How Parents Can Address Bullying On- and Off-Line with Dr. Sue Swearer

Dr. Sue Swearer; reduce bullying behavior

Show Notes

On this episode of Grow Kinder, we talk with Dr. Susan Swearer, a licensed psychologist and bullying prevention expert. Dr. Swearer is the Willa Cather professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln and is the co-director of the Bullying Research Network, which connects bullying and peer-victimization researchers internationally.

For the past two decades Dr. Swearer has developed and implemented a data-based decision-making model for responding to bullying among school-aged youth, and she’s trained educators in strategies for helping reduce bullying behavior. She’s authored more than 100 book chapters and articles on the topics of bullying, depression, and anxiety in school-aged youth.

Dr. Swearer talks with us about what bullying is and the signs of bullying, how parents can use media as a learning tool for kids, and how social-emotional skills can help prevent bullying.

Learn more about Dr. Swearer’s work at the Bullying Research Network, part of the Nebraska Bullying Prevention and Intervention Initiative.




[0:00:02.7] AL: The Grow Kinder podcast features conversations with thought leaders in education, business, tech, and the arts, who all share one thing in common; a dedication to growing kinder in their work and lives and helping others do the same.
Brought to you by Committee for Children.

In honor of National Bullying Prevention month, we talk with Dr. Susan Swearer; professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. She is the co-director of the Bullying Research Network, a group designed to promote and assist international collaboration among bullying and peer victimization researchers.

For the past two decades, Dr. Swearer has developed and implemented a data-based decision-making model for responding to bullying among school-age youth. She’s authored over 100 book chapters and articles on the topics of bullying, depression, and anxiety in youth. Dr. Swearer talks with us about what bullying is and isn’t, the importance of kindness in bullying prevention, and her experience touring with Lady Gaga.

Here are your hosts, Mia and Andrea.


[0:01:08.7] AL: Hi. This is Andrea.

[0:01:09.9] MD: This is Mia.

[0:01:11.1] AL: We’re here with Dr. Sue Swearer. Hello, Sue.

[0:01:14.3] SS: Hey, guys. It’s great to be talking to you.

[0:01:16.9] Mia: We're so excited that you are able to join us today, Sue. You and I have known each other a long time and have worked together on some really interesting projects. Going back, I know that we met because I was looking for an expert. I have to tell you that even though I often speak about bullying prevention as part of my overall SEL work, I feel everything I've learned I've learned from you.

[0:01:42.8] SS: Thank you.

[0:01:45.3] Mia: So it is particularly rewarding to have you here talking to us today. I'd love to just go back and talk a little bit about how you started working in bullying prevention. What got you interested in this field?

[0:01:57.3] SS: I know. I wish I had a really exciting answer to that question. When I got to Nebraska, I started my job as an assistant professor in 1997 at the University of Nebraska Lincoln. One of the first courses I taught was developmental psychopathology. We talked a lot in that class about externalizing problems and kids and internalizing problems. One of the externalizing problems that I would teach about is conduct disorder. One of the symptoms of conduct disorder is often “bullies, threatens, or intimidates others.”

In that class, there was a guidance counselor from one of our local middle schools who said, “We have a really big problem with bullying in our school. Can you help us?” I was a first-year, desperate assistant professor, desperate for data, so I said, “Sure. I can do that.” That's how it started. Then in 1999, Columbine happened. That really changed the national conversation about bullying in schools, and that just became my career, for better or for worse.

[0:03:01.7] AL: Some of our audience has little knowledge of bullying prevention. I'm sure they've heard about bullying. Everybody knows about bullying, since I guess – There's a specific definition that is applied to bullying, especially in research. I wonder if you could give them some context for how you think about bullying. What is bullying?

[0:03:17.9] SS: Sure. It's pretty established that there are three components to bullying. One is its intentional mean behavior. It's repeated, so it happens over and over again, or it has the ability to be repeated, as in cyberbullying. Then the I think really important piece is that there's an imbalance of power, so the person who is being bullied has a hard time defending themselves. We know that power piece is really important and is linked to, I think, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness and mental health conditions.

[0:03:52.4] AL: That imbalance of power, I think a lot of folks find it difficult to believe that a child that is larger in size could be – that they seem stronger, or physically more imposing, could also experience bullying. What are some of the things that you've seen that are misconceptions around bullying?

[0:04:10.2] SS: Sure. Yeah, I think that's a really good point. Not all kids who bully others are bigger, or bigger than their targets. Certainly, smaller kids can perpetrate bullying as well. I think really understanding that power means it could be social status, it could be friendships, it could be who your family is in the community. If you're in a rural area and your family has a lot of power – I was giving a talk once in a rural part of our state and the teacher said the kid who does the most bullying in our school is the son of the sheriff. You think about in rural areas, who has power. It could be the law enforcement.

