Advice for youth

Welcome to this website. I have been working with youth of all ages as a therapist, school counselor, and researcher since 1969. Most recently I have been part of the Youth Voice Project, an internet survey that asked more than 13,000 teens about mistreatment by others. On this page I will write about what I have learned about the problem that many people call bullying. I will start by writing about what you can do if someone does hurtful things to you. Then I will write about what you can do if you are doing hurtful things to others. At the end of this essay I will write about what you can do to help if you see or hear hurtful behavior.

One thing before we start…. I don’t use the word “bullying” much anymore because the word has too many different meanings. Also, when we use the word “bullying” we often think of the word “bully.” All people do mean things sometimes and kind things sometimes, and after all these years I can’t figure out how to tell that one person is a “bully” and another person is not. I can’t see how it helps to call someone a bully, any more than it helps to call someone weak or clumsy.

What if other people do hurtful things to you?
Mean behavior can hurt. It can hurt even if the people doing it think they are only joking. It can hurt even if the people doing it are your friends, or your boyfriend, or your girlfriend. On the other hand, there are things you can do to lessen the hurt. I am grateful to the thousands of youth who completed our research questionnaire. Here is what they said.

More than 2,900 of the students who took our questionnaire (more than 1/4 of them) said other young people had repeatedly called them names, threatened them, hit them, stopped them from having friends, or did something else that could hurt them physically or emotionally. This mistreatment sometimes focused on body shape, appearance, intelligence, sexual orientation, race, gender, and parents’ income or other topics. Yet about half of that group of teens who were treated badly said that they had only mild bad effects from what others did. In our research, we wanted to understand why some people were not seriously hurt by others’ mean behavior.

To find this out we asked what they had done, what teachers did, and what other teens did, and for each action we asked what happened next. Did things get better? Did nothing change? Did things get worse? The actions which young people used when others did mean things to them fit into three categories:

  1. “Don’t act like a victim” These actions included “I told the person to stop,” “I told the person how I felt about what they did,” “I walked away,” and “I pretended what they did didn’t bother me.” Adults often give youth some blend of these types of advice. However, the almost 3,000 mistreated students in our study told us that these strategies only work some of the time. More often, they said, things got worse when they used these strategies. That doesn’t mean that it’s bad to tell (or ask) someone to stop doing something that bothers you. What it does mean is that you may not feel safe doing that. Or you may feel safe asking the person to stop and then you may find that he or she doesn’t listen to you.
  2. Get support: These actions included asking parents or guardians for help, asking other students for help, and asking adults at school for help. All three of these actions worked more often than telling the person to stop. Of course, sometimes asking someone for help didn’t make things better- yet many times it did.
  3. Think about what happened differently. In other words, don’t THINK like a victim: In seventh through twelfth grade, teens who realized that they are not to blame when others mistreat them said that those thoughts helped. They realized that when someone is mean to you, that shows you what the other person is like but it doesn’t show you anything about yourself. When I reviewed what these students told us, I thought of Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter books. Draco is mean to all kinds of people as long as they are not part of his group. His mean actions have nothing to do with the behavior of anyone he teases. Instead, they show us something about him.  Many students in our survey said they realized that the people who were doing mean things to them were acting immature.

Based on what youth told us, and on my experience working with young people, I have some more detailed advice to give:

