Podcast: Addressing Bullying in Kids & Teens

Jenn talks to Joyce Velt about the impact of bullying on kids and teens and how to address these harmful behaviors. Joyce explains the effects of bullying on mental health, discusses how it can impact relationships in the short- and long-term, and answers audience questions about how we can help kids and teens feel included and welcome.

Joyce Velt, LICSW, is the program director of the McLean SouthEast at Oak Street Adolescent Inpatient Program. Throughout her career, Ms. Velt has provided clinical treatment to a diverse population in a variety of settings, including inpatient, outpatient, and residential centers.

Relevant Content

Episode Transcript

Jenn: Welcome to Mindful Things.

The Mindful Things podcast is brought to you by the Deconstructing Stigma team at McLean Hospital. You can help us change attitudes about mental health by visiting deconstructingstigma.org. Now on to the show.

Hi, folks. Good morning, good afternoon, or good evening to you. And thank you for joining us wherever you are, whatever time it is there for our chat today about the impacts of bullying in kids and teens.

I’m Jenn Kearney, I’m a digital communications manager for McLean Hospital joined today by Joyce Velt as my co-host. And I’m sure if you’re tuning in, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

And I’m here to say that it’s glaringly obvious that names can certainly have much more impact than that adage suggests, and that’s just one type of bullying that we may encounter, and it happens a lot.

Approximately 20% of kids and teens report being bullied, that doesn’t even capture the kids who don’t share that they’re being bullied.

And now that we’re connected all the time, bullying can take on many forms and happen virtually 24/7, so it’s not just limited to social settings like school, soccer practice, or a playground.

And while technology has been really helpful in a lot of ways, it can be really difficult to nip bullying by technology in the bud as well. Less than half of kids who say that they are bullied report it to someone of authority. So, as you can see, it’s a pretty insurmountable issue.

So, I’m really excited to have Joyce with me today to talk all about the short and long-term impacts of bullying, if there are ways that we can tell that our kids are being targeted or bullied, and ways that we can help prevent or maybe even stop bullying behaviors.

If you are unfamiliar with her, Joyce Velt is a licensed social worker and the program director of the McLean SouthEast at Oak Street Adolescent Inpatient Program.

Throughout her career, she’s provided clinical treatment to a diverse population in a variety of settings, including inpatient, outpatient, and residential centers, and has been a staff member with McLean for over a decade.

So, hi, Joyce, thank you so much for joining me today. I’m excited about the topic. It’s always weird for me to say that when it’s things that are very, like, it’s very crucial to a kid’s development, and bullying is not a great thing, but I’m excited to talk about it so that we can start eradicating bullying.

So, I wanted to get started simply by asking what is bullying, and how does bullying behavior differ from “kids just being kids?”

Joyce: So, I just want to start by saying sometimes I’m going to be looking down, and I’ve been referencing a really great website that I would recommend people go to if you want to pursue further information and guidance, it’s called stopbullying.gov, and it actually is put out by our government.

And there’s a lot of information for the breadth of this topic, and I’m going to sort of weave in my own experience with this guidance, but the initial sort of description of bullying is that aggression in kids is really on a continuum.

So, when you talk about kids being kids, there’s, at different stages, points where kids get into conflict, and what they’re trying to do is sort of work through managing frustration. Sometimes as younger children, it might come out as physical towards others, but it’s really a very different kind of aggression from say the type of aggression that bullying is for a couple of reasons.

One is that bullying is very intentional and targeted, and it implies a power imbalance or attempts to create and maintain a power imbalance against the target of the bully.

And the reason is the person, for a variety of reasons, the bully may have their own insecurities, they may have a need to target someone to keep themselves either if they are socially very focused on peer acceptance, they want to maintain that level of acceptance and also to really be superior.

And, you know, as Jenn had alluded to, there are different types of bullying. The verbal bullying is the name calling, taunting, sometimes inappropriate sexual remarks, threatening types of behavior.

Social bullying is something that’s a little bit more subtle, but equally as hurtful. This is leaving people out, deliberately ostracizing someone, telling other kids not to be friends with someone, passing rumors, or trying to embarrass someone in public.

