Listen: Dr Justin Coulson chats to Emma Mullings about anti-bullying strategies
Bullying is such a big problem in Australia that there’s a national organisation dedicated to combatting it—yet anti-bullying programs still aren’t working.
That’s the view of parenting and families expert Dr Justin Coulson, who is due to speak at the National Centre Against Bullying conference this week.
He research has proven the last 20 years of anti-bullying efforts in Australia haven’t made a great deal of difference.
Dr Coulson wants the old punishment-and-consequences approaches to bullying, replaced with more relational, wholistic, caring programs. In fact he believes punishment-based solutions are actually a form of bullying themselves.
Why Anti-Bullying Programs Aren’t Working
“The way we seem to approach bullying isn’t working,” Dr Coulson said, in an interview with Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings.
“I think we bully the bullies to make them stop bullying. We say, ‘If I ever catch you doing that again there’ll be trouble’. So the bullies say, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll never catch me again, I’ll be much sneakier next time’.
“So the bullying doesn’t stop, it just goes underground. It changes and becomes a lot more insidious. The bullies continue to bully and they do it as much to trick the adults as they do for any other reason.”
He said punishment as an answer to bullying was ineffective and only made bullies less empathetic and more self-centred.
“We use our power to control the bullies, and we become bullies ourselves.”
“Punishment is about hurting someone because you don’t like what they’ve done,” he said.
“When we ‘discipline’ bullies we usually ‘punish’ them. We get angry, take things off them, do things to hurt them, to try to teach them a lesson. And usually we do it ongoingly.”
He said removing privileges or suspending from school was a form of power control.
“In essence, we use our power to control the bullies, and we become bullies ourselves.”
Children Need to be Guided, Not Punished
Dr Coulson believes there’s a stark difference between punishment, and discipline – which is more to do with moulding and guiding a child, than rigid consequences.
He says the solution to bullying, is by adopting a teaching-and-guiding approach to discipline, and look for the unmet need in the bully’s life.
“If your child is caught bullying, what we want to do is not get angry; we don’t need to get furious, we need to get curious. Try to find out what’s missing in their lives.”
What Drives Bullies? Psychological Research
According to psychological research, kids are “much more likely to bully if they’re having certain psychological needs go unmet” says Dr Coulson.
While this doesn’t excuse the behaviour of bullies, it does help to explain it, and provide clues towards possible solutions, he says.
“Things like the quality of their relationships—maybe they’re feeling lonely, isolated or ostracised, and so bullying is a way for them to restore some sort of relationship power,” he said. “Or maybe they feel like life is too controlled and so bullying is a way that they can subvert authority and have some control back in their lives.
“Kids are “much more likely to bully if they’re having certain psychological needs go unmet.”
“Or just maybe they feel like they’re not very good at something – whether it’s sport, school or something else. And so the best way they can feel good about themselves is to bully someone who is good at it, so that they don’t feel so bad.”
He also told Huffington Post that it’s not always about a lack of love, but sometimes a lack of reality and truth, that drives a bully.
“Bullying isn’t always about low self-esteem,” he said. “Sometimes the child actually does think they are better, entitled, and can do what they want.”
Why One Teen Girl Bullies Another
A recent case of teen-bullying that Dr Coulson saw is a prime example.
“A 15 year-old girl was bullying a 16-year-old, and punched her in the nose,” he told Hope 103.2. “When it all came out, they discovered she had some significant issues with the other girl who had everything that she wished she had. This was her way of trying to get control back and trying to feel competent in her life because she was just so jealous.”
He said while it’s not always simple to find what’s at the heart of a case of bullying, the key is to seek to understand the bully and what drives them.
“When we focus more on understanding not reprimanding, on building relationships of trust so we can influence the bullies, we usually get much better results.
If Your Own Child is Bullying Others
Once parents or teachers have listened to what a bully has to say, discovered what is lacking in their life, and built some relationship and trust, the next step is to teach them about their behaviour.
Encouraging them to put themselves in their victim’s shoes is also important, and far more helpful than punishing, he told HuffPost.
“Try asking, ‘when you did that to that boy at school, how do you think he felt? What do you think he’s talking about with his parents tonight? How do you think he feels about coming to school tomorrow knowing he is going to see you again?’
“If the trust is there, you are going to get more productive answers.
“Once they start to see the perspective, you don’t need to tell them what to do. You ask them. They come up with the answers. They know it’s not okay, and they will know how to fix it.”