Strategies that help children who are bullied

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:

Graph of bullying strategies

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!

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7 Responses to Strategies that help children who are bullied

  1. Rick says:

    When I was in school, a couple of kids kept nicking my sodastream (remember that?!). I didn’t dare confront them, but after this went on a while I made up a mix with a healthy dollop of washing liquid. As I returned after the usual break when they used to take my drink, I walked in and saw the bottle half-empty. As the two approached me, I thought they were about to have a go at me but instead they were terrified it was bleach! I reassured them it wasn’t THIS time and it never happened again.

    • gordoningram says:

      Hi Rick, thanks for your comment!
      I was surprised to find that fighting back is perceived to do so poorly – as I say, it seemed to work for me, too. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a bit of a demand effect going on here in terms of the adolescents saying what they think the adults want to hear (emphasising the ‘socially approved’ strategies in response to bullying). It’s a shame that it would be so difficult to make an in-depth, long-term observational study of teenage bullying, because that might well show different results in terms of what actually discourages the bullies. Having said that, talking to a friend probably is a good idea, because bullies do tend to pick on socially isolated individuals.
      It’s now widely accepted that most ‘pure’ bullies (as opposed to ‘bully-victims’ who have been bullied themselves in the past) are socially quite competent. They play with their victims as a cat plays with a mouse (or as those at the more autistic end of the spectrum play with machines). They seem to me to be motivated partly by contempt at those who don’t stand up for themselves, and partly by a perverse kind of curiosity about how much their victims can take. So according to this theory, once the victim fights back a lot of the fun is gone for them and they will move on to an easier target. But as I say, very difficult to test this because of the difficulty of doing a proper observational study (and the ethical problems with doing an experiment!).

      • Jaime says:

        i missed this comment when i replied below, but it’s really interesting. your description of a “pure bully” really chimes with some of the people i remember from school. contrary to popular wisdom, they weren’t cowards and they were socially competent, or even advanced. i think the idea of them “playing” with their victims is exactly right (indeed, in my first comment i said that i stopped being good “sport” for the bullies after a few years, which is surely the same idea).

        so, here’s a question: could bullying actually be seen as a fairly normal and healthy way of a young person working out behavioural boundaries and what they can get away with? you can treat that question as rhetorical if you like!

        if you do read any good books on all this (and one which is accessible to a layman like me) then do let me know, this obviously interests me more than I thought!

      • Gordon says:

        Sorry for the delay in replying, I was travelling and then you know what the first day back in the office is like!

        Haven’t seen any really good books on bullying yet, but I’ll certainly let you know if I find one. There is masses of stuff out there of course, but most of it is aimed at practical help for American parents, teenagers or teachers, whereas I think you’re more looking for a sort of social/psychological overview for the educated, but non-specialist, reader. I would love to read one of those too, so I’ll keep a look out.

        Your question (“could bullying actually be seen as a fairly normal and healthy way of a young person working out behavioural boundaries and what they can get away with?”) is an excellent one, and not one I have seen posed so directly in the literature. For a long time there was a prevalent view that bullies must be socially and/or emotionally defective. In the last 20 years or so, it has become much more accepted that they can in fact be quite socially competent – but still I get this pervasive sense from most of the literature that there must be “something wrong” with people who victimise others. Personally, I think that this is true for the really sadistic people who go to great lengths to cause others pain, but on the everyday level I think there is a degree of victimisation of others – mocking, swearing, even pushing or similar – which is tacitly accepted as normal, even among adults. Perhaps we could draw a distinction between proactive aggression – the sporadic use of aggressive strategies to get what you want from another person (as opposed to “reactive aggression”, which is a hotheaded overreaction to a perceived attack by another) – and bullying proper, which might be defined as the repeated, sadistic, almost obsessive victimisation of a particular individual. The latter category would be associated with the “bully-victims” – bullies who have been bullied themselves. The former category might be more “normal” than the latter, but they would shade into each other to the extent that a lot of people, especially kids, might proactively aggress just for fun, and their tendency to pick on the same easy targets might lead to repeated victimisation.

        I think my next post, on the evolutionary adaptiveness of aggression, will be relevant: there is some recent research indicating that aggression is related to dating success, which is interesting and would seem to suggest that the answer to your question above might be a qualified “yes”!

  2. Jaime says:

    Great blog – the stats above (i haven’t had time to look at the full report) don’t surprise me, for the simple reason that bullying can take so many different forms, and no one tactic is likely to work every time. If you are being verbally bullied by one person, learning to be assertive is probably a very effective tactic. If, however, you are being physically bullied by more than one person, assertiveness is only going to go so far and i think at that point involving an adult (whether a parent or the school) might be your best shot.