And physical bullying can range from anything from hitting to tripping, to really hurting someone in a very aggressive way. And then, of course, as Jenn mentioned, there’s cyberbullying. And cyberbullying probably falls mostly into the either verbal or social types of bullying.

And, you know, again, different reasons why kids initiate this. Boys, this is just a generalization, particularly at younger ages tend to be more focused on physical bullying, and girls tend to be around the kind of social ostracism, those kinds of things.

Jenn: So, based on what you know about bullying in your work as being a social worker, what are some of the mental health impacts you could speak to about short and long-term bullying?

Joyce: So essentially, it’s very similar to any kind of mental health stressor, and that’s why sometimes it’s hard to tease out what it is that’s causing it. But what you’re wanting to look for is any change in your kids’ functioning.

And it could be something very subtle like they seem to be a bit more withdrawn, they spend more time in their room, you know, they appear more isolative, not involving themselves in activities that they used to enjoy, fears of going to school, making up reasons not to go to school, sort of confabulating illness.

Sometimes you’ll see declining grades, problems sleeping, nightmares. Sometimes at worst people start to edge into self-destructive behaviors, running away. And so, it becomes a much more serious problem when it edges towards something that becomes really life-threatening or harmful to themselves.

And often, bullying is identified by kids as a trauma. Sometimes, like I said, it’s hard to know whether or not, initially, it’s bullying, but what you really want to do is watch for these signs first.

Jenn: So, if a parent is tuning in, I’m sure that there’s a level of concern that their child’s being bullied. Another level of concern is that a lot of times that can be really embarrassing for a kid to address.

They’re not going to bring it up, they’re not going to say, “I think so and so’s picking on me.” How can a parent, if they think that their kid is being bullied, how can they address the topic with them without making their child feel worse?

Joyce: So, I think initially what you want to think about is creating an environment where your child feels safe to talk to you about anything.

And so, you really want to set up maybe some kind of regular routine where you are talking about how their day is going and try to get more specific because as everyone knows the general question of how is your day is usually met with “Fine,” and then there’s very little elaboration because then the earbuds go in.

So, you want to sort of just take some time out, whether it’s in the car for say 15 minutes or so, or just maybe sitting around and sort of relaxing, having a snack, and asking pretty specific things about really what their school day is like, you know.

What are their favorite classes? What kinds of things are more challenging for them? And then the places where it starts to edge into where bullying is most common, you can talk about around things like lunch.

Lunch can be hellish for kids, it can be the place where kids feel really the most self-conscious because perhaps not only being bullied, but they don’t have people to eat with and they feel very, very isolated.

So, another place is the bus, you know, “How’s your bus ride home?” And just open-ended questions that really target specific times and situations throughout the day.

Jenn: I’m curious, in your years of being a social worker, have you noticed differences in bullying in different age groups?

Like, are kids more into physical bullying because they don’t have the language to express cruelty, and teens or more verbal bullies? Like, have you noticed any patterns in what you’ve seen in patients?

Joyce: Yeah, actually, and this is also something that the literature supports, that bullying is most common in middle school because that is where kids start to develop the words to really verbalize some of these, you know, extraordinarily hurtful things towards others, but even younger children, you know, it can edge into bullying.

Again, you know, probably not so much at a very young age, but once they get into school age and they start to really sort of assess themselves in the context of peer groups, then they start to latch onto noticing differences in others.

And often, that’s where the targeting might start, and it might start as mild teasing or at home it might be around sibling rivalry that is kind of at a low level.

And what turns into bullying is when it escalates and you can see that the target of the bullying is experiencing pain and the person doesn’t stop, they continue on with the behavior for whatever reason. And that really is sort of the beginning stages of sort of how bullying starts. You know, and then middle school, I think a couple of different reasons.

Besides the fact that kids are starting to be able to articulate more, this is the beginning of also adolescence, a time of such extraordinary, sometimes, distress and turmoil because changes are coming at such a rapid pace.

And if there are kids who are somewhat troubled about their identity or their just sort of their sense of footing about themselves, you know, in terms of where they fit with peers, you know, their own sort of self-esteem issues are shaky because they’re really not sure where they stand, adolescence is going to overtake them in a big way.

