Making the Connection between Trauma and Bullying at IBPA 2014

I was pleased to note that the 2014 International Bullying Prevention Conference in San Diego, CA provided several sessions that made the connection between bullying and trauma. SAMHSA defines trauma as a “highly stressful experience in the face of a perceived threat to one’s self or to one’s physical integrity or to that of one’s family member, close friend or environment. “ The definition of bullying as a repeated, intentionally negative physical or psychological action involving an imbalance of power seems to suggest an overlap with trauma and the research appears to bear this out.   Amy Wolferman’s presentation on “Trauma as a Context for Bullying” noted that a study by Idsoe, Dyregrov & Idsoe (2012) found that for all bullied students, 27.6% of boys and 40.5% of girls had PTSD scores within the clinical range. The fact that bullying continues overtime suggests that many youth may experience complex trauma that is continuing as they attend school. Thus it is critical that schools create physically and psychologically safe places for students to learn. Student Support Team staff also need to screen for trauma symptoms with their students in general and in particular with students who report being bullied. While all students can benefit from universal SEL skills training, having trauma-informed interventions for bullied youth is also part of creating a safe and positive school climate.

Thus I was delighted to see a session on Mindfulness and Meditation led by high school students who were involved in a program at the UC-San Diego’s Center for Mindfulness. Many of these students shared that previously they had struggled with anxiety and depression but that regular practice of meditation and mindfulness had decreased their symptoms significantly. I would add that they seemed to have increased their resiliency to negative emotional experiences, something that all of us can benefit from in our daily life and traumatized youth in particular need these skills. This doesn’t mean that students learn to avoid negative emotions, but instead they learn to notice, accept, and work through difficult feelings without engaging in harmful defense mechanisms. As someone who has practiced meditation and mindfulness for the past year and a half and seen its benefits first-hand,  I enthusiastically support more mindfulness programs for youth and the adults who work with them.  

The International Bullying Prevention Conference – An Amazing Learning Opportunity!

I have been involved in some manner with the International Bullying Prevention Association  (IBPA) since its beginning eleven years ago in Atlanta, Georgia.  Each year I have watched the organization grow and I joined the Board of Directors in 2010.  The annual conference has become arguably the best opportunity world-wide to learn cutting edge strategies to prevent and respond to bullying and also a place to gain new research insights to inform our practices in the schools and community.   As I review the program for this year’s conference in San Diego, I marvel at the breadth and depth of the sessions and realize that for many attendees the biggest challenge will be deciding which session to attend as there are so many great offerings.  Fortunately handouts and slides will be shared online afterwards for those who wish to be in two (or three!) places at once as I do.

In addition to the conference, IBPA hosts monthly webinars that provide continuing education on hot topics such as legal issues, cyberbullying, restorative justice, identity-based bullying, and more.  The membership fee allows access to these webinars free of charge.  I recommend anyone interested in the field of bullying prevention and positive school climate take advantage of the membership opportunity.  By staying abreast of research and learning about effective and promising approaches to reduce bullying, we can all make a difference in our schools and communities!

Recommended Guidelines for Bullying Prevention Assemblies – Patti Agatston, PhD

- This article was originally featured in the spring 2014 International Bullying Prevention Association Newsletter.

