How Therapists Can Really Help Kids Who Are Being Bullied
Curt and Katie chat about how therapists can support the targets of bullying. We explore what bullying actually is as well as what can be problematic in how it is typically addressed. We also discuss individual therapy strategies for kids who have been bullied. Curt and Katie also debate about whether the targets of bullying should change what makes them different to avoid getting bullied.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
Click here to scroll to the podcast transcript.
In this podcast episode we talk about how therapists can effectively treat bullying in therapy
For Bullying Prevention month, we decided to dig into what bullying actually is and how therapists can treat bullying in therapy.
What is bullying actually?
- The definition of bullying and how it is described currently (i.e., teasing versus bullying)
- Target and aggressor (versus victim and bully) as more appropriate language to describe participants
- Three essential elements of bullying: ongoing behavior, behavior is intended to be harmful, and there is a power differential between the aggressor and the target
- The relevance of impact versus intention of behavior
- Numerous types of power imbalances that can be present
- Types: physical, verbal, social or covert, cyber bullying
What is problematic in how bullying is typically addressed?
“Aggressors have a more robust set of social skills. And it’s being able to adapt more quickly to things that are socially changing, even in the moment. This also plays a role in the reporting on the people teasing them because the more socially adept kids are then better able to convince the adults around them. Oh, no, we were just playing. We were teasing back and forth.” – Curt Widhalm, LMFT
- Most bullying is not observed by adults
- Not moving past holding space
- Looking toward community interventions rather than individual
- Lack of understanding of what cyber bullying actually looks like (when you haven’t grown up as a digital native)
- Aggressors have a more robust set of social skills
Strategies for kids who have been bullied
“I think we also need to recognize that if we go too far in telling people not to be different, we are invalidating their identity. And if we don’t go far enough, and we don’t help them to be part of society, they may continue to get really harshly bullied, but either one is damaging.” – Katie Vernoy, LMFT
- Beyond ignoring (especially if there is an audience)
- Understanding what the target’s response means to the aggressor
- Not playing into what the aggressor is doing, escalating to forceful “stop,” seeking out a trusted adult (or multiple adults)
- Debate on whether a target should shift their behavior and change what makes them different
- Building confidence versus masking
- Safety now versus identity development
- Practicing responses to potential bullying statements in session
- Including targets in the planning process with adults
- The challenges with mediation within school settings (and the importance of follow up)
- Systemic or prevention programs that also address bystanders
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Resources for Modern Therapists mentioned in this Podcast Episode:
We’ve pulled together resources mentioned in this episode and put together some handy-dandy links. Please note that some of the links below may be affiliate links, so if you purchase after clicking below, we may get a little bit of cash in our pockets. We thank you in advance!
Article: Parent-Assisted Social Skills Training to Improve Friendships in Teens with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Article: The 411 on Bullying
Relevant Episodes of MTSG Podcast:
Risk Factors for Suicide: What therapists should know when treating teens and adults
The Practicalities of Gender Affirming Care for Trans Youth: An interview with Jordan Held, LCSW
Working with Trans Clients: Trans resilience and gender euphoria – An interview with Beck Gee-Cohen
Neurodivergence: An interview with Dr. Joel Schwartz
Who we are:
Curt Widhalm, LMFT
Curt Widhalm is in private practice in the Los Angeles area. He is the cofounder of the Therapy Reimagined conference, an Adjunct Professor at Pepperdine University and CSUN, a former Subject Matter Expert for the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, former CFO of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, and a loving husband and father. He is 1/2 great person, 1/2 provocateur, and 1/2 geek, in that order. He dabbles in the dark art of making “dad jokes” and usually has a half-empty cup of coffee somewhere nearby. Learn more at: http://www.curtwidhalm.com
Katie Vernoy, LMFT
Katie Vernoy is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, coach, and consultant supporting leaders, visionaries, executives, and helping professionals to create sustainable careers. Katie, with Curt, has developed workshops and a conference, Therapy Reimagined, to support therapists navigating through the modern challenges of this profession. Katie is also a former President of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists. In her spare time, Katie is secretly siphoning off Curt’s youthful energy, so that she can take over the world. Learn more at: http://www.katievernoy.com
A Quick Note:
Our opinions are our own. We are only speaking for ourselves – except when we speak for each other, or over each other. We’re working on it.
Our guests are also only speaking for themselves and have their own opinions. We aren’t trying to take their voice, and no one speaks for us either. Mostly because they don’t want to, but hey.
Stay in Touch with Curt, Katie, and the whole Therapy Reimagined #TherapyMovement:
Consultation services with Curt Widhalm or Katie Vernoy:
Connect with the Modern Therapist Community:
Our Facebook Group – The Modern Therapists Group
Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide Creative Credits:
Voice Over by DW McCann https://www.facebook.com/McCannDW/
Music by Crystal Grooms Mangano https://groomsymusic.com/
Transcript for this episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide podcast (Autogenerated):
Curt Widhalm 0:00
This episode of the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide is brought to you by Thrizer.
