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Treating Bullying Behaviors Among Youth 

Treating Bullying Behaviors Among Youth
Chapter:
Treating Bullying Behaviors Among Youth
Author(s):

Susan M. Swearer

DOI:
10.1093/med:psych/9780199845491.003.0081
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date: 18 October 2018

Bullying is a complex set of behaviors that can cause great psychological distress in children, adolescents, and their adult caregivers. Bullying, by definition, is a subset of aggression that is characterized by intentional harmful behavior toward others. These behaviors are repetitive, and it is difficult for the person being bullied to defend himself or herself. Bullying behaviors comprise four areas: (1) verbal bullying, (2) physical bullying, (3) relational or social bullying, and (4) electronic bullying. Typically, there is overlap between these forms of bullying (i.e., someone who engages in verbal bullying is also likely to engage in electronic bullying). Regardless of the form the bullying might take, the consequences of being bullied can be disastrous and include school avoidance, somatic complaints, lower academic achievement, depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal ideation and attempts.

Bullying also has detrimental outcomes for youth who are perpetrating bullying. A series of studies recently published in the Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peace Research have shown that youth who perpetrate bullying are at increased risk for delinquency, a correlation that is particularly strong for boys. Additionally, youth who bully others have higher rates of later mental health and adjustment problems and these difficulties persist into adulthood. Considering the connection between oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, and antisocial personality disorder, this negative trajectory is not surprising and behooves psychologists to treat not only youth who are bullied but also youth who bully others.

Drawing on the comorbidity of depression and conduct disorder research, it is also important to recognize that youth who are bullied may also perpetrate bullying behavior. In fact, research has shown that youth who are bullied at home or who witness aggression at home are at increased risk for bullying others at school. So bullying is not a static conflict between a bully and a victim; in fact, we know that bullying is a complex dynamic, fueled by peer group dynamics, family dynamics, school climate, neighborhood climate, and societal factors. Effective interventions must address this complexity in order to effectively treat bullying among youth.

(p. 392) Gender, Race, and Demographic Factors

Both boys and girls engage in bullying behaviors. While some research has shown that boys are more likely to engage in physical bullying and girls are more likely to engage in relational or social bullying, these gender distinctions are influenced by the peer group, family, and school environments. The reality is that youth who bully will use the mechanisms (i.e., verbal, physical, relational/social, or electronic) whereby their behaviors will most likely be undetected by adults. Research by Sandra Graham and Jana Juvonen shows that bullying occurs across ethnicities and the most important predictor of being bullied is “ethnicity within a particular school context.” That is, if a student is in the ethnic minority, regardless of his or her ethnicity, he or she will be at increased risk for being bullied. Other demographic factors such as socioeconomic status, rurality, urbanization, family composition, and domestic violence are other variables that contribute to victimization and bullying. One of the most important questions psychologists can ask about bullying with their clients is, “What are the conditions that allow the bullying to occur?” When psychologists can identify those conditions, then they can help their clients and families alter these conditions and reduce the likelihood that bullying will occur.

Effective Treatment for Youth Who are Bullied

Much has been written about working with youth who are being bullied. This section will address basic approaches to working with youth and their families who are referred for being bullied. Typically, students who are bullied also experience co-occurring anxious and depressive symptomatology and psychologists should screen for depression and anxiety using standardized rating scales or clinical interviews that are appropriate for children. Psychologists should also ask questions about friendship groups, academic performance, family functioning, and extracurricular activities. The research is clear that protective factors such as friends, social support, academic engagement, and engagement in multiple activities serves as a buffer against the negative effects of being bullied.

Psychologists should follow treatment protocols for the treatment of depression and anxiety when clients present with internalizing symptomatology. Treatment should then include cognitive-behavioral approaches for the reduction of depressed and anxious mood and cognitive restructuring to address depressive and anxious cognitions. Depending upon the severity of the depression and/or anxiety, referral for pharmacological treatment may be warranted.

Psychologists need to obtain a release of information from their child client’s parents in order to communicate with their client’s teachers, school counselor, school administrators, and so on. The majority of bullying behavior takes place in school or involves the peer group at school or online. Best practices dictate that mental health professionals need to work with the adults in the child or adolescent’s life in order to help ameliorate the bullying behavior. Questions psychologists can ask school personnel are as follows: Does my client have friends in school? Does my client play with others at recess? Does my client sit with other students at lunch? Does my client attend school consistently? What are my client’s grades? Does my client seem happy and connected at school? What bullying prevention programs are in place at the school? What adults can my client talk with at school when he or she feels bullied? How does the school track or collect data on the bullying that may be occurring? It is very important that psychologists communicate with their client’s school personnel in order to get a handle on the bullying that may be occurring (with parental/guardian permission). If parents do not consent to allow psychologists to communicate with their client’s school, then psychologists should encourage the parents/guardians to communicate very closely with their child’s teacher and school administrators.

It is also important to coordinate with school mental health professionals to see if there are group therapy options for clients who are being (p. 393) bullied. Research shows that group treatment for youth who are being bullied can be useful. When youth experience similar experiences such as being bullied, group therapy can be a positive therapeutic experience. Group therapy helps students realize that they are not alone and that other people are experiencing the same things they are. Group therapy can also help students think about various coping strategies and responses to being bullied.

