The Youth Voice Project has produced some interesting research on strategies that children find effective (or more commonly, ineffective) against bullying. This was quite a big survey (13000 students were interviewed in 12 US states) so the results should be taken quite seriously. See a report on a conference presentation at the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry meeting, published in Psychiatry News.
The author of the news article, Aaron Levin, rightly focuses on the fact that many traditional strategies suggested to kids (e.g. telling a teacher, fighting back, ignoring the bully) are largely ineffective. But he goes on to suggest that the most effective strategies are telling an adult at home, telling a friend, making a joke, or telling an adult at school. This is a bit misleading, as the following graphic from the report shows:
In terms of effectiveness, most of the strategies cluster around 33%. The only really ineffective strategy is telling the bully to stop (I don’t count “doing nothing” as a strategy). Where the strategy of fighting back loses out is that it is much more likely to make things worse than the other strategies. Telling an adult at school (depressingly) and making a joke of things (surprisingly) are also quite likely to make things worse, when compared with telling a friend or family member.
But the really striking finding, to repeat Levin’s title, is that NONE of these strategies are very effective. The best that a bullying victim can hope for, apparently, is a 1 in 3 chance of making things better. This is quite scary. But it is understandable, because it is very hard to know what to do about bullying. I remember this well from being occasionally bullied at school. I told my mum but this didn’t help much – I think she just told me to ignore them! I didn’t really have any close friends to band together with, and anyway they were as weak as me. I didn’t tell a teacher because I am quite a loyal person and I had internalised a strong norm against “tattling” – plus I didn’t really like most of my teachers, so I guess I felt that they might not sympathize. What worked for me, eventually, was fighting back once my tolerance had finally been exhausted. But I guess, looking at these statistics, that I was lucky this didn’t make things worse. Perhaps one of the reasons that fighting back can make things worse is that it can sometimes lead to the victim being blamed for the violence, if their retaliation is witnessed by an adult. Fortunately this never happened to me.
One strategy that doesn’t appear in the graphic above, but which has been shown to be helpful against bullying, is acting assertively with the bully. People who run assertiveness training courses for shy, weak or diffident kids claim a lot of success (e.g. the charity Kidscape with its ZAP assertiveness training). Perhaps assertiveness was not included because it is hard to define as a strategy. In fact assertiveness, like constructive negotiation, does not seem to come naturally to most people when faced with a conflict situation. That may be why it’s hard to put one’s finger on what exactly it entails. People’s first impulse, when faced with conflict, tends to be either fight or flight – the hard-wired, generic mammalian (if not vertebrate) repertoire of responses is the most salient. Where humans differ from other animals is that we have a third option: the use of language either to defuse the conflict (using humour) or to diffuse it (by telling a third party). These options are significantly less likely to make things worse than the option of fighting back, and significantly more likely to make things better than the option of running away. But they are still not brilliant.
So I would be keen to read any comments on how to deal with bullies. What exactly would acting “assertively” entail? Are there any strategies that worked for you, or for people you knew, when confronted with bullies in the past? I am interested in this question because I am currently working on designing an educational computer game for the SIREN project which is aimed at helping kids to cope better with peer conflicts. We are not directly focused on bullying, but I am interested in how to counter proactive aggression, which is certainly related to bullying (I would define bullying as repeated acts of proactive aggression that victimise a particular person or group). Any comments are welcome!