approach” allows the victim to solve their own social problem, all while building their resilience and confidence.

I’m proud to say that 90% of students who use the “Peace Sign Approach” for one week, report that the behavior has stopped or dramatically decreased.  This success-rate is unheard of in the anti-bullying industry, and is the reason why this approach has received two international awards for effectiveness in conflict resolution.  It’s my secret-sauce for empowering students and improving campus culture.

If you are interested in learning more about the “Peace Sign Approach”, and how it effectively stops bullying, I encourage you check out my free video training and try it for yourself.


Jeff Veley

Jeff Veley anti-bullying speaker

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