And so, things are happening to them that are beyond their control within their bodies, within their brains and so they start to have reactions to things in a much stronger way. Sometimes it’s hormones that are sort of driving intense reactivity, and other times it’s just self-consciousness about the bodily changes that are occurring that perhaps kids don’t feel ready to really accept.

And so, self-consciousness is on a big rise, and so unfortunately for some kids it turns into that underlying, you know, feeling of insecurity can be turned towards others as a way of coping with it.

Jenn: I know you had mentioned that bullying at home can look like sibling rivalry.

Does bullying that occurs between siblings, does that look different than in other social groups or settings, or is it the same underlying principle of aggressive behavior that leads to feeling badly about yourself when there’s visible pain, they keep going?

Joyce: So, I think that there’s a lot of similarities as far as the intent, it’s driven by some kind of underlying insecurity.

The context is different though because of course it has to do with the relationships within the family and what kids see in their role models between parents and how parents treat each individual child.

And there are kids that are born, you know, with a greater sensitivity to begin with, so they have a harder time managing teasing, things that maybe start out as very lighthearted and not intentionally meant to be hurtful.

And then, the other thing that sort of drives it is a sense that there’s a real feeling in maybe one of the siblings of unfairness that starts to build and become sort of part of their identity almost that they feel like the victim in the family.

So, it’s a more complicated, I think, kind of dynamic. And again, something that probably snowballs over time if there’s not some intervention with it.

Jenn: I’m curious too, is it possible for kids to actually bully their parents or caretakers? I know a lot of what we’ve focused on so far has been like kid-on-kid, but is it possible to bully an adult as a child?

Joyce: Absolutely, and it’s really something that I think is an outgrowth of perhaps what kids are exposed to.

So, and it may be at home, there may be sort of behavior between parents that then encourages the children to observe this as a way of taking their aggression out on people. And that the home life is really the core place where kids start to model the way that they manage their emotions.

So, if they see parents doing something and they don’t see sort of a counter to that, that becomes sort of their, excuse me, repetitive way of experiencing distress then they start to find that they don’t have any other ways of handling their emotions that become very profound.

So, I do think that that is something that is not as frequent, but it, particularly where if there is, even if it’s verbal, the beginning of witnessing domestic violence, that’s a place where kids might start to feel encouraged that it’s okay to turn their anger on an adult, an adult caretaker.

Jenn: So, as caretakers, what could we do if we witness bullying happening in front of us, whether it’s on a playground or in our own homes?

Joyce: So, you know, I think that you want to be very actively intervening if you are witnessing right then and there because all the other kids around are watching and to not respond is also a response.

Unfortunately, it sort of gives the message that you’re allowing it, that you’re sort of in tacit agreement that perhaps this is an acceptable behavior. And it also, of course, gives the message to the bully that what they’re doing is okay, and to the kid who’s being bullied that they’re not important, that they deserve it somehow.

And so, it’s very important to intervene quickly and not in a punitive or a labeling way, but more to sort of treat it as almost a crisis, to intervene by separating people and taking each of them off to different places.

And having different people sort of focus on each kid and discussing how did this start, trying to get all the details of really the whole context of the interaction because I think that in this way, you also are sort of verbally and actively intervening to hopefully avert future episodes and giving an opening to allow people to start talking about it.

Jenn: So, I wanted to talk a little bit about addressing different types of bullying in different environments.

And I wanted to get started with cyberbullying because it is something that has rapidly escalated, and with so many social media channels, so many ways to impersonate another person online, it almost feels like, it’s like the Wild West. So-

Joyce: Yeah, totally.

Jenn: How can parents address cyberbullying with their kids?

I imagine that it’s probably really difficult to do because there aren’t seemingly physical implications to it, it might be happening outside of school or home jurisdiction. And like I said, the internet is sometimes the Wild West, it’s really hard to wrangle.

Joyce: I think this is the single most difficult thing that parents over the years that I’ve been working with adolescents have brought up over and over is just how in general to manage social media.

Of course, this is the worst case scenario that everyone fears might happen. So first, you have to know what are the signs that maybe your kid is experiencing some type of cyberbullying.

So, the warning signs of course, are increased use of their devices kind of in an obsessional way, and then reacting strongly to whatever they’re seeing on the screen, hiding their screen when you come around, and not being willing to talk about if you do inquire, “Hey, what’s so funny?”

And not, you know, elaborating on it. If they start to show some of those other symptoms that I described earlier, you know, becoming withdrawn, depressed, and you’re seeing it paired with increase in use of their devices, you start to wonder are there things happening online that we really need to get on top of?

And also, if they avoid social situations because often what cyber bullying does is it creates this ostracism and, because it’s about humiliating someone. So, you know, the idea of course, is to actively discuss with your kids your concerns.

Initially, of course, you also want to think about limiting the use of devices so that there is some control over frequency of use, but beyond that, remember also the cell phone is a device.

Often people sort of forget that and think of cyberbullying more as on an iPad or a computer, but really you can do anything now on your phone that you can do on any other type of computer.

So, once you’ve established that yes, in fact, there’s some interaction happening online that is very inappropriate, you want to try to capture any kind of interaction, maybe take a screenshot of it, report it, the media platforms often have reporting policies or processes.

And then, if it seems like it’s edging towards illegal behavior such as an adult reaching out inappropriately to a child, report that to the police and try to get as much information as you can from the perpetrator. Always try to support your kid and try not to be blaming about it.

I think that it’s very easy for adults to get sort of frustrated and angry about the use of these devices and really it has become so ubiquitous even from a young age as a way that people communicate that it’s very hard for kids to withdraw from using them.

And yet, I think there are times when we have told parents, you know, “You need to shut down all social media,” and sometimes that involves really taking control of the WiFi.

You know, maybe turning off their capacity to receive any kind of data until you can really feel like they’re more able to be in control of how they’re handling it and be able to assert themselves and shut down these kinds of messages.

I think often kids are unfortunately sort of passive recipients of the messages that they see online and they come in rapid fire. So, it starts with maybe just, you know, very, what may seem like sort of inconsequential messages of not getting likes, you know, on your posts.

And then, it becomes much more aggressive when people are sort of posting real verbal, you know, threats or insults and sometimes even luring people to meet them. So, these are things that really can become dangerous very quickly, and the kids are masterful at managing the devices, so they’re always one step ahead of you.

And so, that’s where I think it’s really important to really familiarize yourself with how can you track what is happening both in their texting world and on the social media platforms.

Jenn: Out of curiosity, is there a way for parents to address if their kid is being bullied with a coach, a teacher, a school counselor, et cetera, without possibly causing additional provocation from a bully themselves?

I know a lot of parents are concerned that they’ll bring up the behavior, the kid gets reprimanded or suspended or whatever, and it turns out to only exacerbate the aggressive behavior that’s then coming at their child.

Joyce: So, this is tricky because I think that kids often will not disclose bullying because they do fear this exact thing. Retribution. Kids don’t intervene who are witnesses to the bullying because of the same reason.

And so, schools I think really need to work on starting with the kids very young in elementary school and teaching them strategies to respond to bullying both if you are the recipient and if you are a witness.

And the more that that becomes sort of ingrained as a routine, the easier it’ll be when it actually happens for a kid to know kind of how to handle it. There are times when, of course, kids are so very, very hurt by the bullying that their functioning is becoming impaired.

You always want to be talking with your kids about your concerns, but allowing them also to describe how it’s impacting them, and spending a lot of time focusing on them and validating what they’re going through.

This is really another part of developing an environment at home in which a kid feels like they can come to you. So, if you’ve got that kind of relationship and then a kid says, “But please don’t say anything.”

Sometimes what you want to do is kind of problem solve with them, “Okay, how do you want to handle this?” And if it’s something that they say they would like to try to manage on their own then you can talk about strategies.

“Okay, let’s maybe role play. What would you want to say the next time this came up? And then, if it doesn’t work or it’s just too scary for you, are there adults within the school that you feel like you can trust and go to?”

These are also important factors in how parents work with schools. And I think that the communication between parents and schools is really key here. There’s a lot of literature to support that, you know, community committees really should be developed around safety.

And safety particularly around school settings is going to have to be a cooperative kind of endeavor so that schools can explain to parents what are their policies, when they would come to them regarding bullying so that you can reassure your child.

“I understand that it’s really scary for you, and I don’t want to make things worse, but here’s what I understand from your school counselor or from the administrators as to how they handle it.”

And generally, schools are required to develop, you know, policies and processes for responses to bullying.

And if you have reported it and the child comes back and states that it’s continuing to go on, and in fact it’s gotten worse because now the bully has been clued in that you’ve outed them, you can talk about sort of escalating it higher and really asking the school for...

You know, I would just continue to keep going back and asking the school for an intervention, and maybe even creating some kind of a plan for their child to make school feel like a safer place.

Sometimes it means, and we’ve had kids often who present this as a real trauma, changing their schedule so that they don’t have interaction with a bully or working with them on the downtime.

You know, what other ways can they manage besides being alone in the cafeteria, maybe they can make a game plan to have lunch in the guidance counselor’s office or some other kind of space that feels safer for them.

Jenn: I know oftentimes we get a lot of teachers, coaches, school counselors that tune in.

So for any of those folks, how can they go about addressing bullying with the student populations that they work with, full understanding that a lot of times the school or the district has bullying safeguarding in place, but sometimes kids take it better from a teacher or a person of authority that they feel close to?

Joyce: I think that these kind of folks need a lot of training to know how to approach kids. So really, I think the school system should commit to training every school staff person.

And the whole range, bus drivers and cafeteria workers all the way through teachers, coaches, music teachers, places where kids, you know, frequently interact and may have some informal time that they are able to just have frank discussions.

Sometimes they do latch on to particular teachers because of their personalities and they really enjoy the subject. I think sometimes the vocational type subjects are fun places for kids, like woodworking where it’s not quite so formalized.

It’s not quite like a classroom and if that teacher has a comfort level with being able to reach out if they do notice a difference in the way that a kid is presenting, or if they start to observe bullying.

I think that, of course, though it’s very important for teachers to have training in how to manage this because I don’t know that it’s something that people have a comfort level with, and/or know exactly how do you respond?

And so, they don’t want to make it worse, so that’s really, I think, a big part of this is it’s got to be an ongoing process throughout all levels, all grades and throughout the school day, you know, to look at where bullying happens, you know, infuse more supervision around places where there might be increased bullying, on the playground.

You know, bus monitors I think are really important because that’s a big place where I think things fall through the cracks, and bus drivers have to pay attention to the driving.

So, those are the kind of things though I think that are really important because I think what, you know, I look at teachers as often the first responders. They’re the ones that can see changes in the kids first. And they, I think, are sometimes at a loss as to how to respond.

So, it’s really important, and this is something that I think school counselors, school social workers can really be useful at collaborating with the teaching staff about.

Jenn: So, how could parents be proactive and start talking to other parents about ways to address and reduce bullying behaviors in their kids’ environment?

And this is something that you might not necessarily be privy to bullying happening, it might not be happening at all, but just getting ahead of it before it even gets started.

Joyce: So, as I said, I think that these ideas about having maybe these committees developed within the community that include a whole range of people from different backgrounds, parents, teachers, you know, school administrators, clergy, people who may have some kind of interaction with kids outside of school.

Those are very, very helpful to start the process of discussing where do we begin here? And where are the trouble spots that we really need to keep on top of?

You know, it’s often the case that parents might start talking at the bus stop about something, or the soccer field as they’re on the sidelines and feel very frustrated that this behavior has gone on and they start talking to each other about comparing notes and feeling like there hasn’t been a great response.

So, parents as much as possible should be involved in parent-teacher meetings, you know, certainly open houses. If you have the bandwidth to be on the PTO, really be able to keep this as an open-ended, you know, kind of alive topic.

Not, because I think that the worst thing is for parents just to sort of rumble to themselves or to each other about how frustrated they feel without having any place to go with it.

Schools want to hear about this. And so I think that if there can be some kind of way that they can even institutionalize, you know, a bullying program where there’s some research done, even within the school, you know.

Maybe there could be question and answers, you know, that are anonymous, you know, surveys given out to the kids, to the teachers, to the parents, and have a committee go through and analyze, you know, what are kids really experiencing because often they may not be open about it if they have to reveal who they are.

