This study aimed to investigate caregivers’ conception, based on an understanding about the definition of the phenomenon, to an investigation about how to react to a bullying situation. Regarding the answers to the question “What do you mean by bullying?”, the similarity analysis of the textual corpus generated by the R interface (IRAMUTEQ) identified that the terms “aggression,” “physical,” and “child” are organizers of the caregivers’ concept of bullying, revealing the concept of aggressiveness as a nuclear theme related to the phenomenon. This general conception is, partially, similar to Olweus’(1997, 2013) definition of bullying, the precursor of research on the subject. In addition, the Descending Hierarchical Classification (DHC) analysis allowed to identify that although a significantly shared opinion about bullying is structured, people who were victims (class 2), presented more specific descriptors related to verbal and psychological aggression, such as <offend> and <word>. The presence of the descriptor <evil> could be related to an emotional response evoked by the victimization experience (Sampaio et al., 2015).
One of the results is that most of the participants consider that the frequency and intensity of the bullying did not change, but that the name did not exist before. This data may indicate an understanding of the caregivers that the manifestation of bullying is a historically present and silenced practice, alerting to the importance of conducting research and interventions that aim to manage the perpetuation of bullying in childhood, especially in the Brazilian context, where the theme gained relevance only in the first decade of the twenty-first century (Bandeira & Hutz, 2014). In addition, while recognizing that bullying practices are historically present, the issue’s major role is related to social changes regarding the guarantee and extension of rights to children, so that bullying is seen as a violation of the child’s health and integrity, turning into a violence to be fought, instead of a child’s play (Kolstrein & Jofré, 2013).
Regarding the frequency of bullying, a significant number of respondents mentioned that it is increasing, as opposed to the study by Rigby and Smith (2011), which identified that the frequency of bullying has actually decreased, especially due to the efforts of intervention and prevention programs. In the Brazilian context, the high prevalence of bullying (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE), 2015; Malta et al., 2010) is related to the severity and social impact the problem of violence causes in the Brazilian society (Malta et al., 2010). In addition, there is the precariousness of intervention and prevention strategies. This is due to the fact that many intervention programs to reduce aggressive behaviors generally do not meet the requirements of appropriate evaluation of effectiveness, often related to the use of exclusive self-report instruments and techniques, lack of consistency in the pre- and post-evaluation, and the absence of follow-up (Landim & Borsa, 2017).
Among the types of aggressions the participants mentioned, relational aggressions (humiliation, gossip, exclusion, etc.) were the most reported, followed by verbal and physical aggressions. This data is consistent with the literature, as verbal aggressions are more common than physical aggressions in bullying, especially as age advances and verbal language improves (Bandeira and Hutz, 2012, 2014; Dodge et al., 2006; Olweus, 1993; Terroso, Wendt, Oliveira, & Argimon, 2016). Nevertheless, although part of the participants’ acknowledge that relational aggressions are the most frequent, physical aggression is the main type in the collective imaginary concerning bullying and the target of caregivers’ major concern (Borsa et al., 2015; Sawyer et al., 2011). It is important to mention that who has contact with children involved in situations of bullying should be capable of observing the effects of this practice on child development (Shakoor et al., 2011).
Caregivers identified that physical appearance is the main feature that facilitates the child’s involvement as a victim of bullying, followed by shyness and unpopularity. This conception is in accordance with other studies that identify characteristics that favor victimization, including anxiety (Pabian & Vandebosch, 2016), low self-esteem (Tsaousis, 2016), loneliness, lack of close friends (Acquah, Topalli, Wilson, Junttila, & Niemi, 2016), and physical characteristics, such as appearing to be overweight or very skinny (Reulbach et al., 2013). Another factor found in the literature as a trigger of bullying is the presence of mistreatment and domestic violence (Bowes et al., 2009). The caregivers of the sample did not present these factors, not mentioning the influence of the family in the children’s experiences of victimization. This data can be justified by a possible method bias, as a self-report questionnaire was used in this research, whose responses may have been influenced by social desirability. Studies indicate that dissatisfaction with body image is a variable strongly associated with victimization in bullying situations and is associated, albeit to a lesser extent, with aggression (Levandoski & Luiz Cardoso, 2013; Rech, Halpern, Tedesco, & Santos, 2013). In Levandoski and Luiz Cardoso (2013)’s study, it was identified that both victims and aggressors would like to be physically “bigger,” for example, which may be related to the growing appreciation of a muscular type, especially during adolescence (Brixval, Rayce, Rasmussen, Holstein, & Due, 2012). The same study found, however, that the offenders are generally more satisfied with their own body image than the victims. Yet, overweight children are more vulnerable to bullying than their normal weight counterparts.
