Victims to Survivors: Addressing the Bullying Problem

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By Paul Schwartzman, LMHC, MS, DAPA



In a recent episode of the NBC television series ER, a burn survivor carried a young woman into the emergency room to be treated after she had been brutally beaten by her boyfriend. Although the young man who had rescued his neighbor remained in the treatment area, he was clearly anxious about being there once she was stabilized and became aware that he had brought her to the hospital. The young woman had not been very accepting of her neighbor and, in fact, had called him names related to his appearance. As a result of persistent hurtful remarks and stares, he often avoided public situations and when he was out in public, he kept the hood of his sweatshirt over his head to hide his injury.

At the end of the episode, the woman realized how badly she had been hurt and that he likely had saved her life. She was ultimately warm and grateful for his efforts. There was a clear connection between the two of them with a resolve that appearances do not make the person and he in fact was a beautiful person. There was a connection between two individuals both with their own needs and vulnerabilities.

Unfortunately, these television resolves are not often real life. It is well understood that after a burn injury it is not unusual to attract unwanted attention that can be uncomfortable and overwhelming. In fact, this can be true of anyone who presents differently than what others are accustomed to, whether it is the result of a physical or a behavioral attribute.

An individual can be very effective and empowered by learning to manage many of these day-to-day social interactions. Barbara Kammerer Quayle presented an excellent article in this newsletter about a year ago in which she explained that staring is a fact of life. By addressing our own thoughts and not giving others’ curiosity or concern undue power and by responding in a self-confident and open manner, one can often positively affect the nature and outcome of such interactions.


Bullying behavior is profoundly different from these types of interactions although sometimes it may be difficult to determine the difference. What makes bullying different from stares and rude comments? By definition, bullying behavior implies an imbalance of power. The bully perceives that they are better, stronger, more socially adept, and higher on the social ladder.

In bullying behavior, there is a clear intent to cause harm. The bully intends to cause physical or emotional pain. They expect it to hurt and take pleasure in it. There is no remorse or “just kidding.” The final hallmark of bullying behavior is the intent and knowledge that they can, and likely will, do it again and can purposely keep people on guard.

For many years, bullying was thought to be a normal behavior, a rite of passage that people endure. Some actually believe that it is a character builder and helps to toughen individuals for the realities of life. In reality, bullying is a form of violence with serious consequences and needs to be addressed as a public health issue. Bullying can result in depression, anxiety, school failure, and, in some cases, suicidal and homicidal behavior. Bullying does not affect only children and adolescents. Bullying also occurs among adults and in work settings. People do not necessarily outgrow bullying. It is a learned behavior and if not addressed will likely continue.

Studies indicate that victims of bullying typically present as more physically and/or emotionally vulnerable. National studies indicate that one-third of middle and early high school students report being moderately to frequently affected by bullying. Every day in the United States 160,000 students stay home from school due to bullying. A recent study published in the May/June 2007 issue of the Journal of Burn Care and Research (Rimmer, Foster et al) explored the effects of bullying on burn-surviving children. The article documents that the majority of burn-surviving children (68%) reported bullying as a problem.

Bullying takes different forms. Burn-surviving youth report mostly verbal abuse with others reporting some kicking, hitting, or shoving. An emerging form is called cyber-bullying, which is the use of the Internet or digital devices to send nasty messages, start rumors, or otherwise intimidate.

A troubling fact is that most youth do not report these incidents to an adult. (The above-mentioned study documented that burn-surviving children are equally as unlikely to report bullying.) There is a strong belief that adults will not take the situation seriously or, if involved, will make matters worse. Historically their perceptions were accurate. It is only since the Columbine High School tragedy that the United States is starting to better understand this important problem and develop systematic interventions.


What does not work is telling someone who is being bullied, “Don’t worry about it. The bully has more problems than you do.” Nor is the advice to ignore the bullying or to make a joke of it often productive. True bullying behavior is emotional and/or physical abuse. It is not a problem that individuals should be expected to cope by themselves.

What does work is to take the victim seriously. Individuals who are bullied need permission and support to tell what has happened to them and to talk about their feelings. Listen and acknowledge that the bully’s behavior is a problem and that it must be upsetting. Minimizing the victim’s experience will only perpetuate the problem and the perception that there is no help because “no one understands.” It is also imperative that the victim not be blamed for causing the behavior. Too often, victims perceive that they are at fault for bringing on this behavior. This may be particularly true of burn survivors who are already working to cope with a traumatic life experience.

In addition, peer mediation, conflict resolution, anger management, or simply encouraging the victims to fight back are interventions that do not work. Remember, bullying is about an imbalance of power and includes the intent to harm. Peer mediation and conflict resolution assume parties of equal power and mutual goals.