Katie Vernoy 0:03
Thrizer is a modern billing platform for private pay therapists. Their platform automatically gets clients reimbursed by their insurance after every session. Just by billing your clients through Thrizer you can potentially save them hundreds every month with no extra work on your end. The best part is you don’t have to give up your rates they charge a standard 3% processing fee.
Curt Widhalm 0:24
Listen at the end of the episode for more information on a special offer from Thrizer.
Katie Vernoy 0:29
This episode is also brought to you by Simplified SEO Consulting,
Curt Widhalm 0:33
Have you spent countless hours trying to get your website just right and get it’s not showing up on Google and it doesn’t seem like anyone’s able to find it? Simplified SEO consulting has a unique solution. They’ve been training therapists to optimize their websites, so they show up better on Google. But let’s face it with the busy schedules we all keep, it can be hard to find time to optimize your website even when you learn how. So they’re hosting a 16 day cruise in July 2023 going from LA to Hawaii and back. When you join them, you’ll get intensive SEO, education and coaching during the 10 days at sea. Most importantly, you’ll have plenty of time to sit next to the pool and implement everything you’ve learned and then ask their team for feedback. Yes, it’s the perfect excuse for a Hawaii vacation. But it’s also time to both learn about SEO and actually implement what you learn.
Katie Vernoy 1:24
Listen at the end of the episode for more information on Simplified SEO Consulting.
You’re listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide where therapists live, breathe and practice as human beings. To support you as a whole person and a therapist, here are your hosts, Curt Widhalm, and Katie Vernoy.
Curt Widhalm 1:45
Welcome back modern therapists, this is the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy. And this is the podcast for therapists about things that show up with our clients, the things that we do with our clients, the ways that we show up in the world. And this being October, this is recognizing that this is bullying prevention month, and we decided that we would talk about working with clients around bullying, and particularly around the being the target side of things, and bringing in some of our experiences of working with clients and, admittedly, our own roles in the bullying cycle. I know from my end of things, I’m not proud to admit it, but that I bullied some people when I was growing up. And I can only assume Katie, on your end that you were a giant target for bullies on your side. So…
Katie Vernoy 2:41
I actually was.
Curt Widhalm 2:42
Really? I was just trying to…
Katie Vernoy 2:46
I was, I was, I was bullied for how I looked physically, I’ll just say that. But I think some of it was teasing. And some of it was bullying. So I guess we’ll have to sort out what that actually was. But yeah, I got I got what today’s kiddos would call bullied, I got I had some of that.
Curt Widhalm 3:02
That’s a great start into this because I don’t know if I’m moving into just being old and being like kids these days are too sensitive. But I see reports that over 90% of kids are reporting being bullied these days. And thinking back to the days of our youth, I have to wonder if bullying rates are really that high? Or if they are just what has happened in the last 15 or so years is that awareness about bullying has increased so much that now just what you’re describing as teasing ends up being called bullying and that there’s kind of an over sensitivity to what bullying actually is. And nobody’s really defining it.
Katie Vernoy 3:51
That’s possible. I mean, I think it’s always been described to me that like middle school kids are mean, or all kids are mean or there’s the Mean Girls, there’s the things that can happen, boys will be boys. You know, there’s there’s so many different ways that we talk about kids that doesn’t acknowledge that sometimes they’re just pretty cruel to each other. That to appropriately labeled it as bullying, I think would be very helpful. And there are times when it might be something where we’ve gone too far. I mean, I think there’s there’s a lot of times when something becomes popular to claim and it is over-claimed but I don’t think that diminishes forever the the impacts of of increasing awareness.
Curt Widhalm 4:41
Sure. So there’s no universal definition of bullying. But amongst the research on bullying, researchers tend to agree that there are three essential elements to bullying. And this is what we’re building our episode around and some of the interventions we talked about. So those three pieces are: it is ongoing behavior, that this is not a one time sort of comment or interaction sort of thing. The second is that the behavior is intended to be harmful. And the third is that there is a power differential between the aggressor and the target.
Katie Vernoy 5:23
Curt Widhalm 5:23
So those three components needing to be in place, actually, to me back up that, okay, a lot of what’s being reported by kids might not actually be bullying. It, because it doesn’t meet all three of these factors.
Katie Vernoy 5:39
So ongoing, that’s pretty self explanatory. Something not just one comment but ongoing comments. It’s built in over time like this is happening, the intention for harm? Who determines that? Because oftentimes, what I’ve heard is like, Oh, well, it was just a joke, or I was just being silly, and it was harmful. And so when we look at intention for harm, someone could be a jerk, and not intend to be harmful, but they’re harming a lot of people. Does that mean they’re not bullying them if they don’t intend to harm someone?
