1. Help youth acquire better coping skills and more inner resiliency. The single most helpful action adults can take, according to the kids in our survey, was listening to them and responding supportively. Teens wrote, for example, that helpful adults would "tell me that it was wrong what [the other person did]. That helped my self-esteem," or that adults "talked to me and listened to what I had to say--it boosted my confidence," or "helped me see that this didn't have to ruin my life."
2. Help mistreated children or adolescents create more hopeful and optimistic narratives about their lives. A useful exercise for these mistreated youngsters is asking them to write or tell a story of what was done to them from two points of view. In the first, they should write a narrative from the perspective of "victim thinking," as if their shortcomings or actions caused the mistreatment. So, for example, one middle-school student said peers called him names "because I speak clumsily." Then, they should write about the same events, only this time holding the people mistreating them fully responsible for the mistreatment. In this process, we help youth shift from asking "what's wrong with me that makes people call me names?" to "what is wrong with people who call others names?"
When one young man, imagining himself from the nonvictim perspective, was asked this question, he sat up straight in his seat with a smile and said: "They call me names because they're jerks!" Youth in our study often used the words "acting immature" to describe the motivation and character of those who mistreat them.
Openly acknowledging that the responsibility for mean behavior lies within the person engaging in it helps kids stop internalizing the mistreatment--an important step on the path to healing. Attributing the mistreatment to the bully's "immaturity," as many kids do--rather than, say, innate meanness--provides room for forgiveness.
3. Help mistreated kids build growth-minded thinking. Stanford University developmental psychologist Carol Dweck, author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has developed cognitive interventions that inoculate people from stress partly by shifting their self-conceptions and ways of thinking from fixed mindsets to growth mindsets. People with a fixed mindset see themselves and their attributes or inadequacies as more or less permanently in place--they're good at some things and bad at some things, outgoing or shy, likable or unlikable. When fixed-mindset thinkers succeed, they explain that success as a reflection of their more or less immutable gifts and talents. When they fail, they explain that failure as a reflection of unchangeable deficits and weaknesses.
People with a growth mindset explain their successes as the result of conscious, actively chosen behaviors and strategies: "I practiced." "I found other friends." "I reminded myself that they're the ones doing something wrong." When growth-mindset thinkers fail, they look for different strategies they can use to succeed. "I could try. . . ."
Using an approach based on this model, therapists can help bullied youth evaluate the success of strategies they now use for solving social problems in their lives, focusing particularly on past successes and effective coping methods. We can help the young person ask, for example, "How have I made friends and solved social problems in the past? How have I coped with stress in the past? What actions worked? What happened when I did those things? How can I apply those strategies now?"
4. Teach skills for self-calming. It's natural for a young person or even an adult to feel sad, afraid, or angry in the face of mistreatment. Unfortunately, this is a signal of success to bullies and abusers, which may tend to make them redouble their efforts. But how can we address this issue without the wrongheaded advice, "If you didn't cry (or yell, or look scared), they wouldn't call you names?" One approach is to teach kids self-calming strategies to relieve discomfort without the expectation that this will stop the mistreatment. When we ask anxious young people who've been mistreated if they'd like to learn a way not to cry in the face of abuse, they often say yes, even though we explain that this may not change the behavior of their tormenters. We can then teach them meditation, breathing, and muscle-relaxation techniques that help them regain control of their own emotions and lessen their own hurt.
5. Help mistreated adolescents expand support networks and "find their passion" by discovering and pursuing deeply engaging hobbies or interests. Since social isolation is one of the most painful experiences for young people, and often accompanies peer mistreatment, one of the most helpful strategies for reducing emotional trauma, counteracting loneliness, and creating a bulwark of social support is to help them find and enrich connections with peers and adults. Finding or rediscovering fulfilling personal interests and activities--particularly those involving other people--can be a magnificent antidote to feelings of low self-worth, while enhancing a youngster's social networks.
Encourage mistreated youth to find authentic service opportunities. They might volunteer in an animal shelter or food bank, or help tutor younger kids in subjects at which they're proficient. Help them keep track of the specific benefits that their actions produce for others in a journal. It's quite remarkable how much self-esteem youngsters can derive from reflecting on their own experienced power to do good.
There's no question that bullying hurts children and adolescents. Clearly, therapists should always assess the risk for self-harm to mistreated kids, including the risk for suicide, just as they'd do for any traumatized client. Nonetheless, sensationalistic media stories notwithstanding, it must be remembered that most bullied teens do not kill themselves. Even if the school culture seems immovable, therapists should remember that there are numerous ways mistreated children or adolescents can be helped, not only to get through these difficult times, but actually to grow stronger, more resilient, and more in touch with their own inner capacities. Bullying is never a good thing, but building inner strength via better, richer interpersonal relationships and deep commitments to worthwhile individual pursuits as defenses against it are in themselves very good things for any young person to learn on the road to growing up.
For more information, visit: http://www.youthvoiceproject.com.
Stan Davis is the coleader of the Youth Voice Research Project, which has collected information from thousands of young people about effective bullying-prevention strategies. He's the author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies to Reduce Bullies and Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at email@example.com, or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine.