“Standing Up or Joking Around”: Gendered Differences in Coping with Bullying

Journal of Bullying and Social Aggression

Volume 2, Number 2, 2017

“Standing Up or Joking Around”: Gendered Differences in Coping with Bullying

 Nicole L. Rosen, Ph.D.

Susan Hirt Hagen CORE Center

Penn State Behrend



Bullying is a widespread problem in schools across America. Previous studies have noted patterns in this behavior, focusing on traits that make some children more at risk of being bullied than others. One factor that may encourage future victimization is how the victim initially copes with their victimization. This study extends on previous works by examining how one’s gender influences how she or he copes with being bullied. To examine this, data from a national survey, the Youth Voice Project, was utilized. Aligning with the approach/avoidance model, children in this sample used avoidance techniques including distancing and externalizing, and approach techniques including seeking social support and problem solving. Humor was also a frequently reported response to bullying, used primarily by boys. Girls’ reliance on seeking social support and boys’ reliance on humor reflects gender socialization. Suggestions for future researchers and educators conclude the paper.

Keywords: bullying, coping, gender, gender socialization, victimization

Childhood bullying has received a lot of attention from various fields of study, including education (Fried & Fried, 1996; Graham & Juvonen, 2001), psychology (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Deggasega & Nixon, 2003), and criminology (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Nofziger, 2001). Research from these fields of study have informed anti-bullying campaigns and shed light on patterns of bullying behavior. Extending on this discourse, insight from sociology and gender socialization can further our understandings on how children, based on their gender, cope with being victimized.

While there has been a gradual decline in bullying over the years (see Finkelhor, 2013 and U.S. Department of Education, 2015), the behavior persists across schools in the U.S. In 2011, the Bureau of Justice Studies (2013) found that 28% of 12 to 18 year olds reported being bullied. In 2013, this percentage dropped to 22% (U.S. Department of Education, 2015). Several studies have examined this social phenomena aiming to understand, intervene, and prevent bullying behavior (for examples see Meyer, 2009; Sanders & Phye, 2004; Sullivan, 2011). Great concern has been focused on the short and long-term effects of bullying, as well as how children cope with being bullied.

Based on their research in Midwestern schools in America, Hoover, Oliver, and Hazler (1992) found that of their sample, 76% of children (ages 12-18) reported being bullied during their school years. However, when questioned of the severity of their experiences, only 14% of children (both girls and boys) reported experiencing a severe response (Hoover et al., 1992). This suggests that while incidences of bullying may occur frequently and are perceived by adults to be a major problem, the actual impact of such cases may not be very concerning for some children. Kochenderfer-Ladd and Skinner (2002) sought to discern why bullying is more cause for alarm for some children, compared to others. They argue that depending on a child’s coping resources, even a relatively benign incident may be perceived as a great concern if the child has poor coping techniques (Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002).

Children’s coping strategies may help pacify or exacerbate future incidences of victimization. While some studies have examined sex differences in how girls and boys respond to bullying, such studies have not thoroughly explored how gender plays a pivotal role in coping strategies. To help fill this gap within the literature, this study examines how gender socialization influences different coping strategies for girls and boys. Such insight may help investigate whether, depending on gender, certain strategies are more effective.

Review of Literature

To better understand how victims of bullying cope with their victimization, a brief overview of bullying behavior is provided below. Following the brief discussion on health consequences of bullying and sex and gender differences, is a summary on coping techniques often used by victims of bullying.

Overview of Bullying

Bullying is behavior that happens on a regular basis, is intended to hurt, scare, or threaten the target, and often involves an imbalance of power (Olweus, 1993). While there have been various adaptations to this definition (see Finkelhor et al., 2011), there is overwhelming agreement that school-placed bullying is a serious problem in the U.S. (Meyer, 2009; Sullivan, 2011). Previous studies have examined patterns and trends of those involved in bullying behavior, including characteristics of bullies and victims, the socio-behavioral and mental health consequences, and differences based on sex and gender. Theories on coping strategies offer additional insight into how victims respond to being bullied.

Socio-behavioral and mental health consequences of bullying. The immediate and long-term effects of being the victim or perpetrator of bullying warrant attention. When compared to their peers, children who are bullied are more likely to have lower self- esteem and self-confidence, poor health, exhibit anxious and depressive traits, be stigmatized by their peers, have suicide ideology, and have a difficult time learning in school (Bond et al., 2001; Espelage & Swearer, 2003; Sourander et al., 2007; Sullivan, 2011; Wheeler & Baron, 1994).

Meanwhile, children who bully are more likely to drop out of school (Townsend et al., 2008), experience depression (Espelage & Swearer, 2003), use drugs and alcohol (Nansel et al., 2001), and in extreme cases, resort to school shootings (Kimmel & Mahler, 2003). Given the prevalence of depression experienced by bully/victims, bullies, and victims, is it not surprising to note the growing rate of children who contemplate suicide (Hinduja & Patchin, 2010; Swearer et al., 2004). The immediate consequences of bullying, from either the perpetrator or victim standpoint, are clear.

Sex and gender differences in bullying behavior. To better understand bullying, researchers have focused on potential sex and gender differences in experiences. The terms ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are often conflated in many disciplines, however sociologists often draw attention to their distinctions. Sex refers to the biological differences between women and men (i.e. female and male), whereas gender is the social and cultural construction of what behaviors and norms are expected of someone based on their sex (i.e. femininity and masculinity) (Bem 1993; Lorber 1994). Gender distinctions are learned early on in the socialization process and reinforced throughout the life course.

General themes of previous studies on bullying behavior suggest that girls primarily partake in relational aggression (covert), whereas boys enact physical (overt) forms of bullying (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Espelage et al., 2004; Sullivan, 2011). This is problematic especially for girls, since their subtle forms of bullying often go undetected from adults and teachers, whereas boys’ often receive instant attention and intervention because their behavior is easily discernible (Simmons, 2002).