Curt Widhalm 6:16
What you’re talking about is intention versus impact. And one of the things that we will get into here is the way that aggressors in these situations use their social skills, which are usually a lot more advanced than the people that they’re targeting. And I’m very careful to use the terms aggressor and target in these situations that I don’t want to use terms like victim in these situations, because I don’t want people on the receiving end of this to feel like they are doing something wrong. And we’ll get into some of the risk factors of that throughout the episode here. I think you’re bringing up a really important point as far as what the intention is. Now, you may not be surprised about this, but I do a lot of jokes and things that…
Katie Vernoy 7:05
Curt Widhalm 7:06
…in the context of how you know me, you know that a lot of times, my intentions are to be irreverent and funny, and not all of the times am I funny, got a 99% success rate here. But we are…
Katie Vernoy 7:22
Do you though? Do you though?
Curt Widhalm 7:26
But the intentions to harm people are absent as far as I’m concerned. And that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people out there who, you know, are receiving things in the way that I intend them. I would venture to guess most people would not consider what I’m doing bullying. And I think that what happens is we’re trying to look at in the research, typically children, or teenagers who are being observed from kind of an outside perspective, rather than an individual psychological perspective. So we’re not necessarily asking the aggressors for what their intentions are, we’re not necessarily asking the targets, what the impact was, we’re doing it more from an observational sociological basis.
Katie Vernoy 8:19
Curt Widhalm 8:20
And so it’s a little column A, a little column B as determined by outside observers here.
Katie Vernoy 8:26
Okay. So there’s the ongoing nature, intention to harm. And what was the last one?
Curt Widhalm 8:35
A power imbalance.
Katie Vernoy 8:37
A power imbalance? So how is that determined? Because power imbalance could come from a lot of different places.
Curt Widhalm 8:47
Exactly. I refuse to elaborate.
Katie Vernoy 8:53
Because there’s, there’s like teachers bullying students, and I actually saw that when I was growing up, because, you know, there weren’t cell phone cameras. But there’s, there’s then fellow students theoretically, that’s not a power imbalance. But I you know, when I was bullied, it was by boys, and you know, there sometimes are and a group of boys against little old me. And so if that’s the case, I felt a power imbalance, like I couldn’t stop it. I couldn’t do anything. I could try to walk away, I could ignore it. I could try to make jokes about it. But it was something where I felt a power imbalance. So there was one or two guys with an audience, making jokes about my physical appearance.
Curt Widhalm 9:35
I will even expand upon this and say that power imbalances can include things like popularity. That having even a social power imbalance, a different socio economic status sort of thing is a power imbalance. There’s a lot of ways to define this. And one of the things that you’re describing is a actual potential physical power imbalance and that’s going to be true and things like physical bullying are very much present.
Katie Vernoy 10:03
Sure. Okay. So you can’t be bullied by someone that has less power than you.
Curt Widhalm 10:11
If someone is punching up at you, that is not bullying.
Katie Vernoy 10:14
What is it?
Curt Widhalm 10:16
That is someone punching up at you?
Katie Vernoy 10:19
All right, all right.
Curt Widhalm 10:20
Most of what I see in my practice is parents bringing in their kids about being the targets of bullying. This is where a lot of the interventions come in. And a lot of what I hear from these clients is consistent with what’s in the literature. That “I’ve tried these things they haven’t worked, people have been telling me just to ignore it, or to move on, that doesn’t work. The adults in my life don’t end up seeing most of what’s happening.” And this has been true in the research since back in the 90s. Dan Olweus is one of the founding like people into bullying research and reported that over 95% of bullying is not witnessed by an adult. And…
Katie Vernoy 11:08
That seems right.
Curt Widhalm 11:09
And, you know, I look at, you know, the worst people on Earth, which I described as middle schoolers. And having worked in a middle school before. And coming from the background that I have that there is so much interaction that happens passing in hallways, in lines, that is just almost inaudible that is just constantly either not seen, it’s ignored, because it’s passed into that kids are going to be kids sort of things.
Katie Vernoy 11:43
Curt Widhalm 11:44
But especially around that age, where they’re not having the same teacher all day long, that they don’t get to know the kids in the all day long interactions. And so it’s very, very easily believable that most of what we’re seeing, most of what we’re not seeing is what these kids are starting to feel helpless about. And this is really being able to take these kids and be able to give them some of the skills that allow for them to no longer be targeted by aggressors. And one of the things that I kind of openly share with a lot of clients is that there are plenty of well meaning people in our field, like Katie, who have been on the receiving end of bullying, and are like bullying is bad. And we should do something about it. I was bullied as a kid. And I don’t want anybody else to feel this way. And they come up with these, you know, wonderful sounding, caring interventions that don’t do anything at all to really help move kids out of this state. You’re great therapists at being able to hold some space for these kids and help them express their feelings. But one of the things that I point out to my clients is, I unfortunately, did do some things to some people in my life and made them you know, feel bad. And I know the kinds of things that as a bully, made some people more resilient and made it harder to bully them. That made me move on from them and do something else with my time because I wasn’t getting out of this my bullying quota.
