October is National Bullying Prevention Month. As a father and a clinical psychologist working with teens, I’ve seen the shape of bullying change over the years. With smartphones and social media informing the way kids interact with each other and understand their world, the old stereotypes around bullies and those they torment no longer fit the bill. So, as incidents of bullying continue to rise and shift shape, it’s important for clinicians to understand the how we can work effectively with bullied teens and their parents.
First, I find it useful to get very curious about the underlying issues that bullied kids are dealing with, and how it affects the ways they cope with being targeted. These days, bullied kids present in a wildly varying manner. Some externalize their rage and frustration, themselves becoming bullies. Others may suffer terribly, but remain in silence, internalizing their pain while they continue to achieve good grades and extra-curricular milestones. Still, others may turn to drugs, alcohol or self-harming behaviors, turning the pain they experience into physiological self-destruction. Whatever the case, effective therapy involves staying open, curious, and in a position of learning from the teen, as opposed to expecting them to only learn from me as the seasoned clinician.
Another important aspect of treating bullied kids has to do with the fact that a lot of them don’t want you to know what’s going on with them. They’ll do their best to appear “fine” and thwart any well-intentioned inquiries into the contrary. But this concealing of the truth can be understood as self-preservation. For many, being openly vulnerable is tantamount to getting their butts kicked by their peers.
So how do I make treatment work? I typically formulate interventions around validating my teen clients’ coping mechanisms, including whatever stance they may take toward me as the therapist. I try to unpack their “sucking it up and suffering in silence” in an exploratory way, by breaking down where that coping mechanism has been successful in the past. This is easier said than done, of course, since a bullied teen is often a distrustful one. That’s why it’s important for me to let them know that it’s okay not to trust me right out of the gate. How could they? They don’t know me yet.
I want to make sure I’m not perceived as yet another domineering force in this teen’s life, but I need to balance that with helping them realize that if totally shutting down is their only defense, then I can’t empower them to develop other strategies that may be more effective in certain situations. I try to help teen clients come to an awareness that since all coping mechanisms tend to break down over time, it’s good to have a variety of responses at the ready.
I often hear “everyone’s out to get me” in session, and it’s understandable how a targeted teen could take the incidences they experience to define their world—a world that no doubt seems dangerous and unsafe. For these clients, my work is to help them learn to differentiate and use discernment. In other words, when a client expresses an absolute thought, black or white thinking, or a negative core belief—be it “everyone’s out to get me” or my personal favorite, “people just suck,” I’ll collaborate with them on times when this wasn’t the case, or when there may have been exceptions to this experience. When a client can start to really unpack their day-to-day and decipher the nuances of every social setting they may find themselves in, they’re more empowered to cope with the challenges being thrown their way. In fact, replacing “sucking it up” with discernment as a primary coping mechanism is one of the most powerful, affirming life skills a teen can employ. Watching my clients gain this level of perspective is one of the most rewarding parts of my job.
Another common response I’ve seen with bullied kids is intellectualization. Because the pain of what they’re living through is so unbearable, often, bullied teens will cope by cutting themselves off from their feelings, choosing instead to overthink, over-analyze and engage in spiraling thoughts that don’t ultimately help them cope in any sustainable way. With those clients, I ask them to go out into the world and try practicing a more curious, almost scientific stance. “See who you can connect with,” I suggest, framing this type of social exploration as an experiment of sorts.
We can take this even further by using percentages to gauge what works and what doesn’t. For example, if a teen client claims to only be able to open up to peers 15 percent of the time, I ask that client to consider what 25 percent might look like. Clients who rely on intellectualizing often feel deeply sensitive and scared, so taking some of the emotionality out of the process helps. It also teaches them about the inherent value of curiosity in coping and about the gradual nature of social engagement. It helps to clarify for them that these efforts are not about figuring people out in order to fool them, it’s about better discerning who they can and can’t open up with.
What about working with parents? Most bullied teens need to find their voice, and teaching parents about flexibility and openness becomes vital to this process. Parents may not like it at first, but part of a teen’s healthy social development is practicing self-advocacy, which may feel a little like “attitude.”
The hope is that at home, like in the therapy room, teen clients can find a safe place to be their authentic selves, learn to interact with the world more productively, and ultimately, carry this skill set into adulthood, leading to a more satisfying and fulfilling life.
Jeff Nalin, PsyD, is a licensed clinical psychologist and the founder and chief clinical officer of Paradigm Treatment Centers. He trains students at Pepperdine University, UCSD, Pacific University, and Santa Monica College, and has appeared as an expert on shows such as CBS News, CNN, The Today Show, and MTV. He was instrumental developing the treatment component of Los Angeles County’s first Juvenile Drug Court, which now serves as a national model.