A powerful psychotherapeutic approach to the problem of bullying.
Subject: Bullying (Research)
Psychotherapy (Health aspects)
Mental illness (Care and treatment)
Administrative agencies (Health policy)
Author: Kalman, Izzy
Pub Date: 09/22/2010
Publication: Name: Annals of the American Psychotherapy Association Publisher: American Psychotherapy Association Audience: Academic; Professional Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Psychology and mental health Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 American Psychotherapy Association ISSN: 1535-4075
Issue: Date: Fall, 2010 Source Volume: 13 Source Issue: 3
Topic: Event Code: 310 Science & research; 970 Government domestic functions
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 242897541
Full Text: The high-profile bullying case in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where 15-year-old Phoebe Prince took her own life because she could no longer tolerate the way she was treated by her fellow students, has made bullying a greater concern in our country than ever. State legislatures throughout the country have been beefing up their school anti-bullying laws and policies. In August, the U.S. Department of Education held a summit declaring its intention to solve the problem of bullying. There is, therefore, also an increasing likelihood that you are being referred to for help with bullying, especially if you are a school-based psychotherapist or one who works with children.

Unfortunately, if you have been trying to help kids stop being bullied, there is also a good chance your efforts have failed.

The concern for victims of bullying is not new; it was spawned in our country by the Columbine High School massacre on April 20, 1999, committed by two students who presented themselves as victims of bullying. Since then, our country--and the entire modern world--has embarked on a massive crusade to eliminate bullying from schools. Unfortunately, this crusade is failing, and bullying is often referred to as a growing epidemic.

Why are anti-bullying efforts failing? Because the popular approach to the problem is a law-enforcement rather than a psychotherapeutic one. And is there hope for success? Fortunately, there is. The way is by employing basic psychotherapeutic principles.

If you work in a school and are following the procedures required by state laws and policies, you have been transformed into a glorified law enforcement officer. You now have to protect children from bullies by patrolling the school campus and making sure no inch of territory is unguarded. You are to intervene, if humanly possible, to prevent any act of bullying before it happens. When children complain they were bullied, your duty is to apprehend bullies, judge, and punish and/or rehabilitate them. When you meet with the victims, you are expected to explain to them that they are innocent targets and that the way they are being treated has nothing to do with their own personality or behavior but is entirely the fault of the bullies. When you meet with the bullies, you are expected to get them to admit their guilt, to express remorse over their behavior--that is, to instill in them the conscience they supposedly are bereft of--and to make sure the school administers the mandated punishments (euphemistically referred to as "consequences").


If you have been doing this, you may have felt that your training in psychotherapy is being wasted. A low-paid security officer sporting a uniform and badge is much more effective than a therapist in discouraging mean behavior among students.

You may have also sensed that what you are doing is even counter-therapeutic. You probably learned in your professional training that the task of a therapist is not to protect clients from problems but to help them learn to solve their problems on their own, and that we hurt our clients by trying to protect them. You may have learned in developmental psychology that children need ample opportunity to interact with each other freely, without adults hovering over and controlling them, in order to develop healthy personalities and social skills.

It may be obvious to you that developing resilience requires experiencing adversity, not protection from it. Now you are required to help create a completely safe school environment, in which it is impossible to develop resilience.

It may be obvious to you that development of self-confidence and self-esteem requires kids to learn how to solve their problems on their own. Now we are required to tell kids that they cannot solve the bullying problem on their own because the bullies are too powerful, so they need the help of everyone--school staff, student bystanders, parents, law enforcement agencies--to stop being bullied.

You may have studied the Karpman Drama Triangle with a victim, persecutor, and rescuer. This model explains that when we act as rescuer, we make everything worse: the persecutor becomes a bigger persecutor, the victim becomes a bigger victim, the two sides accuse each other of being the persecutor, both sides vie to get us on their side, they get angry with us for taking the other's side and accuse us of persecuting them, and we actually prevent them from solving their problems with each other. Today you are being required to function as rescuer.

You may have learned in your training that we are all responsible for our own problems--though we are not aware of how we are responsible--and that to solve our problems, we need to take responsibility for them; in other words, mental health involves developing an internal locus of control. Now you must help victims feel better by informing them that their misery is strictly the fault of the bullies, an idea that happens to be scientifically unsound (it is obvious that everything we do--or do not do--influences the way other people treat us) and fosters an unhealthy external locus of control.