Katie Vernoy 12:55
Your bullying quota.
Curt Widhalm 13:37
It’s a union sort of thing.
Katie Vernoy 13:41
You were part of the bully union. Okay, good to know. Maybe we take a little side trip, before we head into some of these interventions and just talk about the different types of bullying. Maybe that helps just so people know what we’re actually looking at.
Curt Widhalm 13:56
Yeah, so there’s a few different ways that bullying shows up. I think the most obvious one is physical bullying, where there’s some sort of physical aggression. And this can include anything like hitting, kicking, tripping, punching, damaging people’s property. Physical bullying causes both short term and long term damage.
Katie Vernoy 14:21
Yeah, and it’s something where the physical bullying is oftentimes the most easy to identify because there might be some sort of injuries or property damage, like you can actually see physical impacts of this type of bullying. I think sometimes it gets caught because the person who was initially bullied, punches back or does something and then gets in trouble but I think there’s that element of when it when it comes to fisticuffs.
Curt Widhalm 14:55
Are you sure that the only reason that you were bullied was the things that you had listed? I wasn’t middle school Katie using the old timey language?
Katie Vernoy 15:06
Curt Widhalm 15:10
You were a ‘bee’s knees’ kid in a ‘that’s awesome’ world.
Katie Vernoy 15:14
I pretty much was. So I think when we’re, when we’re looking at physical bullying when when there’s actual hands thrown things are happening, at some point, adults are gonna see that.
Curt Widhalm 15:28
And like you said, it’s usually when there’s a response back to the action. And depending on where the responses, a lot of schools have things like zero tolerance policies, which are horrible when it comes to this, because it doesn’t get to the core of why some of these situations are happening. But it does take that kid actually, you know, finally responding and standing up for themselves that makes them kind of respond in this way. And oftentimes, that’s met with administrators and parents being like, we had no idea that this was going on. And speaking to that 99% of stuff just not being observed.
Katie Vernoy 16:11
Curt Widhalm 16:13
Another type of bullying is verbal bullying. This is name calling, insults, teasing, intimidation, homophobic or racist remarks, verbal abuse. And oftentimes, this can start off pretty harmless but can escalate and compound over time.
Katie Vernoy 16:31
And verbal bullying oftentimes fits into more of a relational stance or a social stance. Like where it’s, it’s providing negative feedback on the person, but it also may be causing to isolate or causing to be seen as different or those types of things. There’s not the physical impacts, but oftentimes, this bullying is pretty critical. And working with adults who’ve had this before, it leads to a pretty harsh inner critic later on.
Curt Widhalm 17:00
And this extends into the next type of bullying, which is social bullying. And this is sometimes called covert bullying. It’s often harder to recognize because it’s carried out behind people’s back. And this can then extend to things like lying and spreading rumors, making negative gestures behind somebody’s back, menacing, contemptuous looks, playing nasty jokes to embarrass or humiliate them, encouraging others to socially exclude someone and damaging someone’s social reputation or social acceptance.
Katie Vernoy 17:35
And I think in those things, I think about growing up, I was probably a bystander in a lot of those things. Like I was on the outskirts of the popular group, and whoever was the ringleader, so to speak, would ostracize a certain person and I would go along. And that’s, that’s hard to, you know, like, there’s folks who are actively engaged and the folks that are tacitly accepting or extending it, and that makes me sad.
Curt Widhalm 18:00
And then the last one is cyber bullying. This is intentional and repeated harm inflicted through the use of computers, phones, and electronic devices, whether it’s over social media texts, and any of those kinds of things. And these can be done publicly or privately, and whether it’s known only to the target or to multiple people. And this can also include things like gossip and rumors, deliberately excluding people from online things, imitating others using their logins and posting things that are ridiculous from that login device and that kind of stuff.
Katie Vernoy 18:40
So I was not cyber bullied when I was a kid. I didn’t have to worry about that. That wasn’t a thing.
Curt Widhalm 18:50
And that’s actually problematic for some of us older clinicians who did not grow up with this and don’t understand just how pervasive that can be as far as connecting with other people online, and ways to intervene with that as well.
