Coping with Bullying and Aggression 

In his presentation for “Empowering Our Youth,” licensed school therapist Nathan Philips shared coping techniques for parents and youths to deal with bullying, cyberbullying, and other types of aggression and emotions in the school environment.

As a school therapist, Philips teaches his students coping skills for dealing with strong emotions like anxiety, depression, excitement, and aggression daily. The techniques he employs the most for calming down are deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, and the 5-4-3-2-1 grounding and mindfulness technique that allows students to settle down by focusing on their five senses. Additionally, Philips uses CBT therapy for challenging irrational thoughts such as “I’m not good enough” or “Something bad will happen.”

 In addition to emotions like anxiety, bullying and cyberbullying are among the top issues that school therapists have to deal with on a regular basis.

Among the 92% of American teenagers who spend time online every day, 1 in 5 girls and 1 in 10 boys report being subject to cyberbullying. These numbers were found in a survey by the American Society for the Positive Care of Children.

One way for parents to deal with online dangers is to have regular conversations about using electronic devices. 

In Philips’ experience, some parents have found monitoring their children’s internet usage helpful. If parents decide to monitor their child’s internet usage, they should set the clear expectation that the child will not have much online privacy from the beginning. They should also make sure to communicate that this is done to protect the child from harm.

Regarding bullying in general, Philips shared the following tips.

Youths can react with avoidance by distancing themselves from the bully. Bullying should not be perceived as character-building for those subjected to it but rather as negative behavior that others in the school environment avoid.

Philip added, “Another piece of this is that we want to avoid showing emotion around that bully. They’re going to feed off of your emotional response. If you can distance yourself at that time, it might help.” 

Youths can also react with assertiveness by using confident and direct communication to tell the bully that they don’t like how they treat them. This skill must be practiced, but it is worth it as confident communication skills will come in handy throughout a person’s lifetime. The focus in practice should be on calm, controlled, direct, conscious, and respectful communication.

Another option is to seek new relationships to counteract the isolative effect of bullying. Persisting isolation may lead children and teenagers to build up a negative cognitive framework, marked by the belief that something is wrong with them. Building new relationships breaks down the walls of isolation and prevents the development of those negative beliefs.

For parents, Philip’s most important tip is to be an open and safe space for their children to bring trauma and distress in times of need. Parents may be reluctant to get into emotional conversations or discouraged by their child’s reluctance and dismissiveness. Still, according to Philips, it is essential to push past that in a way that encourages the child to open up.

When engaging with their children, Philips recommends parents ask open-ended questions and find out about potential withdrawnness or disturbances that are out of the ordinary. A deviation from the norm could, for example, be the use of sarcasm by a usually non-sarcastic child.

Parents should also encourage assertive development and communication by their children. This can be done by practicing their communication skills, so they can learn to speak their mind in a safe environment.

Another of Philips’ tips for parents is to help their children seek out social and emotional learning opportunities, for example, through engagement in school or the community. During adolescence, teenagers will naturally begin to venture outside of the home and build connections on their own. 

According to Philips, “These first excursions, if you will, beyond the home environments are fantastic learning opportunities. If we are not there to guide and help them through those learning opportunities, they are going to create their own cognitive constructs around these opportunities.”

In the process of social and emotional learning, teenagers can learn valuable life lessons such as how to deal with rejection, how to understand anger, and how to understand their own place in the groups they are a part of in their lives.

To help their children with emotional learning, parents should also demonstrate effective conflict management skills at home. It is important that children learn encouraging, caring, verbal conflict-resolution skills because they not only help in situations of bullying in childhood but also throughout a person’s lifetime.

Other tips for parents include knowing where their children spend their time (both online and in real life), encouraging empathy instead of fighting back and seeking help from professionals or support groups when they struggle with helping their child.

Philips recommends a three-point strategy for parents helping their children through difficult situations. First, they should let their children describe the situation. Who was involved? What occurred? How did they feel about it then and now?

The second step is to reflect on their idea about what should happen next. What should change? How could they feel more in control of the situation?

Finally, parents should help their children develop potential solutions. What should the child’s role be? Who should be involved in the resolution of the conflict?

Nathan Philips is a licensed mental health professional who works for Catholic Charities as a rural school counselor. In his profession, Philips works with a range of student mental health concerns at several rural North-West Iowa high schools while maintaining a more traditional therapeutic caseload in the Sioux City Catholic Charities office. In his 15 years of working in education, he has received training in crisis and trauma work. He has become a trainer in behavioral intervention techniques such as Love and Logic and CPI. 

3 Fast and Easy Coping techniques

  • Deep Breathing: lower heart rate to cope with the overload of emotions
    • Breathe in deeply and let belly expand, hold breath, breathe out
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation: focus on where in body anxiety is felt
    • Focus on one body part at a time, flex it and then let go to release tension
  • 5-4-3-2-1 Mindfulness technique: a more manageable form of meditation that’s used to calm down
    • Name 5 things you see, 4 things you feel, 3 things you hear, 2 things you smell, 1 thing you taste

Presentation by Nathan Philips

Written by Emily Rottaler

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