June 18, 2013 by eimrick
Adult Reponses to Bullying Behavior
By Susan Fee, M.Ed.
Professional Clinical Counselor
In a previous post, I discussed the differences between bullying and peer conflict. In this article I’ll discuss how to help a student who comes to you in need. While they are likely seeking your guidance, it will be very important to resist trying to solve their problems. First, you’ll hit burnout in no time at all, and second, you’ll inadvertently be delaying the lessons culled from adversity.
Here’s what you can do:
Offer empathy. Your first response always is to offer empathy. Listening, caring, and respecting a student’s story validates self-worth.
Coach, don’t solve. Learning how to navigate conflict and choose healthy relationships is a life skill that requires lots of practice. Too often, adults are so pained to see kids suffer socially that they jump in and offer advice. That’s the equivalent of doing their homework for them. Instead, equip them with skills and awareness.
Once you’ve respectfully listened to a student’s story ask, “What do you want to do about it?” The answer reveals what help a student needs. Sometimes a student just wanted to vent and you’ve just saved yourself a ton of worry! Another helpful question is, “What part of this do you control?” This helps redirect focus to more realistic choices versus trying change other people.
Teach responses: There are only four responses to a bullying situation: ignore, report, talk face-to-face, or bully back. When you ask a target of bullying what he or she wants to do, the most common response is to ignore it. Your job is to talk the student through the pros and cons of this choice. How do you know when ignoring is working? What are the signs that it’s not? If the bullying behavior increases and the target continues to suffer, ignoring is not an answer.
Reporting behavior or asking an adult for help is an option many adolescents will refuse out of fear of making things worse. Students need to be coached in how to ask for help. If they just want to brainstorm options, but not have the adult intervene, they need to state that upfront versus not speak up at all. They also need to recognize when a situation is unsafe and too big for them to handle with adult help.
Talking face-to-face (versus texting or online) is helpful only when the conflict is due to a misunderstanding. Peer mediation should not be used in true bullying situations, as the goal isn’t to resolve anything, just to end the bullying. (You’d never put a domestic violence victim in the same room with her offender to “talk it out.”) Coaching a child how to speak assertively and state boundaries is essential. This could involve role playing or referring the family to a therapist who can help.
Encourage upstanding. Bystanders are the largest group of kids involved in any bullying situation. By teaching them to how to support the target (and not try to take on the bully) the tide of power can quickly change. In the moment, kids can assist targets by removing them from the situation. They can walk them to another location, or invite them to join them in another activity. If that’s too scary, they can contact them later and offer an encouraging word or invite them to join them at lunch. Certainly, praying for them is always a way to support. There’s power in numbers, so coach them in gathering others to offer a protective ring of support to a target.
Hurt people hurt other people. The goal is not to encourage kids to bully back but to acknowledge the very real temptation that it’s an option. Kids don’t want to do this, but many times they fall into the trap. Discuss the ramifications of such a choice. Avoid lecturing, just let kids talk their way through a better decision.
Define healthy relationships. The majority of social pain kids suffer is peer conflict. Often, this is due to trusting the wrong people. I developed the Friendship Bull’s Eye as a discussion tool to teach the differences between strangers, acquaintances, friends, and best/true friends. By asking students to define the differences between these relationships, and what standards they have for others, you’re raising awareness of healthy relationships. There’s a big difference between believing you should be friendly with everyone versus having to befriend everyone.
Hopefully, this has helped you distinguish how to help a student based on their true social issues.
Susan Fee is a clinical counselor with Lakeshore Counseling in Brecksville, OH. She specializes in girls’ health and wellness and is the creator of Circle of F.R.I.E.N.D.S. a program to teach girls about healthy friendships. Learn more by visiting http://www.susanfee.com.