How to best handle a bully — according to science
Being bullied is a stressful experience – in fact it is one of the most stressful experiences we can face. International research shows bullying occurs in every school. We now better understand that bullying is physically, socially and psychologically damaging, with the hurt extending beyond just the victim to the bully and the bystanders who witness the activity as well.
As such, we have to develop techniques to help students cope with bullying, including cyberbullying. However, our research suggests that students have a very limited repertoire of strategies for dealing with bullies.
How we cope with bullies
“Coping” describes how we deal with stress, including the everyday stresses we face in life. Coping strategies may be described as positive strategies that can decrease the likelihood of continued victimisation, such as seeking help or support from others to stop the victimisation.
Not quite so effective are “avoidance” approaches, such as denial and refusal to think about an incident after it has happened. How effective each strategy might be is dependent on the context. Any strategy that reduces the bullying may be beneficial, while any that results in no change may be harmful.
Coping strategies are dependent on internal factors, such as the person’s self-esteem, intelligence and personality, and external factors, such as the level of social support from family and friends.
Our research shows that repeated experiences of victimisation may severely tax the coping resources of children and young people. That is, bullying incidents that are frequent and occur over a long time overwhelm the coping capabilities of victims. The type of bullying directed at victims, such as name calling, physical bullying or cyberbullying, may also influence how well we cope.
How to stop the bullies
An important element of many anti-bullying programmes is encouraging victims to tell someone. Our research shows that this is the number one coping strategy reported by trainee teachers as the tactic they would most recommend to students.
Victims are also encouraged to speak to their parents or guardians. Some schools have developed peer-support systems to counsel or advise other pupils.
However, many victims do not seek help. This could be due to a fear of retaliation from bullies, or shame over how they’ll look in front of their classmates.
In our Australian study involving adolescents we asked them to tell us how effective various coping strategies were for dealing with bullying. At the same time we asked “experts” (teachers, counsellors and researchers) from around the world to tell us what they thought were the most effective strategies.
The experts generally agreed on which were effective and ineffective strategies. There was consensus that the same strategies were appropriate for all types of bullying. They rated strategies such as talking to family members or professionals outside school, talking to teachers and counsellors at school and using the school’s anti-bullying and harassment policies and procedures as the most effective.
Least effective were denying that the bullying was happening, using drugs to avoid the pain or staying away from school. However, it was found that seriously bullied students reported they would not use the strategies the “experts” thought were effective. Instead, they would use strategies such as avoidance and denial.
Cyberbullying takes things to a new level – given its 24/7 nature, virtual anonymity and the broader audience available, not to mention the power that written and visual electronic media can have. Simplistically, education authorities and parent advocates will frequently propose measures to assist with coping in terms of banning or restricting access to technology. However, other measures are more successful.
- Education about the harmful effects of bullying is vital.
- Young people themselves should be involved in developing and promoting coping strategies.
- The strategies should be adapted to the age, background and culture of the young people.
- Schools should have policies and procedures in place developed by young people.
- Parents should be communicated with about the likely signs of their child being bullied.
- Schools and parents should work closely in partnership to support those being bullied.
- Strategies such as telling a trusted adult, using the school peer-support system and counselling should be advertised and encouraged.
- Greater awareness is needed that bullied students are not likely to use positive coping strategies; effort needs to be made to help them use these positive coping strategies.