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Psychodynamic Approach to Ease Bullying

As parents to two preschool boys, my wife and I are deeply concerned about our boys running into bullies at school. At the same time, we realize that bullying tends to stem from a lack of care and education at home, and that those who bully need as much compassionate guidance as those who are bullied.

I'm ashamed to admit that I was a bully to a few students during my years in public elementary, junior high, and high school.

When I was in grade 5 and 6, the target of my cruel teasing was a female student who I had a crush on, and who I treated well until I found out that she liked me back. When I realized that we could actually reach the "going out" stage, knowing that my ultra conservative immigrant parents would come down hard on such an interest, my natural instinct was to begin ridiculing this kind, innocent girl.

In junior high and high school, my target was a self-deprecating fellow who was teased by the masses, and though I don't recall an instance of being extremely cruel, I do remember chiming in with a remark here and a chuckle there when a group of cool kids would make fun of him.

In looking back and considering why I behaved the way that I did, I suspect that I learned how to ridicule others mainly from the Korean culture. There are many aspects of Korean culture that I cherish, but one that I don't embrace is the tendency to shame others when they don't live up to a certain bar. For example, if an old school Korean grandparent sees his or her 3-year old grandchild crawling on the ground to playfully mimic a younger sibling who is still crawling, a natural response for many such grandparents is to say something like "How embarrassing for you to be crawling at your age!"

This way of talking seems to be stitched into old school Korean culture, and many Korean grandparents speak in this way without ill intentions; if anything, it's their way of being affectionate and loving with their grandchildren.

Clearly, there are countless causes of children being bullies and not understanding how hurtful and wrong it is to be a bully in any form. And for me personally, I'm sure that there were other reasons for me being a bully to an unfortunate few, including the reality that my parents were often too busy to even think to sit me and my sisters down and discuss our day-to-day activities.

A part of me wishes that one of my teachers in elementary school had identified what was going on, sat me down, and explained in a gentle and supportive way that what I was doing was wrong, that I wasn't a bad person for being that way, but that I could act differently and feel a whole lot better about myself and spare others hurt.

I'm by no means an expert on how to most effectively address bullying, and I suspect that our teachers are aware of some strategies that are helpful to those who bully and those who are bullied.

With the spirit of wanting to create a discussion on this topic to increase awareness and hopefully generate strategies for teachers, parents, and students to effectively address bullying, I present the following recent press release on this topic:

New Tactics To Tackle Bystander’s Role In Bullying

A new psychodynamic approach to bullying in schools has been successfully trialled by UCL (University College London) and US researchers. CAPSLE (Creating a Peaceful School Learning Environment) is a groundbreaking method focused more on the bystander, including the teacher, than on the bully or the victim. The study, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, shows that an easily implemented school-wide intervention focussing on empathy and power dynamics can reduce children’s experiences of aggression in school and improve classroom behaviour.

Professor Peter Fonagy, UCL Clinical, Educational and Health Psychology, and lead author of the paper, says: “Bullying has an extensive impact on children’s mental health including disruptive and aggressive behaviour, school dropout, substance abuse, depressed mood, anxiety, and social withdrawal. It also undermines educational achievement and disrupts children’s abilities to develop social relationships.

“While school anti-bullying programmes are widely used, there have been few controlled trials of their effectiveness. CAPSLE is a psychodynamic approach that addresses the co-created relationship between bully, victim, and bystanders, assuming that all members of the school community, including teachers, play a role in bullying. It aims to improve the capacity of all community members to mentalize, that is, to interpret one's own and others' behaviour in terms of mental states (beliefs, wishes, feelings), assuming that greater awareness of other people's feelings will counteract the temptation to bully others. It also teaches people to manage power struggles and issues, both of which are known to damage mentalizing.”

The randomized study, working with 1,345 third to fifth graders (8-11 year olds) in nine US elementary schools, assessed the efficacy of a three-year programme. In total, about 4,000 children were exposed to the study protocol. CAPSLE schools were compared with schools receiving no intervention and those using only School Psychiatric Consultation (SPC) where children with the most significant behavioural problems were assessed and referred for counselling.

Rather than simply targeting aggressive children, the CAPSLE programme worked to develop mentalizing skills in students and staff across the wider school community, beginning with bystanders perceiving and accepting their own (unthinking) role in maintaining the bully-victim relationship through abdicating responsibility and making an implicit decision not to think about what the bully/victim is experiencing. The emphasis was on the need to understand rather than react to others and thus avoid the problems created by a regression into the victim, victimizer and bully. Poster campaigns, stickers and badges were used to create a climate where feelings were labelled and distress was acknowledged as legitimate, with the ultimate aim of changing the way the entire school social system viewed bullying.

In the first year of the study, teachers received a day of group training and students received nine sessions of self-defence. This training in martial arts with role-playing was designed to help children understand how they responded to victimization and how that victimization affected their capacity to think clearly and creatively. During the study, teachers were discouraged from making disciplinary referrals (such as sending someone to the principal’s office) unless absolutely necessary, and classes were asked to take 15 minutes at the end of the school day to reflect on the day’s activities. All classes would reflect on bully-victim-bystander relationships according to a structured format depicted in posters placed in all classrooms. Children would assess the extent to which they had succeeded in being reflective and compassionate. They would then make a classroom decision on whether or not a class banner should be posted outside the room to say that the classroom had had a good mentalizing day. The study found that children were much tougher on themselves than teachers would have been under similar circumstances

Over the course of the study, reports of aggression, victimization, bystanding behaviour and mentalizing were gathered twice yearly from classroom questionnaires completed by the children. Behavioural observations on a randomly chosen subgroup of children were made at regular intervals by observers who looked for ‘off-task’ and disruptive behaviour. The programme was found to generate more positive bystanding behaviours, greater empathy for victims, and less favourable attitudes towards aggression in CAPSLE schools. In these schools, fewer children were nominated by their peers as aggressive, victimized, or engaging in aggressive bystanding compared with the control schools. This was confirmed by behavioural observation of less disruptive and off-task classroom behaviour in CAPSLE schools.

