Supporting Young People Who are Targets of Bullying and Other Negative Peer Behavior
During the past eight years, I have heard from many parents and caring adults about their concerns for young people who are bullied, harassed, and excluded in school. Some approaches work better than others. We can choose what to say and do by focusing on the thought processes and assumptions that underlie our supportive interventions.
Here are some of the statements I have heard from caring adults:
- “Somehow my child draws bullying toward him or her self.”
- “My child is bullied because he has Asperger Syndrome.”
- “That child is the classic passive victim.”
- You can see why they do that to her. She provokes this behavior by being annoying.”
- "Children and teens have to solve their own problems.”
Young people all around the country tell me what they have learned from adults:
- “My parents said they only act mean because they’re jealous of me.”
- “People tell me to just walk away or ignore them and then they’ll stop.”
- “You should tell them how what they do makes you feel.”
- “They say I must be doing something to bring this on.”
- “If I didn’t cry they wouldn’t do this to me.”
Many of these statements are based on a misunderstanding of the cause of bullying and other negative behaviors. Most of them come from the assumption that the target causes the negative behavior, and so can change it. That inaccurate assumption leads us to a series of well-meaning but ineffective interventions:
- We advise young people who are targeted to ignore or confront bullying and other kinds of peer aggression without considering how difficult these actions can be. We advise these interventions even though they may not work.
- We ask young people who are targeted to change. In doing this, we sometimes ask young people to hide parts of their own identities: to conform more closely to narrowly defined male or female roles, to hide interests, to change their physical appearance or ways of speaking. Though this intervention is done with the best intentions, the message targets internalize is that the bullying is their fault. They come to believe what we believe– that they are drawing the behavior to themselves.
- When we discuss characteristics of targets of bullying using negative terms such as “passive” or “provocative,” we will find it difficult to help them make any other meaning of their abuse than “it’s my fault.”
- We work to build empathy for the aggressors- telling young people that people who bully, harass, or exclude are jealous, feel bad about themselves, or have been bullied themselves. This very common intervention seems to me to be telling targeted youth that they should feel sorry for or forgive those who hurt them. Yet it is not clear to me that understanding the roots of others’ aggression toward us helps us to overcome the pain caused by that aggression. It can be helpful to teach young people that aggressive youth may have had a hard life, as long as we make clear that many young people who are treated badly in life choose to be kind to others, instead of hurting peers.
Reprinted with the permission of Stan Davis. © 2002-2008 Stan Davis. All rights reserved.
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