Since the 1990s, many research studies have documented the effects of bullying and other forms of peer mistreatment, and both psychological and physical effects have been found. Instead of summarizing the many research articles that can be found online and in libraries, I will focus on the findings of the Youth Voice Project research study, which Dr. Charisse Nixon and I conducted with more than 13,000 students in 31 schools around the United States in 2009-2010. More details of the survey and what we learned from youth can be found in our November, 2013 book Youth Voice Project: Student Insights into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment.
Our goal was to survey the entire student population of each school we studied in order to find out which strategies had been most helpful for mistreated youth.. Youth in grades 5-12 completed an extensive anonymous online questionnaire. We sought information about how often young people experienced physical aggression (hitting or threatening), and how often they experienced relational aggression (being called names or stopped from having friends).
We then asked mistreated youth about their actions and the outcomes of their own actions. The strategies most likely to be successful included telling friends, telling adults at home and at school, reminding themselves that the mean behavior is a choice made by the person who mistreated them and has nothing to do with them, and using humor. In reviewing text comments by youth who said they used humor with good results, we have been able to build a picture of how young people used humor. They described thinking a joke, making a joke with their friends about the mean behavior, or using humor in the situation. Characteristic of this last strategy was one student’s comment. She wrote that she made a joke about the teasing. Then, she said, even though the teasing didn’t stop, she felt better. She expressed concern, though, that her joking could have communicated that she didn’t mind being teased.
Commonly-advised “stand up for yourself” strategies including telling or asking the other person to stop and telling the person how you feel, were rated as less often effective- and more likely to lead to negative outcomes- than the support-seeking and cognitive strategies described above.
We found striking differences between schools in the outcome of telling adults at school about the mistreatment. Youth in some schools reported more positive outcomes after this action than youth in other schools. Schools also differed in students’ sense of belonging at school and in young peoples’ sense of being valued and respected at school. These differences significantly influenced whether mistreated youth reported trauma after they were mistreated.
In the Youth Voice Project Survey we asked youth about the outcome of a range of adult interventions. The three adult actions that repeatedly mistreated youth reported were least likely to lead to positive outcomes were these:
- “Told me not to tattle.” We have come to believe based on this research and our review of work in the field that it is time to abandon the centuries-old concept of tattling — the idea that sometimes it is wrong for youth to tell adults about their concerns.
- “Told me to solve the problem myself.” While there are times when youth can and should solve problems with their peers, youth who were repeatedly mistreated and especially youth experiencing trauma told us that when adults responded to their reports by telling them to solve the problem themselves, things were unlikely to get better.
- “Told me this wouldn’t have happened if I had acted differently.” As discussed above, we believe that even well meaning statements of this type encourage youth to blame themselves for others’ decisions to mistreat them and thus worsen trauma. A student once told me: “First they bully you, then you bully yourself.” When we encourage youth not to blame themselves for others’ mean actions toward them, we can interrupt this damaging cycle of thought.
The actions by school personnel that students reported were most likely to lead to positive outcomes were actions of connection and support, including:
- “Listened to me.” Being heard is one of the most healing experiences anyone can have after negative experiences. When educators take the time to listen and understand young peoples’ feelings and experiences, they communicate caring and affirmation.
- “Checked back with me over time.” Students told us that they appreciated adults’ checking with them to see if the problem continued. One young man wrote: “This gave me a sense that they had my back.”
- “Gave me advice.” We wondered what young people meant when they chose this option, since there are many kinds of advice adults give students. We reviewed the text responses related to this item and found that youth primarily described being given hope that things would be better, being reassured that what the other person had done was wrong, and being reassured that they did not deserve what had been done to them.
The effectiveness of consequences and supervision varied widely from school to school. It is clear to us that the way consequences are used makes a big difference. You will find more information about effective use of consequences and school discipline systems in Schools Where Everyone Belongs and on this website.
We also asked students about the effectiveness of actions by peers or witnesses to mistreatment. We have chosen to use the word “witnesses” rather than the commonly-used word “bystanders,” as the word “bystanders” has the connotation of passive observation. Witness actions least likely to lead to positive outcomes for mistreated youth were predictable. When peers made fun of youth for being mistreated or blamed them for the mistreatment, outcomes were mostly negative. Many witness actions, though, led to positive outcomes. Mistreated youth said they benefited most from peer inclusion, listening, and support. Even quiet support was helpful (“Someone called me at home to give support”). Mistreated youth reported that when peers confronted the mistreater or asked the person to stop, this action was more likely to make things worse than when peers gave them emotional support or included them.
We were especially struck by this last finding. Many curricula currently encourage confrontation of mean behavior by witnessing peers. Yet our students reported that alliance, time spent together at school, and encouragement by peers were more likely to lead to positive outcomes and less likely to lead to negative outcomes than confrontation by peers. When peers asked the student mistreating to stop in a friendly way, reported results were barely better than when they confronted the person angrily. In trying to understand the meaning of what students were telling us, we have begun asking our training audiences of professionals the following questions:
- If you were in an abusive relationship, what would you most want your friends to do? Educators’ answers always include encouragement, support, continued connection, and assistance in getting out of the relationship if they have chosen to leave.
- We then ask educators: If you were in an abusive relationship, what would be the worst thing your friends could do? In other words, what would you not want them to do? Often people respond, “blaming me for the abuse or for not leaving.” As the discussion continues, trainees find an action that would be worse for them. One teacher said “The worst thing would be if they took things into their own hands and confronted the abuser, and then left me alone with him.” We agree.
We believe that this analogy accurately reflects the potential effects of peer confrontation of mistreating youth. The aggression may stop briefly when popular or powerful youth confront a mistreating student, though even this short term positive outcome does not always happen, according to the text responses of youth in our study. Numerous youth reported that aggression was deflected toward others who “stuck up for” them. Youth also told us that even if the confrontation led to a brief respite in the mistreatment, the mistreatment was likely to resume when the supporter left.
Overall, what youth told us indicates that isolation and ostracism is the core wound in peer mistreatment, and that we can best help many mistreated youth when we restore and enhance relationships, connection, and alliance from both adults and peers.
This comment from a student in the Youth Voice Project summarizes what many of the students described. When asked what she did that helped her the most when she was mistreated, she emphasized the effects of peer support in this way: “[I] just forgot about it and told myself that I have great friends who do respect me and didn’t listen to what other people thought of me.”
For more information about what we learned about bullying, and about what adults and peers can do, see information about our November 2013 book Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying And Peer Harassment.