Aggressiveness, popularity, and socioeconomic condition were considered the characteristics that most facilitate the involvement of the child as an aggressor. This conception of the caregivers is also consonant to what the literature points out about the aggressors in bullying. Studies indicate that aggressors have a more positive attitude towards violence, including impulsiveness and satisfaction in being in control, often becoming aggressive adults (Olweus, 1997; Wolke & Lereya, 2015) and are generally considered “popular” by their peers, presenting sociocognitive skills that reinforce the position of aggressor, such as the ability to anticipate peer reactions, elect a vulnerable victim, and use aggression in their favor (Almeida & Lisboa, 2014; Terroso et al., 2016).
Participants listed that popularity in the group of friends, difficulty in relating to family members, and developing leadership in the group are the most frequent consequences of bullying for perpetrators. In other words, it is observed that caregivers perceive both positive and negative consequences for the aggressors, which is consistent with the literature (Bender and Losel, 2011; Fite et al., 2012; Wolke & Lereya, 2015). Among the gains, studies indicate that aggressors feel powerful and confident and with high self-esteem (Olweus, 1997, 2013). As a negative consequence, in line with the participants, family conflicts may be related to both the prediction and the consequences of aggressive behavior in childhood, the family being an essential variable in the children’s development, being the scenario for learning from the imitation of behaviors (Almeida, Silva, & Teodoro, 2014). It is also important to note that, despite the recognition that engaging in bullying results in gains for perpetrators, most participants consider bullying as very or extremely harmful to the perpetrator. Studies show negative short-term consequences for perpetrators, such as a subjective feeling of post-attack malaise and, in the long term, including increased involvement in lifelong violence (Bender and Losel, 2011; Wolke & Lereya, 2015).
Research participants observed negative consequences for the victims of bullying, especially psychological difficulties, relationship difficulties with colleagues and friends, and physical health problems. The literature broadly corroborates this data, pointing out social damages and impairments in the physical and mental health of victims of bullying (e.g., Brendgen & Poulin, 2018; Gini & Pozzoli, 2013; Hammig & Jozkowski, 2013; Wolke & Lereya, 2015). Almost all of the participants consider bullying as very or extremely harmful to victims, alerting them to a certain level of awareness about a phenomenon that was erroneously considered, for a long time, as a natural rite of passage in childhood (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). It is observed that the caregivers do not always refer to the fact that bullying is a public-health issue associated with negative physical and psychological effects, especially in the long term. Perpetrators and victims of bullying may present depressive symptoms (Fisher et al., 2012; Wolke & Lereya, 2015) and, in extreme cases, suicidal thoughts and behaviors (Wolke & Lereya, 2015). The caregivers in the sample did not evidence these outcomes, which may signal difficulty to understand the impact of bullying beyond childhood. It is important to mention that, without effective intervention, the consequences of bullying can gain intensity until adolescence and in the adult phase (Wolke & Lereya, 2015).
Another fact that stands out is how the child should react when he or she is a victim of bullying. Few participants in the study consider that the child should “retaliate against aggression,” which may signal their concern about perpetuating a cycle of violence or indicate little confidence in the child’s ability to handle the situation, as many caregivers consider that preferable reactions are those that trigger adults as mediators of conflict, such as telling parents, telling school teachers, and telling school principals or coordinators. At the same time, almost all caregivers consider it is important to prevent bullying and the responsibility for this prevention must be from parents, school, and teachers. This conception can be considered positive, as studies point to the importance of supporting the child to develop problem-solving strategies, as the power imbalance typical of bullying can hinder the child’s development of coping strategies (Craig et al., 2007; Sawyer et al., 2011).