Katie Vernoy 19:09
Yeah, I think it’s something where in talking with folks who are not digital natives, for example, folks who just maybe don’t even go on social media that much, like they don’t have a sense of how your social your social life is in your pocket, how your aggressor is in your pocket, how your social support is in your pocket. I mean, I think the role that social media and technology plays in folks lives these days, if you aren’t learning it as an adult, for example, if you’re not like practicing cyberbullying on Reddit, then you’re not going to know what the situation looks like. So I think it’s something where this is very much something that if you’ve not taken a cyber class of some sort to catch up, if you’re not a digital native, you really need to.
Curt Widhalm 20:06
I want every teenager who’s considering working with Katie to just listen to her describing that and making your decision of is Katie a treatment provider and working on me being cyber bullied.
Katie Vernoy 20:19
I’m getting bullied right now, this is what’s happening.
Curt Widhalm 20:24
A lot of the clients who get brought in talk about, you know, these repeated actions that are happening against them. And there’s some really practical steps that I end up working on with kids. And it is escalating in response to the types of escalations that aggressors would be using in bullying situations. And for especially a lot of younger kids, or early stage sort of things where it is teasing that could just be teasing. It’s being able to kind of pass off on the jokes, just kind of like, okay, when things aren’t funny anymore, when it’s not like, Okay, I rolled with the first one, but it’s happening again, it’s being able to work with kids on. Okay, you can’t just ignore the bully. We all know that ignoring doesn’t work. You’ve probably tried ignoring things before. The aggressor is still doing these kinds of things. It’s because you’re just sitting there. And oftentimes what the aggressor has, is a group of people that they’re entertaining, you know, we’ve all have the click or the social group around them. And so a lot of times, what ends up happening is they start teasing the target. And the target doing their best to ignore it is just sitting there. And then the teasing just turns to something like, Oh, you’re even too stupid to respond. Like…
Katie Vernoy 21:52
Curt Widhalm 21:53
And so it’s something where a lot of times, one of the factors that aggressors have is a more robust set of social skills. And it’s being able to adapt more quickly to things that are socially changing, even in the moment. This also plays a role in the reporting on the people teasing them because the more socially adept kids are then better able to convince the adults around them. Oh, no, we were just playing. We were teasing back and forth. He teased me I volleyed a tease back at him if we’re adopting Katie’s old timey language, it was all in good fun cheer cheer. But ignoring does not work, especially in repeated sort of attempts. Because what feeds aggressors in these situations is the response back, there’s a charge that comes to aggressors, it feels good to put somebody down, especially if the audience around kind of is like Ooooh, like, you know, if you’ve ever, you know, had a good insult, and we’ve been working together for five years, I’m still waiting for one, but…
Katie Vernoy 23:02
Continuing to get bullied on this episode.
Curt Widhalm 23:06
No, but what you’re doing right here is you are doing one of the robust sort of things which is not feeding into it, you are giving it a acknowledgment of this is happening. But I’m not going to feed into it, I’m not going to fight back against it. Because what some kids end up trying to do is “No. Stop.” and to an aggressor that’s just like a Oh, you have laid out the feast in front of me. This makes it all the easier. Like there has to be some conviction to what’s happening. And that’s the next step of this is, it’s being able to assertively say stop, if kind of the passing things off. Oh, okay. I know what you said that I’m just not going to feed into it. Like, that’s, that’s how to ignore it. It’s not just blame. It’s not just don’t say anything. It’s…
Katie Vernoy 24:00
Curt Widhalm 24:01
…look at it. Give it a little shrug, and then go back to whatever it is you’re doing. If it continues from there, here’s this level two intervention, it’s assertively be able to say stop.
Katie Vernoy 24:12
Curt Widhalm 24:13
I don’t like this stop. Now, most aggressors are going to be like, Or what?
Katie Vernoy 24:22
Curt Widhalm 24:23
Right, exactly. And this is where the second level of intervention is where it can often be very short, because but why kids don’t end up doing this a lot of the time is because when they say stop, and it doesn’t stop, they feel defeated.
Katie Vernoy 24:46
Curt Widhalm 24:46
And this is where a lot of well meaning adults are like, well just tell them to stop. I did tell them stop. It didn’t work.
Katie Vernoy 24:53
Yes. Yeah, there’s no there’s no way they will ever stop because I’ve told them once and it didn’t work.
Curt Widhalm 24:58
Right. And this is where again, going back to the definition of this, this is repeated behavior, confidently repeatedly tell them to stop and in response to that, or what it’s be prepared to escalate this to a trusted adults. Stop, or I’m going to the teacher, I’m going to my parents about this, I’m going to the principal, I’m going to somebody in a position of higher power or authority than you in order to help me in this situation. Now, a lot of kids don’t do this, for the fear that they will then get teased for being a snitch. Or continue to be bullied for this. And this is where a lot of the research actually suggests that when it’s escalated to a safe adult and the proper interventions are happening, it actually diminishes a lot of bullying behavior at this point.
