How to Respond to Bullying

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 by John Migueis, LCSW, therapist in Summit, New Jersey. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Heather

    Heather

    October 4th, 2011 at 4:02 PM

    Why does it seem like sometimes the best kids are the ones being bullied and pushed around? They lose so much of their innocence as a result and frankly that makes me very sad for them.

  • Amy

    Amy

    October 4th, 2011 at 11:42 PM

    I would like more information on doing individual psychotherapy with children identified as bullies. Can you direct me to some resources?

  • MF

    MF

    October 4th, 2011 at 11:46 PM

    I’ve always believed bullying happens because the bully unconsciously wants to get attention.And he does get attention when he bullies-from the victim and from his bully friends who cheer every move. So the best approach according to me would be to teach all students that if they see any act of bullying they should make the bully an outcast in addition to reporting the issue. This could land a powerful enough psychological punch to the bully.

  • leo

    leo

    October 5th, 2011 at 2:57 PM

    bullies usually bully because they enjoy doing it and because they want to look cool to their peers.but I just don’t get how you can enjoy someone else’s suffering.does that not make you a sadist?and if bullying is usually done by youngsters then isn’t sadist behavior something that develops early on?

  • John Migueis

    John Migueis

    October 5th, 2011 at 7:43 PM

    @Amy
    A quick google search will be much more prolific than I’m able to on this board. One point I feel I need to make is that chronic bullying is, in my experience, usually a symptom of an underlying problem. So if family issues appear to be the fuel to the fire then that’s what I would work on. The bullying can be (sort of) treated as a maladaptive coping skill. Again, I don’t believe all teens who bully need therapy.

  • Annonymous

    Annonymous

    October 26th, 2012 at 2:01 PM

    I think people bully because it makes them feel good. I don’t understand why hurting someone can make anyone feel good.

  • sp

    sp

    March 8th, 2016 at 6:05 AM

    According to several studies and books by those who work with abusers, many who perpetrate domestic and other violence ( physical, emotional, verbal, and financial abuse) exhibited bullying behaviors as minors and it is learned. It’s all about power and control. When one feels powerless they tend to seek power even if it is superficial and pathologically based.

  • Belle

    Belle

    May 9th, 2017 at 6:16 PM

    Abuse is a cycle. If you see someone abusing others, remember that they were a victim and are still a victim of their own abuser(s). Speaking personally as someone who’s had brutal levels of abuse in my life and has not ever gotten the help I need, been tough as hell in the face of it, done my best, not exaggerated etc. To this day I abhor people who cry wolf or exaggerate their abuse and suffering, when so many people out there suffer in silence and get nothing even if they ask nicely (usually male, versus female who get listened-to and helped a lot more, face it).
    Many people do not have a CLUE where abuse and bullying comes from. The same kind of people who might think that women are not as violent as men, or as abusive. Wrong! It just takes a different FORM. The same principle applies to violence and negative energies (the best metaphorical way to visualise the processes in society, the negative abusive interactions between people). Abuse is a cycle, and I think closely-related to evolutionary pressures, survival of the fittest. Then related also to modern capitalist pressures, plus a lack of moral compass, especially in a non-spiritual society post-religion (UK here, we’re pretty non-religious here these days and the negative side of that trend is showing badly, too).
    The idiocy I see, is people putting ‘abuse’ in some sort of box, pigeonholing it, thinking that it does not reflect wider society and is not FED by negative energy from wider society. It absolutely IS. I am autistic (high-functioning, but not diagnosed until my early 30s after which much damage was done due to abuse and not understanding why – we have a need to understand the world!) I attracted a hell of a lot of abuse, from across the socio-economic spectrum. In fact, the people who were most ‘nice’ were the remedial ones, or the troubled kids, the ones who weren’t pretentious (the working-class ones) etc.
    All the arseholes who abused me are still walking around, alive. I regret this, as they don’t deserve that privilege, frankly. Pitiless abuse. Tens and tens of them are out there.
    Yet, they will be seen as normal people, good people, even, and not abusers.
    This is because people, lots of different kinds of people, are abusive. Just how it is.
    Yet, we still can’t have an adult discussion about this as a society, because people wish to hide who they truly are, to pose, to show two faces, and haven’t the guts to live any other way. If that is so widespread as I portray, and true, then we cannot even start to solve the problems of abuse, since we haven’t even identified openly where they come from.
    Then you get into the realms of “well, if we could fix the abuse on kids, we’d have to fix the abuse on adults, and that means from bosses, and from bankers, politicians, abusive Military Industrial Complex and the powers-that-be in general.” Because abuse is a cycle, and none of us exist in isolation outside of it (unless we live on a desert island or similar).
    THEN you get serious opposition to your wish to eradicate abuse, because you realise that many rich people’s whole wealth and business-model is predicated on abusive behaviour on all levels.
    THEN you realise that what we pigeonhole as ‘abuse’ is really just a lie that certain TYPES of abuse are the problem, when it’s a system full of abuse and negative energies that is the problem. This is probably possible to empirically-prove, it just takes a hell of a lot of big data and studying to map-out how the (often-dishonest) abuse and negativity is distributed downwards from the top. But IF all I say is true, AND it is a function of the system to abuse people, top-downwards, then wouldn’t our accusers abroad who call our system and us “satanic” actually have a hell of a point, and be quite rational about our culture, lifestyles and economic system’s excesses? Just one example, because societies and human groups in general struggle to see themselves for who they are, and self-criticise. The in-group and the out-group is that concept. Look them up. Rooted deep in evolutionary theory.
    So of course, we can’t rightly admit the extent of abuse in our society, nor even for kids, because there are even POLITICAL reasons for lying about it.
    So these are the issues.

  • Belle

    Belle

    May 9th, 2017 at 6:25 PM

    The only rational response, is teach kids to self-defend. Make self-defence classes mandatory in school. Stop confusing the ability to physically self-defend, with aggression, when it’s not the same thing. (Stupid deluded Left-wing teachers in the UK may think this to this day). Give kids self-respect and self-confidence through self-defence. Up the bar for ALL, even disabled people, where at all possible. Include the spiritual and self-control element of certain martial arts as a core part of the curriculum. See the benefits almost instantly. They will NEVER do such a simple and easy change to the education system, because that would make, in one easy change, for a profoundly-stronger society. That would be way harder to manipulate through FEAR. The powers-that-be’s favoured form of abuse. Politicians love it. Politicians control the National Curriculum in the UK (for example). Centralised mind-control (potentially). Again, self-defence starts with the physical and is a MUST.

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