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Bullying Behavior

Play as an Interview Technique to Research Bullying Behavior

By Barbara R. Pedalino, PsyD

The Bully

So you’re back again

Showing your face

Striking out.

You’re very familiar

You disguised yourself well

Until you struck out.

With fangs and cruelty

You lash out with venom

You sting and you wound.

How sad for you

To be brimming with such evil

Always on alert to attack.

Your victims seem gentle

Your victims seem kind

Why then?  Why do you do what you do?

You show no remorse

Attempt to hide the truth

But I know what I know.

I will persevere

What will you do?

What happens when the truth is known?

You live in fear

For you have lived what you deliver

And you are exposed.

Revenge is not my style

You have safety in that

You live in your own state of torment.

Have you courage to change?

Will you risk to grow?

Or remain a victim of your own despair.


Barbara Pedalino (June 9, 2002)



I think about the energy I have consumed, even wasted, attending, responding, defending, crying, integrating and understanding acts of bullying.  I think about the torment I have experienced, the sick, curdling feeling in my stomach, and the terror upon awakening, knowing that I may soon face my attacker.  Each act of bullying feels demoralizing and draining as it chips away at my self-esteem and weakens my self-concept.  I try to make sense of it, yet how does one do that when these acts do not seem rational?  I spend time rebuilding, struggling as my anger brews about spending time in this way instead of moving forward.  I seek ways to heal my wounds as I grieve my losses.  I am relieved I still feel strong enough to do so.  I worry about those who are not as fortunate.  Finally, I feel ready to contemplate what has occurred.  Why do some people behave like bullies?  I wonder what motivates bullies to strike out in such hurtful ways.  I am curious about what they experience, think andbully-cartoon-2015-2 feel.  I sense the waste and misdirection of their energies.  I believe my life could be more peaceful and productive.  I believe their lives could be more peaceful and productive as well.

Whatever motivates some people to treat others inhumanely has been a gnawing curiosity to me since childhood observations and encounters.  I noticed some adults seemed kind and gentle while others seemed rageful and hostile.  I wondered why some children were upset when they got in trouble at school while others found it amusing, fun and worth the punishment to be mischievous.  I wondered why some children frolicked on the playground while others stood alone or were taunted.  I wondered why some children were bullies and others were bullied.  Some children seemed happy and well-adjusted while others appeared downcast and ill-at-ease.  What were the variables in people’s lives and characters that explained these differences?  I became increasingly interested in learning more about what may have happened to people who bully.  Did they feel meddled with, commanded, preached at, imposed upon?

  • If I keep from meddling with people, they take care of themselves.
  • If I keep from commanding people, they behave themselves.
  • If I keep from preaching at people, they improve themselves.
  • If I keep from imposing on people, they become themselves.

(Friedman 1972 in Rogers 1980, p. 42)

As a step toward learning about remediation and prevention of bullying behavior, I decided to begin with early origins by studying children who exhibited such conduct.  After reviewing literature on this topic, I embarked upon a phenomenological investigation designed to explore the essence of bullying behavior as revealed through the participants’ lived experience of their being-in-the-world.  Fifth grade boys who were perceived by their teachers to display bullying behavior were selected as the focus of this inquiry for a number of reasons, foremost the critical need for intervention during this developmental stage.  To narrow the scope of this investigation, the participants were boys primarily because of studies indicating that more boys than girls engage in bullying behaviors.  The study examined how these boys related with peers and how the boys’ frames of reference, thoughts, feelings, perceptions and behaviors influenced their actions.

Phenomenological research is a science of description rather than one of interpretation.  Whereas it offers a means for studying bullying behavior from the child’s perspective, it relies upon interviewing the participants in order to collect data.  As such, the participants are considered co-researchers.  Since phenomenology requires the first-person recounting of the participants’ life experiences, I recognized the importance of fostering a climate for freedom of expression with boys who displayed bullying behavior, and the need to swiftly establish a trusting relationship that conveyed empathy and understanding.  Accordingly, I incorporated play as a natural medium through which children could express themselves and, thereby, developed a projective activity designed to engage the co-researchers’ participation through creativity and enjoyment.  Various interview strategies were contemplated that would facilitate the boys’ self-disclosures.  I determined that an interview integrating play and storytelling would yield preferable qualitative responses to the more traditional approach of direct questioning.

The co-researchers were invited to picture in their mind a real or imagined situation of how a boy their age might behave as a bully toward another child at school.  Next, to create their scenes, they were provided puppets, Play-Doh, dinosaurs and crafts.  Each co-researcher was asked to enact a scene using one or any number of the available media.  Initially, he would become a movie director for the scene, and was in charge of props, scenery, action and dialogue.  Later, as an on-the-scene-reporter, he would interview all the characters in his dramatization, which facilitated insight of his thoughts, feelings, attitudes and values.

During the research interviews, the participants were actively involved in the phenomenological process, and rich dialogue ensued.  As primary researcher, I metaphorically provided the participants a focal point and canvas along with a palate of props and resources.  Each boy was his own artist.  He rendered form and features for his bullying portrait, adding color, qualities, dimension, and voice to his artistry.  He experimented with shapes, textures and splashes of color as he interplayed with the structures of the environment offered.  The co-researcher determined the noema and the noesis, the what and the how that represented his unique experience of bullying behavior.

Every co-researcher depicted his individual story of bullying from his own frame of reference, whether it was derived from real-life experience or fictionalization.  The findings revealed that boys who bully want to be heard and understood.  They need to trust before they can begin to listen, self-disclose, and internalize fresh ideas.  Desiring friendship, belonging, and feeling accepted are key ambitions for boys who bully; however, inappropriate or underdeveloped social skills preempt successful socialization primarily due to distancing that results from their offensive acts.  Although they recognize right from wrong, this does not preclude them from striking out.  Most bullies experience themselves essentially as bully-victims, who believe they are avenging the wrongs they have personally suffered.  Boys who bully paradoxically convey moral convictions, and in turn, have genuine aspirations not to bully.  They turn to parents and teachers for guidance, support, nurturance and protection, and at times, wish these adults would provide more (Pedalino, 2004).

Reflecting upon each interview, I am aware of having had an enlightened experience with each boy I interviewed.  The descriptors that come to mind are endearing and fun to be with.  How different this outlook is from the descriptors on the teachers’ referral forms and the co-researchers’ own portrayals of bullies!  In that short time, I was privy to a range of wonderful personal qualities that apparently others were not, or had not witnessed.  I firmly believe I would have missed these delightful attributes through traditional interviewing.  I had to remind myself that these were boys recognized as troublesome, displaying bullying behavior, and even deviant.  I credit the success of these interviews to the distinctively creative, projective research design that permitted the boys freedom to convey their own thoughts, feelings, attitudes, and values through the language of play, and my facilitative role that enabled me to truly listen, understand, accept and value whatever they presented.  Not only did this investigation offer significant information regarding bullying from the participant’s perspective, it also demonstrated the value of play as a viable human science research technique.


Pedalino, B. (2004). Notice me—I am unique: The socialization experience of fifth grade boys who display bullying behavior. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Center for Humanistic Studies Graduate School, Farmington Hills, MI.

Roger, C. (1980). A way of being. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.