This may also explain why boys are perceived as being bullies and victims more than girls (Espelage, Mebane, & Swearer, 2004; Olweus, 1993). More recently however, studies have found that girls’ friendships are breeding grounds for relational aggression (Dellasega & Nixon, 2003; Simmons, 2002). Girls experience relational aggression from other girls, as well as sexual harassment from boys (Gruber & Fineran, 2008; Meyer, 2009). Boys, on the other hand, are primarily victimized by other boys (Olweus, 1993).

Coping Techniques

Many interventions and anti-bullying campaigns focus primarily or exclusively on bullies, arguing that to stop bullying behavior we must stop bullies themselves (see Sullivan, 2011 for a comprehensive review). However, the relationship between bullies and victims warrants more attention in regards to the continuation of peer mistreatment. For instance, often times bullies are victims themselves (Olweus, 1993). Furthermore, how victims respond to bullying may not only exacerbate the situation, but the behavior might instigate future attacks (Cowie & Berdondini, 2002; Olweus, 1993). Therefore, examining the short and long term effects of various coping techniques might offer compelling insight into how future incidences of bullying can be dissuaded. Refocusing our attention to examine how children respond to bullying is not an attempt to ‘blame the victim’. Instead, this focus requires us to consider how incidences of bullying are a result of multiple factors and players.

Coping can be defined as “…continually changing behavioral and cognitive efforts to manage external and/or internal demands that are appraised as exceeding the individual’s resources” (Fields & Prinz, 1997, p. 937; see also Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). An “individual’s resources” or coping skills vary not only for the individual, but are also influenced by age. Since, compared to adults, children are not socially and cognitively mature and lack power and experience with stressors, they may lack effective coping skills that would help pacify various stressors (Fields & Prinz, 1997). Scholars have noted the nuances of how youth in particular cope with stressors (for examples see Fields & Prinz, 1997; Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002; Mahady & Craig, 2000) and various theoretical models of coping strategies have been applied to children and adolescents (for complete descriptions see Fields & Prinz, 1997; see also Causey & Dubow, 1992).

Youth are confronted with an array of stressors, ranging from peer relations, family distress, and education demands. Within school, bullying is a common stressor for many children. When examining how youth cope with bullying, previous studies have often drawn insight from the approach/avoidance model. This model distinguishes adaptive techniques from maladaptive techniques, specifying approach techniques as having positive outcomes for the victim and avoidance techniques as having adverse effects (Fields & Prinz, 1997).

Approach strategies. Proactive responses to stressors, such as seeking social support and problem-solving, are considered approach strategies (Fields & Prinz, 1997; Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002; Roth & Cohen, 1986). Children who are involved in social activities, such as sports or art, are more likely to cope with bullying in adaptive ways (Yuksel-Sahin, 2015). Approach strategies, also referred to as problem-focused coping (Fields & Prinz, 1997), and may have short-term negative effects of increased anxiety, since the strategy requires the victim to confront their stressor. However, studies suggest that the short-term costs are outweighed by the long-term gains, since approach oriented responses are likely to ultimately dissuade the aggressor from future attacks (Fields & Prinz, 1997; Roth & Cohen, 1986). Overall, children who utilize problem-solving strategies are able to “assert themselves against the bully’s behaviour, convey that the bully’s actions are socially intolerable, and overcome the threat of bullying to defend themselves” (Wilton et al., 2000, p. 240). The anger and contempt that victims exude is replaced with shaming the bully to feel regret or remorse about their actions (Wilton et al., 2000).

Peer support in particular has been noted as an especially positive form of responding to stressors for three key reasons (see Cowie & Sharp, 1996; Cowie & Olafsson, 2000); Peer support often occurs immediately or soon after the incident, peers offer skills that help the victim resolve their stressor, and lastly, dialogue between the peer and victim fosters friendship and avoids blame (Cowie & Sharp, 1996; see also Cowie & Olafsson, 2000). The benefits of peer support have been embraced by various anti-bullying campaigns which “…recognize that pupils themselves have the potential to assume a helpful role in tackling bullying behaviour” (Cowie & Sharp, 1996, p. 80; see also Cowie & Olafsson, 2000). In addition to victims of bullying benefiting from peer support, the active bystanders also benefit by having a sense of usefulness and importance in helping their peers (Cowie & Olafsson, 2000).

Avoidance strategies. Whereas proactive victims are likely to use approach strategies, children who often use avoidance coping strategies are characterized by their anxious and withdrawn demeanor. When confronted with aggression, these children are incapable of confronting their bully and therefore, the victim’s “fear and anxiety mount, and they either withdraw or capitulate” (Wilton et al., 2000, p. 242). As a result, a “bully’s situational expectations of suffering and gain” are satisfied when a target uses passive coping techniques (Wilton et al., 2000, p. 242). Initially, avoiding their stressor may bring about a sense of hope and relief, however such benefits are short-lived (Roth & Cohen, 1986). In fact, overarching research suggests that continued use of avoidance techniques may increase the child’s emotional numbness, thereby minimizing the likelihood of later utilizing more adaptive coping techniques (Roth & Cohen, 1986). Not only are passive coping strategies likely to bring on future attacks, but the long-term effects to the victims include greater risk for depression and low self-esteem (see Wilton et al., 2000).

Also referred to as emotional reactions, avoidance strategies may be cognitive (attempts to refute the threat of conflict), emotional (the child emotionally distances themselves from the stressor), or behavioral (the child ignores or avoids the stressor) (Field & Prinz, 1997; Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002; Roth & Cohen, 1986). Emotional strategies include youth who attack, yell, or shout at their stressor and at first glance may appear as an approach strategy, since they are facing their stressor head-on (Wilton, Craig, & Pepler, 2000). However, such techniques are considered avoidance and maladaptive strategies since the youth lack the ability to control their emotions when confronted with stressors (Wilton et al., 2000).

