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Family Counseling Can Work for Bullies and Their Victims

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Creating a Healing Environment Where Family Counseling Can Work for Bullies and Their Victims

Family counseling is one of a number of change agents that must come together whenever there is bullying in a community. We are using the school as the locus of our discussion. Though this is the environment we choose to talk about here, we want you to understand that it could also be your child’s sport’s team, afterschool program, camp or church-school. It’s important to listen openly to your child’s complaints, and believe them, about physical, emotional and/or social bullying and to seek the help needed.

A recent study cited that only when we create an environment that is conducive to healing, within the school where the bullying is occurring, will we have a climate where the rest of the individual, group or family counseling will be successful.

Creating the Climate

We focus on first creating that climate within the specific school to set up the right circumstances for healing:

1. Create an environment where all involved understand the dynamics of the bullying mentality. This includes providing training for teachers and counselors, as well as educating the students

2. Survey the school, gather information and understand the exact extent to which particular types of bullying are taking place in one’s own environment.

3. Use the results of the survey to put a Bully Prevention Program in place in your school. This program includes but is not be limited to: educational CDs and pamphlets about bullying, in school talks and assemblies addressing bullying, group and individual guidance or health forums, parent-teacher forums related to bullying.

4. Establish related policies and procedures for school-wide behavior and advertise through posters, programs, etc.

5. Create a child and teacher friendly program for reporting (vs. “ratting” or “tattling”) that emphasizes compassion towards all involved.

Everyone is Involved in Bullying

There are three groups of people in a place where bullying is occurring: the bullies, the victims and the bystanders. Ask yourself which of the three you are. If you are a bystander, then you need to boost your awareness of the situation and ask yourself what you are going to do when you come in contact with a bullying situation, to intervene. If not, you are part of the problem. This is how we begin to set up a compassionate environment for healing. Comprehensive bully prevention programs will help address this issue so that everyone in the school or community begins to feel like they are a part of the solution. The community begins to have a positive shift toward focusing on gathering around those being bullied to help them feel more a part of things.

There is clear research to show that when peers support those being bullied and intervene in situations where there is bullying going on, the bullying stopped, often within 10 seconds! So the answer is as much within our grasp as bystanders as within any outside intervention.

Who Needs to Heal

Often the focus is on the victims of bullying and certainly this is a great need. But we need to focus on the bullies, too. If we are to have a compassionate environment, then the child and family services we offer are as much directed at the families of the bullies as their objects. Studies have shown that there are particular traits that the various characters in this drama have, and that bullies can benefit particularly from Brief Strategic Family Therapy. We understand that bullies, not just their victims benefit from family counseling as well as one on one counseling or group counseling and that there are issues that individuals identified as bullies have in common, just as victims have issues in common.

Healing therefore is for all those touched by the bullying:

  • Bullies
  • Victims
  • Families
  • Classmates (Bystanders)
  • Teachers and Administration

It is important to identify the healing modalities by which change occurs.

Treatment Modalities

With the right support structures in place there are a number of treatment modalities that are supportive of individuals involved:

Within the School:

  • Group Guidance and Support;
  • Individual Guidance and Counseling;
  • Education and Support.

Outside the School:

  • Individual Counseling;
  • Family Counseling;
  • Group Counseling.

Guidance Counselors and School Psychologists are excellent resources within the school system to provide both crisis intervention as needed and through the Bully Prevention Program and for ongoing support for counseling of individuals or groups.

Families may rightfully feel the need to seek counseling beyond what is available in the school and for this marriage and family counseling is the appropriate avenue to provide support to the entire family in seeing how to support their loved one. Many counseling agencies also provide support groups for victims of bullies or adolescent groups in general. The person may also feel more comfortable seeing a therapist for one on one support.

What is Family Counseling?

Family counseling is a type of therapy where all or part of the family seeks help together. It is particularly helpful in situations such as surviving bullying, as the family often feels at a loss about how to help. “Trained in psychotherapy and family systems, marriage and family therapists focus on understanding their clients’ symptoms and interaction patterns within their existing environment.” This means that whoever the client or clients are, the family counselor is treating them from a relational perspective.

This is helpful where bullying comes in because it occurs in relationship. The bully is someone we know and our friends know, and it happens in our school community. We need to know how to deal with it in our community. Our family needs to know how to support us in that community.

In addition, bullies learned how to be bullies somewhere. Understanding this from a systems perspective is helpful to that individual when they choose to get help, and it is helpful to their victims when they choose to get help. Girls who had been bullies were found to respond to family counseling when they were given three months of Brief Strategic Family Therapy to reduce bully-related behavior, help with anger management, improve interpersonal relationships and improve overall health quality of life.

Creating a Healing Environment: Compassion

Anti-bullying strategies have a better chance of being effective when they are pursued on multi-faceted levels at the same time. The key seems to be developing an overall attitude of compassion as opposed to punishment. If the school creates an environment geared toward overall healing and community, not only is that then a climate that is less inviting for the bully, it is more inviting for the potential victim to feel empowered and included, and maybe even for the bully to feel more inclined to lay down his or her weapons.

Compassion plays a big part here. An attitude that incorporates the notion that everyone is part of the community, including the bully, begins to aim at healing and it sets up a different type of environment. This is what family counseling understands: that we are all part of one system and we have a responsibility to learn to live with one another. If we begin from a point of accepting this about each other, parent, teacher, administrator and student alike, then we begin to search on a different level for ways to live together in peace.

The Challenges

Compassionate environments are not built overnight. Family counselors join the team of professionals who are creating this climate of anti-bullying in their school community. They offer a host of services beyond just the usual hour of counseling:

  • They are resources for professional development and continued education related to school bullying;
  • They help meet the multiple demands on school professionals for counseling, education, assessment;
  • They establish communication between school-based and community-based mental health centers;
  • They help develop policies for partnership and collaboration on bully prevention;
  • They become leaders in the translation of social science research into reality in the community;
  • They receive reimbursement for mental health services, so that members of the community can receive high level family counseling services through their setting;
  • They offer highly trained systemic family counseling to help individuals and families regain balance after experiencing traumatic events.

Families may enter family counseling at any step in the process of intervention. The well-connected family counselor helps the family and the student renegotiate their place in the community in the best way possible for their own and the community’s mental health. This is possible whether the person involved has been bully, bullied or bystander.

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