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Youths’ Social Goals Help Determine Response To Bullying

August 30, 2011

Second and third graders who are bullied react in a variety of ways–from discussing the problem or striking back to seeking emotional support. A new study in the journal Child Development has found that the types of goals children set in their relationships help determine how they respond to being bullied–and whether they choose responses that are effective.

The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“Bullying has become a significant focus of media attention and public health concern,” according to Karen D. Rudolph, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who led the study. “Although a primary focus of interventions is to eradicate bullying in the schools, it’s also important to help children cope with peer aggression in ways that resolve rather than exacerbate the situation.

“This research highlights the importance of educational efforts to shift children’s priorities away from focusing on being ‘popular’ or ‘cool’ and toward developing skills and relationships,” notes Rudolph. “Achieving this goal can promote constructive coping strategies, ultimately reducing bullying and lessening its long-term impact on children’s social and mental health.”

The researchers surveyed more than 370 children across the two grades as well as their teachers. Children and teachers filled out surveys on how children typically respond to classmates’ aggression. Children also reported on how often they were bullied (from mild attacks such as verbal insults and teasing to more severe bullying, including exclusion and physical assault).

In addition, the children reported on their social goals; those fell into three categories–1) efforts to acquire social skills and develop high-quality relationships, like learning how to be a good friend; 2) efforts to gain positive social judgments and prestige, such as having “cool” friends; and 3) efforts to minimize negative social judgments, such as avoiding being viewed as a “loser.”

Children who worked to acquire social skills and develop solid relationships, the study found, were more likely to engage in thoughtful and constructive responses to bullying that were aimed at addressing or learning from the situation and managing their emotions. These children were less likely to become emotionally upset than their peers.

Children who sought to be cool tended to disengage from the situation by denying that it had happened or doing nothing, rather than trying to solve the problem at hand. These children were more likely to retaliate against the bullies.

And children whose goals were to avoid being seen as uncool or “losers” were more likely to ignore bullies and less likely to retaliate, perhaps in an effort to pacify the bullies and deflect attention from themselves. These children and those who sought to be cool were less effective in their responses to bullies than the children who managed their emotions and tried to learn from the situation.

“Our findings suggest that by working to develop social competence and relationships, children orient themselves toward efforts to solve problems with their peers, handle their emotions, and think positively when relationships go awry,” according to Rudolph.

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