Counter aggressive responses include externalizing approaches (see Causey & Dubow, 1992) and emotional reacting strategies (see Wilton et al., 2000) and are overwhelming maladaptive coping techniques. Youth who respond to bullies with contempt or anger may in fact be giving their bullies exactly what they want and thereby, increasing the likelihood of future attacks (Wilton, et all, 2000).  For instance, Wilton and colleagues (2000) found that children often ‘lost the fight’ when they responded to their aggressor with counter attacks. However, children who used a problem-solving approach to their aggressor were 13 more times likely to resolve the situation and de-escalate the tension (Wilton et al., 2000).

It is important to note that there are benefits and costs to approach and avoidance strategies; neither response to victimization is an absolute “best” practice. Instead, Roth and Cohen (1986) suggest that the benefits and costs of each strategy be weighed, noting that the effectiveness of each strategy in deterring future attacks may be dependent on the specific type of aggression. Also, Salmivallie and colleagues (1996) found that these categories were not “pure” and instead, some victims used two or all three coping techniques when responding to being bullied. The current study does not attempt to discern if approach or avoidance strategies work best for children. Instead, the main aim of this study is to examine how gender influences girls and boys likelihood to utilize different coping techniques.

Sex and gender coping differences. In regards to sex, various studies have found that girls and boys use different coping strategies (Kort-Bulter, 2009). Generally, girls rely on relational and approach techniques, whereas boys often use aggression and distancing techniques (Yuksel-Sahin, 2015). Other studies note that girls rely primarily on avoidance techniques and internalizing their stress and boys use approach techniques in which they confront their stressor (see Kort-Bulter, 2009). Though various studies suggest different coping techniques are used primarily by girls or boys, one commonality persists; coping strategies are likely influenced by gender socialization. Girls are socialized to be expressive and value relationships (Gilligan, 1982; Lorber, 1994), therefore they may resort to communicating their hardships by seeking social support (an approach strategy). Boys, on the other hand, have been socialized to control their emotions and embody masculine traits, such as physical strength and independence (Lorber, 1994). It is therefore not surprising that boys may utilize aggression as a means of coping with bullying.

The same coping techniques may have different outcomes for girls and boys. For instance, Salmivalli and colleagues (1996) in Finland found that boy victims who displayed counter-aggression were more likely to encourage future incidences of bullying, whereas girls faced the same misfortune if they displayed helplessness and counter-aggression (see also Cowie & Berdondini, 2002). Meanwhile, girls and boys were almost equally likely to encourage future incidences of bullying if they responded nonchalantly to initial attacks (Salmivalli et al., 1996).

Adaptations of the approach/avoidance model have been utilized to determine how children and adolescents respond to academic, medical, social, and interpersonal stressors (for complete findings see Fields & Prinz, 1997), however few studies have focused exclusively on how gender influences how girls and boys respond to bullying. Since there is evidence to suggest that a child’s coping techniques may exacerbate or dissuade future incidences of bullying, examining what strategies children use may offer insight for parents and educators who routinely interact with children. Furthermore, given that girls and boys often rely on different strategies, one must consider that gendered differences not only influence how children experience bullying, but also how they respond to bullying. The research questions for this study are: 1.) Do girls and boys use different coping strategies? and 2.) If differences exist, how are these coping strategies influenced by gender? Examining what children felt helped the most when they were victimized will shed light on what strategies girls and boys use, as well as the outcomes of these strategies.

Research Methodology

To answer these research questions, I utilized data from the Youth Voice Project, which is a national survey aimed to examine how grade school children experience bullying (Davis & Nixon, 2014). Thirty-one schools in 12 states participated in the study (N=13,177). Students in elementary school (5th grade, 10%), middle school (grades 6th – 8th, 57%), and high school (grades 9th -12th, 33%) made up the sample. Schools were recruited through word-of-mouth and flyers. Participating schools were granted access to the on-line survey, via SurveyMonkey. The on-line survey consisted of 33 closed-ended questions and 12 open-ended questions. Teachers were present while students took the survey, in case any technological problems surfaced (for a complete description of the survey, see Davis & Nixon, 2014).

Sampling Criteria and Characteristics

Examining the full dataset was beyond the scope for this study. Therefore, I limited my sample to include respondents who fit my sampling criteria. Middle school students often report the highest rates of peer victimization (Hoover, Oliver, and Hazler 1992; Kochenderfer-Ladd and Skinner 2002), therefore their accounts were the focus of this study. Participants who satisfied the definition of bullying (see Olweus, 1993) were included in this sample. To determine this, respondents that answered “every day,” “once a week,” or “two or three times a week” to at least one of the two following questions were included in this study:

Q29. In the past month, how often have students at your school hurt you emotionally or excluded you?

Q30. In the past month, how often have students at your school threatened to hurt you or hurt you physically?

Additionally, my sample was composed of respondents who offered a written response to the open-ended questions that related to coping techniques. The preceding close-ended question asked respondents to mark on a Likert scale how they responded to being bullied (see Appendix A):

Q55: Did you do any of these things about what was done to you? What helped? Please click one option for each action.

Directly following this question were two open-ended questions:

Q56: Overall, what did you do that helped the most?

Q57: What happened when you did that?

Respondents who offered a response for both questions were included in this sample. This enabled me to examine not only what respondents thought was most helpful, but also the perceived result of their actions. My sample consisted of respondents who answered both questions pertaining to what coping technique helped the most (Q56 & Q57), respondents who were in middle school, and those who fit the definition of bullying. Once this criterion was satisfied, the sample consisted of 649 girls and 583 boys.

Of the sample, most respondents were 12 years old (girls=36.7% and boys=35.5%). Approximately 31% of girls and boys were in either 6th or 8th grade, and roughly 36% of girls and boys were in 7th grade. Racially, the sample was almost split evenly by whites and nonwhites. The sample is composed of approximately 43% of nonwhite girls, 56% white girls, and 50% nonwhite boys and 50% white boys (see Table 1).

