Teen Bullying: A CBT Approach to Addressing the Issue

Understanding the broad scope of teen bullying.

Posted Jun 27, 2013

I was recently interviewed on my new bullying project and how counselors, can help parents, targeted teens, and often the forgotten one, the perpretrator.  With the permission of New Harbinger, I have shared that interview with you.

Q&A: Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, Professional Counselor, Author and Speaker

Raychelle Cassada Lohmann, MS, LPC, is a National Board Certified Counselor and a Licensed Professional Counselor in the states of North and South Carolina, who specializes in counseling adolescents. Her new book, The Bullying Workbook for Teens, incorporates cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help ease anxiety, fear, stress, and other emotions associated with being bullied. Lohmann is also the author of the Teen Angst blog on PsychologyToday.com.

As a counselor, what were some of the motivating factors that drove you to write a book on bullying?

Bullying is such a prevalent problem with today’s teens.  There are estimates that approximately 20-25% of students age 12-18 are bullied.  No school, let me repeat, no school lies unaffected.  As a counselor, when I saw first-hand the detrimental effects that bullying has on an individual’s life, I realized the anguish that it causes. As I was working with these teens and parents, I started thinking, “what if a teen doesn’t have someone to talk to?”  “What if a parent doesn’t know where to turn?” “What resources are out there for them?”  There are a lot of wonderful resources on the internet that help bullying victims, but I wanted something more concrete.  I wanted to give a teen or parent something that would help them feel better right now; something with a solid psychological foundation.  I wanted something more…Something that wouldn’t just help them with bullying, but also provide them with skills that could last a life time.  Most importantly, I wanted to be able to provide a resource that would reach beyond the scope of the pages to ultimately tell that teen: “you are not alone.”  So, in partnership with a friend of mine, Julia V. Taylor, we worked to develop a resource that reaches directly into the life of a targeted teen.

What is the definition of bullying? Is there ever a point when a student is being too sensitive or dramatic? Or is this a subjective experience?

Bullying is an aggressive intentional action meant to target a single person. It's deliberately and methodically planned to harm and hurt another.  Most experts on bullying define it as the use of force or coercion to abuse or intimidate others. In order for the behavior to be considered bullying, it must be aggressive and include:

  • An intentional act to hurt or harm someone
  • An imbalance of power
  • Repetition

Bullying can be done through many different outlets. The most common outlets are:

  • Spreading rumors
  • Tormenting victims
  • Verbal harassment
  • Physical harassment
  • Sexual harassment
  • Threats
  • Gossiping
  • Outing
  • Misappropriate use of technology to hurt another
  • Intentional exclusions from peer groups

Today many teens who bully also engage in cyberbullying.  By definition, cyberbullying is deliberate and repeated harm inflicted through the use of electronic devices.  It's an easier way to bully because unlike traditional bullying it doesn't involve face-to-face interaction. Teens can become desensitized while in front of a computer screen, and say or do things they wouldn't do to a person's face. Plus, when they can't see the person's reaction to what they post or text, they may not know if they've taken it too far.   Today bullying is harder to avoid because, with the assistance of the internet, it can happen 24/7.  So to a victim, the abuse seems to be never-ending.

Are some teens overly dramatic or sensitive to bullying? I don’t want to say someone is too sensitive or theatrical when it comes to bullying.  Bullying is a sensitive matter.  But I have noticed that the term bullying is being over used and not used appropriately at times.  There needs to be a clear distinction between mean or rude behavior and bullying.  If we misuse or loosely define bullying, it will lose its effect. I think sometimes teens and parents call being mean bullying.  The two are quite different.  Sure bullying is being mean to another person, but being mean doesn’t necessarily constitute bullying.  Lashing out in frustration or not liking someone isn’t bullying.  Dealing with mean, rude, or unkind people is a part of life that we all have to learn how to deal with at some point. Bullying, on other hand, is intentional, repetitive and harmful and needs to be stopped.

How has society changed from, say, 20 years ago, that makes bullying an issue in need of addressing as opposed to simply a part of growing up?

Bullying has been around forever, but through the years it has evolved and the way in which it is happening has changed.  In the past bullying usually happened at school or during face-to-face encounters.  This is now called “Traditional” or “Schoolyard Bullying”.  Today bullying has branched into many different forms such as: physical bullying, verbal bullying, social/relational aggression, and the ever more popular one… cyberbullying.  Due to the advancement in technology, cyberbullying has caught the attention of mainstream media because bullies are using electronic devices to continue to taunt and torment their victims.  With the use of social media sites and texting, bullying can happen around the clock and it’s hard to escape from it.   

One of the dangers of cyberbullying is that it doesn't involve face-to-face interaction. It's a lot easier to slam someone online than to his/her face. A teen can quickly spread a rumor through the use of a cell phone by texting many friends at once and as soon as it's sent, the damage is done. Oftentimes teens do this as a reactionary response to something that has angered them and they don't think about the consequences of their actions.  As studies report most teens who participate in cyberbullying behavior say it was just a joke.  They don’t realize when it has gone too far.  Because cyberbullying is usually done on social platforms, other teens can see the hurtful remarks and oftentimes throw their two cents worth in.  The sad thing is that the victim not only has to worry about a bully, but also his or her reputation that’s being marred in the process.

I feel that we do need to do a better job educating our teens about digital citizenship and how to treat one another both on and offline.  Most importantly, we need to do a better job teaching our teen’s proper etiquette and behavior when using electronic devices.

What makes the CBT approach a particularly fitting method for the bullying issue?