1. Recognize the limits of the school assembly approach in changing behavior. It may be beneficial to utilize assemblies to generate awareness and build enthusiasm for preventing bullying, however ongoing prevention efforts are necessary to bring about changes in behavior and school climate. Have a plan for follow up activities in place prior to providing an assembly activity. (See Misdirections in Bullying Prevention and Intervention at www.stopbullying.gov to learn more about using resources wisely.)
2. Preview performances and scripts to ensure that the messages are based on sound theoretical knowledge, research, and best practices in bullying prevention. Avoid performances that promote stereotypes regarding the type of youth who are bullied or engage in bullying. Also avoid messaging that implies that youth who bully always have low self-esteem, are big and tough, or that “standing up to a bully” is always the best solution. See research by Phillip Rodkin on the socially connected bully (Rodkin, 2012) to understand more about the socially connected versus the socially marginalized bully. See also information from the Youth Voice Project (Davis & Nixon, 2013) to learn more about which strategies are most helpful for youth who are targeted by bullying.
3. Put the focus on the positive behavior that we want students to demonstrate. Performances that focus on positive ally actions are more effective than scare tactics or numerous examples and inflated statistics regarding bullying. Social norming theory (Berkowitz, 2004) posits that behavior is influenced by inaccurate perceptions regarding how other members of the peer group think and act. Individuals tend to overestimate the number of their peers involved in negative behaviors. Correcting such misperceptions can lead to positive behavior change. Thus youth are more likely to engage in pro-social behavior when they understand that the majority of their peers share their desire to or are engaging in positive behavior. Use local survey data and youth leaders to help spread the message that most youth are engaging in pro-social behavior or have pro-social beliefs. When possible allow students to create the assembly, share local statistics, and have ownership of the messages and actions requested of their peers.
4. Be very cautious with messaging around bullying and suicide. Messages that imply simplistic causal relationships between bullying and suicide are misleading and potentially harmful to prevention efforts. The following was noted in the Journal of Adolescent Health’s Special Supplement on the Relationship between Youth Involvement in Bullying and Suicide: “A critical difference distinguishes an association between bullying and suicide from a causal relationship, with significant implications for prevention. Conveying that bullying alone causes suicide at best minimizes, and at worst ignores, the other factors that may contribute to death by suicide” (Hertz, Donato, & Wright, 2013 p.S-2.)
5. Be aware that student audiences may include “suicide-receptive” youth. Assemblies that focus on explicit details, methods and dramatizations of suicide rather than the importance of reaching out for help should be avoided. (NIHM, Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide)

References:
Berkowitz, A. (2004). The Social Norms Approach: Theory, Research, and Annotated Bibliography. Retrieved from http://www.alanberkowitz.com/articles/social_norms.pdf

Davis, S., & Nixon, C. (2013). The Youth Voice Project: Student Insights Into Bullying and Peer Mistreatment. Research Press.

Hertz, M., Donato, I., & Wright, J. (2013). Bullying and Suicide: A Public Health Approach. Journal of Adolescent Health Supplement, 53(1), S1-S3. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1054139X1300270X

NIMH • Recommendations for Reporting on Suicide. (n.d.). Retrieved January 7, 2013, from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/suicide-prevention/recommendations-for-reporting-on-suicide.shtml

Misdirections in Bullying Prevention. (n.d.). Retrieved January 6, 2013, from http://www.stopbullying.gov/prevention/at-school/educate/misdirections-in-prevention.pdf
Rodkin, P. (2012). Bullying and Children’s Relationships. Education Matters, 8(2).

Reflections on the 10th International Bullying Prevention Conference, Patti Agatston, PhD

The International Bullying Prevention Association recently celebrated the 10th anniversary of its organization with its annual conference in Nashville, TN, November 10–12, 2013.

As an attendee for the past 10 years and a board member for the past four years, I am excited to see the growth of the organization and the evolution of the bullying prevention field. There is a growing recognition that we need to move beyond labels and use comprehensive school-wide approaches that build connectedness in our schools and communities.

In fact, many of the speakers, including Ernie Mendez, Emily Bazelon, and Stan Davis, highlighted the idea that we need to move from thinking of youth involved in bullying in black and white terms, such as bullies and victims (or bad versus good). Adults need to keep this in mind as we develop our approaches, recognizing that the aggressor one day may be the target on another occasion, and the single best predictor of youth engaging in pro-social behavior is how connected they feel to the adults in their life, as well as to their school and communities. In short – are we making sure that we have ways to ensure that all kids feel connected to at least one adult in the school?

We also need to take time to develop the capacity of our youth to deal with the very real challenges of navigating the social world. Life is hard. All of us will be challenged at multiple times in our lives. So increasing our capacity to deal with the challenges — developing resiliency — is another emerging area that is gaining traction in the bullying prevention field. Including social-emotional learning (SEL) in our schools is key, a fact highlighted by Marc Brackett of the Ruler Approach, a model that facilitates the development of emotional intelligence among youth.

