Supporting kids who have experienced bullying issues

Pay attention to what kids say – and don’t say – about bullying situations and be prepared to provide help and support.

Within many school classrooms and youth group settings (such as 4-H, afterschool programs, Scouts, and Boys and Girls Clubs), many young people and adults are talking about issues of bullying and learning together about ways to prevent these hurtful behaviors. For example, some schools and groups are using a Michigan State University Extension curriculum titled Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments to work in youth-adult partnerships  to create healthy relationships and settings.

If you’re a teacher or youth leader who plans to work with kids to explore and address issues of bullying, keep in mind that there may be young people in your group who have been or currently are the targets of bullying behaviors. Your group might also include those who have carried out these hurtful behaviors, as well as young people who have witnessed these behaviors happening to others. Discussions about bullying issues and the effects of these behaviors can trigger feelings of shame and can produce fear, anger and trauma responses for some young people. Adults who work with groups to explore bullying have a responsibility to think about ways to identify and respond to those who may need special support.

As your group has conversations about these issues, listen deeply to what’s being shared, how it’s being shared and how group members are responding. Do you notice anyone “going inward” by wrapping their arms tightly around their body, rocking silently, looking away from the group or distancing themselves from the group by moving toward the edge of the room? Do you notice any members of the group glancing toward a particular person, perhaps out of concern because they’ve seen that person being targeted or out of fear or anger because they’ve seen that person carry out bullying behaviors (or both)? Listen to the group members’ vocal tones and word choices. Is anyone responding in a voice that’s trembling with fear, rage or both – and who may not feel safe to share more deeply about what’s underneath these feelings? Listen for “hypothetical” examples that are shared. Is anyone sharing an example that could represent a real situation that they or someone else in the group is experiencing, and does their body language provide any additional clues about what might be happening?

Depending on what you hear shared verbally or notice about a young person’s demeanor, you may decide that it’s important to provide additional support in the moment, after the class or group meeting, or both. Try to provide activities and conversations with your group that invite them to share a full range of feelings and emotions, and be careful not to cut short those times when group sharing is happening in safe and supportive ways. And – if you do have a group member who is experiencing a high level of distress – it may be helpful to take a break so that you can provide some immediate one-on-one support for that young person. If that’s necessary, make sure that you touch base with the whole group afterward to share your concern about what’s going on (without breaching confidentiality) and to provide an opportunity for empathy building within the group.

At other times, it may be more appropriate to follow up with a young person after a class or youth group meeting. Gently share what you noticed about their reactions and responses to the group conversation, and offer an open heart and a willingness to hear and believe what they want to share. Keep in mind that often the most meaningful assistance that a trusted adult can provide is a safe and comfortable space where kids can talk about what’s going on. Ask if there are ways that you can be helpful and ask whether others (such as their parents) are aware of what’s going on. Respect their need for confidentiality and balance this with concern about their safety and immediate risks.

There may be situations where you’ll decide that additional action and support is needed. Depending on the situation and your relationship with a young person’s parents or caregivers, you may decide to follow up with them as a starting point. It may also be important to check with the staff or leadership connected to your school or organization to learn the protocol for getting help for those who need it. Psychologists, school counselors, social workers, physicians and others can also be resources for helping young people and their families. You can also learn more from resources like the Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators, which is available through the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

For more information about Michigan State University Extension resources related to issues of bullying, bias and harassment, visit the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments web page.

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