Most people understand the “old” concept of bullying — big guys picking on the little guys. It’s hard to find someone who has never been on one side or the other of such a situation, whether male or female or as an “observer” of bullying behavior. Many people shrug off bullying as part of the growing-up process. However, the effects of bullying often cause damage that lasts a lifetime. Consider the statistics: Around the globe, 15 percent of kids ages five to sixteen are bullied repeatedly. The damage inflicted on these kids leads to depression, anxiety, loneliness, and even more negative behavior. Another consequence: 85 percent of all bullying episodes have an audience, thereby engaging kids who likely do not want to be part of it in the first place.

Bullying is thought to typically occur in schools, sports and recreational and/or after school programs. The reality is that a great deal of bullying also goes on at both resident and day summer camps. All youth professionals and camp leaders must appreciate the seriousness of its impact. Research shows these are places kids go to feel safe and secure. As adults, especially when it comes to camp, we need to make sure that summer camps continue to be safe havens for kids.

This article discusses the various types of bullying, its prevalence in a child’s world, what makes some kids bullies and others victims, why it occurs, and what we can do, especially in this age of digital/virtual/online bullying, to see that kids are protected from themselves.

The Bullying Dynamic

The bullying phenomenon derives from the need and/or desire for social dominance (Pratto & Sidanius, 1999). Kids seek their place on the social ladder and no one wants to land on the rung on the bottom.

The juggling for social status becomes more intense as kids’ needs for social currency grows and they begin to separate emotionally from their parents and family. This is a natural evolution that starts early in life, escalates in middle school and continues into adulthood. The concept is that a natural ordering, based on social skills and behaviors, will always put some kids on top of the social ladder (“Top 15 Percent”), most in the middle (“Middle 70 Percent”), and some on the bottom of the social scene (“Bottom 15 Percent”).

For the Top 15 Percent, when faced with conflict (i.e., getting teased or “dissed,” or feeling excluded from their friends), they find a way to deal with it. They do not break down. They read cues from others and usually can find a way to diffuse a situation and let it go. The message they send to the bully is to back off, and when the aggressor feels threatened, he or she will ultimately back down.

For the Bottom 15 Percent, however, bullying issues are not so easily addressed. When it comes to social skills (making friends, interacting with others, resolving conflict), these kids may be at a loss. They have not developed the same social skills as the Top 15 Percent and do not know how to signal aggressors to leave them alone. In fact, they unknowingly may be doing things that encourage a bully to continue to pick on them. Their emotional reactions become enticing to the attention-seeking bully in his or her quest for dominance and peer acceptance.

For the kids in the Middle 70 Percent, they become unwitting bystanders. They see the bad behavior, but for many reasons, whether it is fear, intimidation, or insecurity about their own social status, they often don’t say anything..

Bullying will take place wherever and whenever there is lack of a respected adult presence. Kids test out aggression with each other all the time. In school, this can be the in the cafeteria, during recess, in the hallway, or in bathrooms, anywhere outside the classroom where supervision is lean. At camp, bullying can take place during free time, on the way to activities, when leaving the bunk, in the shower when kids are vulnerable, or at night when counselors may be outside the bunk.

Bullying at camp is more detrimental because kids come to camp to be safe from school life insecurities, have fun, make friends, and maybe reinvent or differentiate themselves from their school persona. They come to camp to improve their social status, learn how to feel good about themselves, and hopefully broaden their social networks. Camp, at its very core, has to be a place where physical and emotional safety is paramount, ensuring that children have opportunities to grow. Without this, camps are no different from other institutions. With help and intervention, kids can learn how to handle bullies and be less likely to be singled out for the aggressive behavior that makes them feel so terrible.

How is Bullying Defined?

Bullying is any intentional, hurtful act committed by one or more kids against another. It is about an exploitation of some vulnerability that creates an imbalance of power. Unlike fighting (between equals), it does not end when one party says “stop.” While most kids —  in fact, 85 percent — learn to read social cues that tell them they have crossed the line and stop the aggressive behavior, not all can self-regulate. For these kids the issue is power — power over all others.

It is important to note that rough play or fighting between equals is not bullying. Interactions where no one becomes upset and there is no intent to harm are also not bullying. There must be an intent component in the conflict — the intent to harm a person with a perceived lesser standing. A conflict where both parties resolve issues and come out smiling at the end is actually healthy and quite okay.