I mean, there's so many complicated factors that play into it. I think it's really important not to get stuck on stereotypes. In my own research, I've done a lot of work around bully victims, so kids who both perpetrate bullying and are bullied themselves. That's been a big part of my work, is to communicate that message that bullying is not a dyadic problem between one bully and one victim. In fact, I think that's the rarer occurrence.

[0:05:25.1] MD: Right. I think I was talking to Andrea about this earlier actually, that when I first heard about this, I was surprised that it was 30 percent, yes? Is that right, Sue? That they think about 30 percent of kids who are doing bullying are also getting bullied?

[0:05:42.6] SS: Yeah. I think that's one of the challenges with research in this area, is how we measure bullying, because it's a complicated social relationship. It's a hard behavior to assess. We generally say three out of four kids during their school years, so 75 percent of kids at some point in elementary school, middle school, or high school are involved in bullying across the continuum, which runs the range from bully perpetrators, to kids being bullied, to both, and then also bystanders, so that kids who observe bullying. It really is a ubiquitous problem in schools.

People are studying bullying in workplaces. I have been reading some people who are studying bullying in retirement communities. I also say bullying is an equal opportunity behavior, doesn't matter how old you are, your gender identity. It can happen.

[0:06:37.1] AL: I think that one of the effects of that, how ubiquitous it is, is that people think it's pretty normal. It's normal behavior. It's something you're supposed to go through, that it builds character. There's a perception around it. It gets you tough, right? Makes you ready for the world. What are some of the actual effects of bullying?

[0:06:56.5] SS: Yeah. I'm glad you brought that up, because I think, again, when I started studying bullying—which is shockingly over two decades ago, dates me for sure—there really was very much that perception that why is this a big deal? I was bullied as a kid. Everyone was, and you just “got over it.”

One of the benefits of all the research that has been happening for the past 40 years, actually if we go back to Dan Olweus’s pioneering work in Norway, we know that there are serious consequences in terms of mental health issues, poor academic performance, truancy in schools, not going to school because it's an unpleasant experience. There are a lot of social, academic, psychological consequences for everybody involved in bullying. It's not just kids who are the targets, it's also kids who perpetrate bullying.

There’s longitudinal research that shows that they are more likely to have unhappy relationships, even going into adulthood. There's a connection to domestic violence. It really is, I think, a benefit of, again, all the research, but also all the media attention around bullying is that when I'm in schools, I don't really hear people say anymore, “Well, kids just have to duke it out. This is just the way it is.” I think schools are really recognizing this is a massive issue and something that they have to respond to in a consistent way.

[0:08:33.4] MD: Yeah. I think that's right. I mean, I think there's certainly a change in the recognition of the severity of the consequences of bullying and on individuals, but also on systems, right? On learning environments. I think, Sue, do you even recall the timespan it's been since they started enacting legislation around bullying and bullying prevention?

[0:08:56.0] SS: Oh, yeah. I mean, it really has been – I mean, because when I first started studying bullying, my first presentation at the American Psychological Association was in 1998. At that point, I think only five states had some kind of a law or policy against bullying. Then now, every state does. They have some combination of laws and policies. When I started studying bullying, we didn't really study cyberbullying, because it didn't exist. Again, I mean, I hate to sound like I'm as old as – very old. I'm ready for the retirement community.

[0:09:33.4] AL: Well, and maybe you can address some of the issues of bullying in the retirement community.

[0:09:36.4] SS: Exactly.

[0:09:38.3] MD: She’s way off from that. Speaking of cyberbullying, one of the things that I hear a lot in working with schools is the difficulty they have in addressing bullying in spaces outside their physical environment. In some cases, I think there might be a tendency to say, “That's not our issue. I've taken care of things on the playground. I'm making sure that they're safe when they're here.”

We also know that kids bring those experiences to school. Tell us a little about cyberbullying and emerging research there and if you've seen anything as far as school reactions to that, that you would want to highlight.

[0:10:16.2] SS: Sure. I mean, I think in my experience certainly recently, most schools have some kind of policy about electronic usage. Again, years ago schools had – their school administrators said, “That's not under our purview, so we can't do anything about it.” I think that's really changed, and I think certainly at least in our schools, in our community, every student gets a Chromebook. A lot of schools, they're just giving kids laptops and obviously, they've got firewalls and they block certain sites, but I think electronic devices are just really an extension of kids’ social experiences now.

