7 Steps to Combat Bullying

Bullying awareness is increasing. The problem pervades school communities worldwide and is associated with negative outcomes for all those involved. However, targets of chronic bullying are particularly vulnerable to experiencing physical, emotional, social, and academic problems, both in the short and long term.  

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Bullying is defined as repeated hurtful behaviours where there is an imbalance of power between the bully (or bullies) and the target. This misuse of power can be expressed verbally, physically, socially, or via technology and can cause significant harm. Bullying is also best understood as a systemic problem as everyone in the school community including peer bystanders and teachers have influence over the school culture and distributions of power within the school.

The responsibility to address bullying should really lie with bullies, teachers, and bystanders who have more power over the situation. However, targets of bullying are the ones who most want the bullying to stop and can benefit from being empowered to address the situation in new ways.

Parents, teachers, and peers can be quick to offer generic advice on how to prevent further bullying: “Just ignore them”, “Don’t react, as bullies want to see your reaction”, “Stand up for yourself”, “Say something witty back”, “Tell a teacher”, “Avoid them” etc. While some of these approaches can be helpful, giving targets generic suggestions does not take the complexity of specific bullying interactions into account nor does it acknowledge the inherent power imbalance in bullying relationships. It also does not provide targets with a listening ear, support, or the skills needed to change their responses. Moreover, it fails to address the strong and painful feelings that can arise when on the receiving end of bullying.

Structured problem-solving is a helpful framework that parents, teachers, professionals, and peers can use to support targets of bullying. This approach guides systematic and collaborative thinking about potential ways the bullying problem can be addressed. It  takes the target’s sphere of influence, skill level, age, and the context in which the bullying is occurring into account. This framework adds an extra step to the traditional problem-solving approach to highlight the preparation, skills training and recruitment of help from others that is often necessary to effectively address bullying.

Here are the 7 key steps of this problem-solving approach:

  1. Identify and describe the problem - be as specific as possible e.g., who, when, what, how.
  2. Brainstorm solutions - be creative and try to think of as many as you can.
  3. Evaluate each solution, one at a time, by working out the pros and cons of each solution and try to think through what might happen in each case.
  4. Rank each of the solutions from best to worst, taking into account their pros and cons and predicted outcomes.
  5. Plan out and prepare to implement the preferred solution. For example, this might involve role playing a particular response to a bullying scenario, practising a particular emotion regulation strategy such as calm breathing, or recruiting help from others. Try to anticipate and prepare for any risks as well. To help with this step, it might be beneficial to seek help from a professional or to connect the child with a safe adult at school.
  6. Try out the solution you predicted would lead to the best outcome.
  7. Reflect on whether the solution was effective. If it was, think about why it was helpful and what this teaches you for next time. If it wasn’t, reflect on its limitations and pick the next best solution from Step 4 and repeat Steps 5 to 7.  

A Word of Caution:

This problem-solving approach offers a helpful framework for supporting targets of bullying. However, jumping into problem-solving mode too quickly or without permission can result in more harm than help. Remember that being the target of bullying already comes with a sense of disempowerment. Therefore, running in and trying to ‘save’ the person is often doing them a disservice as it can reinforce feelings of helplessness.

So, what should we do instead? Think about the last time you were distressed about something. What did you need from others? Most people aren’t looking for someone to jump in straight away with a ‘Mr Fix It’ approach. Instead, they first want to be heard and validated. They need a safe space to share their experience and their feelings about a situation. They want to connect with a trusted, supportive, and empathic person and they want to know that their concerns make sense given the situation.

Therefore, when supporting someone who has been bullied, be sure to start with listening and validating. Only afterwards and with their permission should you consider introducing them to the steps of structured problem-solving. This approach serves to empower targets of bullying by combining social support and skills development, which together aim to address the inherent power imbalance in bullying relationships.

Bullying is a complex and systemic problem that requires creative solutions tailored to each particular situation. These ideas may serve as a helpful starting point to support targets of bullying.

Dr Nicole Sokol, Clinical Psychologist

Dr Nicole Sokol, Clinical Psychologist

This blog has been prepared by Dr Nicole Sokol, Clinical Psychologist at the Sydney Anxiety Clinic. Nicole is passionate about her work as a Clinical Psychologist and is committed to delivering evidence-based and client-centred therapeutic interventions to clients of all ages. She draws upon significant clinical experience in both the public and private sectors as well as strong research training, including a PhD on school bullying.  Find out more about Dr Nicole Sokol