At camp, bullying behavior can be between campers, counselors, counselors bullying campers, and sometimes, campers bullying the counselors. Based on informal surveys of approximately fifty camp directors, bullying is one of the top three reasons campers may not return to camp the following season.

The Three Types of Bullying

There are three types of bullying of which all camp personnel should be aware — physical, verbal, and relational. All three kinds are harmful in their own way, and no bullying action should be accepted as “part of growing up,” or “being a kid.”

1. Physical bullying involves punching, hitting, shoving, hair pulling, excessive tickling, cutting in line, “rat-tailing” (whipping someone with a wet towel), defacing personal property, theft of belongings, and/or a variety of other mean-spirited pranks that harm someone’s personal belongings or personal safety. Physical bullying is easy to observe and is very often what people think of when they think of bullying. What’s changing in the physical bullying realm: Girls are getting more overtly physically aggressive with other girls through slapping, hitting, and defacing personal items of the intended target.

2. Verbal bullying consists of name-calling, mocking, teasing, intimidation, threatening to embarrass a child, and/or other verbal assaults. The emotional impact of being taunted and having derogatory and slanderous words repeatedly directed to one child from another in his or her peer group can often cause more damage to a child’s psyche than the impact of any kind of physical assault. Verbal bullying should be taken just as seriously as physical bullying.

3. Relational bullying, due to its indirect nature, is possibly the hardest to spot. This form of bullying can involve exclusion through leaving others out, gossiping, humiliation, threats of revealing personal information, blackmailing, manipulating friendships, the use of peer pressure, and/or other subtle abuses of relationships such as eye-rolling or stopping a conversation when the intended target walks in a room. The goal here is to marginalize another camper socially so they have less social capital, giving the bullying kids much more power and status.

There is good news: Physical bullying is less problematic as kids are realizing that their overt behavior will be noticed. The bad news: Bullying has become more covert, and it is creeping further and further under the radar. As discussed below, computers and technology have made bullying an easy game, creating many more challenging situations for school and camp personnel to monitor.

The Web and Bullying

Within the last few years, another type of bullying has emerged: Cyberbullying — bullying that occurs in a web-based medium, such as text, email, social media, and/or any other kind of electronic format. The internet is available 24/7 and kids have lots of access with little to no supervision, and as noted above, bullying takes place wherever and whenever there is lack of a respected adult presence. Through mass emails, social media sites, public websites, a message or threat can haunt a victim for weeks, months, or years, and the effect of this can be toxic.

Cyberbullying is more difficult for camps and parents to manage for several reasons. Many parents and camp administrators have no experience with this type of bullying; they can’t relate to it, nor are they adept at maneuvering the various technology platforms in which it exists. Kids grow up with technology and internalize its rhythms and language. Studies show that most adults significantly underestimate the amount of time kids spend online. A 2010 LG Text Ed Survey, conducted by TRU Research and sponsored by LG Mobile Phones, revealed that parents are not even clear about what children are doing when they are online.

Finally, the permanence of web-based information leaves those in charge with a very difficult burden — how does one make it “go away”? Content on the internet may live forever and often goes viral. In a recent New York Times Magazine article, “The Web Means the End of Forgetting,” July 25, 2010, Jeffrey Rosen notes, “. . . far from giving us a new sense of control over the face we present to the world, the Internet is shackling us to everything we have ever said, or that anyone has said about us . . . .”

How Prevalent is Bullying?

To begin to understand and combat bullying, it is important to appreciate its prevalence. Consider these stats:

  • There is one incident of bullying every seven minutes.
  • There is adult intervention in only 4 percent of incidents.
  • There is peer intervention in only 11 percent of incidents.
  • Statistics show that 23 percent of students in grades four through six had been bullied "several times" or more; 20 percent had bullied others (1998 study of 6,500 students in rural South Carolina).
  • Statistics show that 17 percent of students in grades six through ten reported having been bullied "sometimes" or more, with 8 percent being bullied once a week; 19 percent said they had been a bully to others "sometimes" or more (2001 study of 15,000 U.S. students).
  • Bullying is the most common form of violence in our society. Between 15 percent and 30 percent of students are bullies or victims.
  • A recent report from the American Medical Association on a study of over 15,000 sixth through tenth graders estimates that approximately 3.7 million youths engage in, and more than 3.2 million are victims of, moderate or serious bullying each year.
  • Over two-thirds of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.
  • In camp, as much as 60 percent of bullying may go unreported.
  • Almost all kids witness bullying, yet most are afraid to jump in and be an “upstander” for fear of losing their social capital.