We've seen all the cartoons where you've got the parents driving their kids and they're like, “Wow, it's really quiet in the backseat,” and they're not talking. They are talking, but they're texting. I think schools are really recognizing that cellphones, computers, I mean, just electronic communication is how kids are communicating, and so they have to address it. I think there's a lot of movement toward good digital citizenship. How do we teach kids how to use these devices and then also empower parents? I mean, that's another thing I say to parents is – Most parents are paying for the phone plan, and the phones. Having some limits around phone usage is really important and talking to kids about what sites they're on, using parental controls.

In fact, in my research group today, someone was sharing a story about a client that they were working with. We have a bullying intervention program for bully perpetrators. One of the interventionists was saying that this young girl sent a nude picture of herself, and so the boyfriend or whoever she sent it out to. Both of their phones were confiscated by the police and there's an ongoing investigation. In the work with this young person and her parent, the young person was super upset that she lost her iPhone, and her mother said, “Well, we'll go out and get you an Android.”

I was thinking, “Wait a minute. Shouldn't the response be well, that's the logical consequence of sending a nude photo.” You don't actually have access to a phone anymore. I think part of our work is really empowering parents to say, what would be the right response in that case?

[0:12:41.6] MD: Well and to that point about parents, I feel people are kind of at a loss, right? Many parents now who have preteens and teens just didn't grow up with the connectivity, and smartphones, and the internet, and social media, right? They don't understand it. I feel there's quite a bit of panic about it. Help us understand the reality of it. You see a lot of headlines in the news about epidemic and shocking headlines, right? Help us understand the relationship between cyberbullying and in-person bullying and how can parents get a little better handle on it.

[0:13:24.0] SS: Sure. Yeah. I mean, I think the unfortunate side of media headlines are that the hysterical headlines is what sells. There's an over-exaggeration. Dewey Cornell, who's a researcher at the University of Virginia, writes about this, that if you look at the media, you think schools are the most dangerous places ever, but if you look at the research, schools are actually the safest places.

I think part of our work is helping parents not freak out and understand what is – when our behavior’s “normal” and when do they become problematic. We certainly know from the research that all forms of bullying—so verbal, relational, physical, and electronic—tend to co-occur. I think another important myth buster is that cyber-bullying is not somehow a separate behavior from bullying. I mean, it's bullying through electronic means.

Again, as a parent, I think part of our work with parents is to say, “You're in charge of the phone. You're paying for it. You've probably bought the phone.” It's important to have conversations with kids about what apps they're on and how they communicate with their friends. Then I also think as a parent, I mean, I'm not the most facile person with Snapchat, but it's fun to – My daughters will send me a Snapchat, they'll text me. It's an extension of our communication. I think that that's an important way for parents to think about it, that it's a way they can also interact with their kids and I think open up channels of communication.

Then also, if kids feel like, “Oh, my parent, or the adult that I'm living with understands this technology,” then they might be more likely to share when they maybe are getting bullied, or somebody wrote a mean thing, then how do you respond to that? I think it's clear if kids feel like, “Oh, the adult in my life is going to take away my phone, or take away my laptop,” then they're not going to share. I think again, I mean, this is just good parenting 101, that you want to have open lines of communication with your children.

[0:15:36.4] MD: Well, I think it's also clear that adults don't only want to be talking to kids about their technology, but probably also about the media they're consuming. There's just a lot of depictions of bullying in film and in TV. I'm curious how you think those representations of bullying are doing. Are they appropriate? Are they bringing the right, or the wrong kind of attention? I'm particularly thinking of 13 Reasons Why.

[0:16:01.1] SS: Yeah. Yeah. No, that's a big topic too. I've heard both sides of the 13 Reasons Why, in terms of it's important, if we want to destigmatize mental illness, it’s important to talk openly about it. It's important to talk about suicidal ideation and to create avenues for kids to feel that they have somewhere to go, or someone to talk to. On the other hand, we are all aware of the suicide contagion effect, and so that's really tricky. I think it's a tricky balance.

I think in terms of depictions of bullying, I feel the same way that it's just again, a tricky balance. It's important to have the topic in the media and certainly, say movies or TV shows, and for kids to talk about it. It's also – you don't want to give kids – “Oh, wow. That's a cool idea. Maybe I'll try that tomorrow in school.” I think when parents, or adults and kids sit down and watch whatever the show is and have conversations about, was that a nice thing to say and no, it wasn't. I mean, when you're consuming, I think thoughtfully or intellectually, media, then it becomes a learning tool, versus just watching horrible scenes.

Dewey also was involved in a study where they looked at the effect of the current political climate. That's something that's very worrisome too, is that when people are observing politicians and people in positions of power being rude and saying mean things and basically bullying other people, it just creates a really negative climate. I think we have to counteract that, obviously.

