Bullying prevention has been in the national spotlight for almost a decade now as schools have attempted to increase awareness and respond to increase rates of teen suicide and depression.
Bullying Prevention:Understand Bullying and How to Help
Part 1. Too Close to Home
As a social worker, child therapist, and mother of two school-age children I have been paying close attention to bullying prevention initiatives.
My own anxiety for my children has increased as they have gotten older and entered Middle and High School. Is my daughter being excluded from her old social group? Is my son losing things because of puberty or are his items being taken by a bully and he’s not telling me?
But recently, only several weeks ago in fact, these minor worries faded into the background as full blow disbelief ensued when my small community outside of Orlando, Florida learned that one of our teenagers – a High School Sophomore – was brutally attacked in a park where he sat with a friend on a bustling Saturday night.
This was an affluent, highly trafficked area where adults and kids alike congregate, eat, shop and socialize.
He was not mugged, or robbed by strangers from a neighboring town across the tracks. No, he was singled out, sprayed in the face with a substance and then beaten unconscious by teens from his own school, my daughter’s school. Twenty-four hours later he was pronounced dead.
As this is currently an active investigation, many of the details are unknown. But one aspect of the tragedy leads me to believe this was a bi-product of bullying rather than a mutual tussle gone bad. This young boy was a foreign student, new to the country and new to the school. Although the names of the instigators have not been released, many believe they are well known for their previous acting out and bullying behaviors.
Understanding The Causes of Bullying
Most of us have natural tendencies toward associating ourselves with a particular group and then identifying another group to which we do not relate or belong.
These terms are known as “In Groups” and “Out-Groups” were popularized by Henri Taifel and colleagues as they worked on Social Identity Theory and its’ many ramifications.
We can see this “Us-vs-Them” mentality playing out in many aspects of our lives, not the least of which is bullying.
Although this tendency toward creating social categorization does not necessarily lead to violence or victimization, when that natural human phenomenon coexists with several other factors, bullying may be more likely to occur.
The campaign called StopBullying.gov notes that there are two types of kids who are more likely to bully others:
- Some are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others.
- Others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.
Children who have these factors are also more likely to bully others:
- Are aggressive or easily frustrated
- Have less parental involvement or having issues at home
- Think badly of others
- Have difficulty following rules
- View violence in a positive way
- Have friends who bully others
Responding to Bullying
Once teachers, students, and parents understand the above factors leading to bullying they can better develop programs to respond to both victims and perpetrators.
While appropriate consequences and swift response for perpetrators are necessary, it is not enough to simply suspend a child for picking on, harassing or physically harming a peer.
Instead, we must move past the punishment mentality and the bully needs to be seen for who he/she really is.
Investigating which of the above conditions exist may help to truly treat the problem instead of band-aiding it.
- Referrals for in-school counseling can give the bully a safe space to discuss family dynamics or gain the one-on-one attention needed.
- Family therapy with a strength based approach can help to mitigate continued problems by offering risk assessment, medication management to treat possible mental health issues or identifying mentors where needed.
- Teaching a child to regulate their emotions by giving them alternatives to violence means identifying and developing interests they might pursue while teaching anger management and stress reduction tools.
- Increasing their exposure to people who are different from them and offering reflective practice/supervision to assist them in increasing empathy toward others may decrease the us-vs-them tendencies.
With new “Up stander” initiatives victims of bullying are advised to recognize that the bully in their life may not think logically and that they should be diligent in the following protective factors:
- Talk to a trusted adult about fears and ongoing victimization.
- Avoid being alone where the bully may be able to hurt them.
- Engage in group activities with like-minded people where restorative friendships can be formed.
- Do not confront, antagonize or try to solve a problem with a bully yourself.
Most importantly, victims need to know they are not alone. Although group therapy has not been proven successful with perpetrators, for victims the power often lies in finding a group. Victims need to know that they are not the cause of the problem and that they have others that will stand up for them, look out for them and have their best interests at heart. These and other responses for victims can be found at and
Part 2. Prevention as a Long-Term Intervention
In the very personal case mentioned above, when the details come out many of us believe that the sad truth will lie in the fact early intervention and bullying prevention was lacking. But the more we learn from these mistakes the better served our young ones will be in the future.
