Dealing with bullying behavior: Social work methods help defuse conflicts

Apr 3, 2013

By Rena Malai, News staff

News 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.

From the April 2013 NASW News. Read the full feature story here.