Potential Individual-Level Interventions to Reduce Bullying Among Seniors: Strategies for Bullies
By Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW, Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ and Marsha Frankel, LICSW, Clinical Director of Senior Services, Jewish Family & Children’s Service, Boston, MA
Readers will recall some of the characteristics of bullies from our second blog, Who bullies and who gets bullied? These include:
- Underlying need for power and control
- Use power and control strategies at the expense of others
- Often find it positively reinforcing to make others feel threatened, fearful or hurt, or to contribute to conflict between people
- Difficulty tolerating individual differences
- Lack of empathy
- Very few positive social relationships
- Low self-esteem with a tendency to put others down in order to build themselves up
In addition, the following complicating factors are important to consider in understanding where individuals who bully are coming from:
- Losses associated with aging – may be seeking control at a time in life when they feel exceptionally powerless
- Challenges of communal living – may be exerting control in attempt to change public space into private space
It is helpful to keep these characteristics and potential complicating factors in mind when designing interventions to reduce bullying behaviors because they can help us get at underlying issues that contribute to bullying. Approaches to address bullying will vary from individual to individual, but some initial strategies to try include the following:
- Consistently set limits on bullying behavior – the individual who bullies need to hear the same message from everyone that his or her behavior is not acceptable. Here are two examples of setting limits, the first in response to a resident wanting the overhead light on in her roommate’s space and the second in response to a resident wanting a staff member to delay other residents’ care until she completes a phone call:
“Mrs. Jones, I know it’s difficult to adjust to a new roommate, but it violates her rights for your to have the overhead light on all night because it lights her side of the room, too; you’re welcome to have a night light for your side of the room instead.”
“Mrs. Smith, I know you would like me to wait here until you finish your phone call, but I’m not able to do that, other residents are waiting for care and it’s not an effective use of my time. I’ll check back with you in 15 minutes and if you’re done with your call, I’d be happy to help you to bed.”
- Offer an appropriate outlet to vent frustrations – sometimes individuals who bully have a difficult time tolerating others who they perceive as different or deviant. These are legitimate feelings and we can’t expect individuals to simply not feel what they feel; remember many older people have not been socialized to welcome diversity like people from younger generations have been. In keeping with social work’s values of beginning where the client is and working from the client’s world view, it can be helpful to offer a bully who is intolerant an alternative venue to talk about his or her difficulties. For example, meeting one-on-one with a social worker or psychologist to vent frustrations, have those frustrations acknowledged, and then slowly move toward developing strategies to manage frustrations in ways that don’t negatively impact others. For example, acknowledgement might look like this:
Resident: I really can’t stand individuals from that [cultural group]; I was brought up not to socialize with their kind and I’m not about to now. Mama always said those people were bad!
Helper: I’m hearing it’s really uncomfortable for you to be living with people you were taught not to like. You’re feeling put out that there’s an expectation to just get along with them when doing so has never been your way.
Resident: Damn straight! You know where I’m coming from…
Helper: I certainly want to respect your point of view. As you know, this is a place where we need to treat everyone respectfully even if they’re from walks of life we don’t approve of. I am wondering if it might be helpful for you to talk with me about how unpleasant and difficult it is for you to be living with members of [cultural group] rather than voicing those opinions in public? Might this be a way to compromise on this issue?
Later on, after rapport has developed and there is trust between the resident and the worker and the resident has had an opportunity to express his or her point of view and have the worker accept and understand that point of view without judgment, steps can be taken to help the resident develop healthier ways of managing negative feelings.
- Identify alternative methods for individuals who bully to feel in control – we all want to feel in control of our environment and situations, so it is important to help individuals who bully to develop positive methods to feel like they are in charge. For example, one of Marsha’s colleagues used the following approach to manage bullying behavior that involved picking on others, bossing them around, and dictating who could sit where and who could participate in what. Marsha’s colleague addressed this resident by encouraging her to reflect on her feelings when moving into the residence and her difficulties in adjusting. She then asked for help to in creating a more welcoming environment for people who had newly moved into the facility. Playing up this individual’s potential leadership skills, Marsha’s colleague encouraged her to devote her energies to organizing a welcome committee. The individual was highly flattered, took on the task with relish, and bullying behaviors markedly decreased because of this empowering opportunity.
- Foster the development of positive communication skills – sometimes people don’t know how to speak assertively, but only know how to speak aggressively; work with individuals who bully to enable them to express wants and needs without hurting others. This might be as simple as helping them practice making “I statements,” for example, they might learn to say something like “I feel frustrated when I can’t sit in my favorite chair; it reminds me of one my husband bought for me long ago. I’d like you to let me sit here during lunch, and perhaps you can sit here for Bingo” rather than “Get the hell out of my chair! I told you it was mine for lunch and you could have it at Bingo! Are you deaf or something?!”
- Foster the development of empathy – empathy refers to the capacity to tune into another’s feelings, to understand the pain they may be feeling; individuals who bully often lack this ability. Fortunately, research suggests that empathy can be learned (Beddoe & Murphy, 2004; Siegel, 2007). Modeling is one method for fostering empathy and involves sharing your reflections on the victim’s feelings associated with a bullying incident and inviting the bully to elaborate on your reflections, for example by asking “What other feelings do you think may have come up for Mary when you said what you said to her?” Having the victim share how he or she felt directly to the bully, with someone from one of the helping professions there to provide support and safety for both individuals, can be especially powerful, but it is important to recognize that not all victims of bullies will feel up to such a challenging encounter.
- Help them expand their social network – not surprisingly, individuals who bully have few friends, which can complicate matters. Why bother being respectful when no one likes you anyway? Helping bullies connect with others in positive ways can help bolster self-esteem and provide motivation for behavioral change. Introductions centered on shared interests or experiences can be a helpful way to begin.
- Other potential interventions you may wish to explore further, but that are outside the scope of a short blog include conflict resolution methods and restorative justice approaches. Information on both of these methods is readily available by entering either term in Google.
Our final blog will address interventions that can help individuals who are bullied cope with the situation and take active steps to avoid being victimized.
The Senior Bullying Series:
Reducing Senior Bullying: Conversation with Bullying Expert Robin Bonifas, PhD, MSW
This 50-minute audio addresses how organizations can implement programs to reduce senior bullying, discussing in detail issues touched upon in Dr. Bonifas’ blog series on Senior Bullying. Listeners will learn:
How to discover the extent of senior bullying in your facility
Who should be involved in a task force to reduce senior bullying
How to distinguish between bullying and the problematic behavior of residents with dementia
Ways to create a positive environment that encourages caring behavior and thus reduces bullying
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