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December 22, 2011

Being in control isn't always a good thing...

Terranova,A.M., Harris, J., Kavetski, M., & Oates, R. (2011). Responding to peer victimization: A sense of control matters. Child Youth Care Forum, 40, 419-434.

These authors were interested in seeing what factors explained how children respond to peer-victimization. They note that a history of frequent peer-victimization may make children respond more emotionally in similar context e.g. experiencing higher levels of anger, fear and embarrassment. They also suggest that children’s attitudes can help us understand the ways in which they respond, citing evidence that children with positive attitudes toward aggression are more likely to respond aggressively. Finally, drawing on some of my own published work and on transactional coping theory, they suggest that children’s perceptions of control can influence their reactions and the ways in which they respond to peer-victimization.

Here, the goal was to investigate these issues using a longitudinal design. Overall, responses from 311 students were included. The young people involved were aged between 10 and 13 years old and were based in four separate schools in the US. All young people taking part did so on two occasions, and these were 6 months apart. They assessed a few different kinds of coping: peer social support, adult/family social support, internalizing (e.g. feeling sad, bottling feelings up), externalizing (e.g. swearing, hitting things, acting out, fighting back), and avoidance (e.g. staying away from specific areas in school). Participants also reported on their level of peer-victimization, their attitudes toward being aggressive, and their sense of control over bullying behaviors directed toward them. All measures were self-report.

Results indicated that boys were more likely to use externalizing, were more likely to be victimized, and were more likely to hold positive attitudes toward the use of aggression. Girls were more likely than boys were to seek and receive peer support.

When predicting coping strategy use at the end of the study, there were only two important predictors: Attitudes supporting the use of aggression predicted an increase in the use of internalizing coping behaviour as well as a reduced likelihood of asking for help from adults and family members. Higher levels of control were related to more use of externalizing responses over time.

Additionally, for young people who felt that there wasn’t much they could do to stop bullying behaviour (i.e. they had low perceived control) pro-aggression attitudes reduced the chances that they would ask for help. Furthermore, pro-aggression attitudes coupled with a high sense of control made students less likely to avoid situations where they might be bullied. Finally, young people with low levels of peer support were more likely to use externalizing coping, and this was exacerbated when they also had high levels of perceived control.

The authors note some important policy implications of their work. They suggest that  improving young people’s perceptions of control can impact both positively and negatively how they respond to peer-victimization. Because of this, it is important to both increase a sense of control emphasise which behaviours are the best ways to respond. They feel that work (i) reducing attitudes supporting the use of aggression and (ii) building peer support networks can help achieve these goals.

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