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Avoiding the "Last Straw" in Cases of Bullying

Preventing adolescent victims who are bullied from becoming perpetrators.

Key points

  • Teens who become bullies were often bullied themselves.
  • However, not all victims of bullies become perpetrators.
  • A new study suggests that the way a bullied teen copes can either increase or decrease their risk of violence.
  • Early intervention can help the bullied victim get the help they need before they become violent.
Source: iclipart, used with permission
Source: iclipart, used with permission

Many teenagers are bullied at some point. In response, some seek revenge and become bullies themselves. But why some and not others? A new study by researchers in China suggests the victim's internal world differentiates those who seek revenge from those who don't. Their research indicates that two thought patterns, in particular, have a massive impact on how adolescents interpret and respond to abusive peers.

One of these thought patterns is a hostile attribution bias, i.e., the tendency to assume that when an interpersonal situation is ambiguous, the default interpretation is that the other person's intentions are hostile. For example, if a peer doesn't respond to a greeting in the hallway, a teen with hostile attribution bias might automatically assume the peer is deliberately ignoring them. But what if the nonresponsive peer didn't hear them or was distracted? A teen who has developed a hostile attribution bias is hypervigilant; they see threats everywhere. And they base their reactions on these assumptions without checking them out.

In fact, how a victim interprets being bullied may wield as much influence as how often the mistreatment occurs. Sure, being frequently bullied ups the odds for a desire for revenge, but a hostile attribution bias explains part of this link; in the minds of these victims, bystanders are viewed as collaborators and innocuous encounters are interpreted as persecution.

The second cognitive style is a specific type of rumination. We all mentally replay upsetting events. But there's a difference between revisiting a distressing event to understand it better or deal with it more effectively and mentally rehashing the specific details and reliving their emotions. It's the latter type—this angry rumination—that fuels the desire for retaliation.

If we drill down a little deeper, we can examine who is more likely to develop these potentially dangerous coping styles. What leads a victim to violence is due to a complex interplay of individual and environmental factors, but we have identified some risk factors for these thought patterns:

  • Teens with pre-existing aggressive tendencies, impulsivity, or conduct problems
  • Bullied teens who lack social support and are socially awkward
  • Teens who have witnessed or experienced violence at home
  • The absence of protective factors, such as abstract thinking abilities, empathy, and self-regulation skills
  • School climate and whether adults effectively intervene

Connecting the Dots

So, how do we use these research findings to make schools safer? Let's pretend that a school counselor is concerned that a bullied teen might become violent to get revenge. Perhaps he has made concerning remarks to a peer, or a teacher has noticed an increasingly belligerent attitude in class. They call in a threat assessment professional to conduct an interview. Typical questions would likely focus on general violence risk—specific revenge plans, access and familiarity with weapons, mental health symptoms, criminal or violence history, previous communication about and strategies used to stop bullying and their effectiveness, etc. (Of course, others would be interviewed as well.)

These findings suggest that exploring this teen's inner world will also yield valuable information. It may be helpful not only to ask how often they think about their mistreatment (how many times a day or week) but what they think about it. When they think about it, what do they focus on? How long do they think about it (a few minutes, an hour, several hours, more)? Do they pop up even when you're trying to focus on something else? If they try, can they turn off those thoughts? Do they feel more agitated and on edge after thinking about it, or does it calm them down? Do they ever fantasize about getting revenge? If so, what do they imagine doing? If not, what would change this answer from a no to a yes?

Anyone who has evaluated a teenager for any aggressive behavior problem knows it's a dynamic process; violence risk can quickly change. This is why it's so important to divert an angry but not presently dangerous adolescent toward therapeutic resources that can build rapport, express empathy, and guide them toward healthier, nonviolent coping mechanisms. They can also monitor behavior as well as environmental triggers that are most likely to tempt a bullied teen to become violent, such as:

  • A new, severe bullying incident that feels like the "last straw"
  • Seeing their bullies receive acclaim or reward, which feels profoundly unjust
  • Feeling publicly humiliated by their bullies
  • Perceiving that adults have failed to protect them or take the bullying seriously
  • Reaching a point of hopelessness where they believe violence is the only solution

The Bottom Line

Becoming a bully is not an inevitable outcome of being bullied. Most victimized teens can work through their understandable anger without resorting to violence themselves. They can avoid or break free from a victim-to-bully cycle.

This starts with a careful evaluation of the teen's unique risk and protective factors to gauge their potential for violence, as well as developing an appropriate intervention plan in collaboration with the school counselor, parents, and other support providers. Intervening early ups the odds that therapeutic options are still available, where the therapist takes the student's distress seriously and provides the comprehensive, compassionate care they need to recover and thrive.

More from Joni E Johnston Psy.D.
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