Katie Vernoy 25:52
Curt Widhalm 25:54
But it’s convincing the kids of this, that’s actually the hard part in your office like, you don’t know what it’s like, like this other kid told. And now he gets called, you know, you tattled and all this kind of stuff. Our job here is to help you not get bullied. And this is where I’m emphasizing going to a safe adult, because a lot of targets report, I have asked for help. I’ve asked for help several times. And this, people just aren’t responding. You know, I told my parents that I was being bullied, but I didn’t really explain much about it. And they never did anything about it. So I never brought it back up to them.
Katie Vernoy 26:35
Seems like when you’re in a pretty helpless phase of this, where you’re feeling targeted constantly, you can’t leave it because it’s in your pocket. So whether it’s physical bullying at school, or verbal bullying at school that continues on to cyber bullying, a lot of the time. And so to me, it’s something where if you can’t escape it, you’re really in a learned helplessness stage. And so I think being able to boost confidence, to boost, you know, kind of how they feel about themselves, the ability to do the first two steps, which is kind of let it roll off their back and then have a strong statement to kind of respond to it to stop it. I think it gets really hard to escalate it. Because it doesn’t feel like that there’s much hope. And I know we did, we did a couple of episodes on suicide, specifically about some parts on teens as well. But this is one of the reasons that kids who are bullied, oftentimes seek out suicide as an option, because they don’t see a way out of it. And so I don’t want to diminish that, Oh, we just have to get them to tell and that’ll solve it. Because I think a lot of kids first off have a difficulty getting there. And I think especially kids who are in pretty high risk populations, whether it’s marginalized identities, or those types of things, the teachers may not evaluate it as bullying and or not doing anything because well, You’re this kid or You’re that kid like, of course, you’re gonna get bullied, you just have to stop being that way. And so I want to acknowledge that there are systemic issues here that we have to be aware of, because some folks are going to consistently get bullied, not because they’re not confident. Because of some sort of way that they identify some sort of way that they show up. And that’s part of their identity, I don’t think they should change their identity just so that they don’t get bullied.
Curt Widhalm 28:27
I agree with you mostly, because remember that the worst thing that you can be in middle school is different.
Katie Vernoy 28:35
Curt Widhalm 28:36
And part of being able to minimize your risk factors, especially in that kind of an environment is minimize the amount of things that make you different. And…
Katie Vernoy 28:48
But if what makes you different is who you are.
Curt Widhalm 28:52
Agreed. And I’m making space for both here because…
Katie Vernoy 28:56
Curt Widhalm 28:57
…there is some situations where like, alright, kid you got to accept that you’re being bullied because you stink like you need to shower more. Like this is if What if who you are is stinky kid, you are signing up to be targeted by aggressors in middle school.
Katie Vernoy 29:13
I hear you and I think that there there’s a room for both understanding the reality of the situation and trying to shift the societal norms. That means that oh, you know, if a kid…
Curt Widhalm 29:26
Okay, great. Shift societal norms. So that’s great. In the meantime, the kids with physical disabilities, you know, this is something where it’s very obvious, it’s different. Those kids who are aggressors are going to continue to pick on those kids and bully them in the meantime. You know, this is one of the frustrations that I have with a lot of well meaning therapists is Yeah, we should change society. But in the meantime, these kids are getting picked on. They’re getting targeted, and they need strategies to be able to deal with that. Some of the things that they some of the things that they can change, they should change because this is about being able to hold space for both themselves, and this is part of the deeper process of being able to work through this is being able to accept, like, Yeah, I’m different in middle school, the world sucks, people are going to make fun of people who are different. And these are ways that I’m different. And here’s social skills that I can learn to roll with it. But at the end of the day, if I’m taller, shorter, developing faster, developing shorter, or developing later, or any sort of other thing that I can’t control, part of what I have to do for myself is accept how I’m different and take ownership of that. Because confidence, as we pointed out earlier, is one of the things that makes it to where the aggressors move on to somebody else.
Katie Vernoy 30:46
I think for me, the thing that I see that can be a really hard line for clinicians to walk is ownership and pride in who you are versus masking or going back in the closet, or whatever it is, I think it is something where each person has to decide how much they that they’re able to do. Because if it if it sounds like either let your freak flag fly, and you know, good luck, hopefully you don’t get bullied or on the other extreme is hide everything and your identity makes you wrong. I think either way, we’re getting folks in trouble. I think we can try to put social supports around folks that have things they are unable to change. And I think we can work on empowering them, and increasing their self confidence and their ownership of who they are. And I think we also need to recognize that if we go too far in telling people not to be different, we are we are invalidating their, their identity. And if we don’t go far enough, and we don’t help them to be part of society, they may continue to get really harshly bullied, but either one is damaging.
Curt Widhalm 32:00
And it’s not a binary situation here.