[0:17:47.7] Mia: Yeah, that's modeling of course is important, whether it is in the media, or in the family, right? Or in schools. The adults have a responsibility to model the behaviors that we want to see in the next generation. I just want to take it back a little bit though, Sue, to the question of bullying and suicide, which I know is a really sensitive one. One of the things that I can see happening is a tremendous rise in anxiety amongst parents when they find out that there is a bullying incident at school, right?

With what's going on in the media and even just news, and with so many young suicides being reported, they're almost invariably, even if there is or isn't bullying involved, the question is always asked, to the point where I feel it is very tied now to even parents thinking, “Oh, no. My kid is being bullied. Now I need to worry about suicide.” What is the reality of that? Are those warranted fears, or are they outside fears? What's your feeling around that?

[0:18:53.2] SS: Yeah. I mean, again this is the negative of media attention is that again, the soundbite is what sells, or what draws attention to an issue. With the narrative that bullying causes suicide, I think that's contributed to, I think you said earlier, parents freaking out. It's a very complex relationship, and I think the healthier conversation, or the more accurate conversation, is that bullying is tied to feelings of depression. Again, it's the chicken and the egg question. Maybe the student or the young person was depressed before the bullying started.

And then certainly, I've written about bullying as a stressful life event. We know that stressful life events are linked to the cause, or the emergence, of a depressive disorder. Certainly, it's a risk factor, and I think then it's also really important for – this gets back to trying to respond to bullying early, not ignoring it, not letting it go on. Because if we can help empower kids to take charge and not let this power imbalance continue, if we empower kids, then even if they're having a stressful situation like bullying, they're developing other tools in terms of, “Okay, how do I respond to this? How do I deal with this?”

When our kids were young and people were mean to them and maybe it couldn't be considered bullying, I just always said to them, “Why do you want to hang out with somebody who's mean? You have the power, in terms of who you choose to be friends with.” I think more kids need to hear that message.

[0:20:34.3] AL: Do you find that – Obviously, bullying has negative impacts down the road for those experiencing it. Is it worse, or are there other factors that might increase that negative impact, other things that can contribute to poor outcomes for kids? Are there certain groups of kids that might experience the effects of bullying to a greater degree?

[0:20:55.2] SS: Well, certainly. A lot has been written about and researched on the effects of LGBTQ kids and that's clear that bullying is connected to negative outcomes for those groups of young people. Then I think related to that is lack of support. If you're a young person and – Let's say you're a gay young person in a rural area and you're being bullied, but you've got a really loving, supportive family, so then the family becomes a protective factor. Or you go to a school that has a program like Second Step, or has good school climate, well the positive school climate becomes a protective factor.

Again, that to me is what's troubling about a narrative of “one thing causes suicide,” is that it's much more complicated than one. There's rarely one causal factor for some behavioral or psychological outcome.

[0:21:51.9] Mia: Yeah, sure. Well, you mentioned protective factors. One being school climate and other doing a social-emotional learning program. Digging into that a little bit more, how do you describe the relationship between social-emotional learning and bullying prevention?

[0:22:08.4] SS: I think it's really key to bullying prevention. I think again, this is something that we've been seeing in the recent, say six years or longer: a recent conceptualization that good social-emotional learning skills need to be specifically taught.

Again, they're tools. When kids have—and adults—when everybody has those positive tools, then that really is an antidote to bullying behaviors. If you are – you can express your feelings appropriately and you can – you know how to resolve conflict in a healthy way, what to do if you're feeling sad, then those are protective factors against involvement in bullying. It’s key.

[0:22:53.2] AL: At the time of this podcast release, it’s Bullying Prevention Month. I think it's great that there's a national focus on bullying prevention during this month and that there are a lot of activities that the schools and parents take on, related to that. A lot of good content comes out in Bullying Prevention Month. What are some initiatives that you've seen that have really helped raise awareness, or spurred people to take action around bullying prevention, either within this month, or ongoing?

[0:23:23.3] AL: Yeah. I mean, I think that certainly, a lot of the increased attention is great. I always say, Bullying Prevention Month should be every month. At least, they've picked a month, and there's a lot of activities around that. I think again, it's really important that teachers and adults are good role models and that they act like good role models. Then that communication in the school is consistent that people say bullying behavior is not tolerated if they see it, or observe it, or hear about it, then they actively say, “That's not okay. We don't do that here.” We empower students and give them the language to stand up to someone who's bullying, or being mean, in an appropriate way.

Then again, just having it be part of the fabric of the school. I think campaigns, and you've got schools who are putting posters up and having classroom rules about certain behaviors, and school handbooks, and information going home to parents. I think that's all really important. One of the things our school district has done is they give every student a planner. In the planner is fact sheet, or tips about bullying.