One of the most effective therapies in addressing the emotional distress caused by bullying is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).  Bullying has been correlated with anxiety, depression, poor self-image, substance abuse and suicide.  CBT is the most widely acclaimed, trusted and research-supported treatment method for these issues.  CBT teaches individuals to better understand their thoughts and feelings in relation to the situation.  Furthermore, it teaches individuals how their thoughts and feelings influence their actions and ultimately their behavior.

In regards to bullying, oftentimes teens who are bullied are not aware of their self-defeating thoughts and destructive behaviors.  CBT helps individuals realize their maladaptive coping mechanisms and works on replacing them with more positive ones.   For example, teens who have been bullied may struggle with self-worth and confidence.  Their negative thoughts about themselves affect how they see situations, magnify their insecurities, increase their negative self-talk, and result in feeling worse about themselves.  CBT will tackle destructive thinking patterns, confront distortions, break down the wall of self-doubt and help the victim regain confidence and control of his/her life.

What are some of the special considerations for implementing CBT with teens that may vary from using CBT with adults?

CBT is a great approach for with working with teens.  It is problem/solution focused and in comparison to other therapeutic approaches, it’s short in duration.  Plus, studies show that CBT is very effective in reducing symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder in teens.

It’s important that when counselors use CBT with adolescents that they meet them where they are in their development and that the activities, assignments and sessions are relevant and applicable to their lives.  Teens have a tendency to focus on what’s going on right now in their lives, so that’s the frame of reference you’re working with.  What’s happening right now is what’s ruining their lives.  So start putting skills in place that can help them with the current situation and they’ll begin to feel relief.  The wonderful thing about CBT is that the skills you teach right now carry over into the future.

CBT has many benefits with teens, including:

  • Improving communication with others
  • Coping with fears
  • Confronting and challenging destructive thoughts
  • Improving self-esteem
  • Identifying positive coping mechanisms
  • Changing negative thoughts

What are some of the common in-session roadblocks you run into with teens who are being bullied, and how do you work past them?

One of the most common roadblocks is fear.  Many targeted teens fear that if they tell someone or ask for help it will only make the bullying worse; but in most situations this is untrue.  In addition to being fearful, targets of bullying often do not share their experiences with parents or a school counselor because they are embarrassed by how their peers are treating them. They also do not want others to know they are experiencing peer rejection. 

Targeted teens really need to feel cared for and supported.  Teens that have been victimized may not be trusting and feel that the situation is helpless.  They may have a hard time coming up with solutions to the problem.  Think about it, if they could figure a way to make the situation better they would have already done so.  So, counselors really play a vital role in becoming an advocate and providing support to these troubled youths.  Once rapport is established the focus can become centered onre-building self-esteem and coming up with a plan to address the bullying.

Many school counselors are pressed for time and resources to help teens who are experiencing bullying. Under time constraints, what are a few of the top priorities you’d recommend a counselor work to address (i.e. self-esteem issues, security, and self-acceptance)? 

Did you know that a targeted child only reports bullying about one-third of the time?  So, I don’t think that “time” should be a barrier when working with a troubled teen.  For counselors working with targeted teens one of the most fulfilling roles they have is to let that youth know they are there for them and to take action and do something to help him/her.  School counselors can play a crucial role in helping to support targeted teens. It’s important for school counselors to let the victim know that the bully will not find out who is doing the reporting. It takes a lot of courage for targeted teens to ask for help; they need to feel accepted and empowered when they seek it, not threatened.

Group work can also prove helpful when working with targeted youths.  However, since bullies victimize, putting the bully and victim together can be extremely upsetting to the victim.   The bully needs to be spoken to alone and independently.

On a larger scale, counselors can work with administration to address bullying from a school-wide approach, using everything from assemblies, pledges to student-led campaigns.  School counselors can also provide training to teachers and administration about the effects of bullying and how to help the targeted teen and the bully.  It’s imperative that administrators take the lead in promoting an anti-bullying school zone. 

What about the students who are doing the bullying? In your experience, are these students receiving the help they need? How can counselors help them address the issues at the core of their bullying behaviors?

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children with mental health disorders are three times more likely to be identified as bullies. With that statistic in mind, counselors, while still empowering victims and bystanders of bullying, need to also focus some of their efforts on the adolescents who are doing the bullying. They should be seen as kids that we need to reach out to and help. 

Did you know that teens who bully others are more likely to engage in risky behaviors? 

Research shows that bullying has been correlated with:

Counselors can work with bullies in several different ways:  First, they can reach out to these students one-on-one. Understanding an individual student’s situation and background can sometimes help shed light on why the teen is resorting to bullying.  Second, counselors can teach these teens how to identify the emotions they are experiencing (i.e., anger, frustration, jealousy, and insecurity) and offer them positive ways to work through their feelings. Third, counselors can help those who bully practice introspection and understand how their words cut and leave scars that can last a lifetime.

Bullying perpetrators need to feel cared for too.  Counselors can help those who bully realize the affect they have on others, discuss the consequences of their behavior, and work on developing empathy.  Counselors need to keep the role of counselor and disciplinarian separate.  If the student feels threatened by counselors he/she will not be willing work with them toward positive change. 

Targeted teen or bullying perpetrator bottom line is: they're just kids… they're just kids.

What advice can you give to counselors for dealing with parents of both the bullies and the bullied?

Create an environment that encourages parents to have an open and accepting dialogue with their teen.  Teach parents to look for the warning signs of bullying from both the perpetrator’s and the victim’s point of view. Bullying is a serious matter and the scars can remain long past the teen years.  Both the victim and the bully need help.  Providing parent workshops, facilitating groups, and meeting one-on-one with affected parents is essential in stopping bullying.  Both the parents of perpetrators and targeted teens need your help.  Remember, you have an important role to play in anti-bullying efforts. 

To the victim of bullying…there is hope; it does get better; never give up…

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