Friday, July 18, 2008

Bringing Out the Best in a Bully

Is there a "best" to bring out in a bully? I think so! My work with girls and the many experts I'm lucky enough to work and collaborate with convince me that aggression is driven by inner fear. It might be a fear of being attacked by others as you walk to school, or fear of not "measuring up" to expected standards. It could even be fear of losing your popularity or a misguided response to the societal message that "cruel is cool." (See Megan's post for more on that.) If you think about it, most victims and bystanders are operating from a similar perspective--they're (legitimately) afraid of something.

The anti-bullying programs I'm familiar with focus on punishing the aggressor and empowering victims and bystanders. In reality, all three "players" in the dynamic of relational aggression (RA) need as much support, empathy, and encouragement as we can give them.

Victims need to resolve the hurt of past traumas and find alternative responses they can use when they are targeted. Bystanders need to recognize opportunities to change the RA dynamic and then step up to the plate and take action to end the aggression they watch or even facilitate. Aggressors need a vision of other possibilities, too.

Punishment isn't a helpful strategy. It uses fear to try and change behavior--something no girl needs or responds to well. Instead, here are a few strategies from my programs that have helped girls were self-identified bullies:

1) brainstorm ways to transform "leadership abilities" from hurtful to helpful
2) create opportunities for positive role modeling within a group of peers
3) learn more about how bullies impact on the lives of others (role plays or the story of Olivia Gardner can be very powerful)
4) expose to older girls who can give feedback on relationship skills
5) encourage expression of emotions through art or writing as well as speaking (this does not include rude blog posts!)
6) focus on and reward acts of compassion and kindness
7) videotape and watch (with permission) interactions with other girls (It's amazing how often we don't realize what our body language or tone of voice conveys!)
8) provide new opportunities outside the normal comfort zone to build confidence
9) avoid labelling! Although the word bully can be a helpful adjective, it's not productive to call a girl a bully or tag her with that description.
10) discuss the difference between assertive and aggressive communication style

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