    The thing that worries me about the latter, though, is that from my own experience (and having talked to others who experienced bullying i don’t think it’s uncommon) schools rarely have effective strategies in place for dealing with bullying. In fact, teachers often seem happy to turn a blind eye rather than deal with the offenders, who tend to be the more aggressive pupils, and therefore the most likely to make teaching classes very difficult… Maybe that’s changed in the last 20 years: i hope so.

    As for my own experience, i was fairly chronically bullied at school and tried most of these tactics, with the exception of telling my parents (who had enough problems at the time). Teachers did nothing, and unless you are extremely funny, joking can just provoke. Fighting back worked to a certain extent (the guy i punched never hit me again, or at least not when he was on his own) but the verbal abuse probably increased as a result.

    In the end, i never did learn how to stop the bullying, but i learnt how to endure it. I developed a fairly healthy contempt for the bullies (which endures to this day: i could rattle off their names without having to think, whereas i could barely name my colleagues at my last job) and made it a point of pride that while i wouldn’t go looking for trouble, i wouldn’t cower or grovel. But nor would i throw punches back as it just exacerbated the situation: if they wanted to punch me I would just have to put up with it. In the end the bullies actually got a bit bored with me because i wasn’t much sport for them.

    But that was me, and – as i started out saying – i think every bullying situation is different, and probably requires a different response. My own belief is that kids are essentially savage if left to their own devices, which is why it’s the responsibility of the school to take a zero tolerance approach to bullying. If i were a parent putting a kid into school, i think that i’d be asking about their bullying policies before i asked about their average grades.

    Of course, there is another way to tackle bullying, as anyone who has seen “let the right one in” will know… But brutally strong vampire girlfriends just aren’t as widely available as they should be…

    • gordoningram says:

      Thanks for the comment Jaime. I haven’t seen that movie (if it is a movie) – will have to check it out!

      That’s a very good point you make about different strategies being effective in response to different types of bullying (assertiveness maybe working better in response to verbal abuse, aggressively fighting back in response to physical abuse). I haven’t seen that sort of distinction made much in the literature, though I am new to this subject area. It would certainly be worth investigating further.

      In my own case, fighting back worked but now that I think about it, mainly only insofar as it deterred any further physical aggression. The verbal abuse tended to continue. But I think I had seriously internalised the old mantra about “Sticks and stones…” (which my mum, a complete stoic, used to repeat to me often) because verbal abuse just didn’t bother me at the time – I was much more concerned with physical pain, which I had a desperate fear of! Thinking about it, though, of course it must really have done some long-term damage to my self-esteem, which truth be told I am only just coming to terms with. (E.g., I used to be called “Lucifer” and “Beelzebub” fairly relentlessly, because I had once defaced a school bible in a kind of misguided protest against being forced to study RE. I actually used to play along with these labels. Not so wise … I don’t think this was too good for me in that it contributed to my self-image that I had “something of the night” inside me.)

      I think the point of assertiveness is to use it from the beginning in a way that prevents proto-bullying from taking root. This fits with it working better against verbal abuse, since of course verbal abuse usually precedes the physical. Once the bullying has got to a certain stage, you can tell your bullies to stop with a voice like thunder and the eloquence of Obama – it’s just going to make them laugh and poke you even harder.

      But assertiveness can sometimes work against physical aggression too … I think the key is not to show any fear … since I stopped being a victim of bullying I have been physically assaulted three times – twice pinned up against a wall and once headbutted (fortunately not very hard). Each time, I looked my assailant coldly in the eye and spoke to them in a scornful tone, and they seemed to hesitate long enough for the situation to calm down. But maybe I just got lucky. And I didn’t have to deal with any Geordie bullies :).

      I meant this blog to be all academic and it has turned into a bit of a confessional! Oh well, I guess it’s cheaper than going to a therapist :).

  3. Jaime says:

    well, you did pick a topic which provokes an emotional response! ironically, with all the time that’s passed since school, the subject does feel quite academic to me now, in that i can think about it with a coolness and rationality that i certainly didn’t posess at the time…

    i’d agree that assertiveness is probably most effective if employed from the start, before an unhealthy bully/victim dynamic evolves. i would imagine that a lot of people who behave like bullies (and this of course isn’t a schoolyard only thing) are probably extremely skilled (if only sub-consciously) at identifying vulnerability and then exploiting it. which does make me question my previous argument that its up to schools to fix the problem. it probably needs to start earlier, and most likely in the home.

    one other thing which has always interested me is how the people who were “the bullies” (and i know that is a bit of a reductive term) think about it now. my guess is that they wouldn’t even recognise it as bullying, more as high spirits or healthy machismo or kids being kids. perhaps they’re even right.

    lots of food for thought there, will look forward to the next post! and “let the right one in” is indeed a film, a superb swedish psychological horror. it’s being remade for the USA, but the original is superb and worth tracking down…

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