Responding to bullying and preventing bullying from occurring are very different things. Sadly, when you dig deeper into the above-cited causes of bullying you realize that bullying prevention is complex and far reaching.
In a society where “the village” raising our kids is getting more hesitant to reach out or intervene – early intervention becomes key.
Just as you cannot cram for the SAT and get a high score, it is also true teen-focused bullying prevention strategies may not have the immediate results we are looking for.
In short, we need to be using early childhood intervention now to reap the benefits by the time today’s toddlers reach their teenage years.
Early Identification and Investment of At-Risk Youth
It has been recognized that “traumatized children and adults engage in defensive maneuvers such as overreacting to internal or external stimulation.
There is substantial empirical evidence that resilience, as deﬁned by the ability to withstand and cope effectively with adversity, is fostered by secure attachments, positive emotional bonds to supportive and competent adults, conﬁdence in oneself, and motivation to act effectively on the environment.
To clarify, this means that children who have a supportive attachment to a supportive caregiver or adult are more able to cope with insecurities as well as regulate difficult emotions.
Therefore, early intervention and bullying prevention would call for identifying children who are at risk of insecure attachments (for example, abused, neglected, fostered or otherwise isolated children) at an early age and working with a caregiver or through a school mentor or therapist to increase the supportive and protective factors needed for the child.
This may call for a greater emphasis on mental health assessments and professional presence in early childhood education.
A Stronger Emphasis on Empathy, Kindness, and Inclusion
Although as adults we may think we are raising our children to be caring and responsible, a recent study by Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd found that “80 percent of youth said their parents were more concerned with their achievement or happiness than whether they cared for others.”
In response to this study, Weissbourd now runs the Harvard’s Making Caring Common Project where he teaches parents and educators how to raise caring, empathetic and ethical kids who care for those not just in their family or social circle but others as well.
This exciting program offers a wealth of information about teaching preventative and response measures to implement in schools right now with children.
Simple tips for schools to follow include:
- Assessing the School Environment (frequent information gathering through confidential surveys with full disclosure for added accountability)
- Be a Part of the Solution (encouraging all school staff, from the bus drivers to the Principal to set a tone of respect, empathy, and compassion)
- Mobilizing Youth (empowering students to be agents of change by creating leadership and task force groups to increase inclusivity and kindness)
- Building a Positive Community (promoting more than just sports with activities such as poetry jams, video projects and interviews where kids are encouraged to interact with people outside their social group)
- Developing Social, Emotional Skills (teaching kids, parents, and teachers interpersonal and conflict resolution skills as well as self-awareness)
But the program does not stop there. It has a strong emphasis on giving parents tools to increase empathy in their children while enlarging their child’s “circle of concern” and placing value on kindness.
What Does All This Mean?
To me, it means that there is hope. As parents and children may experience increase feelings of isolation in today’s tech-savvy and insular communities, one thing remains true: children go to school.
Schools have the potential to become the new “village” where parents and students can learn, very early on, the tools for success which go far beyond reading, writing and arithmetic to include, getting along with and standing alongside others.
As we look for broad ways to prevent and respond to our bullying epidemic, with early bullying prevention, intervention, and parenting education, we may end up healing more than the schoolyard ruffian but the parent who may have been a bully or a victim himself.
- (Heller, Larrieu, D’Imperio, & Boris, 1999; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000; Masten, 2001; Osofsky&Thompson,2000).”
- ^ Tajfel, H.; Billig, M. G.; Bundy, R. P.; Flament, C. (April–June 1971). “Social categorization and intergroup behaviour” (PDF). European Journal of Social Psychology. 1 (2): 149–178. doi:10.1002/ejsp.2420010202. Retrieved 9 October 2013.One tried and true human In Group/ Out Group mentality, social psychology