CAPSLE made no attempt to focus on helping disturbed children individually or picking them out for treatment. It did not set explicit rules against bullying, nor did it advocate any special treatment for bullying children. Nevertheless, over time the study found that bullies came to be disempowered, initially complaining that the programme was boring and should be stopped until gradually the social system tended to recruit them into more helpful roles. For example, a fifth grade bully who was “humping” the school trophy case to display his sexual prowess to much younger children became a helper of kindergarteners who were upset and helped them with tasks like tying shoelaces.

Over the course of the study, bullying increased across all the schools being monitored (no intervention, SPC and CAPSLE schools), but the percentages of children victimized were substantially larger in the first two types of schools from start to end. At the start of the study, 13 per cent of CAPSLE children were victimised compared to 19 per cent at the end. The increase among SPC children was from 15 to 25 per cent and from 14 to 26 per cent in the schools receiving no interventions. This school district had numerous socioeconomic problems over the course of the study, making the CAPSLE effects on bullying more remarkable.

For more information on this study, please view:


If you have any thoughts that might be helpful to those who are in a position to effectively address bullying, please considering sharing in the comments section below. Thank you.


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Yes, this is a fear for all parents, and yes Dr. Ben, your little guys will have to deal with some things that will deeply hurt you as they have us. And really it is very sad that there has to even be such a thing as being bullied. Our little ones, (it goes by fast) are 9 and 7. They go to a very small country school with less than 200 kids. (And I love that!) And fortunately we have strong teachers and a very good principal and they are very good with dealing with this, so the bullying is minimal. However our son, (7) who is a sweet smart great little guy (loves all, plays with any age and does not have a mean bone in his body) does get a bit picked on by one child. And sadly that child has severe huge anger management problems. But when something happens, it is taken very seriously and is dealt with. The sad part is trying to explain to your little guy why that kid (who he tries to get along with and does not understand why he is physically mean and hurtful) is mean. It is hard. (And if we were in a big school it would probably not be able to be dealt with in the same way.)

We are a family that is really loving, kind to animals, learns our manners and really wants good will to others. My hope is that what we teach will follow through. And we all have done things, like Dr. Ben feels regrets for. And we learned that they were wrong, because they made us and still make us feel bad. I tell those things to my kids. Not necessarily exactly the thing, but that when I did something how bad it made me feel. And hopefully they will be able to use that when they have to make a decision.

And I also try and tell them that school is school. Life after school will not be the same. Sadly kids are kids and can be mean. I try and explain to them to look at how Daddy and I have our friends and how we are with them. We love our friends and they love us back! And that is how it will be for them. So not to care so much if so and so is rotten. They will never have to see so and so again sooner than later.

I know I am rambling, but yes the bullying is very scary, and the scariest part is the parents of the bullies seem to not care that they are. So....that leads me to see that the Bullykids...have no proper guidence. And if they did as we will guide our children...well, really they are kids that are struggling to deal with life all by themselves. Where are their parents thoughts? Who is teaching them how to act and be? Some kids may be, and it just isn't working. But that is few and far between...I don't care what anybody says.

Well loved kids with secure situations...regardless of poor or rich.
Loving, Happy, Caring families....they are secure. They want to have fun, and be happy with life.

The world is really becoming a very scary place.....

I can only hope that they can get through School safely. Thank Goodness mine love it and love their Teachers and Principal! And they are awesome.(I have many friends with kids in bigger schools dealing with the worst situations and I am so happy to be in a small village school!)

Up till know, my little ones have been able to deal with anything that has happened.

But we are not near High School yet..:(

Thank you for the wonderful news-letters.
I read every word,

A loving mother til the end of time...

Kids that eat green smoothies and eat sardines...(that makes me proud), love their strawberry pills (cod-liver oil) no antibiotics ever yet....and teach them to be kind... and to treat people the way that they want to be treated by others...

The stress and the fear of hoping that how we are raising our kids is the right way or the best for them. What a huge responsibility we have as parents....

I just hope that all that love will make them strong.

Thank you for the wonderful newsletters...I love them all. And we are enjoying new soups and I can hardly wait to try the stew.


It is obvious that you represent loving parents who care about how their children represent themselves to other children, and the world at large. Having been bullied myself, my regret was that I was not loved at home, and the lack self respect and self love...and resultant lack of self esteem...set me up for all the abuse I had to endure for most of my life. "Love" is the key, which you certainly seem to emit to your kids....all you need to do is express your love to them and tell them how wonderful they are. When they love and respect themselves... they will love and respect others. It just takes "unconditional love"!


Regarding Bullying: Thank You! Dr. Ben Kim for having the courage to put this in your newsletter. I thought this was great and sets an example that many of us could follow regarding things we have regretfully done in the past or have been a party to. We face such things when raising our own children, so I also say;
“To encourage myself and others who regularly regret some mistakes from the past.”
Reflecting on the past ~ responsible for my future, Gary
P.S. Thanks for providing all the GREAT! Nutritional Info. & Recipes!