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Bullying Within Friendships: How Can Adults Help?

Written by Karen Bouchard, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Ottawa Heart Institute

Feeling bullied by a classmate can be painful and is associated with several devastating consequences, such as low self-confidence, depression, and anxiety (Moore et al., 2017); feeling bullied by a good friend can be especially confusing and traumatic. To make matters worse,research has shown that it is common for children to not address their friend’s bullying behaviours (Craig, Pepler, & Blais, 2007) and that many children are likely to persist in victimizing friendships despite suffering (Daniels, Quigley, Menard, & Spence, 2010).

I recently completed my doctoral work examining the experiences of children who were bullied by a close friend. My participants told me that their friend bullied them physically (e.g., pushed them, pulled their hair), or more commonly, verbally (e.g., repeatedly called them names) and relationally (purposively left them out and gossiped about them). Similar to what other researchers have reported (Waasdorp, Bagdi, & Bradshaw, 2010), the children who participated in my study were very reluctant to disclose this bullying to an adult and remained committed to their friendship even though they were bullied. This response to bullying can seem illogical and can frustrate adults who are trying to help, but there are a number of reasons underlying children’s commitment to a victimizing friendship. Understanding these reasons can help adults to provide effective support.

Why are children and youth reluctant to disclose or address a friend’s bullying behaviours?

Victimized children sometimes blame themselves. Research has shown that victimized young people sometimes believe that they were bullied because of “who they are” (e.g., their appearance, their personality traits, etc.) (Thornberg, Halldin, Bolmsjö, & Petersson, 2013). Self-blame can lead to children feeling a loss of control over the bullying situation and can promote an expectation that the bullying will not stop (Graham & Juvonen, 1998).

The bullying is intermixed with feelings of friendship. It is common for children to experience positive moments in a victimizing friendship (e.g., intimacy and fun) alongside feeling bullied (Wei & Jonson-Reid, 2011). This may make it very confusing for young people to understand their friendship and how to best respond (Bouchard, Forsberg, Smith, & Thornberg, 2018).

They are fearful of losing the friend. Many children do recognize that a friendship is problematic when it contains bullying; yet, children may still be reluctant to address the bullying because this might risk escalating their friend’s behaviour or they might lose out on the friendship (Mishna & Alaggia, 2005).

Bullying within friendship is difficult to recognize and children may think its “normal” friend behaviour. Some children may have a difficult time identifying whether they had experienced bullying or whether their friend was just “messing around” (Mishna, Weiner, & Pepler, 2008). Because bullying is quite common, some children may come to believe that bullying is “normal,” even within friendships, and therefore not requiring any change.   

How can adults help?

From my work with parents and teachers, I know that it is common for adults to suggest that victimized young people simply “get new friends” or to limit contact with the bullying friend. Given how upsetting it can be for parents and teachers to know a child is being bullied, this is an understandable reaction. It is crucial that adults provide non-judgmental and supportive spaces for young people to open up and discuss their friendship experiences. There are a number of steps that adults can take in order for these conversations to be productive.

  1. Validate the painful experience of being hurt by a friend
  2. Listen with empathy and understanding to the pain and potential predicament that children are in when bullied by a friend
  3. Avoid dismissing the value of a friendship
  4. Help children consider their options for responding to a bullying friend and provide support in their decision-making
  5. Plan and practice possible responses together
  6. Help children understand, establish, and communicate appropriate boundaries in friendship
  7. Provide opportunities for building other friendships so that children can see themselves in positive and reinforcing ways

This Bullying Awareness and Prevention Week, consider speaking to the children in your care about their friendships. This will help to foster a supportive environment where children may feel more comfortable disclosing experiences of bullying and exploring their complex reactions to bullying by a friend.

References

Bouchard, K. L., Forsberg, C., Smith, J. D., & Thornberg, R. (2018). Showing friendship, fighting back, and getting even. Resisting bullying victimization within adolescent girls’ friendships.  Journal of Youth Studies, 21(9), 1141-1158.

Craig, W., Pepler, D., & Blais, J. (2007). Responding to bullying: What works? School Psychology International, 28(4), 465-477.

Daniels, T., Quigley, D., Menard, L., & Spence, L. (2010). “My best friend always did and still does betray me constantly”: Examining relational and physical victimization within a dyadic friendship context. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 25(1), 70-83.   

Graham, S., & Juvonen, J. (1998). Self-blame and peer victimization in middle school: An attributional analysis.  Developmental Psychology, 34(3), 587-599.

Mishna, F. & Alaggia, R. (2005). Weighing the risks: A child's decision to disclose peer victimization. Children & Schools, 27(4), 217-226.

Mishna, F., Wiener, J., & Pepler, D. (2008). Some of my best friends - Experiences of bullying within friendships. School Psychology International, 29(5), 549-573.

Moore, S. E., Norman, R. E., Suetani, S., Thomas, H. J., Sly, P. D., & Scott, J. G. (2017). Consequences of bullying victimization in childhood and adolescence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. World Journal of Psychiatry, 7(1), 60-76.

Thornberg, R., Halldin, K., Bolmsjö, & Petersson, A. (2013). Victimising of school bullying: A grounded theory. Research Papers in Education, 28(3), 309-329.

Viala, E. S. (2015). The fighter, the punk and the clown: How to overcome the position of victim of bullying? Childhood, 22(2), 27-230.

Waasdorp, T. E., Bagdi, A., & Bradshaw (2009). Peer victimization among urban, predominantly African American youth: Coping with relational aggression between friends. Journal of School Violence, 9(1), 98-116.

Wei, H., & Jonson-Ried, M. (2011). Friends can hurt you: Examining the coexistence of friendship and bullying among early adolescents. School Psychology International, 32(3), 244-262.

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