Again, I just think having that be part of the daily conversation is important. I think that's where we're also seeing this increase in kindness campaigns. I think that those are great. I think that's the language we want to give people as an antidote to bullying, or an inoculation, if you will.

[0:24:57.7] MD: Sue, we talk a lot about bullying prevention, the actual activities and specific activities around bullying prevention. It's the purview of schools. You have actually had the opportunity to work in this field in a lot of different ways. Actually, one of the interesting projects that you and I have worked on together was the launch of Lady Gaga's Born This Way Foundation.

In fact, you worked with that foundation beyond just the launch. I'd love for you to talk a little bit more about your experience, both at the launch, but as a psychologist that was working with that organization and on the road with Lady Gaga.

[0:25:36.1] SS: Yeah. Absolutely. That certainly was a very interesting project. I was able to go on the road with the Born This Way Ball Tour that was in 2013, I think. Yes, it was 2013. That was just a really great experience. What the foundation did at the time, and they've continued to do, is to really bring together partners across the United States and research mental health, big companies, and really amplify the message of kindness and bravery. What does it take to create kind and brave home, schools, and communities?

A big focus also for the foundation is on mental wellness and then how can we support young people and youth in terms of resilience in developing strong mental health, or strong mental health behaviors. They've done a lot of really great things and I've had some neat opportunities. One of the projects with Mattel. We went out to the Mattel headquarters and just thinking about how can you use toys, or video to send messages of positivity and healthy relationships. It's been fun to think about how do we scale this in terms of really changing how people interact with each other and with themselves.

[0:27:05.5] MD: When you were on tour, there was a bus, right?

[0:27:08.2] SS: Right.

[0:27:09.3] MD: There was a bus where the concert goers could stop and talk to you and get information. When you met young people, can you just talk a little bit about that experience? What was that like, and how do you feel young people are oriented toward the subject?

[0:27:24.6] SS: Sure. Well, certainly I mean, pop culture is a big influence on young people. The bus was basically was a 7,000 square foot footprint outside of the concert venues. There was an actual bus, but there were all these interactive activities. I was in charge of the behavioral health piece. We had volunteers from National Association of School Psychologists, National Council on Behavioral Health. Trevor Project was there. Glisson. Boys and Girls Clubs of America. I mean, we had – there were lots of partners.

The point was to let young people know here are resources in your community where you can go and volunteer, get help, be supportive. Then also, they were interactive experiences. There was obviously a lot of music, but there were games and a food tent and just opportunities for people to interact with one another. I think most people crave that. You want to have some connection with friends, or peers, colleagues.

I've talked a lot with schools about how do you create a welcoming place, or workplaces? How do you create a place where people are like, “I'm real psyched to go to work, because the environment is so neat.” It's meaningful. It's fun. I think the bus experience with that concert tour really created a space for people to be themselves and then learn about opportunities in their community and in volunteering. Then also, where can they go to get support and help. I think that's really critical.

[0:29:05.8] AL: That sounds like an amazing experience. Actually, when you're talking about engaging with kids in that way and what schools can do and then you talked about the workplace, it makes me wonder, do you see differences across age groups, as far as prevalence of bullying, or types?

[0:29:20.9] SS: Well, certainly if you look at the research, the younger kids are the more physical the bullying tends to be. That's just because they don't have the cognitive strategies that they learn as you age and grow up. Then you also learn, “Oh, wow. I'm getting in trouble for physical bullying, so I'm going to be a little more sneaky about it,” and engage in verbal or relational forms, or electronic forms of bullying, which can be harder to detect.

We used to always study bullying in middle school, that bullying was seen to peak in middle school and then decline in high school. Then when you talk to the researchers who research sexual harassment and dating violence and intimate partner violence, they would argue that well, bullying is just being replaced by a different kind of behavior.

I think again, I go back to my statement that I think bullying is an equal opportunity behavior, regardless of age. It's certainly – Lots of people are writing and studying bullying in the workplace. I mean, workplaces are not immune to that. In fact, I just got a journal that a colleague sent to me that every single article in the journal issue is about bullying and higher education. That's really fascinating too.

[0:30:40.9] MD: Sure. I think that saying researchers and at certain age groups, or with folks on certain age groups might say those behaviors have morphed, or have a different label of harassment, or sexual harassment, or dating violence or in college, perhaps hazing, or things like that. I'm curious about very young kids. Do very young kids engage in bullying? Because you were saying there's some different – I mean, physically they may do that as they grow, but does it happen at two, or three, or four? When does it start? Or is it always there?