Finally – we need to be reaching out more to parents to help them understand their role in building resiliency among our kids. The current media attention to bullying, cyberbullying and suicide has frightened many parents to the point that they panic when their children are targeted by mean, cruel, or bullying behavior. I heard an expert on trauma (Brad Reedy, Ph.D) speak recently, and he reminded me that the parents or other adults in a child’s life have a role to play in reducing the impact of trauma in kid’s lives.

We need to become a safe container for our children where we can acknowledge the uncomfortable feelings and difficult challenges they are facing. Our response must also convey that we can handle hearing this in a calm, non-reactive manner. Such a response will support them to work through the difficult emotions dealing with fear and a loss of control. While our messages need to convey that the child is not at fault for being targeted, if the adults in the child’s life panic or react with increasing anxiety or hyper vigilance, we can in fact worsen the impact of the event on the child. Some parents or guardians may need to seek professional guidance to deal with their own stress levels.

Parenting in the Digital Age

 

Parenting has changed in the last ten years as kids increasingly live out their lives online.  Parenting in the digital age does require some new awareness, but it is not difficult to do.

Begin by modeling positive behavior:  Take breaks from technology, establish no cell phone or other device time, collect phones or use docking stations at night, and model civility both online and offline.

Talk to your kids about what sites are okay and what sites are off-limits:  Don’t just tell kids not to go to inappropriate websites, help them understand why these sites are against your personal values, morals, or ethics.

Talk to your kids in a developmentally appropriate manner about the “grooming” techniques that are used by online predators.  Kids should know that individuals might hide their true identity online.  They should avoid responding to individuals who request personal information or photos.   Teens should understand how nude photo sharing could lead to exploitation and extortion.

Discuss behaviors you want them to embrace and what behaviors you want them to avoid: Online learning, research, creating, communicating and sharing ideas and projects are positive behaviors.  Yet there are negative behaviors to avoid such as cyber bullying, inappropriate site, photo or video sharing, plagiarizing and cheating.   Remind your kids that anything shared digitally can potentially be public and permanent.

Educate yourself about appropriate ways to monitor your child’s digital world.   Use monitoring to encourage conversations and “course corrections” when necessary.  Be careful not to over-react, but use this information to ask questions and have teachable moments.

The following are tools and practices that can assist you:

  • Set up agreements on what sites and behaviors are okay, but let your children know you will be monitoring to make sure they follow your family guidelines.   Monitoring is especially appropriate with new users of social media.  But recognize that it is nearly impossible to monitor all of the devices and apps that children are using on a regular basis.
  • Keep in mind that communication is more useful than solutions based on technology.  As children demonstrate responsible use, parents should be monitoring less and less, particularly if a teen has demonstrated that he is making good choices. Parents can instead ask teens to show them around their favorite sites, ask for tips on how to use it, and discuss how they make decisions about privacy and sharing.  They can also ask them if they know how to report abuse or terms of use violations.
  • Encourage your kids to be upstanders rather than bystanders.  Kids rarely intervene when they witness bullying and cyberbullying, but when they do it is usually effective.  Discuss strategies that can help their peers and how demonstrating courage can help others. Highlight that private support and listening can be just as effective as intervening in the moment.

The following websites offer great tips for parents and teens:

Connectsafely.org

Commonsensemedia.org

Stopbullying.gov

Why we need to discourage use of the term “bullycide.”

The link between bullying, cyberbullying, and suicide has generated much attention, and a new term has even been coined to describe a death by suicide when bullying has played a role.  The term is “bullycide,” and I heard it frequently at a national conference I attended recently that focused heavily on bullying.  This term is misleading at best and harmful at worst.  Here is why:

The term “bullycide” is inaccurate because it suggests that the person engaged in bullying (the bully) died by suicide.  Yet it is primarily used to describe a death by suicide of someone who was bullied.  So the term, standing alone, lacks sense and accuracy as it is frequently used.