  1. Don’t keep someone else’s mean behavior toward you a secret. Get help if what someone does bothers you. Even if the person you seek help from can’t stop the behavior, they can help you see that you are not at fault, that you have strengths, and that mean behavior doesn’t have to ruin your life. You may feel embarrassed to ask for help. Just remember that if someone is mean to you, they are the one who should feel embarrassed. People should feel embarrassed when they have done something wrong. If you ask for help and the person you ask won’t help you or says you are “tattling”, ask someone else for help. Adults may be able to stop the behavior. Even if they can’t stop the behavior, they can give you support and encouragement.
  2. Don’t take other peoples’ mean words or actions into your own head or into your heart. In Pink’s wonderful song “perfect,” she sings: “You’re so mean when you talk/ to yourself/ change the voices in your head/ make them like you instead.” I agree. Find people who will help you see yourself as the valuable, important, likeable person you are. Those people, who can be other teens or adults, can help drown out the negative voices. They can help you filter out mean words so you don’t wind up mistreating yourself. Other peoples’ mean behavior can be bad enough. You don’t have to help other people hurt you by believing what they say about you. Maybe someday soon they will grow up a little and find other ways to have a good time. Until then, what they do to you is their fault, not yours. Of course, if you hit them first, or started rumors about them, or otherwise were seriously mean to them, you might be partly at fault. But most of the time that’s not true. If people try to convince you that you deserve the mean things they do to you because of how you look or how you act or who you love or because you are “different,” they are not telling the truth.
  3. Don’t lose hope. Adults might tell you that your teenage years are the “best years of your life.” For most people, this is not true. Adolescence can be a time of great unhappiness, and for almost all people things get better as they get a little older. When you get older you can choose your work, your friends, and where you live. You will get much more control over your life as you get older, and often that means that your life will get better.
  4. Find things you love to do and people you love to do those things with. When you are involved in a hobby, music, sports, art, gardening, service to others, or in the many other things people love to do, you will have ways to find the joy that comes with accomplishment. When you have your own goals and work toward them you will earn a deep sense of accomplishment. When you choose friends who help you toward your goals and who like you, you will probably not be bothered so much if a few people don’t like you.
  5. Find ways to make other peoples’ lives better.  I mentioned this in the last paragraph. I’ll say it again because it’s important. When you are doing things that help others, it probably won’t bother you so much if a few other people don’t like you.
  6. If things get really bad, get help. If the walls are closing in, or you can’t see any hope, tell people until someone pays attention and helps you. Most people have times in their lives when things seem desperate and when they don’t believe things will get better. Yet things DO get better. People who care about you can help you if you feel this way. Tell them, and let them help. Things get better.

What if you have been mean to other people and it’s starting to bother you?
Sometimes people use bad judgment and say or do things that hurt others. Sometimes people copy the behavior they see in their lives or on television. Sometimes people get angry and do things that hurt others. As you know, adults sometimes do all these things, too. If this is a description of you, you don’t have to act this way your whole life.

  • The first step is to realize that you don’t like what you did.
  • The next step is to stop doing it, even if you have to ask for help changing your behavior.
  • The third step is to find ways to act in kind, helpful ways toward someone and see how good that can feel.
  • You can change.

What if you have been seeing mean behavior and it bothers you?
If you are a witness to mean actions, there are many things you can do to help.

You might think that the only thing you can do is tell the person who is teasing or hitting or starting rumors to stop. Sometimes that helps, but sometimes that makes things worse.

Youth in our study told us that what helped them the most were acts of kindness, support, and encouragement from their peers. They said that when other young people listened to them, spent time with them, helped them tell adults, helped them get away from tough situations, and even called them at home to give support, things got better most of the time. Teens in our study said actions of alliance and friendship and support were the best things anyone could do for them. You can make a difference.

More than 9,000 of the teens taking our questionnaire wrote about ways they had helped other youth and they wrote about how good that felt. One girl wrote:”Well once there was this girl and no one really liked her and I felt really bad for her because she was sitting all alone and stuff so I went over there and sat down with her and we talked and when my friends saw me they came over and asked me what I was doing and I told them I was hanging out with my new friend…anyways after a few days of hanging out with her I came out one day and there was a lot of new kids with her so I was pretty pleased to see that plus it made me happy because, like well I don’t know, I guess knowing that I helped her get a lot of really cool friends made me feel good about myself.”

There is great joy in helping others. You are needed.

For more information about what adults and peers can do about bullying, see the book Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment


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