Analytic Strategy

To analyze the data, I conducted a qualitative content analysis. This was the best research approach in light of my research questions, because it enabled me to examine patterns that emerged from the data and go beyond calculating the counts of pre-specified codes in order to look for latent meaning within the text of the student comments (see Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Krippendorff, 2013; Morgan, 1993). Qualitative content analysis entails a close and thorough reading of the texts, identifying themes or patterns and coding them, then interpreting and translating their meanings. The textual data of the open-ended question I used was verbatim text, however the text was not always particularly rich (responses ranged from a few words to a few sentences). Therefore, in searching for themes, I looked for repetition, similarities, and differences between respondents’ comments (see Ryan & Bernard, 2003). Answering my research questions required me to compare the frequencies of key words (codes) and interpret the meanings of these frequencies.

Based on the literature, I first identified and counted themes. From this, a total of four coping strategies were identified, which mirrored existing child coping items pertaining to the avoidance/approach model. Key words for each coping strategy were completed (see Table 2) as well as the percentage breakdown for each theme (see Table 3). Next, I read through the data and categorized all responses within the coping strategies identified. Lastly, I interpreted the underlying meaning of these counts (Graneheim & Lundman, 2004; Krippendorff, 2013; Morgan 1993). This enabled me to identify commonalities of how girls and boys coped with being mistreated, as well as subjectively interpreting these themes to identify how gender shaped one’s response to being mistreated.


After analysis, five different coping strategies emerged from the data, four of which fit within the approach/avoidance model (see Figure 1). Avoidance techniques included distancing (i.e. “walking away” or “ignoring” the situation) and externalizing (i.e. children who “stood up” or “fought back”). Approach techniques included seeking social support or problem solving. Lastly, humor was a coping technique used by respondents.

Since there is not widespread agreement within the literature as to whether humor is an avoidance or approach technique, “humor” as a coping strategy stands alone in this analysis. Key words for each coping strategy were counted with the exception of problem solving[1] (see Table 2), followed by an analysis of the underlying meaning of these initial counts. Some responses described more than one coping strategy; such accounts were counted separately for each strategy.

Avoidance Techniques

Distancing and externalizing were two avoidance techniques that arose from the data. While some studies suggest that girls utilize distancing strategies more than boys (see Kort-Bulter, 2009), in this study boys (15%) reported slightly higher rates than girls (12%). Respondents who directed their emotions to their aggressor were considered to be using an externalizing strategy. Boys (2%) reported a slightly higher rate of externalizing strategies compared to girls (1.5%), which aligns with the literature (Kort-Bulter, 2009; Yuksel-Sahin, 2015).

Distancing. Respondents who used distancing strategies reported that they “walked away” or “ignored” their aggressor. These responses were passive and suggest cognitive distancing, because respondents attempted to ignore their situation (see Causey & Dubow, 1992; Kochenderfer-Ladd & Skinner, 2002). For instance, a white girl in 8th grade described how she responded to her situation of being bullied by a peer; “over time I just decided not to care and act as if nothing didn’t wich [sic] helped because she [the bully] didn’t get any of my energy and she just eventually stoped doing it afer 6 months” but that as a result, “…she just kept on trying to bother me.” It is evident that this girl’s experience fits Olweus’ (1994) definition of bullying, since she was repeatedly targeted over time. However, ignoring her aggressor did not have the desired effect since the aggressor kept attempting to “bother” the girl. An African American girl in 7th grade reports a similar outcome, when “I ignored them and walked away like nothing every happened.” As a result, “they [her bullies] got made because they weren’t getting any attention.” For both girls, ignoring their bullying only exacerbated the situation since the bully was not getting the response she/he intended. While these girls perceived their aggressors as not being satisfied with their passive responses, Wilton and colleagues (2002) assert that a bully’s expectations are satisfied when their targets use passive coping techniques. Therefore, such responses are likely to instigate future attacks.

Similarly, a Hispanic American girl in 7th grade explained that when she attempted to ignore her bully, “…it only helped a little bit” and she “…[kept] on getting called names by that boy.” Children who are routinely victimized by their peers may resort to passive coping techniques because they lack the social skills to confront their bully (see Ringrose & Renold, 2010). Therefore, what may appear as a cognizant choice to walk away or ignore an aggressive situation may in fact be the child’s only option if they do not have adaptive skills to confront their aggressor in a proactive way.

Respondents’ attempts to distance themselves from feeling victimized is further illustrated in narratives that report “pretending” or “acting” that they weren’t bothered by their aggressor. A Pacific Islander in 8th grade explained that her aggressor “stopped” when she “just walked away and acted like I didn’t care.” This resonates also with a white girl in 7th grade who “…pretended it didn’t bother me.” While it is unknown what the long-term effects of these response were for these girls, generally passive coping techniques reinforce bullies and contribute to the cycle of victimization (Olweus, 1994; Wilton et al., 2000). Overall, girls who reported ignoring, walking away, or pretending they weren’t bothered did not have positive outcomes; their aggressor kept targeting them.

Boys who utilized avoidance coping strategies reported mixed outcomes. A white boy in 8th grade explains that what helped the most when he was bullied was to, “Walk away, things could have gotten worse if i stayed” and as a result, “I told a friend and felt better.” By avoiding further confrontation by leaving the situation and relying on friends, this boy’s use of avoidance and social support had a desire effect. Indeed, had he confronted his bully with counter-aggression, the situation would have likely escalated (see Salmivalli et al., 1996). Another white boy in 8th grade explains that his aggressors “stopped” when he “Ignored them or tried to get back at them.” Here, the boy used two avoidance techniques, distancing and externalizing, which helped stop the unwanted behavior. However, it is unclear whether the avoidance or approach strategy was more influential in getting the aggressors to stop.

Other boys who used avoidance strategies did not have as positive outcomes. An African American boy in 7th grade wrote that when he, “tried not to worry about it,” “they were herasing [sic] me even more.” Similarly, an African American boy in 6th grade wrote that “it kept happening” when he “inorge [sic] him and walked away”. Aligning with the literature, the use of passive coping techniques exacerbated the situation and brought on future attacks. However, some boys who ignored their aggressor may have been embodying masculine norms of putting up a tough front. A Hispanic American boy in 7th grade conveys a desire to assert himself, despite his initial passive response to the situation. When asked what helped the most he wrote, “To ignore them and know that i am the better by not saying ant thing [sic].” As a result, “I just keep doing it keep track on what I am doing and not what they are doing.” Here the boy clearly states that he shifted his focus to himself, not his aggressors.