More importantly, suicide prevention experts remind us that we need to be very careful about suicide in the media in order to avoid “suicide contagion.” Suicide contagion refers to in increase in deaths by suicide in the wake of high levels of media attention and very dramatic publicity after a completed suicide.   It stands to reason that bullying prevention experts who provide simplistic causal messages regarding bullying and suicide may also be contributing to a contagion factor by suggesting that suicide is a direct and common reaction to bullying – particularly if these experts speak to youth.

The term “bullycide” also suggests that an individual died by suicide solely because he or she was bullied.  While the research is clear that being bullied is a risk factor for suicide, it also suggests that a suicide is rarely the result of one factor and almost always is partly due to underlying mental health issues.  Of course bullying has also been correlated with depression and anxiety, which can place an individual at greater risk of self-harm.  Typically many complicated factors contribute to such a death.  But the message that we want to portray to our youth is that help is available when faced with bullying or depression, rather than the notion that suicide is a common or normal reaction, or that it was the only way to escape abusive behavior.

Be especially careful about the issue of bullying and suicide if you are involved in bringing performances, movies, or plays to a youth audience as part of a bullying prevention program or awareness activity.  Suicide prevention experts caution us to avoid presenting or describing the method of a suicide.  Such descriptions may lead to imitation by vulnerable or “suicide receptive” individuals.  Yet I have witnessed performances that share the method and and/or detailed descriptions of an attempted or completed suicide.

My point is not to minimize the impact of bullying.  It can be devastating and lead to health, academic, and emotional consequences.  But as I noted in my previous blog post, our messages to youth need to focus on hope, strength, and resiliency.  Instead of presenting a play to students that dramatizes bullying and includes a death by suicide, let’s share stories, plays, and presentations that demonstrate reaching out for help and positive bystander behavior.  After all, isn’t that the behavior we wish to see in our youth?

Are We Norming Resiliency With Our Kids?

I am excited about the theme of this year’s International Bullying Prevention Association’s Conference: Bullying and Intolerance: “From Risk to Resiliency.” This year’s conference will take place, appropriately, in the city of New Orleans.

Much media attention has been given to the problem of bullying and suicide. Yet when the media covers the sad death of a young person by suicide, they seldom mention that suicide is typically a multifaceted issue involving treatable mental health issues, and that help is available.  Members of the media can help us encourage help-seeking behavior and avoid contagion by following the NIMH guidelines for reporting on suicide.

Social norming theory posits that our messages to youth can norm positive or negative behavior. A positive social norming approach has been particularly effective in changing youth’s views that using alcohol or other drugs is a common behavior among their peers – which in turn leads to reduced alcohol and drug use among the youth population. Research is emerging that suggests that social norming strategies can have a positive effect in reducing bullying behavior among youth as well. (Craig and Perkins, 2011).

I have a particular interest in the concept of norming resiliency rather than cruel or destructive behavior with young people. While the research  indicates that there is a relationship between being bullied and experiencing thoughts of suicide, research also suggests that to prevent suicide among youth we need to norm strength-based messages and help-seeking behaviors. I hope we can get more bullying prevention advocates speaking to suicide prevention advocates so that we can all learn to spread messages of resiliency rather than despair around this important issue. There will be a thought provoking panel at the IBPA conference this year on Social Norming that I will be a part of along with Anne Collier and Larry Magid of ConnectSafely, and Mark LoMurray from the Sources of Strength Suicide Prevention Program. Sources of Strength is making a very real difference in many schools across the country by using strength-based messages and breaking down barriers to help-seeking behavior among youth. I hope you can join us in New Orleans Nov. 6-8th to learn more about Mark’s efforts and the importance of norming resiliency among our youth.

How is Cyber Bullying Unique from Traditional Bullying?