If you deal with the alleged bullies, you may have found the process frustrating. They probably denied guilt and even insisted they are the real victims, so you now need the detective skills of a Columbo and the judicial wisdom of a Solomon rather than the therapeutic skills of an Ellis or a Rogers or a Beck. And they and their families probably become angrier, not only with the victims who informed on them but with you as well.

You may have been giving anti-bullying lessons, explaining to students how hurtful bullying is and how it destroys lives, only to discover that more kids are getting upset by bullying because an authority figure taught them how terribly destructive it is. You may have encouraged students to tell the school authorities on their bullies, only to discover that when they follow your advice, their alleged bullies hate them even more and do something worse to them in revenge, creating a spiral of increasingly worse incidents. Then, when the school administration gets involved, you may have noticed that the parents on each side get into the fray, and the hostilities become even more intensive.

In other words, the popular (and mandated) approach to bullying is a law-enforcement one. While law enforcement is necessary for dealing with true crime--acts like rape, theft, murder, and arson--it is counterproductive in trying to get people to have good interpersonal relations. Both the American Psychological Association and the National Association of School Psychologists have issued research-based opinion papers advising schools to reject a zero-tolerance punitive approach to discipline because it causes more harm than good. We cannot expect that a zero-tolerance punitive approach to bullying is going to cause more good than harm.

Fortunately we, as psychotherapists, are in the best position to solve the bullying problem, for we already possess the solution. For a couple of decades, I have been teaching kids and school staff basic principles I learned in my psychotherapy training that dramatically reduce bullying. The professionals who are using my methods are also enjoying tremendous success.

Bullying is actually one of the easiest of all client problems to solve, for it requires nothing more than a simple change in attitude. However, we need to use techniques that are effective, for the standard psychotherapeutic approaches we use with clients are often useless. If you have spent your sessions with bullying victims listening to their feelings, you probably made them feel better and possibly even saved them from harming themselves, but the bullying probably continued. If you were analyzing their dreams, doing play, art, or music therapy, or teaching them meditation or mindfulness, the bullying may still have continued. You may have boosted your clients' self-image and self-esteem but found your efforts insufficient to counterbalance their peers' relentless attacks against their self-image and self-esteem.

So what therapeutic interventions are effective?

First, we need to understand what causes kids to be bullied. Bullying, as the term is currently used in the psychological and educational worlds, occurs when people repeatedly do things to us with the intention of making us upset. A one-time or an unintentional attack is not considered bullying; furthermore, a onetime attack is not a problem that needs to be solved, because it is already over.

There is only one reason that anyone gets picked on repeatedly by the same people. That reason is that the person is getting upset when picked on. Every victim of bullying is getting upset by the bullying and, conversely, no one gets bullied if he or she is not getting upset. The solution is, therefore, to teach victims to stop getting upset when they are bullied. If you work in a school and you teach this to all the students, bullying will disappear almost completely from the school.

Teaching kids to stop getting upset when they are bullied may seem easier said than done--and it is--but it is only a little easier said than done. Most kids can be taught the solution in a matter of minutes. However, simply telling kids not to get upset by bullying usually does not work. They may feel you are instructing them to do the impossible, as well as asking them to lose--to let their bullies get away with what they are doing to them. No one likes to be told to be a loser.

I have developed a structured role-playing game that teaches kids why they are being bullied and how to make the bullying stop. This game teaches lessons that are consistent with every major school of psychotherapy as well as with all major religions and philosophical systems. In approximately 15 minutes, the game, which I have recently begun calling the Freedom of Speech/Golden Rule Game, teaches kids: 1) they thought they were getting upset because they were being picked on, but the real reason they have been picked on is because they were getting upset; 2) they have really been making themselves upset (we control our own feelings); 3) it is absolutely effortless not to get upset; and 4) by not getting upset, they actually win and make their bullies stop picking on them.


In this short article, I cannot teach you everything I do to help victims deal with the various types of bullying and how I teach school staff to respond to bullying. I will present a simple version of the game I use to teach kids to deal with verbal attacks. Most of the acts that are called bullying are verbal, and most physical fights begin with words. Therefore, if kids know how to handle verbal attacks, most of the bullying disappears. You can use your resourcefulness to apply the same approach to teach kids how to deal with any kind of bullying situation. Or you can, of course, acquire my materials (much of which is available for free on www.Bullies2Buddies. corn) or training programs, or attend my seminars.

One thing that makes the game effective is its use of role-playing. Role-playing is far more effective--and fun--than explaining. Explaining is cognitive. Role-playing makes the experience emotional and physical as well.