[0:31:16.5] SS: Yeah, that's a really great question. One of the hats I wear is I co-direct the Bullying Research Network with a colleague, Dr. Shelley Hymel, who's at the University of British Columbia. We in the summertimes for the past couple years have held a think tank with some of our researchers. These tend to be smaller gatherings. One that we held I think was four years ago, the whole topic was on bullying and early childhood education. That was the million-dollar question is at what age does bullying emerge?

Consensus among the group was that certainly, at two, three, four, kids just don't have the – I mean, if they want something, they are going to take it. I mean, it's a very egocentric, obviously, stage of life. Because bullying is a complicated social behavior, those behaviors at that young age are developmentally appropriate for that age, I think certainly and again, I conceptualize this is once kids get into a social setting, so it's not that the family's not social, but it's a little bit different. I think once kids get into preschool and they're around a group of other kids, if I say I'm in preschool and I want that toy and I'm going to take it from Mia. That's not bullying. I just want the toy and that's all I know to do, because I'm four.

Kids at that age really obviously need to be taught. It's not okay to take a toy without asking if you can borrow it. I think when those behaviors go unchecked and kids get into more nuanced social situations, like elementary school, then certainly those behaviors could be labeled bullying. A consensus of the group, if we were to nail down an age, would be four or five, depending then also on the social situation in which that young toddler is in.

[0:33:17.9] MD: Is it around intent as well?

[0:33:20.2] SS: Yeah.

[0:33:20.6] MD: Some kids are intent to actually do harm, as opposed to get some need met.

[0:33:27.7] SS: Exactly. Exactly. Or just I'm angry, because I feel left out. I'm going to cry or hit you, or whatever. That is, yeah: I think that's a really great point. I mean, it’s the intention.

[0:33:39.7] MD: Yeah. At some point, young kids are just – they're trying out a lot of things. I mean, yeah, it's hard to say, like when do you stop giving them leeway of like, okay, they're little, they're just trying something out. Right. I mean, I think to your point, Sue, that it's really the adult’s job then to help guide them toward more productive positive behaviors.

[0:34:02.9] SS: Right. Right. It's an – it's adults’ jobs throughout elementary school, middle school, high school. If you even think about it just like life, I mean, I learned so much from colleagues who have been in positions longer than I have, or who have different perspectives, or I think about my graduate students and how I mentor them. I mean, it's not like it really ever ends. I think that having a perspective of when you're in a position as a teacher, or an educator, consultant, we all have the responsibility to help people navigate their relationships in a healthier way.

[0:34:44.4] MD: Yeah, good point. Sue, what do you think are one or two, your top things that you wish people knew more about bullying? That people just really get wrong, the media gets wrong. Is there something that gets under your skin?

[0:35:01.2] SS: Yeah. I mean, I think certainly the mental health connection for me has been something that I've talked a lot about and feel really strongly about. Just how I think people get that incorrect.

From things we've talked about before, that bully perpetrators, many of them have mental health issues as well. In the intervention program that I developed, which is basically a cognitive behavioral one-on-one intervention with bully perpetrators, in the 14 years that we've been collecting data on these kids, there has not been one kid who has not had some underlying mental health condition, like depression, anxiety, callous unemotional traits. I think that's really important for people to realize, that it's just very complicated.

Again, the connection between bullying and suicidality, that's very complicated. I would say that is my main – my first thing I wish people understood, truly the connection to mental health issues. Then the second one that I think drives all of us crazy is suspension, expulsion, and punishment-based strategies for dealing with bullying behaviors. I mean, we've known for decades that that is an inappropriate “intervention.” It does not help kids change their behavior. It drives me nuts that schools still rely on suspension and expulsion.

[0:36:30.1] MD: Right. Zero-tolerance policies, right, that we know are ineffective. On the other side of that, what do you see going on in schools as alternatives to that that are really working?

[0:36:39.5] SS: I definitely think all these school climate initiatives. I mean, how do we create a climate where kids are like, “I love going to school,” or “School is a fun place, school is a safe place.” I think all of those initiatives designed to make schools welcoming in warm places are really critical. I think the research on having one teacher, or one good friend, somebody who kids feel a connection with. Then when teachers look out for, okay, who are the kids who might not have a connection and then how do we get those kids connected? We know that that's really important.

I think a lot of the kindness initiatives that are going on right now are also really intriguing. I think we need to study them more. I think that that common language and that focus on being kind and kind acts and supporting each other, I think that's really important as well.

[0:37:34.7] AL: Yeah. Kindness is of course a key to this podcast. We’re the Grow Kinder podcast. I think we use that term pretty liberally. Social-emotional learning doesn't always include kindness, or there's character development programs that talk about kindness, but I think we believe wholeheartedly that social-emotional skills have the power to help kids and adults grow kinder.

