“By telling these kids there’s something they can do to stop this from happening, we’re giving them a sense of power,” says Dr. Dubo. “If we say, ‘It’s all the bully’s fault,’ then the kid has absolutely no power in this. So we validate their experience and acknowledge how hard it’s been for them – and absolutely that what the other kids are doing is not right – but then you collaborate around ways that they can shift out of this.”
The bully cycle
To be sure, the depression-bullying can cause a downward spiral, psychiatrist Dr. Amy Cheung says. Many of the bullied teens she treats have depression or anxiety that was previously undiagnosed. Their moods are hurting their ability to maintain relationships, and having strong relationships is key to avoiding being bullied, she notes. Being bullied worsens their depression, and the cycle continues.
“I think removing the bully is one thing. The tougher situation is making sure that some other kid doesn’t become the bully because this person has no friends and they’re an easy target for the bully,” says Dr. Cheung. “If you’re in a good group of friends, it’s more difficult to be bullied.”
As well as anxiety and depression therapy, her treatment includes interpersonal therapy, which helps teens understand that their moods affect their relationships and vice-versa, all with the goal of building a social network.
“It’s all about building emotional support. We count the positive relationships in their life, and sometimes kids don’t realize all the people who are out there to help them,” says Dr. Cheung. “It’s a therapy that teens really like, because teens are all about their relationships.”
Dr. Cheung teaches her patients that bullying isn’t out of their control. Her approach doesn’t place blame – and it certainly doesn’t negate the need for zero-tolerance programs or punishment for bullies themselves – but it does acknowledge that they’re inadvertently feeding into the dynamics of the bullying relationship.
She points to Steven, a teen who’d been bullied for years. Through the course of his therapy with Dr. Cheung, he came to admit that he didn’t have many close friends.
“His success came through interpersonal therapy. He realized he does need relationships and people who are supportive of him – not just superficial friends – and that he needs to work on some of those relationships,” says Dr. Cheung. “Treating his depression will mean he will be well enough to want to try to make friends, and build a support system so that he will not be the target of bullying anymore.”