BullyThe cover story of our February issue, “Bully pulpit,”  focused on the critical role that counselors, and school counselors in particular, play in combating bullying among children and adolescents.

As an online sidebar to our cover story, Counseling Today caught up with new professional Dennielle McIver, a counselor who is aiming to specialize in working with children and adolescents on issues including bullying. Read on for her thoughts on bullying and hear the perspective of someone who’s just starting out in the field.

As a new professional, why is this topic of interest to you?

As a new professional specializing in depression and working with children and adolescents, it is important that I recognize the effects of bullying or being bullied. Thirty to 50 percent of students are bullies or victims of bullies (National Mental Health and Education Center). Bullying and being a victim of bullying is a health issue for children and adolescents because of the association with poor mental health, adjustment problems, extreme violent behavior, academic problems and high risk for substance abuse.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that bullies and victims of bullies are more likely to be experiencing violence at home. Studies have also shown that those who are bullies are at higher risk for engaging in violent and other risky behaviors in adulthood. Of high school dropouts, 1 in 3 blames bullying. Twenty-three percent of elementary students report being bullied up to three times a day. An average of 100,000 students carry a gun to school. An average of 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month. The National Association of School Psychologists and the U.S. Department of Justice report that an estimated 160,000 children miss school every day in fear of intimidation or attack by other students.

When I talk to my clients, I always ask about self-esteem and bullying, as the two seem highly related. A majority of my female clients report sexual bullying, cyberbullying from other females or being bullied by siblings at home. A trend with my male [client] population [is] bullying from ex-girlfriends and other males about sexual preference, name calling in particular. When I talk to my clients who are the bullies, it appears that there are typically issues going on at home such as divorce, violence, abuse or adjustment issues and [the bullying] may be done as a defense mechanism.

What effect do you hope to have on the topic of bullying when it comes to your work with clients?

I hope to create awareness on bullying and how to cope with it or prevent it, work through the depression or aggression that is caused by bullying or being bullied, and prevent possible suicidal or homicidal ideation.

Among the goals for clients who are being bullied:

  • Learn how to stand up to bullying in a productive, safe and positive manner
  • Learn how to ask for help if you or a friend is being bullied
  • Learn how to cope with bullying
  • Learn how to walk away
  •  Understand the motives behind a bully and how to be a friend
  • Learn how to cope with fear and learn problem-solving skills
  • Develop social skills
  • Improve self-esteem

Among the goals for clients who are engaging in bullying:

  • Understanding the underlying reasoning for their bullying and opposition — explore feelings of anger, anxiety, fear, etc.
  • Learn how to cope with stressors at home or at school
  • Learn how to be assertive
  • Learn how to be held accountable for their actions
  • Develop social skills
  • Improve self-esteem

What do you see as the roles of school counselors and counselors in the community in combatting bullying?

A school counselor should be involved in the responding to and preventing of school bullying. The school counselor should provide intervention strategies to prevent bullying from increasing. They should advocate for their students by insisting that policies, programs and interventions target more than just physical bullying. Also, they should be able to recognize and address the warning signs of bully victimization and address the bullies, their victims and their parents about the problem.

I believe that the role of a community counselor in combatting bullying is to be able to advocate on behalf of their clients. Counselors’ responsibility is to provide a safe place for their clients and provide treatment to victims, bullies and their parents. It would be favorable if the counselors were in partnership with the schools, community groups and corrections system to work together to raise public awareness and provide mental health interventions and training programs.

In your view, what techniques or approaches are most effective with children on the topic of bullying?

I am a huge supporter of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. CBT is effective in dealing with the emotional distress of victims of bullying and rebuilding self-esteem. I do not believe in taking a “lecturing approach” but would rather empower my clients to elicit and reinforce their own motivation for change. Therefore, I take a motivational interviewing approach to promote an eagerness to change — this works great with the perpetrators. This is also a cognitive-behavioral technique but provides a supportive talk therapy that elicits the want to change. As a therapist helping my young clients with bullying, I have to ensure that I am not myself bullying them to change but rather encouraging them to hear [for] themselves the reasons why they want to change and then allowing them to motivate themselves to change and reach their goals.

Can you share any thoughts on suicide risk, as it relates to bullying?

Yale School of Medicine did a study of 13 different countries and found a connection between bullying, being bullied and suicide. Currently, suicide is the third leading death for ages 5 to 24 (Child Welfare League of America). For every suicide, there are at least 100 attempts. Individuals who are victims of bullying are between two and nine times more likely to consider suicide than non-victims.

When I was in my residency and internship, I found that the hardest thing for new counselors was to ask if a client was suicidal, had any suicidal thoughts or had ever attempted suicide. My recommendations would be to ask what effects bullying has [on clients] and if they have ever or currently have suicidal thoughts, plans or previous attempts in regards to the bullying. Not all bullying situations end in suicide, but it is important to let youths know that suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

Lynne Shallcross is the associate editor and senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lshallcross@counseling.org.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org