Katie Vernoy 32:02
No, but I want to point out…
Curt Widhalm 32:05
But part of being able to work with clients like this is those kids who are like, I’m getting bullied for liking anime, when really what it is, is, they’re getting bullied because they tried to go Super Saiyan in gym class in front of all of their peers, and it failed miserably. Like, there’s a difference between being interested in something and having that be a part of your identity, versus doing something that’s just socially just very out of place. And, and confusing the two.
Katie Vernoy 32:35
I get that. And I think that there’s probably a an agree to disagree here right now. Because I think that there are, there are things that when we empower folks to do more of doing silly things in the middle of class, well not class gym class, someplace, we’re not going to get in trouble with our teacher, if we empower people to be themselves and more people are themselves. I think there is a positive there. But I get that in the meantime, they’re still gonna get bullied. So I understand what you’re saying. I’m trying to speak to the nuance of it, where we have to understand that telling folks to conform to be safe, may keep them safe now, but then they come into my office as a an adult completely unsure of who they are and having masked or hid the closet or not said anything about themselves for a very long time. And the the kind of the stereotype of the folks who do the best, who have been bullied most of their lives and then make a career out of it. Comedians also die by suicide for the very same reason. And so I think it’s something where we have to honor both where they are and keeping them safe now, as well as their identity development and who they’re going to become.
Curt Widhalm 33:51
There is space for both, but I think in the short term of being able to handle the bullying situations, there’s a small amount of trade off here.
Katie Vernoy 34:05
Curt Widhalm 34:06
And yeah, there is longer term work around identity development and expression and that kind of stuff. And part of that is, you know, depending on the age range of person that you’re working with, some of this stuff does fit in with adults here as well. But I think that when it comes to actually dealing with bullying, this is one of the things where that trade off, I know from my personal lived experience of being on the aggressor end of things that what you’re talking about, just continues to subject these kids to aggressors over and over again. And if what we’re talking about is some confusion years later about identity development versus being pushed into suicide earlier. I’m going to take the approach of let’s give you some practical skills right now that we might have to deal with some collateral damage on later when it comes to who you are as a person and how you express that. But in the meantime, if you’re going to, you know, grow out your hair and hope, you know, style it like a padawan in high school. Know what you’re signing up for here as far as like, yeah, these are some of the insults that you’re going to face. And this is some things that you should have some skills as far as how to embrace responding back to this. And this ends up in some of the sessions that we have where it’s like, okay, let’s figure out what it is that kids are likely going to say to you. So that way you can practice responding back to it in ways that de-escalate the situation and make you harder to be a target.
Katie Vernoy 35:47
Okay. I mean, I… what I hear, and I think potentially both of us got a little bit binary in our argument here. But I think, what I’m hearing and what I, what I like is meeting the kid, the teen, even the adult, where they are, understanding who they are as an individual, and helping them to create armor for these places where they might be targeted, and so that they have the resources they need. And recognize I’m putting this on here. Because this is how I survived this particular setting, not who I am is unacceptable.
Curt Widhalm 36:22
Katie Vernoy 36:23
Okay. I can I can get behind that. And I think that’s something where a lot of folks have done that automatically, you know, and, yes, again, I have them later in life trying to figure out how do they really truly know themselves? Because the armor is pretty stuck on but fair enough, I will I will allow it.
Curt Widhalm 36:43
And so, you know, sometimes when I get to this stage of treatment with clients, kids are like, Oh, so you’re gonna tease me in session? I’m like, Absolutely. Like, this is a safe space where we can break things down and they go So my parents are paying you to bully me? and I go, No, I’m just using my skills for good.
Katie Vernoy 37:03
So you’re talking about role playing, so they can practice the skills…
Curt Widhalm 37:07
Katie Vernoy 37:08
…for, for when they’re going to be faced with actual bullies, not therapist current bully.
Curt Widhalm 37:14
And so the next level of intervention is when it continues to escalate from here, when they’ve said stop, when they when they use, you know, skills of alright, I’m paying attention to this, giving the good responses. If those don’t work, it’s following through and going to one of those trusted adults. And part of the strategies in session is identifying who those trusted adults are. Because a lot of these kids have asked for help. It’s identifying, alright, if I go to this first teacher, and I say this is happening, and it’s escalating, and I need help, and they don’t respond, here’s the next person I’m going to go to, and here’s the next person I’m going to go to. So that way, it’s not just relying on Okay, here’s, I have enough confidence to be able to ask once, and I didn’t get it, and so nobody’s ever going to do anything. At the same time, it’s now getting parents involved to intervene, especially if these things are happening on school grounds, if it’s happening on a sports team, or any sort of other environment where it’s not just the kid facing it themselves, it’s helping the parents be able to escalate the situation and intervene at a parental level as well. And oftentimes, this is moving into, you know, family therapy type situations. It’s being able to be the squeaky wheel until something ends up happening that shows good follow through and consistent follow through. That it’s again, not just a one time sort of step that many parents need to make here.
