Social work methods help diffuse conflicts

child cowering in corner with cell phone being pushed awayNews anchor Jennifer Livingston made headlines last year when she publicly responded to an email that attacked her because of her weight. The viewer who sent the message said obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make, and he hoped Livingston would reconsider her responsibility as a local public personality in La Crosse, Wis.

Livingston’s on-air response to the bully sent a powerful message that inspired many, said NASW member Judith Matz, a social worker who helps clients who are bullied for their weight.

“She was amazing in how she handled her response,” Matz said. “Her message went viral and it’s wonderful for young people to see an adult who is comfortable with herself and successful. She had a strong voice and strong support.”

Over the past several years, the media has brought more awareness to the damage bullying can cause, and several NASW members, like Matz, have used their social work skills to help clients address painful bullying situations in their lives.

Livingston fought back against a bully with positive results, but not all such situations turn out as well.

Rebecca Marino, 22, was named Female Player of the Year by Tennis Canada in 2010 and 2011, but recently retired from the game because cyberbullying likely heightened her pre-existing depression, said NASW member Jonathan Singer.

“The recent Huffington Post article on tennis player Rebecca Marino’s retirement points to an important relationship between depression and bullying,” said Singer, a cyberbullying researcher and associate professor of social work at Temple University in Pennsylvania. “It sounds like she was feeling sad and depressed, and that that made it easier to take personally the negative comments people were making about her online.”

In general, the types of bullying behaviors are physical, verbal, social and cyber, said Troy Brindle, the NASW Pennsylvania Chapter’s Brandywine Division chairman. He said bullies most likely have learned their behavior from being bullied themselves by a peer, sibling or even a parent.

“A bully is not always the meanest or biggest kid. A bully is usually a child who is trying to compensate for some insecurity or something lacking in their life,” said Brindle, executive director and child and adolescent therapist at Professional Mediation Associates Inc. “A bully often tends to struggle in school behaviorally, display poor academic performance, and has difficulty socially with establishing real friendships.”

Whether bullying is done online or in person, it’s an area in which social workers are well suited and trained to help, said NASW member Gary McDaniel.

At school

Since bullying can affect a student’s ability to learn and feel safe at school, addressing it at the source is important, McDaniel said. He and his son, Aidan, work together to target bullying in the Morgan County school system in West Virginia by getting students involved in peer-driven intervention at Berkeley Springs High School and Warm Springs Middle School.

According to past student surveys that the McDaniels distributed, about 95 percent of the students don’t like that bullying happens.

“It’s often treated like a kid’s problem with an adult solution in schools, but bullying is a human problem,” said Aidan McDaniel, a high school sophomore at Berkeley Springs.

With peer-driven intervention, students are guided to work with each other to find their own creative solutions to bullying issues, the McDaniels said. Sources and methods from existing programs, like “Be A Friend Lend A Hand” and the “Center for Safe and Reliable Internet Use” are used for students to conduct research and brainstorm. Students have developed everything from anti-bullying posters to after-school programs to talk about bullying and how to prevent it.

“With the social dynamics involved in the middle and high school age group, having an adult punishing them or telling them to knock it off isn’t always effective,” said Gary McDaniel, a social worker with Morgan County schools. “We find that both the victim and the bullies actually want to end bullying. This method empowers them to do that … students are capable of finding resolutions.”

As a profession, social workers are knowledgeable about how to collect and disseminate research, he said, and surveying local students can help address the issue of bullying in schools. It can provide social workers with data to educate the public and teach people how to resolve conflict.

“We as social workers can begin by using accurate data to assess bullies and the stigma of bullying,” he said, adding that standing up for others also is important.

“We need to do it in the bullying area,” McDaniel said. “Social workers need to tackle the voicelessness of students.”

In cyberspace

Like offline bullying, cyberbullying consists of repeated acts that are intended to cause harm, Singer said. A cyberbully can easily access social media — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and even text — to find targets.

“If I posted something on your Facebook wall and it generates comments, reposts and likes, it’s as if a thousand different people are saying the same thing at once,” Singer said. “Twenty or 30 texts can be sent in a row, harassing and saying intimidating things. It can all be anonymously done so the bully feels safe.”

Because the Internet is where many kids and young adults live, deleting a Facebook account to stop the attacks isn’t always an easy option, he said.

“If you think about this idea of digital natives, the Internet has always been a part of their life,” Singer said. “Their personal identity online is who they are. Telling them to delete their Facebook account is like deleting their identity — and it’s ultimate confirmation the bully won.”

