June 15, 2011

Don't fight back, and don't show you're upset: What victims say helps.

Tenenbaum, L.S., Varjas, K., Meyers, J., & Parris, L. (2011). Coping strategies and perceived effectiveness in fourth through eighth grade victims of bullying. School Psychology International, 32, 263-287.

These authors were interested in the coping strategies that young people reported using when dealing with victimization. Of particular interest were whether gender differences exist in coping strategy use, and how effective the different coping strategies were considered to be by the young people themselves.

Participating students attended one elementary school and one middle school in the USA. Those who took part had been identified by adults as ‘chronic victims of bullying’. Overall, 102 young people (64 boys, 38 girls) aged 9 to 15 years old took part in small group interviews. The interview groups ranged from three to eight students and took from 30 minutes to 1 hour to complete.

Analyzing the discussions, the authors identified two main coping strategy themes and a number of more focused themes which reflected discrete ways of coping:
  • Problem-focused. This included Self-Defense (i.e. fighting back, usually as a last resort), Stand Up To The Bully, Seeking Social Support (this was the strategy reported most often), Distancing (e.g. ignoring the bulling behavior) and Internalizing (e.g. hiding your feelings so that the bully won’t know they’re upsetting you).
  • Emotion-focused. This included Seeking Social Support, Distancing (e.g. just trying to forget about the problem), Internalizing (e.g. feelin hurt and beginning to believe what the bullies say), Tension-Reduction/Externalizing (e.g. yelling at the bully, getting mad), Focus On The Positive, and Self-Blame (this was not reported very often though).

What do young people say helps?

  • Many young people thought that informing a teacher or adult was a waste of time. Some said that adults didn’t believe them, others reported that they were worried about bullying getting worse if they were seen as tell-tales. Where telling an adult was successful, this was seen as being restricted to the short-term, with bullying starting again after a while.
  • Fighting back was seen in a negative light. Students felt that either it would be ineffective and they would suffer physical pain, or they themselves risked getting into trouble at school for fighting if they fought back. This was not generally not considered to be an effective response.
  • The young people interviewed here also said that showing emotions when being bullied was a bad move and that crying or running away might actually encourage more bullying behavior.
  • Finally, these young people found that distracting themselves from their difficulties did help them to feel better – for example, drawing, reading, and listening to music.

I found the comments made by students here interesting. The fact that students reported adult help to be generally ineffective was very illuminating, and is likely one of the reasons why young people approach adults for help less and less frequently as they get older. It was also interesting to find them noting that even if bullying stopped it tended to start again at a later date – I think this emphasizes that anti-bullying policies need to incorporate ‘follow-up’ meetings to check whether resolved instances of bullying have been maintained over time.

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