Research Article: Preadolescent children’s perception of power imbalance in bullying: A thematic analysis

Date Published: March 8, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Helen J. Nelson, Sharyn K. Burns, Garth E. Kendall, Kimberly A. Schonert-Reichl, Stuart White.


Bullying in schools is associated with an extensive public health burden. Bullying is intentional and goal oriented aggressive behavior in which the perpetrator exploits an imbalance of power to repeatedly dominate the victim. To differentiate bullying from aggressive behavior, assessment must include a valid measure of power imbalance as perceived by the victim. And yet, to date, there remains no agreement as to how to most accurately measure power imbalance among preadolescent children. This qualitative study explored children’s (age 9 to 11) understanding of power imbalance through thematic analysis of focus group discussions. Subthemes that emerged as influencing power imbalance include: age of victim, peer valued characteristics, and group membership and position. Subthemes of empathy and peer valued characteristics emerged as protecting against the negative impact of power imbalance.

Partial Text

The public health burden associated with bullying in schools has resulted in extensive research efforts toward understanding why bullying occurs and how best to mitigate the deleterious effects of bullying on child health and well-being [1]. Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior that is repeated and in which the perpetrator, for his or her own benefit, exploits an imbalance of power to dominate the victim [2]. Bullying is strategic and goal oriented behavior that can result in physical or social harm to the victim [3]. The targeted child is likely to feel less hope of a successful resolution when the perpetrator is perceived as more powerful, this in turn increases harm to the victim [4]. In comparison to students who are victimized without power imbalance, those who report frequent victimization with perceived power imbalance are more likely to experience: hopelessness, helplessness, interference with school work, and a loss of perceived support [5]; higher threat and lower perceived control [6]; lower life satisfaction and poorer school connectedness [4], higher risk of anxiety, depression and low self-esteem [7]. For this reason the context of power imbalance is central to bullying research [8].

Focus group data were obtained and thematic analysis was undertaken to explore preadolescent children’s perception of power imbalance in bullying. Thematic coding built on existing knowledge, grouping data that had meaning based on the literature and on new ideas identified through focus groups [23]. Ethics approval was obtained from the Curtin University Human Research Ethics Committee (RDHS-38-15) and the Principal of the participating School.

Results present the major themes identified by thematic analysis of focus group discussions: 1) influencing power imbalance, defined as factors that are influential in increasing the power imbalance experienced by children who are bullied. 2) Protecting against the negative impact of power imbalance, defined as factors that buffer against bullying.

This research focused on identifying factors that influence power imbalance associated with bullying at preadolescence in the context of a middle class population in Perth, Western Australia. Age, peer valued characteristics, and group membership and position were identified as subthemes of factors that influence power imbalance. These are discussed beginning with age.

Bullying is complex and often hidden from those in authority, it is important to understand the social dynamics of the behavior from the perspective of children themselves, and within the cultural context, to assess causes, evaluate interventions, and implement policies [8]. This study used qualitative analysis to inform the context specific understanding of power imbalance in schools in which a strong stance is taken against physical bullying. Researchers have previously used individual items to measure power imbalance, and have found that items such as “smart” might not be an adequate measure of the power imbalance that is experienced by children who are bullied. In contrast, children in focus groups suggested that peer-valued characteristics including smart, appearance, and being good at sport either influence power imbalance or act as a buffer against bullying, protecting against power imbalance. This finding gives insight into one of the complexities associated with measuring power imbalance.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.