Helping Victimized Students: Thinking Matters

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Apr 26, 2010

Research has shown that victimization is associated with social, psychological, and even physical health problems for children and adolescents. My own research has shown this in relation to both loneliness1 and depression2, but my research interest is trying to explain why victimization has these effects. By clarifying the processes which lead to problems for youth, we can develop effective and efficient intervention and prevention strategies.

Over the last 10 years, I have focused on how students think about their victimization experiences by understanding the following questions:

  • How much control do students think they have over their aggressive peers?
  • Do they think that victimization will lead to lots of problems for them?
  • Might they even believe that victimization could have positive outcomes?

I have found that these types of thoughts are associated with problematic adjustment. Challenging the victims’ problematic thoughts may indicate ways that school staff and counselors can help victimized students.

Thinking and Wellbeing

Psychologists often emphasize the importance of problematic ways of thinking (especially relating to one’s self) in the development of disorders such as depression3. For example, a tendency to blame yourself for problems and negative events, and to see your future as likely to contain similar problems, is associated with children’s reports of symptoms of depression4. Challenging and changing those unrealistic beliefs can have very positive effects.

Thinking about how young people interpret their victimization experiences is likely to tell us something about why they feel sad and upset by the experience. It may also tell us about what specific thoughts are leading to adjustment difficulties. My research also suggests that changing thoughts in this way may help victimized students to behave in a more positive and assertive way too. This information can help adults and peer-counselors to do the following:

  • concentrate on victims’ problematic thoughts
  • challenge those thoughts
  • help students think about their problem in a way that is less likely to lead to poor psychological wellbeing

Feeling in Control

In my work, I have often focused on how much control children and young people think they have over other students who are aggressive toward them. I’ve found that:

  • Greater victimization seems to decrease levels of control, and lower levels of control are associated with higher levels of depression2. Using retrospective self-reports, adults report lower levels of current distress when they said that they felt high levels of control when they were bullied at school5.
  • Higher levels of control also seem to be particularly important for understanding children’s loneliness, with lower levels of control increasing levels of loneliness1.
  • Feeling in control is associated with more assertive behavior such as standing up to bullies in a non-aggressive way. However, feeling in control is also associated some less desirable behaviors such as hitting back, being truant, and worrying about the problem6,7. It is therefore important to consider threat too (see Feeling Threatened section below).
  • Being victimized for more than a month is associated with lower feelings of control8. If we accept that higher levels of control are a generally positive feeling for students to have, this implies that issues of control may be particularly important for those who are bullied for extended periods of time.
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