In addition, education, family values, and communication between parents and children were considered to be the main contributors to bullying prevention. The study data indicate that communication, in general, with the child, school, or teachers, was seen as the main reaction parents need to adopt when their child is an aggressor or a victim of bullying. This conception of caregivers is in line with studies that suggest that the quality of the child’s relationships with adults and the characteristics of the family climate are associated with the perpetuation of bullying (Craig et al., 2007; Shetgiri, Lin, Avila, & Flores, 2012). Communication between caregivers and children, for example, can be considered a protective factor against aggressive behaviors, as well as other factors, including involvement with the child’s social circle and academic activities (Shetgiri et al., 2012).
Another relevant finding of the study refers to the caregivers’ conception that both boys and girls can become involved in situations of aggression and victimization. Studies indicate that there are differences in the type of aggression perpetuated by boys and girls, due to differences in socialization, cultural, biological, and environmental variables (Orpinas, McNicholas, & Nahapetyan, 2015; Stubbs-Richardson, Sinclair, Goldberg, Ellithorpe, & Amadi, 2017). Bullying is a problem for both sexes, although early studies on the subject have put greater emphasis on bullying by boys. Other studies indicate that boys are more assaulted by boys and girls are mainly attacked by girls; while boys use more physical aggression, girls use indirect forms of bullying, including gossip, exclusion, and use of nicknames (Archer, 2004, Crick et al., 1999; Donoghue & Raia-Hawrylak, 2016). Most of the participants consider that older children practice more bullying. This belief also corroborates studies on aggressive behavior in childhood and adolescence, which indicate that the incidence of physical attacks tends to decrease with age, giving rise to a higher incidence of verbal aggression or aggression that impairs the victims’ social relationship (Atherton Tackett, Ferrer, & Robins, 2017; Terroso et al., 2016). These aggressions are more prevalent and detrimental as age advances, given the growing importance of social approval and reputation (Atherton et al., 2017; Weyns et al., 2017).
The understanding that bullying entails negative consequences for victims and perpetrators may explain the large number of caregivers who consider it important to punish bullying. It is important to mention that most caregivers believe that there should be a law to punish bullying situations in Brazil, but they do not know of any anti-bullying laws in the country. Although anti-bullying programs have been implemented and constantly evaluated in the USA and in European countries for decades, public policies that prioritize bullying reduction and prevention are still incipient (Borsa et al., 2015).
Most caregivers reported that their son or daughter had been a victim of bullying at school. This data alerts to the fact that bullying is still a reality present in childhood and deserves attention, given the negative impact of the phenomenon in the lives of the stakeholders (Fisher et al., 2012; Takizawa et al., 2014; Wolke & Lereya, 2015). The data also indicate that children are reporting to their parents when they are bullied, in line with the perception of caregivers that the child would tell at home about bullying if they were being victims at school. The data is also consistent with the importance the caregivers demonstrate concerning children talking to adults and the value of a communication network that involves the school, the abuser, and the victim (Shetgiri et al., 2012).
It is important to discuss that 82.5%, the vast majority of caregivers, said their child had reported witnessing bullying in school and, in contrast, 83.9% of caregivers believe that their child had never practiced bullying at school. Considering the high prevalence of victims among children, but the low prevalence of aggressors in the parents’ perception, reflection is possible on the difficulty of identifying the child as an aggressor, which can be related to both communication difficulties and difficulties in identifying certain behaviors as bullying and differentiating these behaviors from other social interactions, such as jokes or teasing, for example (Sawyer et al., 2011).
From the caregivers’ responses about the children’s reaction when they witness bullying situations, the social dynamics of bullying is evident, characterized by an interaction among offenders, victims, and witnesses who reinforce aggression (Olweus, 1993). Most respondents indicate that the child sought help from others, especially teachers and school principals, and/or defended the victim. A smaller part of the responses indicated that the child watched the aggression passively, witnessed and reinforced the aggression by finding the situation funny, or even encouraged the aggressor. On the one hand, one can consider the social desirability that makes subjects respond in a way that reveals favorable traits or present socially accepted responses. On the other hand, the result arouses reflections about the role of teachers (and principals) in the management of bullying. A robust study conducted by Veenstra, Lindenberg, Huitsing, Sainio and Salmivalli (2014) concluded that the students’ perception of the effectiveness of the teacher to intervene in bullying relates to the frequency of bullying, making them a population that needs to be present in bullying intervention and prevention programs.