Becoming familiar with technology is something social workers can do to address the problem of cyberbullying, he said.

“Become aware of technology used in cyberbullying so you can have informed conversations,” he said. “Know what Facebook is, what a wall post is, privacy settings, a tweet, etc. Work with parents, particularly in schools, on policies and guidelines to cyberbullying behavior.”

Through his research, Singer said he has surprisingly found that the best action is often to do nothing at all. And he said it’s important to help victims of cyberbullying understand that this can have a dramatic effect on a bully.

“Bullying is about power — respond from a position of power,” Singer said. “Do nothing as a response; the cyberbully loses power. Or responding once with something like ‘what you’re saying isn’t working and it’s pathetic’ can drain the cyberbully’s power.”

In the workplace

While bullying is often thought of as existing only among school-aged kids, the childhood aspects of bullying behaviors can carry through to adulthood, according to NASW member David Shrank, founder and CEO of Empowerment Behavioral Therapeutic Services in Yardley, Pa.

Bullying is a social problem, he said, and those who experienced being bullied as a child can be especially sensitive to comments as they become working adults — and can even become bullies themselves.

Shrank clearly recalls his experiences of being physically bullied as a child and adolescent, and he draws on those experiences to help his clients.

“When you combined the fact that I stutter with the social developmental delays I experienced as a child, I was a target for bullies,” Shrank said. “From my own experience I know what it feels like to get bullied, more than someone who has never gone through it. I’ve been there. I can relate to my clients on that level.”

The assumption that adults always have adult behavior is a common misconception, he said, and childhood issues can affect the level of maturity an adult has.

“Sensitivity issues and a lack of self-esteem can make people act out as bullies, or overreact to comments which were meant in a joking way.”

Shrank said he advises clients to have a verbal response ready for a workplace bully, as it can often diminish the situation and get the bully to back off.

“At many jobs, most people are striving to be their best and they want to appear strong,” Shrank said. “So if a victim says to a workplace bully ‘you’re hurting my feelings,’ it could make things worse. It’s better to have a quick response, or laugh it off.”

Getting clients to understand the saying “It’s not me, it’s you” also works in targeting a bully, he said. Social workers can try this approach in helping clients cope with bullying on an adult level.

“When you can teach the client to respond in a way that is not emotionally affected, the bullying they experience can diminish and disappear,” he said.

Advocating, teaching, encouraging

Bullying is the degradation of people — of all ages — through harmful physical, verbal or discriminatory methods, said NASW board member Josephine Tittsworth.

“Being bullied and discriminated against, you lose a piece of your innocence,” she said. “The more it happens, the more you lose.”

Tittsworth advocates for the rights of the transgender community and transgender youth. Through social work and her own experience of being transgender, she helps others deal with the difficulties they face as targets of bullying.

Advocacy is important for social workers who want to address the issue of bullying, she said, and it should start as early as when a social work education is pursued.

“Advocacy needs to be a major component in education at the micro, mezzo and macro level,” she said. “You learn how to work with organizations and get policies made. Social work is the only licensed profession with a mandate to advocate.”

Social workers can also reach out and let people know it’s OK to ask for help, Gary McDaniel said, as it’s one of the best things to do in bullying prevention.

“People should never feel afraid to ask for help if they’re being bullied,” he said.

Shrank said social workers who can teach their clients the art of forgiveness have a great approach to helping someone overcome a bullying experience.

“What I do with every client I have is tell them to mentally shake hands with the bully and say ‘I forgive you,’” Shrank said. “Forgiving the bully is getting beyond it. It’s a very freeing experience and it increases self-esteem dramatically.”

It’s something Shrank wishes he had known to do when he was in that situation, he added.

“As social workers, we need to be compassionate with curiosity and awareness when addressing bullying,” Matz said. “That also means showing compassion toward ourselves so we can be a good example.”

For additional interviews with Shrank, Singer and McDaniel, watch the video on the NASW YouTube channel.

Anti-bullying resources

In the NASW Press publication “Workforce Trends Affecting the Profession,” members can access information on cyberbullying, which is an area where more social workers and social work skills are needed, said Tracy Whitaker, director of the NASW Center for Workforce Studies & Social Work Practice.

“Social workers can help guide children, parents and teachers through the complexities of cyberbullying,” Whitaker said.

See also Workplace Bullying: Clinical and Organizational Perspectives

Get more information on Be A Friend Lend A Hand and the Center for Safe and Reliable Internet Use.

Other anti-bullying resources social workers can explore include: