By: Sarah Sanders, Intern for The Baddour Center’s Education & Behavior Support Division
Bullying behavior occurs in many different settings, with many different age groups. Unfortunately, this is one aspect that is not different about life at The Baddour Center.
Walter Roberts, Jr., noted counseling professor and author, has written and implemented numerous anti-bullying initiatives that have proven beneficial and successful. He explained that two basic principles must be present for any bullying prevention method to thrive: 1) a unified belief that the negative behavior is a problem and 2) the courage to act (Roberts, 2006).
But first, what exactly is bullying, and how do we determine if a behavior can be reputed as bullying? Bullying consists of repeated negative actions that are both purposeful and intended to adversely affect at least one other individual. The efforts often fall on a continuum ranging from mild to moderate to severe. Evidence shows that men tend to choose more aggressive and physical acts, while women typically use verbal attacks (Roberts, 2006).
There are four essential questions to consider when determining if a behavior can be regarded as bullying. What is the nature of the behavior? How intense is the behavior? How often do the actions occur? And one that is often overlooked, how does the target respond? For example, someone simply observing playful banter may assume that an individual is being bullied when someone pulls a harmless prank, but how did the target react? Were they upset, or did they laugh it off as a joke?
Next, we need to determine who is most likely to be bullied. Objectively, four groups tend to become “easy” targets, and it is important to remember that one individual may fall into more than one category. These groups include those who are isolated or deemed “outcasts,” those who move around often, those with a desire to be a part of a group, and the defenseless (Roberts, 2006).
When bullying becomes a reality, victims are affected in numerous ways. Cognitively, their thoughts about themselves or others may change. They may begin to overgeneralize and believe they are bad or hated by everyone. Emotionally, they may become depressed or anxious, which often leads to long-term mental illness. Behaviorally, the individual may avoid certain places where bullying occurs or they may start choosing to spend more time alone or secluded from others.
Additionally, these symptoms may manifest in physical symptoms like headaches or nausea (Roberts,2006). At this point, professionals must also remember to gauge self-injurious behavior. If it is believed that the individual may harm themselves or others, we should ask them what could immediately help the situation and what their future may look like.
Once we know how a target may be affected, we can move towards helping them process and handle the difficulties they may be facing. Most importantly, we must determine if they are physically safe. For this step, we need to consider their location at Baddour and the proximity of the one displaying bullying behavior. For example, do they live in the same home? Will that person retaliate if they know about the report?
Next, we move into the bulk of the helping relationship. We must listen to their story. This should include gathering all the key details surrounding the incident, including where it happened, with whom, how they’re feeling, and if anyone else knows about what happened.
After collecting this information, we should support their efforts of belonging to our community. Ensure them that the negative behavior is not tolerated, and assist them in creating a plan to improve their current situation. If necessary, we should always ask for their permission before sharing any details with other staff members to protect their autonomy.
Following the initial report, counseling may be recommended. Therapists may help those who are targets by providing individual or group counseling, teaching assertiveness skills, verbal de-escalation, and positive coping techniques. Lastly, the victim should never feel abandoned. The staff member who took the initial report should check in with the resident or provide the individual with a peer-support member.
In addition to helping the victim, it is imperative to reach out and contact the aggressor. It would be a disservice to assume that aggressive or bullying behavior was learned in their home environment. In fact, bullying often stems from the desire to make up for their own slights or insults. They may have the mentality of “they laughed at me, so I need to get them back.” Furthermore, Griffin, Fisher, Lane, and Morin (n.d.) found that individuals with intellectual and developmental disorders perceive two distinctive factors: bullies have challenges and bullies focus on differences. Like with the victim, we must listen to their story and ask questions to understand their behavior. We should assure them that expressing their fear, frustration, or sadness is not a weakness.
Next, education about boundaries and acceptable behaviors should be explicitly expressed. These statements should be clear and direct. Offering one-on-one time with this individual shows them that we will never give up on them, despite their negative actions. Some reluctance is expected at first, but if valuable connections are made, those walls can be taken down.
After this relationship has been formed, effective policies should be set in motion. These practices should include a sense of accountability and responsibility rather than punishment. For example, a collaborative plan should be made to “right their wrongs.” We can inform them of the hurt they caused and encourage them to apologize to any hurt individuals. Again, therapeutic services may be offered after this step. Counseling may focus on anger management or cognitive restructuring.
Finally, we cannot turn our back on the aggressor, just like we cannot forget about their victim. If they become alienated, the cycle of bullying begins again.
Griffin, M.M., Fisher, M.H., Lane, L.A., & Morin, L. (n.d.). In their own words: Perceptions and experiences of bullying among individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Retrieved from https://www.aaidd.org/docs/default-source/default-document-library/fisher.pdf?sfvrsn=7c8e3621_0
Roberts, W.B. (2006). Bullying from both sides: Strategic interventions for working with bullies and their victims. Corwin.
**Note to the reader: this article is a summary of a presentation made by Sarah to residents and staff of The Baddour Center earlier this year. We appreciate her offering this education and awareness as we seek to provide the best quality services to residents.**