Individuals who are bullied need protection. Protection can be provided through increased adult supervision and the establishment of a buddy system for company and support. Assistance from peers helps the victim to feel a sense of belonging.

Bullying reports need to be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated. Individuals who bully are often clever at covering their behavior and pressuring their immediate peer group to going along with the behavior. There needs to be clear and consistent consequences for the bully and the victim needs to know that these consequences are being applied.

Successful bullying interventions are comprehensive. The above-mentioned study demonstrated that when classrooms take dedicated time to formally address issues of bullying as a group, the victims are more willing to disclose personal bullying experiences and perceive that there is a safe place to seek help. A number of classroom-based curricula have been designed to address bullying. In classrooms that include burn survivors, it may be especially useful to combine one of these with “The Journey Back” school re-entry curriculum, offered by The Phoenix Society. However, it needs to be noted that individual classroom bullying prevention programs are considerably more effective when they occur in an environment where there is an overall program that includes a district-wide initiative.


Bullying prevention requires a culture change. To reduce bullying, it is important to focus on the social environment of the school or workplace and to change the culture there to make it unacceptable to treat people unkindly. This requires the efforts of the entire community. In a school setting, this includes teachers, administrators, counselors, classroom aides, and other nonteaching staff, such as bus drivers, nurses, school resource officers, custodians, cafeteria workers, school librarians, office staff, students, and parents.

A bullying prevention initiative requires effective leadership and guidance. Establishing a task force or committee made up of key stakeholders is important. This group can provide the on-going commitment and consistency to bring about the culture change.

The burn care community and burn survivors play a unique and critical role in addressing the bullying problem. It is well understood that individuals who present with differences and vulnerabilities are at higher risk of being victimized. Research is documenting that this is a specific problem for burn survivors. Perhaps by the burn care community and burn survivors taking a leadership role in initiating community efforts, the re-entry of burn survivors back into their day-to-day lives can be made easier. In addition, the burn care and burn survivor community can help establish a more sensitive, understanding, and accepting community that clearly benefits everyone.


Paul Schwartzman is president of the Finger Lakes Regional Burn Association, Inc. Paul is also a licensed mental health counselor with more than 25 years of experience. He maintains a private counseling and consulting practice in Upstate New York and speaks nationally on a variety of topics related to the fire and burn community.





The Berenstain Bears & the Bully by Stan & Jan Berenstain (ages 4–8) 
Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain by Trevor Romain (grades 3–8)
Cliques, Phonies & Other Baloney by Trevor Romain (ages 9–12)
How to Handle Bullies, Teasers & Other Meanies by Kate Cohen-Posey (grades 6–10)
Nobody Knew What to Do: A Story About Bullying by Becky Ray McCain (grades K–3)
Secret of the Peaceful Warrior by Dan Millman (all ages)
Stick Up For Yourself! Every Kid’s Guide to Personal Power and Positive Self-Esteem by Gershen Kaufman & Lev Raphael (grades 3–7)
Why Is Everybody Always Picking on Me? by Terrance Webster Doyle (grades K–5)


And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence by James Garbarino, PhD, and Ellen Delara, PhD
Anti-Bullying Handbook by Keith Sullivan 
Bullies: From the Playground to the Boardroom by Jane Middleton Mose 
Bullies, Targets & Witnesses: Helping Children Break the Pain Chain by SuEllen Fried, ADTR, and Paula Fried, PhD 
Bullies & Victims: Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield by SuEllen Fried, ADTR, and Paula Fried, PhD 
Bully Busters by Dawn Newman, Arthur Hine, and Christi Bartolomucci 
Bully Free Classroom by Allan Beane, PhD 
The Bully, The Bullied & the Bystander: From Preschool to High School, How Parents & Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence by Barbara Coloroso 
Bullying at School by Dan Olweus 
The Bullying Prevention Handbook by John Hoover and Ronald Oliver
The Equip Program: Teaching Youth to Think and Act Responsibly Through Peer-Helping Approach by John C. Gibbs, Granville Bid Potter, and Arnold P. Goldstein 
How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish 
No More Bullies: For Those Who Wound or Are Wounded by Frank Peretti 
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons 
Please Stop Laughing at Me by Jodee Blanco 
Queen Bees & Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Clicks, Gossip, Boyfriends and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman 
Siblings Without Rivalry: How To Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish 
The Prepare Curriculum: Teaching Prosocial Competencies by Arnold P. Goldstein 

This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Spring Edition 2008. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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