I do you think that, you've talked a little bit about why that's important, but I wonder if I could just ask more nuanced questions: What do you see as the relationship between adult’s kindness and expression of kindness and how that can influence children's behavior?

[0:38:11.3] SS: Yeah. I mean, I think it goes back to Mia's comment about modeling. I mean, so again, social learning theory tells us that when people observe certain behaviors, they're more likely to emulate those behaviors. If you have any environment where people are doing kind, nice things and other people see that, it's the whole pay it forward idea, if I go to Starbucks, or coffee shop and someone buys me a coffee, I'm more likely to think, “Huh, I think maybe I'll buy the person behind me a coffee.” It makes people feel good, and it makes the world a kinder place.

I think that adults need to – all of us need to be really cognizant of how do we come across, how do we manage our stress when we're frustrated, what do we do. Then how we act, people are watching. I think it's really critical.

[0:39:07.0] AL: Yeah, good point. One of the things we also ask in relation to kindness on this podcast, because it’s the theme of our podcast, is if you have witnessed an act of kindness recently. Is there something that stood out to you recently that want to talk about?

[0:39:22.3] SS: Yeah. Certainly, I follow Born This Way Foundation. They're in the middle of their Be Kind 21 Campaign. Just looking at their social media pages, people, they're posting every day, acts of kindness that people have done. I think that's inspiring to see that. On a personal note, last year – I grew up on the East Coast and I had a group of friends and we all went to elementary school, middle school, and high school together. Sadly, one of our friends passed away last year. We started, last year, doing a – we call it a girls’ reunion weekend, but we were definitely older than being girls.

This past weekend, we just did another reunion weekend. When you asked that question, I was thinking about kindness. The whole weekend was just being kind to each other, right? We toasted our friend who passed away. My friends, because I hosted them, they bought – every meal they were like, “No, you can't pay.” It just it just was a feel-good weekend. I think it was – we were kind to each other, but then also really celebrating our friendship. I got a lot of free meals.

[0:40:36.9] AL: A lot of your research, it's not only academic research, you’re putting things into action, you're assisting others in doing that and making a difference in addressing these issues of bullying. I wonder, how has it shaped your own life as a parent, as a – What things over the course of your research have you been intentional about changing in your own way of being, or your own home?

[0:40:59.2] SS: Oh, yeah. That's a great question. Certainly, I mean, I think about kindness and being kind on a daily basis, and we talk with our kids a lot about that. Volunteering, and how do you make your community and your school a better place. I think certainly, because I researched a topic that is something everyone's concerned about, I spend a lot of time doing I guess what I might call pro bono work, or just working with schools to help them think through how are they responding to bullying and what are they doing about it. I think those are just two examples that stick out.

I also think another topic that comes up when you're talking to parents is that not all mean behavior is bullying behavior. Certainly as a parent, I share this story, and sometimes when I give talks: When our youngest daughter was in third grade, she wanted to wear flip-flops, and it was in the winter time. I thought, “Well, that's weird. Why would she want to – it’s cold outside.”

Took her a while to share the story, but basically the story was the cool girls in her classroom wore flip-flops to school and then they would trade. I thought this was so interesting, because what teacher would even notice that, right?

If some kid had blue flip-flops on and then was wearing green flip-flops. Alex wanted to be in the cool group, and they wouldn't let her be in the group. Then she felt really sad about that. For anyone who knows our daughter Alex, she's pretty feisty. She finally told me the story, and she was really sad about it. She said, “Mom, I just think they're bullying me.” I said, “Well Alex, there's no imbalance of power.” She’s like, “I just hate that you study this.”

[0:42:43.9] AL: Actually, we've had that response from others. “Stop being such a psychologist.”

[0:42:50.9] MD: At Committee for Children, those of us who have kids have also all had that, but the kids are like, “Stop talking about it that way. Stop.” It can be hard, right? I mean, especially when maybe you are a little bit more tuned in with your kids and the social dynamics that are going on in school, and then we really do see things that are not right. It's one thing to give advice to other people. It's another when it's your own kids, because it's very difficult to think logically and clearly when you're having really big feelings, like we tell young kids.

[0:43:31.0] AL: This actually brings up for me – I feel I'm such a logical person. I'm very reactive when it comes to my children and I can manage myself, I can calm down. I think if you're a caring parent, you want what's best for your kids and you want to stand up for them and you don't want them to have bad experiences, even if it's impossible to protect them from those things. It makes me think about parents of children who are engaging in bullying, whether or not those children are also being bullied.

