How to Respond to Bullying

This article was originally published on goodtherapy.org on October 4th, 2011

Bullying has been hitting headlines lately in strong force. Newspapers have been littered with horror stories of bullying, and states have attempted to address the issue through legislation. Historically, the impact of bullying has been minimized by the general public due to a general perception that being the recipient of such behavior is a rite of passage and that “everyone goes through it”. This may be factually correct, but whether this rite of passage is something we want to maintain is being challenged, and rightfully so.

Many of the teens and adults I see in my practice hold onto the trauma they experience as a result of bullying, and it can have a concrete impact on how they approach relationships, academic opportunities and the workplace. Bullying tends to have its greatest impact when it occurs during our formative years (early childhood through young adulthood) because it has the potential to shape our view of the world and the beliefs we have about ourselves. If severe enough, or if there are pre-existing issues (depression, anxiety, family issues) this mold has the potential to become permanent. Being bullied teaches us certain things about how we need to behave in order to survive. It can make us risk-averse when considering relationships because of what we’ve learned about the kind of damage people can inflict on us when we invest our trust in them. Being the bully or perpetrator can be the result of having been bullied, or learning that in order to survive one needs to be on the right side of the line. As a result, we begin to learn that aggression and manipulation are effective means to achieving an end. In either case, when extreme or perceived as extreme, bullying can have a crippling effect.

I tend to avoid the term “bullying” when a teen or adult comes to therapy for issues related to being harshly and consistently mistreated, and instead call it what it is: trauma. Trauma is defined as: Emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis. (Dictionary.com)

By framing bullying within this context we set the stage for clients to view themselves as survivors rather than victims, and bullies as perpetrators rather than deserving members of some unattainable echelon. In my opinion, this framework allows survivors to feel greater legitimacy in processing their thoughts, emotions and reactions to triggering events. On the other hand, it socially stigmatizes bullying behavior and adds a greater incentive for the perpetrator to change their behaviors. This perspective, I believe, also allows clinicians to tie appropriate interventions to the presenting problems.

I define bullying as a consistent pattern of the following behaviors (not all inclusive):

  • Social Exclusion
  • Slander (word of mouth, social media, etc.)
  • Direct verbal abuse
  • Other forms of psychological “warfare” (watch ‘Mean Girls’ to get an idea)
  • Unprovoked physical altercations, which includes consistent pushing or shoving. If the action is severe and/or cannot be reasonably considered unintentional, action should occur after the first instance.
  • Unprovoked sexual assault including inappropriate touching or fondling. Immediate action should occur after the first instance or if such acts are used as threats.

Victims can be targets because of a unique quality or set of qualities that sets them apart from their peers. Qualities or characteristics such as intelligence, attractiveness, a learning disability, and depression can set one up as a victim. This is not always the case, but in my experience it’s true more than not. Bullies do not typically fit the stereotype of the maladjusted brute. Many times, bullies are charismatic, demonstrate great empathy towards those in their “circle”, and have other desirable qualities that make peers gravitate towards them. These qualities, in turn, lend a form of acceptability to the behavior through either a fear that others have of not being accepted or of being targeted, or because of the belief that a “good kid” wouldn’t act this way towards another if it weren’t deserved.

So what actions can be taken if your teen is the victim?

  1. Speak to the parents of the perpetrator, and the perpetrator, directly in a way that provides the best opportunity for empathy. Inform the perpetrator of the impact that the behavior is having on your teen without labeling the perpetrator or using language that puts him/her or the family on the defensive; better yet, allow your teen to verbalize this. In some cases, bullies don’t realize that their behaviors are problematic for victims, or believe that how they are behaving is “all in good fun”.  Sometimes just being aware of the impact the behavior has on another person may initiate change.
  2. If this does not change the behavior, makes it worse, or if for some reason it is not practical to have a discussion with the family and perpetrator directly, a meeting with the school may be a good first step. I always ask parents and teens to provide their concerns in writing to the school during a face-to-face meeting. Describe the behaviors that are occurring, the impact they are having on your teen and the concrete changes you would like to see. Ask for the school’s plan of action in writing. If they are unwilling to provide this to you, document what was agreed upon and write a follow up letter summarizing your understanding of what the school agreed to do in response to the problem. Request a follow up meeting after the initial face-to-face so that the expectation that things must improve is clear.
  3. If the situation continues to worsen, or if at any point physical, sexual or other abusive behaviors that meet the standard for anti-harassment laws occur, consider legal action.  While there are an array of immediate consequences for physical assault in our homes and workplace, physical assault in schools has historically been chalked up to normal teenage behavior.  Sometimes this is true; however there is a clear difference between a typical schoolyard fight, and physically assaultive behaviors that occur consistently or within the context of other bullying behaviors.

Help and support the teen in becoming less of a target. There are certain behaviors, attitudes and mannerisms that make a teen an “easy mark” for bullies. Please be clear that I am in no way suggesting that victims of bullying are at fault; however it is important that we consider every factor in addressing the problem.

  1. Change Schools. This is a last resort. If your family has the means, the behavior is severe and there is nothing that can be done to change the behavior, it may be time to consider removing your teen from the environment. We encourage folks to remove themselves from living environments and work environments that are abusive and have a severe impact on their wellbeing, and are unwilling to change but are not technically breaking any laws. Teens should also have this option available to them if possible.

So what actions can be taken if your teen is the bully?

  1. The first step is to understand why your teen is behaving in this manner and the need he/she is trying to meet through the behavior. Discuss other strategies that can be used to meet the need, and offer empathy and support if it becomes clear that the behavior is stemming from a difficult set of circumstances (history of being bullied, depression, fear of being bullied, family issues, etc.). If outside help is needed to resolve the underlying issues, then offer support, whether it be informal (family, friends, church) or formal (therapy, in school support). Help them understand that the interventions are not punitive, and are meant to relieve the distress that is causing the behavior.
  2. Be clear on what makes the behavior unacceptable, the potential and/or actual impact the behavior may have on other people, and the social and legal consequences of the behavior.
  3. Be clear on what changes you are expecting with regard to the behavior, and work together to develop a plan that seeks to change the behavior.  Implement a mutually agreed upon set of consequences that will be immediate and substantial if the behavior(s) were to occur again.
  4. Work with the teen in taking ownership of past behavior by making amends with the victim(s).
  5. Work with school personnel in monitoring the behavior and implementing consequences.

It goes without saying that every individual situation is different, and what is being presented in this article may or may not make sense for your set of circumstances.  In any case, strong communication with your teen, advocating for him/her, and keeping the school involved are critical steps to resolving the issue.

©Copyright 2011

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