Externalizing. Children who confronted their stressors by verbally (“stood up”) or physically standing up to their attacker (“fight”) composed the theme counter-aggression. Aligning with the literature, slightly more boys (2%) responded with physical aggression compared to girls (1.5%). Counter-aggression is used when a victim of bullying copes by directing their frustration to someone else, speaking up to the aggressor or calling them names, or physically attacks the bully (Salmivalli et al., 1996). Initially, externalizing strategies require the victim to confront their bully, however these strategies are classified as an avoidance technique because such reactions are indicators of emotional insecurities.

Girls who used externalizing strategies are captured in the following accounts. A white girl in 8th grade responded that when she “fought back. Defended myself,” “they said they were sorry.” A multi-racial girl in 8th grade said that her bully “…eventually stopped” when she “argued back.” A white girl in 8th grade wrote, “I fought back using offensive words,” and as a result “They shut their mouth and walked away and now they are my friends.” While she admits participating in relational aggression, this girl was able to remedy the situation and then became friends with the girl. Though not a prominent response by girls, approach techniques that were aggressive suggest that girls are capable of asserting themselves with words when bullies confront them.

Both girls and boys used externalizing strategies. However, girls primarily used verbal forms (“stood up” or “yelled back”) and boys often used physical forms (“hit” or “fought back”) of externalizing strategies. As explained by a white boy in 6th grade, the thing that helped the most was, “When I fought back and kicked his butt,” which resulted in, “He fell, left me alone and had a couple bruises the next day.” Responding with aggression had a desired effect, in that the bully left him alone. Though this also suggests that this boy was a victim and a bully. Noting the physical evidence of his attacks on, in addition to already “kick[ing] his butt,” this boy exhibits an outward display of masculinity.

Two 8th graders who identified as multi-racial responded with outward displays of aggression and noted how such behavior was an emotional release for them. These accounts solidify the notion that externalizing strategies are emotion focused and therefore a type of avoidance. One boy explained that “thengs [sic] got a little better” when he “hit them or faught [sic] them.” This boy then explains why he resorted to violence by clarifying “i held all the feelings in until it became puer [sic] anger.” The second boy stated that by fighting back, “It helped me to release a lot of anger. I hurt the other person.” Such accounts reflect stereotypical displays of masculinity since the boys admit to releasing their anger by using physical force and intending to hurt or intimidate their aggressor to warrant off future attacks. However, responding to stressors by externalizing their emotions is generally considered a maladaptive approach, since the behavior does not remedy the cause of the mistreatment and may actually increase the likelihood of future victimization (Olweus, 1994; Wilton et al., 2000).

In general, girls and boys reported similar rates of using distancing or externalizing as an avoidance coping strategy. A gender distinction is that more girls reported that they “stood up” or verbally confronted their aggressor, whereas boys reported using physical force more. This aligns with the literature, which outlines that girls are more likely to partake in relational aggression and boys partake in physical aggression (Olweus, 1993; Simmons, 2002). While such strategies may have helped some respondents, overall, ignoring or confronting their stressor was not especially helpful in helping students. Students who use avoidance techniques may lack social skills that allow them to adequately confront their stressor. Repeated use of avoidance strategies may also decrease the likelihood of the victim gaining pro-social skills, which would allow them to confront their stressor in adaptive ways. Therefore, students who use avoidance coping strategies are likely to be victimized again.

Approach Techniques

Respondents who reported seeking social support or attempting to solve their problem are considered to have used approach techniques. More girls (35.9%) reported that seeking social support helped them the most when they were bullied, compared to boys (18.4%). More girls (11.2%) also reported problem solving strategies as being most effective, in comparison to boys (7.5%). This conflicts with some previous studies, in which boys are reported to use approach techniques more than girls (Kort-Bulter, 2009; Yuksel-Sahin, 2015).

Seeking social support. Another approach oriented coping technique includes girls and boys seeking support from adults or their peers. Girls overwhelmingly relied on their friends and mothers. In the following account, this girl describes the insidious nature of her friendships, “I took advice from my friends, they told me to try to ignore them, and tell them to stop. They also said that they would tlak [sic] to the person about what was going on.” As a result, the girl explained, “The ignoring part of the situation didn’t really work, cause I cant [sic] ignore one of my good friends that is mad at me for no good reason. They talked to him/her and they told me what really didn’t. I was happy about the conclusion, but I still have one good friend, angry at me for no reason what so ever.” Such accounts are reflected in the literature (see Simmons 2002), which shed light on the frequency of relational aggression experienced by girls within their friendships. In other words, friendships for many girls are breeding grounds for relational aggression. As a result, it is especially difficult for many girls to escape or ignore their aggressor since the aggressor is enmeshed within their friendships.

Other girls noted the important role that their mother played. A white girl explained, “I told my mother and she said that I was beautiful the way I was, and then she said that if the mean girl was saying I was ugly, the mean girl was calling my whole family ugly, and that no one will like her if she keeps saying untrue things. My mom was right.” As a result, she further explained, “My mom has always been so supportive, and so when the incident didn’t I knew to tell my mom.” Likewise, another girl explained, “I told my parents abou tit [sic] and they told me it was just some kid that is trying to act cool.” Various studies have examined the role of family characteristics and bullying behavior and have found that peer aggression is related to low family cohesion in which relationships with both mother and father are weak (Bowers, Smith, & Binney, 1992; Flouri et al., 2003; Olweus, 1993). Specifically, mother’s involvement with their daughters is more prevalent than father’s involvement with their sons (Gold & Yanof, 1985; Flouri et al., 2003).