In order to truly understand cyber bullying, it is important to understand traditional bullying. Norwegian researcher Dan Olweus found three key components to bullying behavior. Bullying behavior is aggressive, repetitive, and power-based. In other words, the person being targeted has a hard time defending him or herself. In many ways cyber bullying fits this definition. Certainly the behavior is aggressive in nature, designed to hurt the other person’s feelings or relationship with others, or even to frighten him or her. Cyber Bullying is usually repetitive, or by it’s very nature it can be viewed multiple times by the person who is targeted digitally. Granted a one-time nasty text message may not fit the definition of bullying behavior. But is cyber bullying power-based?

Ask those who are targeted by cyber bullying and they will often tell you that they have a hard time defending themselves because a humiliating message has spread and been viewed by many individuals. Sometimes the targeted individual is not sure who posted particular comments or set up a fake profile, so not knowing who their abuser is can also lead to a sense of powerlessness.
But there are also some unique features that we need to be aware of in regards to cyber bullying. In traditional bullying the identity of the perpetrator is usually known. We also deal with the phenomenon of disinhibition, where people say or do things online that they wouldn’t normally do because they feel invisible. Yet the data is not suggesting that we have a larger population of youth engaging in cyber bullying because of the disinhibition or the ability to be anonymous. However the research does suggest that a majority of youth who are cyber bullied are also experienced traditional bullying. In many instances the digital representation of bullying is making obvious the problems youth are experiencing in their relationships that may have been invisible in previous years. But the ability for an abuser to have a vast audience and for their digital abuse to intensify the pervasiveness of an experience of bullying is a significant issue and one that must be addressed in efforts at bullying prevention. I will be speaking about whole school approaches to address cyber bullying at the Celebration of Teaching and Learning Conference panel on cyber bullying March 19th in New York City. A blog that I wrote on the topic of a “whole school approach” can be found here.

Can you find the Facebook report abuse link?

Parents and educators often have a difficult time finding the report abuse link on Facebook. I have had a number of calls recently from adults trying to help young teens remove embarrassing photos that other individuals have posted of them on Facebook. In the last two instances the adult needed to find the link to report abuse, but didn’t know where to locate it. This can be particularly challenging for adults who do not use Facebook regularly. So I think we need to post a quick link on our home page. This link is also included on our handout , “Tips for Reporting Offensive Content on Social Networking Sites,” under the resources section of our website.

Educators need to keep in mind that sometimes the most helpful thing they can do is provide resources to parents and students about removing abusive content.  The following is a direct link to report abuse on Facebook.  I hope you never need it!

http://www.facebook.com/help/contact.php?show_form=report_tos_violation

And I encourage all adults to remind youth that social networking sites have “terms of use” that we agree to follow in order to enjoy socializing on such sites.  Discussing these terms of use with new users is an important lesson on digital citizenship.  The folks at ConnectSafely have developed a great guide for parents entitled, “A Parent’s Guide to Facebook”.  You can download a copy free from their website.

Reflections on the International Bullying Prevention Conference

The International Bullying Prevention Association’s Conference in Seattle once again provided excellent sessions and resources to address bullying in schools and online. This year’s conference had a special focus on cyber bullying with a day-long panel series on the issue as part of the pre-conference.  Nancy Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use did an excellent job organizing the series of panels that were moderated by Larry Magid and Anne Collier, both of ConnectSafely.

Cyber bullying needs to be addressed from multiple perspectives and the panels helped bring researchers, school-based practitioners, youth involvement organizers, and law enforcement together to share their best ideas and strategies for addressing this complicated and multi-faceted issue. As the conference proceeded we learned more about the overlap between traditional and cyber bullying.

Dan Olweus reported that approximately 85 percent of the students who reported being cyber bullied on his surveys report being traditionally bullied as well. While there are some unique features to cyber bullying, it increasingly appears that cyber bullying is directly related to the school-based peer group. Thus taking a “whole school” approach to addressing cyber bullying makes a great deal of sense, recognizing that conversations in the classroom and at home need to adapt to reflect the fact that youth increasingly socialize online.  It also means that youth have to be a driving force in our prevention efforts since much of this socializing occurs without adult supervision.