What are parents experiencing? How different are they really, you know, these different responses? But, you know, I think that there’s ways in which we have to keep communication open.

We as an inpatient unit and on the other programs that I’ve worked in, the social workers often reach out to the schools, and the folks that they’re most in contact with are the guidance counselors, or the adjustment counselors, or the social workers at school.

So, there’s kind of a lead-off point to talk about what’s happening with this kid from our perspective, what are the trouble spots that they’re reporting about school, and what can the school do to respond differently to really ramp up the support so that upon their return to school they don’t fall back into kind of the same environment?

And so, this all becomes, I think, a bigger topic that starts with sort of what the goals are of the school system and what they would like to see happen to really be able to head off bullying because what you’re talking about is prevention.

And as much as possible, I think, to create an environment of inclusion, you know, talking about feeling the school as a community because for most of your kid’s life in their early stages up until age 18, they spend a large percentage of their time at school, so school really does become their community.

And if there’s ways in which schools can foster a sense of ownership, you know, that every kid can experience, you know, as part of contributing in a positive way, I think that’s a really nice value, you know, to reinforce.

Parents also at home should be aware of their own behavior. You know, are they talking about say maybe other types of groups in exclusionary ways? Are they labeling people who maybe have differences from them?

And the range of types of issues that are going around that people disagree upon, you know, has really ramped up into sort of very significant contention in our country. And so, I think what we want to do is try to figure out for ourselves how that reflects within our own attitudes.

And look for opportunities to sort of undo that perhaps within, if you have a religious orientation, if you belong to some kind of a religious group, to talk about the values of inclusion, of caring for each other as important and vital, to really encourage people to feel like they’re part of something greater than themselves.

Jenn: One of the things that you’ve mentioned a couple times is about having or encouraging our kids to be less passive recipients of bullying behavior, that it seems kind of like the bullying behavior happens, you don’t want to incite anything else so you just kind of lie down and become a doormat, you just take it, that’s the best way to go.

Not the case at all, but what are some ways that we could help our kids feel empowered to be less passive recipients of behaviors without encouraging aggression in return?

Joyce: That’s a great question, and I think it’s a struggle throughout all ages. And I think that, again, going back to creating an environment where kids feel validated to be able to just express whatever is going on for them is so critical.

And for parents to be careful not to jump in and try to intervene too quickly, not to try to solve the problem for them because what you’re talking about is building resilience, building a capacity to feel competent in any kind of a challenging social environment.

So, first, you want to get your kid talking about where are the pitfalls for them? Where are the times where they do feel less capable of standing up for themselves? Sometimes it’s just a lack of skills.

You know, we teach kids here about how to become assertive and not aggressive, ways that you use language by making “I” statements, focusing on your own reactions to something as opposed to labeling someone else and becoming accusatory towards them.

So, you know, these are important strategies to start building and modeling, you know, how do you treat each other within the family?

Very important because I do think, again, you’re modeling for your kids how to manage social interactions by the way that you treat others in the family, and, you know, even yourselves, which is another part of validation that I don’t think gets as much attention.

Parents who are self-reproachable and are acting that way overtly I think teach kids to be that way. And so, you want to be gentle to yourself as a parent, to be understanding that this is a challenging time and that you are doing the best you can to reach out for help if you’re really stuck.

There are lots of good sources, you know, if you do need a counselor. Sometimes it’s not therapy for yourself, but we often recommend parents to go to a therapist specifically for parenting guidance.

We’ll, sometimes we recommend particular literature for parents to read. A lot of the types of outpatient programs will refer kids to also have parent groups. So those are all places where parents can learn how to talk to their children, how to treat each other, how to treat themselves, so that’s a way to start.

The other thing to think about is if a kid is coming to you and they’re experiencing, they’re the recipient of bullying, talking about what they have done and what might be more effective. What you want to do is not give it oxygen.

Bullying only stays alive when you have a reaction from the other person. And so, without trying to give the message that you want to squash your emotions in all settings, of course, you want to in this particular situation just give, I think the message that to your kids that you don’t want to react.

