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The Truth About Bullying

How therapists can help harassed kids

Magazine Issue
September/October 2012
teen girl-Photo by RODNAE Productions/pexels

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.

What Works

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.

Photo by RODNAE Productions/Pexels

Stan Davis

Stan Davis is the coleader of the Youth Voice Research Project, which has collected information from tens of thousands of young people about effective bullying prevention strategies. He’s the author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies to Reduce Bullying.