Effective Treatment for Youth Who Bully

While more has been written about working with youth who are being bullied, less has been written about working with youth who bully others. This section will address basic approaches to working with youth and their families who are referred for bullying behaviors. It is important for psychologists to remember that one criterion for a diagnosis of conduct disorder is “often bullies, threatens, or intimidates others” (APA, 2000). Thus, youth who bully others may display oppositional, defiant, aggressive, and coercive behaviors. Psychologists should assess their client’s externalizing behaviors using standardized rating scales or clinical interviews that are appropriate for children. Results from these assessments will help guide treatment for youth who bully others.

It is important to recognize that there is no “profile” for students who bully others. Relatedly, when the secret service commissioned a report to look at the profile of the school shooters in the United States in the past two decades, what researchers found was that there is no “standard” profile for a school shooter. Some were from intact families; some were from single caregiver families. Some were loners; some were gregarious and social. Some played violent video games; some did not. A similar pattern holds for youth who bully others. There are a variety of risk factors that are related to whether youth will engage in bullying and these risk factors are determined by the social ecology in which youth reside. Therefore, individual risk factors (i.e., depression, anxiety, anger, impulsivity) will interact with peer risk factors (i.e., bullying as a normative behavior, alcohol and drug use, delinquency), which will interact with school risk factors (i.e., lack of effective prevention and intervention efforts, negative school climate, inconsistent discipline), which will interact with family risk factors (i.e., laissez-faire parenting, coercive family interactions, parental aggression, sibling aggression), which will interact with neighborhood risk factors (i.e., low supervision, high crime rate), which will interact with societal risk factors (i.e., intolerance, homophobia, sexism, racism), which will create the conditions under which an individual will be more likely to bully others.

Bullying among school-age youth is a behavior that requires adults and youth to work together to resolve these behaviors. Bullying behaviors transcend the school yard. They occur going to and from school, in the neighborhood, and in cyberspace. Therefore, bullying is a ubiquitous problem that requires coordinated solutions. Psychologists need to obtain a release of information from their child client’s parents in order to communicate with their client’s teachers, school counselor, school administrators, and so on. Questions psychologists can ask school personnel are as follows: Does my client have friends in school? Does my client play with others at recess? Does my client sit with other students at lunch? Does my client attend school consistently? What are my client’s grades? Does my client seem happy and connected at school? What bullying prevention programs are in place at the school? What do adults say to my client when he or she is bullying others? How does the school track or collect data on the bullying that may be occurring? It is vital that psychologists communicate with their client’s school personnel in order to get a handle on the bullying that may be occurring (with parental/guardian permission). If parents do not consent to allow psychologists to communicate with their client’s school, then psychologists should encourage the parents/guardians to communicate very closely with their child’s teacher and school administrators.

(p. 394) Effective Treatment for Youth Who are Bullied and Who Bully

Finally, it is critical that psychologists recognize the complexity of bullying behaviors and to understand that the research shows that about one-fourth of students involved in bullying are “bully-victims.” These youth may be bullied at home or in the neighborhood and then, in turn, they bully at school. These youth are more likely to be in peer groups where bullying is an instrumental behavior used to gain social status, popularity, and group inclusion. Bully-victims have higher levels of depression and anxiety, and they are more likely to experience feelings of hopelessness and anger. It is critical that psychologists assess both bullying and victimization in their clients who are referred for problems with bullying. Bullying is a complex set of behaviors that rarely have a simple etiology and that rarely have a simple solution. Psychologists should be the mental health professionals who are leading our schools, families, and communities toward effective and lasting solutions for ameliorating bullying behaviors among school-age youth.

References and Readings

American Psychiatric Association. (2000). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed., text rev.). Washington, DC: Author.Find this resource:

Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2008). Current perspectives on linking school bullying research to effective prevention strategies. In T. W. Miller (Ed.), School violence and primary prevention (pp. 335–353). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

Espelage, D. L., & Swearer, S. M. (2011). Bullying in North American schools (2nd ed.). New York: Routledge.Find this resource:

H. & H. Publishing. (2011). Bully surveys. Retrieved January 2013, from www.bullysurvey.com

Juvonen, J., & Graham, S. (2001). Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized. New York: Guilford Press.Find this resource:

Orpinas, P., & Horne, A. M. (2006). Bullying prevention: Creating a positive school climate and developing social competence. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.Find this resource:

Pollack, W. S., & Swearer, S. M. (2011). Bullying. In G. P. Koocher & A. M. LaGreca (Eds.), The parents’ guide to psychological first aid: Helping children and adolescents cope with predictable life crises (pp. 167–171). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

Swearer, S. M. (2013). Target bullying: Best practices in prevention and intervention. Retreived January 2013, from www.targetbully.com

Swearer, S. M., Espelage, D. L., Vaillancourt, T., & Hymel, S. (2010). What can be done about school bullying? Linking research to educational practice. Educational Researcher, 39, 38–47.Find this resource:

Ttofi, M. M., & Farrington, D. P. (Eds.). (2011). Health consequences of school bullying. Journal of Aggression, Conflict, and Peach Research, 3(2), 57–121.Find this resource:

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2011). Stop bullying. Retrieved January 2013, from www.stopbullying.gov

Related Topics

Chapter 87, “Engaging the Reluctant Adolescent”