Some boys reflected on how their parents played a vital role in coping with being mistreated. A white boy in 6th grade wrote, “I spoke to my mom. She gave me confidence to let myself think this is just a phase. That things will pass and get better” and as a result, “I felt more confident and relied on what she said. Things did actually start to get better.” Talking with and getting support from his mom had a positive effect. Not only was this boy satisfied with his actions, the bullying stopped as a result of drawing support from his mom and building his confidence.

Peers also played an important role for boys. The most helpful thing a white boy in 7th grade did in response to being bullied was, “I just hung out with my friends that actually accepted me for who I am and not for how I act.(gay).” As a sexual minority, this boy is undeniably at greater risk of being bullied than this heterosexual peers (Sullivan, 2011). By aligning himself with peers that accept him and his sexual orientation, “It made me feel better knowing that my friends still liked me.” Having a support system that considered this boy a friend, despite the apparent stigma he faced, played an important role in how he coped with bullying.

A white boy in 6th grade explained that relying on his friends was the only response he found helpful. When mistreated, this boy explained that what helped the most was “telling a friend. It kind of released some stress,” and as a result, “I felt better. At least I was away from the people who made fun of me!” While surrounding himself with supportive friends had a positive outcome, it may have been the only foreseeable response for this boy. Friends appear to be the first social group that many children seek support from, which suggests that peers hold more power than adults might be aware of. Also noteworthy, was the tendency for girls (15.7%) to specify they sought support from their “friends” compared to boys (6%).

Problem solving. Children who use problem solving as an approach coping technique often report trying to understand what happened to them, try to ensure the situation wouldn’t occur again, or changing something so things would work out, composed the strategy of problem solving (see also Cause & Dubow, 1992). Within this study, participants were using problem solving as an approach technique if they explained that they tried to solve the problem by talking directly with their bully, changed their own attitude, outlook, or behavior regarding the situation, took up various activities to help pacify any frustration they felt, or considering the point of view of their aggressor. For instance, one girl explains, “I created a new way to deal with thinks, like a total didn’t [sic] identity, where I am not vunerable toanything [sic] anymore. My emotions are in my complete control.” As a result, “They [peers] began to repect me greatly.” This girl’s ability to control her attitude and emotions hints at a form of stoic resiliency, which an adaption coping strategy.

Another girl considers the motives of her attackers and reports, “I thought that if someone was picking on me that they really had problems and that I should not believe it at all.” With this attitude she explains, “I got better and felt more confident.” Such a response offers insight in understanding how other girls might take a moment of hostility and turn it into an opportunity to gain confidence. Also, by considering the assistant’s motives, victims of bullying might be more apt to use adaptive approach techniques, such as problem solving, that may dissuade future attacks (Wilton et al., 2000).

Not only did current friends play a crucial role in how some girls coped with being mistreated, but there were reports of wanting to talk to their attacker, in hopes of defending themselves, understanding why they were attacked, and/or possibly forming a friendship. One girl explained that as a response to being bullied, “I just apologized to that person.” As a result, “That person said that they were sorry too and we became friends.”

In addition to relying on friends, some girls reported using alternative means to cope with being bullied. At first glance, some of these accounts appear as avoidance strategies, since the girls did not directly confront their aggressor. However, by redirecting their attention to other activities and thoughts, these girls attempted to solve their problem, not avoid it. A white girl in 7th explains that what helped the most was when “I wrote about it and thought about how many friends were still there for me and realized that nothing had really changed. I had my friends and they were there for me. My friends and writing.” As a result of writing and being aware of her support system, she further explained, “I just focused on schoolwork, my friends, my writing, and my life. I let go of what happened.” By redirecting her attention to school and friends, this girl’s use of an approach technique was adaptive since her response did not encourage more attacks from her aggressor. Also, this coping technique not only helps elevate feeling like a victim, it fosters richer friendships and commitment to academic life. In fact, problem solving is “associated with the de-escalation and resolution of bullying” (Wilton et al., 2000, p.242).

Boys used two distinct problem solving strategies; they either considered the motives of the bully or they considered themselves “better than” the bully. For instance, in response to his experience of being bullied, a white 7th grader wrote, “tell people and remind myself that they are insecure bullies that pick and threaten kids to make them feel better about themselves. it has helped me a little more than usual,” and that “i remind myself that every time something happens to me.” By considering the motives of bullies, this boy’s opinion was one of sympathy (or possibly pity), not hatred towards his bullies. Keeping in mind that bullies’ actions are means to assert control, allowed this particular boy to realize that he was merely a pawn in the bullies’ attempts to feel powerful. Similarly, a white boy in 8th grade “felt better” when he responded to his bullies; “Reminded myself that they were jerks and it didn’t bother me anymore.” This is also reflective of cognitive coping strategies, since this student reframed their thinking about the situation.

A Native American boy in 6th grade reasoned that it was not his fault for being targeted; “knowing it’s not my fault and they could have a family problem and want to take it on someone else.” By reframing his perception of the situation, this boy explained that he “…felt better the next day.,” Other boys considered their own strengthens and ultimately considered themselves being better than their bully. A white boy in 8th grade “felt better” when he “Reminded myself that I will be more successful than them in the future.” Similar accounts suggest that boys who considered themselves “better” than the bully or considered the motives of the bully, were able to walk away from their incident without feeling hurt. In other words, these boys “shrugged off” the advances of bullies by framing the bullies’ behavior as lesser than their own. However the tone of such responses suggest boys’ attempts to embody masculine traits that call upon strengthen, control, and are void of outward displays of empathy. Problem solving techniques used by boys included redirecting their attention elsewhere. A white boy in 6th grade explained he felt relaxed when he responds to bullying by “swimming, play with my dog and cat.” Similarly, an Asian American boy in 6th grade reported “I felt calm” when “I read a book”. Redirecting their attention to other activities had positive effects for some boys.

While both girls and boys reported using approach coping techniques, girls reported seeking social support and problem solving more than boys. Girls in particular reported relying on their peers and mothers. Though boys relied on their friends, they did not overwhelmingly report seeking support from their fathers. Similarly, while both used problem solving skills, girls attempted to understand the motives of their bully, befriend them, or shift their attention to more healthy avenues. Boys however, used problem solving skills to reframe their thinking about their stressor and concluding they were “better” than their bully.


