How therapists can help harassed kids
Q: In my therapy practice, I often see kids who are being picked on by their peers. How can I help?
A:The way school professionals, therapists, and families view bullying has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Years ago, the predominant adult reaction to a child's complaints about being mistreated by peers was often annoyance, indifference, or a combination of sympathy and helplessness. Bullying was an inevitable, normal part of growing up, it was thought, and kids were largely expected to "work it out" themselves. The youngster doing the complaining was often accused of being a tattletale, implicitly blamed for the problem--it must have been something he or she had done that had triggered the bullying--and told that crying, showing fear, or anger in response just "encouraged" the bullies.
Now we know better. Kids who are bullied are no more to blame for being bullied than are victims of domestic violence for their partners' abuse. We understand that bullying can lead to a host of long-term problems, including poor school performance, illness, diminished self-confidence, anxiety, and depression.
The best approach is to develop comprehensive, schoolwide policies for creating a safe, secure environment for kids, along with a culture of mutual respect, positive relationships, and inclusiveness for all kids. But without the means to transform an entire school, how can a therapist help protect individual youngsters from mistreatment? How can a therapist help these kids develop within themselves the emotional strength and resilience to withstand mistreatment when it does happen?
The following strategies are based on a wide range of studies, including the Youth Voice Project, the first large-scale research effort to gather students' perceptions about bullying, which I conducted with developmental psychologist Charisse Nixon of Penn State University, Erie. We surveyed more than 13,000 youth in grades 5 through 12, of whom nearly 3,000 reported being mistreated by peers twice or more in the previous month. We then asked the group of mistreated youth what had helped them the most, and what had made things worse.
Our survey indicated that appearance--looks and body shape--was the focus of most peer mistreatment; race, sexual orientation, religion, family income, and disability were also focuses. Mistreated young people were straightforward about what kinds of advice widely given by well-meaning adults generally made things worse for them. What, according to our young experts, shouldn't adults say?
- "Don't tattle and just work it out on your own." When adults abandon bullied kids to their fates this way, the strong are emboldened and prey on the weak even more.
- "Pretend it doesn't bother you" and/or "Just tell them to stop it" and/or "Tell the other person how the behavior made you feel."Since it's difficult to change the behavior of youth who want to hurt others, adults have frequently advised mistreated kids to change themselves. These youths are told not only to stop reinforcing the bullying by refraining from crying, showing anger, or becoming anxious (thus being expected to demonstrate far more self-control than many adults would in similar circumstances), but to confront the other youngsters effectively or convince them to be more considerate.
These approaches clearly don't work. Two-thirds of the nearly 3,000 persistently mistreated youth in our survey said they'd asked or told the mistreater to stop, and three-fourths had pretended that the behavior hadn't disturbed them. But fewer than one-fifth of students using these strategies told us things had gotten better. Why would they? If such direct, personal approaches worked, our society wouldn't have accumulated a body of civil and criminal law related to preventing and stopping harassment, whether sexual, workplace, cybernetic, or otherwise.
- "This wouldn't have happened to you if you'd acted differently." According to what kids reported on the Youth Voice Project surveys, this is the adult advice least likely to be helpful, most likely to cause more harm. The suggestion to "act differently" derives from a flawed assumption--that there's something about the mistreated youth that causes the mistreatment. Yet we've learned not to tell targets of domestic abuse that they wouldn't be abused if only they learned to cook better or quit disagreeing with their abuser or agreed to have sex more often. These types of advice--once widely used--would now be correctly seen as blaming the victim. We've learned that someone being abused needs to refuse to take responsibility for the abuser's behavior, and that when we blame the victim, even with good intentions, we interfere with that necessary work.