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.
I have also asked young people about what bad things might happen to them because they are bullied, and I have looked at the effects of this for their well being and behavior. These thoughts are called threats and I’ve found that:
- Children recognize that bullying can have lots of negative outcomes including losing confidence, feeling lonely, being injured physically, being bullied more in future, and becoming a bully themselves6.
- Greater victimization is associated with higher levels of threat which, in turn, are associated with higher levels of depression2. This suggests that a focus on threat actually explains, at least in part, why victimization is associated with depression.
- Feeling threatened is associated with undesirable behaviors such as hitting and truanting. However, feeling threatened is not associated with assertive behavior such as standing up to bullies. Taken with the evidence earlier relating to control, this suggests that helping students to increase their feeling of control, while also decreasing their feelings of threat, is the best bet for encouraging students to use assertive, non-aggressive, behavior7.
Of course, students don’t have to focus on the bad things they think might happen to them as a result of being bullied. They may also focus on the potential for positive outcomes. These thoughts are called challenges:
- Children spontaneously recognize that bullying can have positive outcomes, for example becoming more confident, learning how to deal with bullying in future (and therefore being able to help other victims), and that the bully may be caught and will not bully again6.
- My work with adults suggests that victimized students who see more opportunities for positive than negative outcomes experience less victimization-related distress (e.g., ‘flashbacks’) as adults5. This suggests that addressing students’ thoughts may be important for both short- and long-term wellbeing.
- Children who think there is the possibility of many positive outcomes are also more likely to seek help9. It’s not yet clear why this should be the case, but it may be that a focus on positive outcomes means that students are motivated to get help achieving those outcomes.
The final category of thoughts that I’ve looked at relate to blame. Thoughts relating to blame simply reflect who students think caused, or is causing, the bullying episode: was it the aggressor’s fault or was it their own fault?
- Work conducted in the US suggests that it is the nature of self-blame which is important. Blaming something about the self which is relatively difficult to change (e.g. “If I were a cooler kid I wouldn’t get picked on”) leads to loneliness. This type of blame is also associated with higher levels of victimization. Blame relating to behavior (“I should have been more careful”) does not influence loneliness10.
- Such work dovetails with my own: how children and young people think about themselves is important for their adjustment. It also suggests that certain negative, self-blaming thoughts may need to be challenged by school staff, and that a more accurate interpretation of what caused the situation may be helpful for students’ adjustment.
- My own work has provided less support for the importance of blame in relation to loneliness1. I too found that greater victimization is associated with more self-blame, and that more self-blame was associated with loneliness. Crucially however, I found that when students’ level of control was considered at the same time, blame was much less important in understanding loneliness. So, if school staff wish to reduce loneliness, then addressing young people’s sense of control may be more important than addressing who they blame for the problem.
How children and young people think about and interpret aggression which is directed toward them is important for their wellbeing. When discussing an experience of bullying with a child or adolescent it may be useful to:
- Ask whether they feel they can change the problem themselves. Try to help them feel more in control of the situation. One way to do this could be by offering new behavioral strategies, allowing them to practice those strategies, and making it clear that assertive behaviors may need to be repeated again and again before they are successful.
- Ask about what outcomes they foresee. Do they focus only on negative outcomes? Is that focus making the problem seem bigger than it is, or encouraging feelings of distress and upset which make it difficult when trying to respond assertively? Can they see the possibility for positive outcomes? Try to encourage more focus on positive outcomes, and help students to question whether all the negative outcomes they foresee are really that likely to occur. However, don’t suggest that negative outcomes are not going to happen: thoughts need to be realistic as well as healthy, and students are likely to quickly switch off if they think adults misunderstand their situation.
Author Information: Simon Hunter is a lecturer at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, UK. His research interests include understanding the consequences of victimization for children, the relationship of ethnicity to bullying, and children’s use of prosocial behavior.
1. Catterson, J., & Hunter, S.C. (in press). Cognitive mediators of the effect of peer-victimization on loneliness. British Journal of Educational Psychology.
2. Hunter, S.C., Durkin, K., Heim, D., Howe, C., & Bergin, D. (in press). Psychosocial mediators and moderators of the effect of peer-victimization upon depressive symptomatology. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.
3. Beck, A.T. (1967). Depression: Clinical, experimental, and theoretical aspects. New York: Harper & Row.
4. Mezulis, A.H., Hyde, J.S., & Abramson, L.Y. (2006). The developmental origins of cognitive vulnerability to depression: Temperament, parenting, and negative life events in childhood as contributors to negative cognitive style. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1012-1025.
5. Hunter, S.C., Mora-Merchán, J.A. & Ortega, R. (2004). The long-term effects of coping strategy use in the victims of bullying. The Spanish Journal of Psychology, 7, 3-12.
6. Hunter, S.C., & Boyle, J.M.E. (2004). Coping and appraisal in victims of school bullying. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 83-107.
7. Hunter, S.C., Boyle, J.M.E., & Warden, D. (2006). Emotion and coping in young victims of peer-aggression. In P. Buchwald (Ed.) Stress and anxiety - Application to health, community, work place and education. Newcastle, UK: Cambridge Scholar Press (pp307-324).
8. Hunter, S.C., & Boyle, J.M.E. (2002). Perceptions of control in the victims of school bullying: The importance of early intervention. Educational Research, 44, 323-336.
9. Hunter, S.C., Boyle, J.M.E. & Warden, D. (2004). Help seeking amongst child and adolescent victims of peer-aggression and bullying: The influence of school-stage, gender, victimisation, appraisal, and emotion. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 74, 375-390.
10. Graham, S., & Juvonen, J. (1998). Self-blame and peer victimisation in middle school: An attributional analysis. Developmental Psychology, 34, 587-599.