Humor was used by 2.3% of girls and 6.9% of boys, which was reflected in responses that reported “joking” about their situation. As explained by Klein and Kuiper (2006, p. 390), humor is “…one of the important social competencies that develops during middle childhood” (see also Martin et al., 2003; Huuki et al., 2010). Humor can be used to improve one’s relationships, heighten group moral, or alienate others (Martin et al., 2003).

Martin and colleagues (2003) have distinguished four types of humor, two of which are adaptive and two are maladaptive. In short, self-enhancing humor is used to better one’s self without being detrimental to others, whereas aggressive humor is harmful to one’s relationships with others (Martin et al., 2003). Humor that is self-accepting and enhances a person’s relationships with others is considered affiliative humor. Humor that is at the expense and damage to the self is self-defeating humor (Martin et al,. 2003). Given the array of uses humor can serve in promoting or harming the self and social relationships, this theme does not clearly align with approach or avoidance coping strategies. Furthermore, since the tone and intent of respondent’s use of “making a joke” was not adequately conveyed in the open ended responses, this further complicates the ability to discern if the use of humor was an adaptive or maladaptive technique used by children.

For instance, an African American girl in 7th grade explained that what helped the most when she was bullied, was “making a joke out of it.” As a result, “things started to stop a little but they still joked about it even more.” The benefits of making a joke about the situation were short-lived, and ultimately this coping technique only served to intensify the behavior. Generally, however, such strategies were successful for girls. A white girl in 8th grade explained that “they [her bullies] joked along and it does not bother me anymore” after she responded to the incident by “not let it bother me, just blow it off, made a joke.” Similarly, a white girl in 6th grade had a similar experience when she “Let it roll off my back and make a joke about it.” As a result, “I felt better.” Another girl explained “I talked to my friend’s and I also made jokes about it.” As a result of joking and relying on her peers, the girl wrote, “It helped me a lot because they figured out that I was not going to put up with it anymore!!” By utilizing humor and an approach strategy, this girl was able to cope with her situation.

Of the boys who “made a joke” about the situation, many reported that as a result, “I felt better,” “I felt a lot better about the situation,” “we [peers] all laughed,” or “things didn’t change.” A white boy in 8th grade specified, “If I was laughed at i would laugh along to ease the pain in me,” and as result, “they eased up a little bit on the bully[ing].” While laughing off the situation helped “ease” some of the discomfort or hurt, laughing along with peers may be a “safe” way for shy boys to respond to confrontational situations with aggressors which reflects self-defeating humor (see Martin et al., 2003).

Similarly, a white boy in 7th grade explained that although humor was initially used as a response to the bullying he experienced, it did not have the desired result; “I made a joke about it and then they started laughing… I laughed too and then we just joked around and hung out… But that lasted for only a few days.” As a result, “They became friends for only a few days. BUT, they stopped teasing me about one thing and teased me about other small things.”

While humor was used by both girls and boys, boys overwhelmingly reported that “making a joke” was the most helpful thing they did, when responding to being bullied. However, the tone, intent, and context of the situation is indiscernible. It is therefore unclear as to whether the humor used was self-defeating or self-affirming. Regardless, boys overwhelmingly reported that using humor was the most helpful thing for them. This warrants further investigation to discern the intent and overall outcome of using humor as a coping strategy for boys.


While both girls and boys used avoidance and approach coping strategies, as well as humor, my analysis reveals gendered differences in how middle school children cope with bullying. Respondents’ descriptions of what worked best and what happened as a result offer insight into the intent and outcome of various coping techniques used. While there were mixed reviews as to whether the use of approach or avoidance techniques or humor worked best for children, general commonalities surfaced. Overwhelming, more girls sought social support whereas more boys relied on humor to diffuse situations of bullying, while avoidance techniques did not generally help alleviate the situation for girls or boys.

Seeking social support is often recognized as an adaptive coping technique, however the gender differences in how girls and boys rely on sources of support have previously not been thoroughly investigated. This study found that girls used this approach coping strategy more than boys and they specifically sought out the support from peers and their mothers. Girls are socialized to identify with the caring and nurturing qualities of their mother, as well as strongly value relationships (Gilligan, 1982; Simmons, 2002). Friendships for girls are often very intimate in comparison to boys, since boys are socialized to separate from their mothers and embody masculine traits that reflect independence and emotional restraint (Gilligan, 1982; Lorber, 1994; Johnson 1997; Simmons 2002). However, girls who often rely on their friends for support may have dire consequences, since “the relationship itself is often the weapon with which girls’ battles are fought” (Simmons 2002, p. 31; see also Dellasega & Nixon, 2003). Girls value relationships and fear isolation and may therefore remain in abusive relationships since the alternative of being alone is perceived as far worse (Simmons, 2002). Given the influential role that mother’s play in girls’ social development, mothers may capitalize on this role to further instill confidence, compassion, and resilience within their daughters. Future research might consider how the role of motherhood differs for various racial and ethnic groups (see Collins, 1990).

Boys too relied on peers and adults for support, however more prominent was their use of humor to diffuse situations of peer aggression. Data for this study were limited to the written responses offered by respondents, therefore the tone, implications, and intent of using humor was not discernable. Generally, humor plays a pivotal role in boys’ socialization and is categorized as a resource that boys can use to boost their status (Huuki et al., 2010). Humor is therefore recognized as a strategy boys use to achieve and maintain culturally appropriate forms of masculinity (Huuki et al., 2010). However, boys who lack the social skills to cope with bullying in adaptive ways may rely on humor to convey a sense of status and control. Therefore, what may first appear as boys enacting masculine traits by using humor, may instead be reflective of boys negotiating multiple masculinities. Connell’s (1996, p. 210) term “layering” explains how “‘on the surface’ boys may appear to be displaying a seamless, coherent and consistent ‘masculinity’ when ‘underneath’ they are involved in an on-going struggle to negotiate classroom and playground hierarchies” (Renold, 2001, p. 381). Examining the nuances of how humor is used by boys warrants more attention for future researchers.


