Supporting Young People Who are Targets of Bullying and Other Negative Peer Behavior (page 2)
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.
Let us consider some alternative thinking processes that could lead us to other interventions, and some examples of those interventions:
- Bullying and other forms of peer abuse are totally caused by the aggressor. These actions are choices made by the aggressor and the target is not to blame for those choices. The target of bullying and other peer abuse should not have to solve the problem alone or by suppressing parts of his or her own identity. It is the aggressor who should change his or her behavior, not the target.
“There are mean people in this world. You have met some of them. What they did is their fault and not yours. They chose their own actions.”
“We can talk about how to comfort or soothe yourself when others are mean to you. That won’t change what they do, but it will help you be able to control your own feelings and actions, and be less bothered by what other people say and do.”
- Targets of peer abuse need to learn that they do not deserve what was done to them. They learn this by seeing that adults and peers will take them seriously, protect them, connect with them, and follow up to see that they are safe.
“The adults in your life have failed you so far by not protecting you. Here is what we will do from now on. What else would help?”
“Thank you for telling me what they did to you. Now we can change what is happening.”
“I will check in with you to see how things are going. Please tell me if this behavior continues.”
- Targets of abuse- like other young people- need social connections, friendships, and people who welcome them into their social environments. Adults and peers should help them build these connections. Often these connections are best made in the context of a shared interest, hobby, or other activity.
“Would you like a friendship team at school to help you make connections with other students?”
“We will help you connect with people who share your hobbies, interests, and personal style away from school until you have more connections at school.”
“We will spend time with you at home cooking, going for walks, and doing the other things we like doing with you and you like doing with us.”
I welcome your thoughts and ideas about this topic.
Reprinted with the permission of Stan Davis. © 2002-2008 Stan Davis. All rights reserved.
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