Who Are the Players?

There are three main players in a bullying situation — the bully, the victim, and the third-person observer, or the bystander. Each has its own characteristics and all camp and school personnel, as a proactive measure, must make an effort to identify bullies and victims early in the season to help stay ahead of potentially injurious situations.

1. Bullies

It is not entirely clear what causes children to become bullies. While there is little evidence to suggest that a bully “gene” exists, there recently have been findings suggesting that kids who bully are genetically wired for this kind of behavior. The common trait among bullies is the want for power.

For instance, some kids who are popular and in leadership roles themselves can be bullies and take advantage of others, which can lead to aggressive behavior. Left unchecked, a “popular” kid can take advantage of the power of his or her popularity to become a bully figure, especially if they are given the acceptance of their peer group. Bullying for some of these kids is done because it is “fun.” Generally, these popular kids are not using their empathy. They see it as a game that attracts others, and gives them attention, social status, and peer group support. Ironically, they get away with the behavior because of their popularity.

In other cases, some kids become bullies by watching the adults in their lives and mimicking behavior that appears to be productive and successful. These bullying kids may come from homes where power is valued beyond consideration for the feelings of others, conflict is always settled through power, and they are taught that aggressive bullying tactics win. 

It is worth noting that a large percentage of kids (80–85 percent) engage in bullying behavior without even realizing it. For these kids, there is no intent to bully, so the unwanted behavior ends as soon as they realize that their behavior has crossed the line. Most kids “get it” and are empathetic enough to know when to stop.

2. Targets

It is hard to quantify those traits that make certain kids the targets of bullying. Research shows that11 percent of children are bullied repeatedly (Nansel et al., 2001) but what makes the teasing start initially? Physical attributes? Being different? Psychological attributes? High or low IQ? What we know is that targeted children show some initial vulnerability that makes them different from their peer group and easily marginalized in some way.

The reasons behind why a child becomes a target are often less critical than the response to the aggressive behavior. It is the response to the behavior that can make the difference between a lifetime of taunting or isolated, random incidents. Camp administrators can help by identifying targets quickly and helping them learn how to develop a plan to make them feel safe and not so vulnerable.

Note: Helping kids who are targeted learn how to handle themselves is crucial to ending the bullying cycle. Resources to help campers learn these skills can be found in Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good, by Joel D. Haber, Healthy Learning DVDs and Chris Thurber’s

3. Bystanders

There is one more player in the bullying scenario: the third person observer, or the bystander. All kids witness bullying at one time or another, and at one level or another. Most kids don’t want to watch friends being tormented. However, their involvement may put them personally at risk. Over time, kids who observe bullying that goes unreported become immune to the impact of the bad behavior. Without any kind of observed consequence, kids eventually become numb to the bullying effect, or have less faith that they or anyone else can do anything to stop it. The child’s ability to help manage bullying and become an “upstander,” one who intervenes, rather than a bystander, one who watches, needs to be addressed by camp administrators.

Examples of Camp Bullying Situations

1. Johnny (age ten) is one of the new campers in a bunk of a mixed group of returning/new campers. He is picked on and teased from the first day of camp by a group of three returning boys because he “talks funny.” He tells them to stop and they don’t listen. He tells his counselor when the boys are all together, and the kids pick on him more, later. He feels helpless.  

2. Two thirteen-year-old girls have been getting aggressive with some of the other girls in the cabin, and have begun to hit and slap them whenever they want. They walk up to a smaller girl, Danielle, and smack her and threaten her that it will get worse if she tells a staff person. Danielle starts to feel sick and headachy, which gets worse each day, and she wants to go home.

3. Mike (age twelve) is a bit awkward, overweight, and much more inclined towards nature activities and hiking rather than sports. At swim time, the other boys take his towel and hang it from a tree branch, just out of his reach. They make fun and taunt him as he tries to get it down. Mike has started to find excuses to skip swim time. When his parents arrived for visiting day, he pleaded for them to take him home.

4. A new girl, Sarah (age eight), feels badly when the six girls in her bunk walk out, lock arms, and push her away as she tries to join them. Sarah doesn’t know what to do, and the counselors just let it happen.

5. Danny, (age fifteen) is tormented in the shower by some boys who throw cold water on him as he showers and periodically steal his towel. He told his counselors but it’s not getting any better.

6. Jenna (age fourteen) brought her favorite stuffed animals to camp and someone stole them and tore them apart. No one admits to doing it, and Jenna feels really sad and alone.

