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Acknowledging Victimized Children's Strengths

By Karen Bouchard, Postdoctoral Fellow, University of Ottawa Heart Institute

Bullying is about power

Bullying is ultimately an abuse of power (Vaillancourt, Hymel, & McDougall, 2003). For years researchers have distinguished bullying from other forms of aggression by highlighting the power imbalance that exists between the perpetrator of the abuse and the victimized. This power imbalance is what makes it so difficult for the victimized child to defend him or herself against a more powerful peer. Power differentials can take place in many forms. For example, perpetrators of bullying can be physically superior or have more friends than those who they victimize. Those who bully can have a greater social status amongst their peers and may even be more socially skilled than the peers they victimize (Rigby, 2008).

We tend to view children who are victimized from the opposite perspective. We see these children as smaller, less socially skilled, unpopular, or having fewer friends (Schott & Sondergaard, 2014). Although there might be certain truths to these characteristics in some situations (Griffin & Gross, 2004), if bullying is about power we must question how victims of bullying also exercise power. Michel Foucault, a French philosopher, argued that it is critical to understand how power is used even by those who seemingly lack any power, such as victims of bullying.

Victimized children express power too

There are many examples of the ways that victimized children “stand up” against the bullying that they have endured. We often see these stories profiled in the news (e.g., They called this Grade 9 girl 'disgusting' and 'ugly.' She fought back; and, Fredericton bullying victim uses art to overcome incident while helping others). These actions are certainly brave and can call attention to the bullying problem and perhaps even promote change. But not all expressions of power by victimized children are so obvious.

Some researchers have argued that power can be seen in the small ways that victimized children work to protect themselves from further bullying (Horton, 2011). For example, in my doctoral research, my participants described how they avoided “hot spots” where bullying typically occurred in schools (such as cafeterias or hallways, for example), while others emotionally distanced themselves from their peers. Some tried to save-face with the perpetrator by being nice, while others rationalized bullying as temporary or that it is a learning experience (Bouchard, Forsberg, Smith, & Thornberg, 2018). These responses are often disguised from others, may not stop the bullying, or may even seem contradictory. Yet, we can also view these responses as actions taken by victimized children to protect themselves (Wade, 1997).

How can adults help?

It is important that adults help victimized children to acknowledge and understand the ways that they have worked to protect themselves from bullying. For example, a child may be very reluctant to take the bus home with a bullying classmate. As adults, we might try to address this child’s avoidance or recommend strategies to help the child develop more self-confidence. While these approaches are understandable, it may be more productive to highlight how the child’s actions were resourceful and demonstrate an effort to protect themselves from further bullying. This conversation acknowledges a victimized child’s inner strengths rather than his or her deficits. Approaching a conversation in this way can help to establish a good foundation for brainstorming other possible (and potentially more effective) responses to bullying.

Just as we must be mindful of the language we use when we’re talking about bullying amongst children, it is equally important that we do not send the message that victims of bullying are powerless. Rather, we must acknowledge how victimized children use their power to protect themselves, no matter how small.

References

Griffin, R. S., & Gross, A. M. (2004). Childhood bullying: Current empirical findings and future directions for research. Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 9(4), 379-400.

Horton, P. (2011). School bullying and social and moral orders. Children & Society, 25, 268-277.

Rigby, K. (2008). Children and bullying. How parents and educators can reduce bullying at school. Boston, Blackwell/Wiley.

Schott, R. M., Søndergaard, D. M. (2014). School bullying: New theories in context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., & McDougall, P. (2003). Bullying is power: Implications for school-based intervention strategies. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19(2), 157-176.

Wade, A. (1997). Small acts of living: Everyday resistance to violence and other forms of oppression. Contemporary family therapy, 19, 23-29.

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