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The ABCs of Bullying Prevention

Dealing with the Victim

Just as a bully warrants your attention, so too does a victim. Unfortunately, in many cases, bullies get more support from school staff than the children they bully. Your success in counseling bullying victims will depend largely on your ability to establish trust in the face of embarrassment and reluctance to talk about what happened.

Begin by asking what happened and listening sympathetically to the response. The victim needs a chance to tell the story of what happened to him. Acknowledge his distress and let him know you're sorry for what he experienced. Reassure him that he is not to blame for the bullying and praise him for his willingness to speak with you about it. Encourage the student to tell you or another school staff member of future bullying incidents as soon as possible, and reassure him that the school will make every effort to stop future incidents. Also be sure to inform the victim's parents about the incident and let him know you are going to do that.

You also might want to help the victim of bullying develop more effective coping skills -- although you want to make sure to not place responsibility on him for dealing with the bullying. In coaching a student how to respond, consider his age and the nature of the bullying. In some cases, you might want to teach him how to assert himself with the bully. If so, try role-playing with him, suggesting what he might say or do to deflect taunting and to project a greater air of confidence. Be sure he knows that it's not OK to respond physically to bullying.

Explain to a bullying victim that he doesn't need to respond with an elaborate or clever retort. Often the best response by a student who is being taunted is to make a brief comment, such as "I don't like what you're saying, so stop it," and walk away. Bullies often are looking for targets who are likely to dissolve in tears or passively accept the harassment. A child who does not respond in a way that gives the bully what he wants is less likely to be targeted in the future.

In some cases, you might conclude that the victim was engaging in provocative behavior. Although you want to make sure the bully understands that the victim's behavior does not justify mistreatment of him, nonetheless you might want to help the victim eliminate those behaviors from his repertoire. In doing so, consider what emotional need he might be trying to satisfy with those behaviors (often peer status and acceptance), and then help him find more appropriate behaviors to meet those needs.

If the child's teacher doesn't already know about the bullying incident, notify her and additional school staff involved with the student, so they can monitor the situation. Also, check with the student after a couple of days and then periodically after that to find out if the bullying has stopped. Even if the bullying has stopped, you still might want to provide him with guidance, particularly if he is isolated from his peers. For example, you might help him expand his friendships and develop his social skills.

In dealing with a bullying situation, one step you rarely should take is to treat the incident as a peer conflict and try to mediate a solution by getting the bully and victim together. If it is a true bullying situation, there is an imbalance of power between the two students --and probably no conflict to resolve. Getting them together is likely to be intimidating for the victim and might signal to him that he has done something wrong that needs to be resolved. Conflict resolution procedures usually are appropriate only when there is parity between the students or fault on both sides.

The message to the victim of bullying always should be that the bully has acted inappropriately and that school staff will take responsibility for resolving the problem.

About Ken Shore

Dr. Kenneth Shore is a psychologist who has worked in various public schools for more than 25 years. He has authored six books and produced a book and video series on bullying for schools and parent organizations called The ABCs of Bullying Prevention. Click to read a complete bio. For information on how to obtain his books and videos, go to his Web site.