Toward a world without bullying

David Smith and Karen Bouchard stand, smiling, with shelves holding books and magazines in the background.

‘’School needs to be a safe place for our students. For some young people, it may be the only safe space they have.”

— Karen Bouchard

By Maria Paulina Mendoza

“I delivered newspapers as a boy, and two tough kids lived along my route. These brothers would see me coming and race after me, push me off my bike and spit at me. I had to see these boys every day and I was really scared.” – Professor David Smith

Bullying is a worldwide phenomenon that can take various forms and happen to anyone, anywhere: in schools, homes, workplaces — or on a paper route.

David Smith, a professor in uOttawa’s Faculty of Education and an expert on the subject, says bullying in childhood can have a lasting impact on victims and affect their emotional well-being as adults. Having been bullied himself as a boy, he has turned the experience into a primary research interest for the past two decades.

Many youth who bully are victims themselves, Smith says, and they do not fit a single profile. Some are popular with their peers, while others are not. Some come from troubled backgrounds and have been bullied in their home or by someone else in a position of power over them.

Kids who bully come to believe that acting abusively is how they themselves can feel powerful. “This may have been the only way they were taught to try to climb the social hierarchy,’’ he said. ‘’Children need to learn other, more pro-social ways to have these social needs met, and adults are in the best position to teach them these skills.’’

Generational change needed

Bullying is hard to stop, but not impossible, says Smith, a founding member of a PREVNet, a network of leading researchers and organizations committed to promoting healthy relationships among children.

‘’Where there is a positive environment, where children feel safe and are supported by others, there is going to be less chance for bullying to happen,” he said.

“But for bullying to stop completely, we need the kids who are growing up now to influence the generations to come. We need them to teach their kids and others positive messages so they will be able to affect this generational change.‘’

Toxic friendships

‘’I was in a toxic friendship and it was a confusing and hurtful time. I felt powerless to change my situation – but, ironically, I also didn’t want to change it, because the friendship meant so much to me.’’ – Karen Bouchard

PhD candidate Karen Bouchard was also a victim of bullying, at the hands of a close friend. Although the friendship eventually dissolved, some of the effects of the bullying persisted. She feels the support she received from other friends and family has made all the difference.

As an elementary school teacher in Ottawa, she also saw the heartbreaking consequences of bullying behaviour among younger children. ‘’School needs to be a safe place for our students,” she said. “For some young people, it may be the only safe space they have.”

Like Smith, her PhD supervisor, Bouchard gravitated toward her current research focus because of her personal experience of bullying. She also explored the complexity of harm within adolescent friendships in earlier graduate work.

‘’From the research for my master’s, I found that the young people were so focused on trying to forge a sense of belonging with their peers that they were willing to persist in toxic friendships, despite their suffering,” she said.

“This prompted me to look more closely at the experiences of those who are in victimizing friendships. There are important aspects of friendships, such as trust and self-disclosure, that can add a complex aspect to the bullying experience.’’ 

Karen Bouchard

PhD candidate Karen Bouchard in a screen shot from her video explaining her research on bullying in adolescent friendships.

Cycles of victimization

Now a fourth-year PhD student with a scholarship from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC), Bouchard has delved more deeply into the topic. Based on her preliminary research, she estimates that bullying between friends accounts for more than a quarter of all bullying experiences, and says it has an impact on victims similar to an abusive relationship.

“I’m finding that there is a tremendous amount of confusion and desperation associated with this kind of victimization,” she said. “And it often occurs in cycles, similar to the cycles of abuse that we have seen reported in other close relationships contexts.’’

Bouchard won an honourable mention in the 2016 SSHRC Storytellers contest for her three-minute video explaining her research into harmful adolescent friendships.

“High-quality friendships are vital at any age, but can be especially important for children and adolescents,” she says in the video. “We’ve recently learned that having even one high-quality friendship can protect young people from the damaging consequences of being bullied and victimized by peers.”

Through her research, Bouchard hopes to equip teachers — and youth themselves — with strategies to help identify and address these toxic friendships.

“To say that we understand the power of friendship means that we must grasp both the positive and potentially negative qualities of these vital relationships,” Bouchard says.

To help provide teachers with the best tools to address this serious issue, consider donating to the Faculty of Education’s Mental Health and Bullying Research Fund.

Main photo:
Through their research, Professor David Smith and PhD candidate Karen Bouchard gather evidence to help prevent bullying. Photo: Robert Patterson

Two young boys bullying another boy.

University of Ottawa research on bullying explores strategies to promote healthy relationships among children and youth, and halt cycles of victimization."For bullying to stop completely, we need the kids who are growing up now to influence the generations to come," says Professor David Smith.


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