Katie Vernoy 38:48
Why they think including the kid in the process to make sure that they are aware and on board and able to be part of the planning process of how this is going to handle it. Because I think with kids who are bullied, oftentimes, it’s control being taken away from them. And so whatever control that we can give back to them to try to manage their own situation, I think the stronger it can be.
Curt Widhalm 39:12
Katie Vernoy 39:14
So we’re getting close to the end here. We’re actually overtime. But I have a question for you around kind of the school interventions that can happen like mediation. Where they have the the person who is engaged in bullying and this particular incident, this person who has been targeted by bullying in this particular incident, and they come together in a room to try to resolve it. What do you think of that?
Curt Widhalm 39:40
A lot of times, it’s done very poorly. It’s supposed to end up in some sort of shaking hands. And then that is where I’ve seen a lot of schools be like, Well, we took care of it. It’s done. Bullying is solved forever. It takes repeated interactions to be able to actually change and in these situations with the intention of actually mending these things. But really, sometimes the best intervention in these cases is agreements to not be in the same space and working, in this case with targets on appropriate avoidance of aggressors. And where I think that a lot of the intention that we have in the one on one work with kids is help them to not be the target. You’re not going to fix bullying by working with one kid in your office, your this is a systemic problem, this is a social problem, that is not going to get fixed overall. And so if you are to help your client, it’s help them not be a target, not fix bullying. But on at worst, but on a more systemic level when it is schools intervening in this kind of stuff, you brought up the term bystander earlier. And this is the people surrounding the situation. It’s encouraging bystanders to be able to talk up to the aggressors, and be like, Hey, that’s not cool.
Katie Vernoy 41:10
Curt Widhalm 41:11
And because there’s safety in numbers.
Katie Vernoy 41:13
Yeah. Well, and there’s also the if you if you get rid of the audience, that can be helpful, too. I mean, I think that’s where a lot of prevention programs go, because it’s, it’s the whole society, whatever, it’s the school, the team, whatever it is, like, if they then say, we’re not going to allow bullying to happen, they stand up to the aggressor, they support the target, whatever it is, I think when we can get bystanders and that’s how we actually shift it societally. But as you said, I think when you’ve got an individual in your room, that is about them not getting bullied, it’s not about fixing the whole situation. I just I get so conscious, because it’s a lot of people have had a lot of bullying in their lives. And it really is pretty, pretty harmful.
Curt Widhalm 42:05
And that’s where the intentions are of if you’re doing one on one work, help your client to get through that situation and, and help them get out of it. You can do all of that wonderful identity development in addition to that, but it comes with accepting the space that they’re in for what it is. Not what it should be. And being able to start from that ground level up. So we would love to hear your thoughts on this. If you agree with me, #teamCurt on our social media. And if you want to be…
Katie Vernoy 42:40
Or if you agree with me, #teamKatie.
Curt Widhalm 42:43
Also join our Facebook group, the Modern Therapists group, and become a Patron if you want to support the show. And until next time, I’m Curt Widhalm, with Katie Vernoy.
Katie Vernoy 42:53
Thanks again to our sponsor, Thrizer.
Curt Widhalm 42:55
Thrizer is a new billing platform for therapists that was built on the belief that therapy should be accessible and clinician should earn what they are worth. Every time you build a client through Thrizer an insurance claim is automatically generated and sent directly to the clients insurance. From there Thrizer provides concierge support to ensure clients get their reimbursement quickly and directly into their bank account. By eliminating reimbursement by cheque, confusion around benefits and obscurity with reimbursement status they allow your clients to focus on what actually matters rather than worrying about their money. It is very quick and easy to get set up and it works great with EHR systems.
Katie Vernoy 43:36
Their team is super helpful and responsive and the founder is actually a longtime therapy client who grew frustrated with his reimbursement times. Thrizer lets you become more accessible while remaining in complete control of your practice. Better experience for your clients during therapy means higher retention. Money won’t be the reason they quit on therapy.Signup using bit.ly/moderntherapists and use the code ‘moderntherapists’ if you want to test Thrizer completely risk free. You will get one month of no payment processing fees, meaning you earn 100% of your cash rate during that time.
Curt Widhalm 44:11
Once again, sign up at bit.ly/modern therapists and use the code ‘moderntherapists’ if you want to test Thrizer completely risk free. This episode is also brought to you by Simplified SEO Consulting.
Katie Vernoy 44:26
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Curt Widhalm 44:55
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Katie Vernoy 45:01
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Thank you for listening to the Modern Therapist’s Survival Guide. Learn more about who we are and what we do at mtsgpodcast.com. You can also join us on Facebook and Twitter. And please don’t forget to subscribe so you don’t miss any of our episodes.
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