You know, if necessary, just walk away if you’re starting to get upset, don’t allow them to see that they have gotten to you because that’s going to be encouraging to the bully. And the other thing would be, of course, if they are able to assert themselves, to ask them to stop doing it.

Often I think that then helps the watchers around it be more emboldened. Kids need to be able to feel like they’re part of a group when they’re going to confront a bully. I don’t think that any kid feels that it’s really, you know, tolerable to be the sole person to call them out.

So, again, this is something that I think could be part of a school curriculum. You know, I think that kids learn a lot of things in health and I think that mental health may be something that they really want to include as part of teaching kids, not just about how they manage their bodies physically, but how do they manage their emotions?

And so, teaching them about skills for handling, you know, very dysregulated states, skills for handling interpersonal struggles like this, having them run through scenarios.

I think the most effective way that someone can really learn how to and feel comfortable in acting something that is very difficult with another person is to practice it, and practice it over and over again.

Parents can do this with their kids, you know, they can pretend to be the bully and have the kids react to them, and then change places. We often do that in groups here.

We’ll have kids set up scenarios where they’re trying to figure out a way to interact, to speak their mind, to be able to stand up to someone without exploding, without becoming hurtful, and also without withdrawing and hurting themselves.

Jenn: One of the things that you’ve mentioned a few times in the session is the importance of having an open relationship with your kid, having an environment in which you can validate their feelings, their emotions at home.

What do parents do if they don’t have this open relationship with their child? Do you have any advice for actions or language that they can start using to foster this kind of relationship?

Joyce: So, our adolescent programs, many of them are heavily based in dialectical behavioral therapy principles.

This is an extraordinarily powerful treatment, and there are now lots and lots and lots of places where, you can just even Google it to get information about how to start developing skills to interact with your kids.

Because, they have specific DBT, it’s called DBT, dialectical behavioral therapy, programs, within DBT targeted towards adolescents and towards children. And so, it’s such an extraordinarily, I think, ubiquitous program that can be used in all sorts of different kinds of populations to really be able to help people know where to start.

And particularly, like you said, if they’re jumping in in the middle of something, you also may have noticed if your child is moving into adolescence that they’ve changed and they’ve shut down, that maybe you had that open relationship at one point, you know, your kid came home, they sort of cuddled with you, they wanted to tell you about their day.

And they get into sixth grade and when they start to really develop and sort of get within their peer interactions there’s this shift, and the person that they’re becoming is not the person that they started out as.

And often, the one thing that gets shut down in adolescence is communication with adults because, of course, the next stage in adolescence is to become independent, and often that means rejecting adults, it means pushing them away.

So, you’re sort of working sort of upstream trying to develop or connect with a kid in a new way. And understanding that, it is going to be challenging.

Jenn: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask in this session, what do I do if my child is the bully, and how do I talk to them about it? It’s like the worst case scenario.

I mean, neither side of the coin is good, right? We don’t want our kids to be bullied, we don’t want our kids to be inciting hurtful behaviors, but what do we do if they are?

Joyce: Yeah, yeah, this is tricky too, it’s very hard to hear I think as a parent. And often there are lots of reasons why kids start to develop, you know, bullying as sort of as their MO.

Again, we talked about individually, they want to feel popular, maybe they have a problem with impulsivity, they just react sometimes, they have difficulty managing aggression or self-esteem issues, and then it starts to impact their peer relationships.

And so, they want to try to get on top of that and develop this kind of power dominance in order to regain sort of their footing interpersonally. How to talk about it is really similar to how you would talk about anything that’s difficult is to number one, not label the behavior.

You know, not be belittling or punitive initially. There may need to be at some point a consequence, of course, down the road, but you don’t want to start out with that.

What you want to start out with is sort of developing an open conversation about, where is this coming from? And are they even aware that this is being perceived as bullying?

Because that’s a really critical part of this. Often kids are in denial or they’re blaming of others, “Well, you know, it’s not me, they started it. You know, if they weren’t like this, I wouldn’t be reacting this way.”

You know, so I think that if you can really express to them how very concerned you are again, without being belittling of the behavior or of them, but just expressing really genuinely, you know, what you’re feeling about this, that’s a good way to open up a discussion about it.