I know that I've had friends that have had this experience. It can be really hard to hear from a school that your child is engaged in that behavior. You cannot believe it. I mean, I think there's a tendency to say, “Well, what did that other child do?” Do you have advice around that? How can parents be receptive to that feedback? How can they do their own work to address that?

[0:44:23.1] SS: Yeah, I think that's a great question. Certainly, we've had parents who will refer their kids into our program, because they're worried about their kids’ aggressive or bullying behavior. Obviously, that's great. I mean, we want that to happen. Often kids, or parents, either don't see or don't want to believe that their child is engaging in bullying behavior. Often, there's a lot of conflict between the home and the school.

Again, I think, trying to just have open conversations. A line we use with parents of bully perpetrators is to say, if we collectively don't help this young person change how they're interacting with people, we know that in the future as a young adult, they are going to have relationship problems, mental health problems, so it's really important. We've never had a parent who then said, “Well, I don't care about that.”

Actually, one story I also like to share is that we had a young boy, a young man who was involved in bullying and his father came to the follow-up meeting and he had just been released from prison. He was an aggressive guy and just a tough person. The interventionist said – he was pooh-poohing some of the results. Then the intervention said, “Well, do you want your son to end up in prison like you were?” The dad just stopped and he's like, “No.”

Again, I think it's thinking about those questions to ask somebody to help them shift their thinking about bullying. I think for the most part, like you said, parents just want what's best for their kids. Helping them see, “Okay, well some things need to change,” in order to help your child have healthier relationships.

[0:46:10.6] MD: To that point too, Sue, listeners may have noticed that we often refer to children as “children who are engaging in bullying” or “children who are doing bullying.” We do that intentionally, because we try to avoid language like bully, because we want to be able to think about kids as having the opportunity to change behaviors, right?

We want to focus on the behavior, not the innate personality, or essence of the child, because all kids have the opportunity to change the way that they behave. I'm just curious as to how it is you frame that for the opportunity to change, to young people?

[0:46:51.7] SS: Yeah, absolutely. Again, we use the same language. We really stay away from victim-bully. We try to say being bullied, bullying others, bully perpetrating it, just to illustrate or to really demonstrate you can change their behaviors and their behaviors you can change.

We just very overtly say that in this intervention: that “You were referred to this intervention for bullying others.” Then we spell out what the referral – what the concerns were. “The goal of this intervention is to help understand more about your interactions with other people at your school and then how to help you change how you interact with people, so people don't see you as someone who's bullying.” We're just very direct about that.

Again, because it's a research study, the young people have to assent to participate. When again in the 14 years, we've never had a student say, “I don't want to do this.”

[0:47:48.3] MD: There's a recognition there, that there needs to be some change or action.

[0:47:52.9] SS: Well, and I think again because it's one-on-one, I mean, so there's pros and cons with that. Because it's one-on-one, I think it really sends a message, we care about you. These are often kids who don't get that message all the time. In fact, adults typically are frustrated with them.

The whole tone of this intervention is very solution-focused, nonjudgmental. Look, we just want to help you interact with your peers in a better way. We work really hard to create that environment and this intervention. Again, we just get a lot of positive feedback from families and from schools about how much they appreciate this.

[0:48:35.3] MD: Yeah. I think you were also touching on the idea that if you are being bullied, there have been some effective interventions around helping kids understand that it's probably not going to be like this forever, that people change, that you change. That works both ways, doesn't it?

[0:48:53.9] SS: Yeah, it really does. I mean, and I think that's important to communicate to kids. You'll have kids say, “Wow, my seventh grade year was horrible, but then in eighth grade, things got better.” Yeah, I think that is really important that we communicate that to students.

[0:49:12.6] AL: Well, thank you so much for spending this time with us, Sue. Where could listeners learn more about you and your work? Where can they find you?

[0:49:20.1] SS: Sure. I run a research group at the University of Nebraska Lincoln called The Empowerment Initiative. If they just google “Empowerment Initiative” they'll find it. We also have an Instagram page and a Facebook page. As I mentioned earlier, I also co-direct the Bullying Research Network. We have a website which is – they can just google “Bullying Research Network.” We have a Facebook page and Twitter, and we're very active. Every Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday on the Bullying Research Network, we post a link to research articles about bullying. One mission is we want to disseminate the research to people, so they can understand what's being done in the research space. Those are two good ways to find out more information.

[0:50:11.3] AL: Great. Well Dr. Susan Swearer, thank you so much for being our guest today on the Grow Kinder podcast.

[0:50:17.7] SS: Well, thank you guys so much. It was really fun, and I wish it was longer.

[0:50:23.9] MD: We do too.


[0:50:27.4] AL: Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoyed our conversation with Dr. Susan Swearer. You can find more episodes at and make sure to rate and subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Stitcher.