The current study offered fruitful findings by focusing exclusively on the gendered differences of open-ended responses from middle school students, however this study is not without some shortcomings. Data for this study were limited to the open-ended responses of respondents. Interpretation of these written responses is limited, since the back-story, tone and inflection of voice, and long-term consequences were not conveyed in the verbatim text. Also, data was reliant on how much students chose to convey on the open-ended responses. Students who did not have strong typing skills may have offered less information. Also, I was unable to probe respondents for more thorough answers, particularly concerning how they used humor and if girls and boys default to different coping techniques, depending on the type of bullying they experience (i.e. relational or physical aggression) and the sex of the bully. For instance, girls may respond differently to physical forms of aggression if they assailant is a boy or a girl. Similarly, boys may use different coping strategies if another boy hits them, or if a girl calls him names. Such nuances were indiscernible based on my data, however future studies should consider how the types of bullying and sex of victims and bullies influence the type of coping strategy used.

Findings from this study are exclusive to middle school girls and boys; therefore findings cannot be generalized to students in elementary and high school. While it was evident that girls rely greatly on their peers and mothers, future research might consider exploring perspectives from these social support systems. For instance, how do mothers respond when their daughters discuss their experiences of being bullied? What advice or guidance do mothers often give their daughters? Answers to such questions may offer more insight into the use of social support by girls.

While my sample was nearly split between nonwhites and whites, a more thorough analysis of racial differences and coping techniques could contribute to the body of literature. There is evidence to suggest that parenting styles differ based on socio-economic status, racial, and ethnic background (Collins, 1990; Lareau, 2003). It is therefore likely that in addition to gender socialization influencing one’s coping techniques, a child’s SES, race, and ethnicity may affect how children respond to various stressors. Lastly, a longitudinal study could enable researchers to examine the long-term effects of using various coping strategies. Initially, confronting the stressor may pacify the situation, although research suggests that in the long term, externalizing strategies may cause more harm than good. Therefore, respondents in this study who reported that when they “stood up” or “fought back” “helped” the situation, more research is needed to uncover the long-term effects of such coping strategies.


The extent and frequency of bullying is contingent not only on bullies who instigate and perpetuate the behavior, but also on how victims respond to being bullied. Children who use adaptive coping techniques, such as seeking social support and problem solving, may likely deter future incidences of bullying from occurring. However, maladaptive techniques, such as avoidance or externalizing emotions, may exacerbate the situation and contribute to a cycle of victimization. To dissuade bullying behavior and help victims cope with bullying in adaptive ways, children should be encouraged and taught how to use approach coping strategies. Such lessons, however, should be gender specific.

Girls’ reliance on their friends and mothers can be strengthened by ensuring that such support contributes to instilling pro-social characteristics, such as resiliency, problem solving, and connectedness (see DuBois, Portillo, Rhodes, Silverthorn, & Valentine, 2011). By cultivating such characteristics, girls will likely not only be able to cope with bullying in an adaptive way, but future incidences of stressors may similarly be pacified. Boys too could benefit from forming healthy relationships with peers and parents. However working towards such a goal would require a drastic shift in gender socialization since boys are not socialized to value friendship or rely on their parents to the same degree that girls are (see Johnson, 2005). A more reasonable approach to promoting boys’ use of adaptive coping techniques would be to encourage resiliency through avenues that are already familiar to them, given their gender socialization. For instance, boys who use self-affirming humor may likely dissuade future incidences of bullying and should therefore be taught how to avoid self-harming humor.

Given the benefits of approach coping techniques, boys would also benefit from learning how to re-conceptualize stressors in their lives, solve the problem on their own, or seek social support. However, such lessons should deter boys from reinforcing traditional masculine traits (i.e. independence, competition, and aggression). These traits may counteract the necessity of relying on peers and adults, having empathy, and being resilient (see DuBois et al., 2011). Educators and parents may likely cultivate pro-social behavior approach coping techniques for boys, by role modeling and mentoring (DuBois et al., 2011; Masten & Tellegen, 2012). Considering how educators and parents can instill qualities in girls and boys that foster approach coping strategies offers great hope in decreasing bullying as well as increasing children’s ability to embody pro-social characteristics that can extend across time and various situations.


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APPENDIX A: Question 55 from Youth Survey (Davis & Nixon, 2014)




Figure 1: Coping Strategies to Bullying Behavior









Table 1: Demographics of Sample





11 or younger


































6th Grade



7th Grade



8th Grade







Native American









Native Hawaiian



Pacific Islander















Prefer not to answer










Table 2: Word Counts of Key Words


Girls (n=649)

Boys (n=583)


“Overall, what did you do that helped the most?”


“What happened when you did that?”


“Overall, what did you do that helped the most?”


“What happened when you did that?”

Distancing Responses
“walk away” 10 0 18 1
“Ignore” 72 12 70 3
“stood up” 1 0 1 1
“fight” 9 5 11 3
Seeking Social Support
“parent” 25 7 20 2
“mom” 35 8 6 1
“dad” 8 1 4 1
“friend” 102 33 35 10
“teacher” 32 8 19 7
“adult” 21 6 23 0
Problem Solving[2] 73 44
“Joke” or “joking” 15 4 40 1


Table 3: Percentages of Coping Techniques Used


Girls (n=649)

Boys (n=583)

Avoidance Techniques








Approach Techniques

Seeking Social Support



Problem Solving








[1] Given the nature of responses which comprised this theme, individual key words could not be identified. Instead, the numbers presented reflect individual accounts, not key words.


[1] Given the nature of responses that comprised this theme, individual key words could not be identified. Instead, the numbers presented in the table reflect individual accounts, not key words.

[2] Given the nature of responses which comprised this theme, individual key words could not be identified. Instead, the numbers presented reflect individual accounts, not key words.

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