Jenn: How can parents address behaviors with parents of other kids that are bullying a child, especially if they’re not necessarily, like, it’s not their kid being bullied.

A follow-up question that someone wrote in asking was do you have any research to provide these parents so that they understand that the child’s behavior is in fact bullying and not “just joking?”

Joyce: So, again, I would refer folks back to this stopbullying.gov, which is, there’s a lot of other material that they reference that is useful to help parents sort of understand more about the context of where bullying develops, and what the difference is between sort of normal conflict and bullying.

And I think that the question about how do you approach another parent is very tricky. Sometimes you don’t want to, honestly. Sometimes if it is a school-based situation, you want to take it to the school and allow them to handle it.

Because unless you have a relationship with that parent where you feel comfortable that they can be receptive, the first thing that’s going to happen is a parent may feel very defensive and then you’re going to get caught up in trying to sort of manage, how do I respond to this?

And it often doesn’t go well, and you’re really left then with a sense of a bigger problem on your hands, you know? Because you don’t know if a parent is going to be willing to acknowledge that, “Yeah, I know he’s got a problem” or “she’s got a problem, and we’ve been struggling with this for a while.”

That’s often not going to be the reception that they’re going to get, so I’d be super careful about putting yourself in that position.

Jenn: Do you think it’s possible, I know you’ve mentioned dialectical behavior therapy, but is it possible for bullies to get help to start changing their behaviors?

Joyce: Absolutely.

Jenn: Besides DBT what are some other methods that they could enroll to help change their behaviors?

Joyce: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting when I was reading through this particular question, some of the literature does not support group therapy for bullies because I think that there is just too much of a possibility that kids can start to rationalize their behavior and support each other in that rationalization, and it’s very hard to sort of redirect from that.

I think that obviously bullies are really people who are very troubled inside, and so you just start out with a good therapist, someone who’s recommended. Talk to your pediatrician, they often have great connections.

Sometimes pediatricians even have behavioral health clinicians embedded in their practice and they can be very helpful in directing, once they do sort of an assessment where the next sort of intervention could be helpful.

Jenn: I know we’re starting to bump up toward the end of the hour. Any last words of wisdom that you want to share with folks tuning in about bullying?

Joyce: You know, I think that it’s very, very, it’s a very difficult topic.

I do think that it’s not coincidental that bullying has gone underground much more so recently because of the pandemic isolation. Kids have not had their normal avenues to interact with each other.

The important thing about being in-person in any kind of venue at school, or in some kind of other group setting activities is for kids to be able to practice knowing how to negotiate difficult social interactions, understanding how to read the room, how to understand ambiguous expressions of language.

That is all subservient to what, you know, happens when it’s just online interaction. So, unfortunately I think that kids have lost a year of that development.

So, what I would say is to really, again, work on keeping your communication open, looking within yourself, being mindful about your own behavior, talking with your kids about situations or folks who have both been positive role models.

And you can look to sports figures. Football has really amped up their response to taunting, and I think that that’s a format that you can discuss that. It’s really helpful because it opens up conversations in lots of different ways.

Jenn: Awesome. And I know you said it, bullying is a really difficult topic, it’s tough for everybody.

This conversation was also really difficult to have because it’s such a tough topic, but you handled it beautifully with a lot of grace and a lot of knowledge, and I cannot thank you enough for joining me for an hour to talk all about bullying, all its impacts, and ways that we can just be better people overall.

So, Joyce, thank you so much for this great session. And to anybody tuning in, thank you so much for joining. This actually ends our conversation. Like I always say, until next time, be nice to one another, but most importantly, be nice to yourself.

Thank you again, Joyce, and have a great day folks.

Joyce: Thank you.

Jenn: Thanks for tuning in to Mindful Things! Please subscribe to us and rate us on iTunes, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

Don’t forget, mental health is everyone’s responsibility. If you or a loved one are in crisis, the Samaritans are available 24 hours a day at 877.870.4673. Again, that’s 877.870.4673.

- - -

The McLean Hospital podcast Mindful Things is intended to provide general information and to help listeners learn about mental health, educational opportunities, and research initiatives. This podcast is not an attempt to practice medicine or to provide specific medical advice.

© 2022 McLean Hospital. All Rights Reserved.