7. Dawn (age fourteen) is a new camper in a group of returning girls. One popular girl in the bunk torments her over her clothes and her body and excludes her from her group of friends. She doesn’t know who to trust.

Bullying Awareness

No parent wants to hear in a letter, on the phone, or through an email these ominous words from their child:

I hate it here. No one likes me. The kids in my bunk tease me and laugh at me. I try to join in and no one wants me to sit with them. My counselors laugh with the other kids and are mean to me, too. I can’t stand it anymore. I feel so alone.

Bullying in summer camp is a real issue, considering that emotional and physical safety is paramount. Of equal concern is the fact that 60 percent of bullying may not be reported because kids don’t feel that adults can help or solve their problems (J. Haber, conference presentation, 2005). That is why it is incumbent upon camp directors to make sure all staff are aware that bullying goes on every day. To deny it is happening is a disservice not only to the campers, but also to the staff who will be helpless in trying to prevent it.

Staff should be instructed to seek out bullies and victims immediately. Staff training on bullying should be included as part of orientation for every summer camp. Being aware is the best defense for protecting vulnerable and potentially victimized children. Identify kids in the Bottom 15 Percent within the first two days of camp. Train staff to watch the bunks and observe campers without someone to walk with, the camper who is always late to leave the bunk, or the camper who doesn’t feel part of the bunk community. Without a social network, children risk exclusion, isolation, teasing, and physical bullying. Making a friend can reduce bullying by 50 percent or more for these children. It is the number one successful strategy for reducing bullying in camp (Coloroso, 2003).

The Twelve Goals toward Bullying Prevention at Summer Camp

What can we do to manage bullying in summer camp? Being aware of the “players” is key, but adults can’t be expected to intervene in every encounter kids face. Not only is it not practical, but if they do, kids will never learn to fend for themselves. What they can do is promote independence, a lifelong skill. Teach kids how to become more resilient and their confidence grows and on their own — they will learn to overcome adversity. Below are twelve goals that should be part of all counselor training manuals and used as a reference all summer long.

Goal 1: Make bullying prevention a priority from the first day of camp and let all campers know that bullying behavior is unacceptable.

All campers need to feel safe both emotionally and physically. Set bunk rules with explicit examples of acceptable and unacceptable behaviors in regard to bullying. Post these rules in the cabin and have counselors and campers review together and sign. Refer to this list whenever having discussions with campers who cross the line.

Goal 2: Focus on the Bottom 15 Percent and encourage positive roles for observers of bullying.

Find things that make these vulnerable campers feel successful. Finding a “friend” for a child who needs connectedness is the number one priority for reducing bullying. Be clear about camp goals of inclusive behavior, and reward individuals, groups, and/or bunks who bring others in or report problematic bullying to staff. Find the leaders in your bunks who you can count on for “upstander” behavior (Goal 6) to help kids who may not have the same skill set. Camp staff have social currency. Encourage counselors to spend time with those kids on the bottom — not as a show of favoritism, but as a way to give them status similar to everyone else.

Goal 3: Encourage reporting to adults when bullying occurs.

Teach kids to learn how to decipher between bullying situations they can handle and manage on their own, and those that are more serious and need adult assistance. We don’t want to encourage tattling behavior, but when children who don’t feel safe are repeatedly tormented, are feeling isolated, excluded, and have little social interaction, they need adults to intervene. The dividing line is safety. Kids who are repeatedly bullied feel unsafe in camp, and that is when we must encourage anyone in the camp community to share this information confidentially with adults. Develop an anti-bullying plan with these kids and encourage positive social interaction so they too can learn self-reliance and resilience. If campers feel safe to report, they have developed a connection with someone in camp they trust.

Goal 4: Role-play skills with them.

Kids will mimic adult behavior. Therefore, by lessening the emotional reaction to bullying events as the adult, children will start to emotionally regulate themselves. When children keep their “cool,” the teasing begins to end. Role-playing in this regard can be very effective for campers and staff. Use staff that are really good at deflecting teasing. Teach kids to lighten up by laughing at themselves and with others. This is a very powerful tool. Show kids that we can make fun of ourselves and be “real” because we are all flawed. Teach kids that imperfection is normal.

Goal 5: Create fair and reasonable discipline and consequences for bullies.

