Although passion and widespread sympathy for bullying victims is natural and admirable, those who want to stop bullying abuse need to act in ways that reflect good science and proven research if they want to contribute to a culture that does not condone this behavior, according to the director of the Dr. Jean Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence at the University at Buffalo in Buffalo, NY.
"There is such a tension right now around the issue of bullying. A lot of people have passion and want to make a difference," said center director Amanda Nickerson. "But I'm worried that passion is not coupled with good science and theory behind it. So one of the things the Alberti Center can do is conduct research and also look closely at what we know about the research to guide the efforts."
National attention and concern with bullying continues to be one of the most discussed and debated social issues of the year. Most recently, singer Lady Gaga started a new nonprofit foundation to promote "self-confidence and anti-bullying." The entertainer has often cited the suicide of 14-year-old Williamsville high school student Jamey Rodemeyer. Her new Born This Way foundation came about after she recently met with President Obama to discuss ways to combat youth bullying.
Given the attention and outcry over this tragedy - and the steady stream of media attention to the implications of Rodemeyer's death - Nickerson addressed related topics, from the tell-tale signs your child is being bullied to Nickerson's mission at UB's Alberti Center.
Q: What is bullying?
AN: Bullying is a form of aggression. It's intentional, usually repeated acts of verbal, social or cyber aggression with the intent to cause either psychological or physical harm to the target. It also involves a power differential between the person bullying and the target.
Q: Can you explain what you would like the Alberti Center to accomplish?
AN: Our mission at the Alberti Center is to identify, research and disseminate information to practitioners about bullying abuse, prevention and intervention. Our primary focus is on conducting empirical research on the problem of bullying, how it develops and what we can do. We want to disseminate research of high quality so that practitioners have a solid base to guide their efforts.
Q: What are some qualities of programs that have successfully prevented or changed bullying behavior?
AN: Successful anti-bullying programs target the school level in terms of having clear and consistent policies administrators can follow; they also work directly with the students, educating them not only about bullying, but also teaching them assertiveness skills, empathy and how to manage emotions. So it's not just saying "bullying is wrong" and giving them quick solutions to it. It's really about having a shared vision and systematic efforts at targeting the problem. And it's about creating a culture where it's not acceptable and where kids and adults will step up to intervene.
These successful policies explicitly define what bullying is and what it encompasses. They also have a consistent response that the school staff will take when this happens. Most often they have a continuum of consequences, not just suspension and expulsion, but meaningful, logical consequences for this behavior. And they have efforts that show that schools are trying to educate and prevent and teach kids about these issues and give them skills they need.
Q: What about anti-bullying laws? Do they have an impact on reducing bullying behavior?
AN: I will say that school policies that address this and are enforced consistently have been shown to be effective. But in terms of laws, I don't think we have data to support that having strict laws to punish kids who bully is the answer.
Q: What are some signs that your child may be the victim of bullying?
AN: The classic signs are torn clothing, unexplained injuries, and missing belongings. But often the signs are more subtle. Changes in behavior, loss of interest in activities they once found enjoyable, school avoidance, headaches, stomach aches, and physical complaints that don't seem to have a physical explanation can also be warning signs.
Q: What should you do if you do suspect trouble?
AN: If you think your child is being bullied, start the conversation. Tell them what you noticed about their behavior and that you are concerned. Ask explicitly if there is bullying at school, and then listen and empathize when they tell their stories. Sometime that is the most important thing we can do, just to be there with our children to hear and to say 'That must be really hard for you. I'm sorry that happened. That shouldn't have happened.' And then join with the child about what you are going to do about it.
Parents obviously need to take the lead on the effort. But kids are more aware of the peer culture and the culture of the school to know what will make it worse and what will make it better. So we need to involve them in the conversation. Also contacting the school and getting the school involved. We don't recommend parents try to address this directly, especially with the parents of the child who is bullying. It's better to get a third party involved, and the school is the most logical choice.
Q. Any other words of advice when it comes to identifying what does work?
AN: In order to work effectively with individuals who bully, it involves a combination of responding to the behavior in on-the-spot intervention, saying it's wrong, and applying appropriate consequences. But it can't just be about punishment. It also needs to be about teaching acceptable alternatives to the behavior. It is important to try to identify what it is that is feeding into the behavior, whether it is their cognitions (for example, believing that they are superior to others and that others deserve this), or their need for power and control, and showing them there are more adaptive ways they can go about getting that.