What makes the procedure particularly effective is that it employs a tactic similar to that of the pool hustler. If I am a pool hustler, I will go into a pool hall and play against you, betting $5. I will play a mediocre game, being sure that I lose. I will play you again for $5, again making sure to lose. Then I will say, "You know what? I have $100. Let's play for a hundred bucks." You rub your hands together in glee, eagerly anticipating making an easy $100.

Then next time we play, I do my best. I get all of the balls in their pockets, and you don't stand a chance. I walk off with your $100, and you're left standing there flabbergasted.

If you are a child who needs help because other kids are insulting you, I will spend a few minutes asking you about the nature of the problem. I want to know who insults you, what names they call you, how often they do it, how long it has been happening, what you have been doing to make them stop, and why you think it happens so often. Then I will ask you if you want the kids to stop insulting you. You will, of course, say, "yes."

Then I tell you, "I am going to play a game with you. It will teach you the real reason the kids are picking on you, and it will also teach you how to make them stop. In this game, your job is to insult me, and my job is to make you stop. But don't let me stop you, because then I win and you lose. Don't worry about really hurting my feelings. It is only a game, and I want you to do a good job."

When you begin insulting me, I treat you like an enemy and put a great deal of energy into trying to make you stop. I get increasingly angry, saying things like, "Shut your mouth!"; "You can't talk to me like that!"; "I am not stupid/ugly/fat/four-eyes!"; "I know karate! I'll break every bone in your body!" The angrier I become, the more confident you become. In fact, you are likely to begin smiling and laughing before long, in which case I know I am doing a good job.

It appears that I am trying to win the game, but it is really a ruse. I am trying to convince you there is no way in the world that I can win this game. After a couple of minutes, I give up.

Then I ask you, "so, if you want to call me names, can I make you stop?" You answer, "no." Then I tell you we will play the game again.

The next time we play, I treat you like a friend and let you insult me all you want. I make it clear that there is nothing wrong with insulting me, that I appreciate the things you are telling me, and that you can do it all day long. I say things like, "Yes, I do stupid things every day"; "I wish I were thin like you"; "You are so lucky you don't need glasses." You get bored and frustrated insulting me, feel increasingly foolish, and before long you give up.

Then I explain to you what was really going on. "When I was getting angry, it looked like you were making me angry, but I really did it to myself. I had you insult me two times. One time I got angry, and the other time I didn't. Do you have a remote control to my brain, pressing on the anger button?" You answer, "no." And I tell you, "The same thing has been going on with you. Kids have been calling you names, and you have been getting angry with them. It feels like they make you angry, but you really do it to yourself. Do the kids really have a remote control to your brain, and are they pressing on the anger button?" And you say, "no."

Then I explain that each time we played the game, there was an illusion. "The first time, it looked like I was trying to make you stop insulting me, but I was really making you continue. I was making you win, I was making you have fun, I was making myself look like a gigantic idiot. Why should you stop? You were having such a good time.

"The second time there was also an illusion. It looked like I was letting you insult me, but I was really making you stop. Wasn't it a lot harder to insult me when I was being nice to you?" And you agree.

Then I give you instructions. "Until now, you've been thinking, 'Oh, no! They are making fun of me! I have to make them stop!' But this is the wrong way to think. As long as you think you have to make them stop, they are never going to stop. They are doing it because you want them to stop. So this is what I want you to do for the next week. You will tell yourself, 'If they want to call me names, they can do it all day long, and it's perfectly okay.' They will look and feel foolish, and after a few days they will leave you alone."

I will also give you two warnings. The first is that the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better. The second is that you have to do this all the time, or it will not work.

Then I tell you, "I am going to help you practice not getting upset. I am going to insult you terribly, and I want you to treat me like a friend. Don't get upset no matter what I say."

Then I unleash a barrage of insults. But not only are you not getting upset, you are probably smiling and laughing before long, and the worse the insults, the more you laugh. After a while, I give up. I commend you for having done a good job and ask if you can do a good job with the kids in school for the next week. You assure me that you can.

When I meet with you a week later, you will almost certainly tell me that it worked and the kids stopped insulting you.

My fellow psychotherapist, I hope you try this technique, that you discover how much fun it is for both you and your clients, and that you achieve wonderful results. Good luck!

ISRAEL (IZZY) C. KALMAN is director of Bullies to Buddies, Inc., and creator/author of the Web site www.Bullies2Buddies.com, which provides a wealth of material, both for free and for sale, for solving the problem of bullying. He lectures extensively throughout the United States to mental health professionals and educators on bullying, anger control, and relationship problems.
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