Discipline and consequences should match the crime and always have the intent of repairing the hurt or damage caused. Requiring bullies to make reparations for the damage caused teaches them that they need to find appropriate lines of social connectedness and find some empathy within themselves. One of the more successful strategies is to have bullying children make a call home to parents if they are involved in continued incidents of bullying against another camper. This is a great deterrent and provides campers with emotional reflection time when they have crossed the line repeatedly. Lastly, discipline and consequences should include an understanding that repeated hurtful behavior may lead to ejection from camp.

Goal 6: Create an “Upstander” Community

Our goal is to change the bystander mentality of standing around and watching bullying to “upstander” behavior, which gives kids specific tools to understand how to help campers who are victims of the bullying behavior, but which also leaves them safe from aggressive behavior being targeted at them. Teach the Middle 70 Percent of kids who might watch bullying go on around them to be “upstanders.” Utilizing their help is critical because they see bullying that flies under the radar. Encourage these kids to be leaders by talking to staff confidentially, supporting a target who had been bullied, and not joining in with a bully when they see that someone is being hurt.

Goal 7: The administrators and decision makers in camp take a stand.

The first step in bully prevention is creating a policy that makes clear to camp families, staff, and children there are parameters and expectations of their behavior, especially with regard to bullying. The policy must be clear and administrators must be consistent in upholding its dictates. The policy is only as good as the behavior that backs it up. Campers pay more attention to what they observe and staff and leadership team members must act accordingly to show consistency in their own behavior.

Goal 8: Teach empathy by role modeling empathy.

Providing campers with opportunities for pro-social caring and involvement with others helps to nurture whatever empathy they have within them. Lead by example and kids will challenge themselves to raise the bar on their own behavior. Being strong and clear with boundaries can be an effective form of empathetic role modeling. As a staff person, don’t join in with popular campers who may be excluding others. Don’t play favorites or be obvious in your liking for some campers over others. This will only foster a social laddering experience in each bunk, which increases the likelihood of bullying.

Goal 9: Parent partnerships can diffuse bullying ahead of time.

Have parents sign a contract with their children prior to camp to help clarify the camp’s philosophy on bullying behavior. Partner with parents on these issues during the off-season and help parents understand that if their children are involved in bullying problems in camp, there will be consequences. When you involve parents in the process up front, there is less opportunity for them to blame the camp for bullying behavior attributed to their child. You can encourage parents to let you know if their child has been involved in a bullying situation prior to camp and ask them how it was alleviated. Let parents know that children can turn to staff in confidence if need be and that help is available if the child can’t manage the situation alone.

Goal 10: Ensure staff behavior matches core camp values.

To prevent bullying, and to build respect and inclusiveness, staff must commit to matching actions with words. Many camps build programmatic activities for their campers around their core values. When staff values match the commitment to the camp program goals in actions and in words, campers learn to trust the consistency of language and behavior, both of which they need to feel secure. Staff orientation must include training on bullying behavior that addresses the types of bullying seen by counselors, what to do when they see it, and how to be vigilant with these issues during the summer. Staff must to address their own bullying behavior towards other staff during orientation and become aware how their role modeling may impact campers.

Goal 11: Take a look at your style and your staff to reduce bullying.

Camp directors’ style in managing conflict is critical to how others perceive the boundaries of working things out with others. Aggressiveness breeds more aggressiveness. Is a positive, nurturing environment consistent from the top down? This determines how much bullying will be tolerated and/or promoted at camp. If staff perceive that favoritism plays a major role at the top, staff morale will be detrimentally impaired over the course of the season.

Goal 12: Challenge kids to rise to new levels of behavior.

Camp can challenge children to rise above their comfort zones by creating programs to reduce negativity. Challenge campers to bond collectively as a powerful alternative to social behavior that creates the bullying dynamic. Incorporate training to promote excellent communication skill building and character development for all campers and staff to raise the bar for camp success. Challenge kids to develop a community with tolerance and acceptance and promote this behavior among all staff.


Bully prevention is a critical task of every summer camp — it ensures the safety of every camper and staff person. Camp is a unique place that allows kids to reinvent themselves away from the pressures of school, try out new activities, build confidence and develop skills. Mostly, it allows kids to build friendships that last a lifetime. We can’t allow bullying to interfere with children having the opportunity to enjoy camp to the fullest.


Coloroso, B. (2003). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander. New York: HarperCollins.

Nansel, T.R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R.S., Ruan, W.J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment.Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(16), 2094-2100.

Rosen, J. (2010 July 25). The web means the end of forgetting. New York Times Magazine.

Sidanius, J. & Pratto, F. (1999). Social dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.