The data was revelatory. Though it wasn't astounding to find out that half of the children reported being the object of taunts, gossip, or intimidation, how they reacted to their harassers was. The key to anticipating victims' responses, it turns out, is to figure out their motivations for interacting with their peers in the first place. That is, kids who wanted to be popular and feel superior tended to retaliate impulsively. Those who wanted to appear cool by avoiding criticisms were more likely to pretend like nothing happened. And those who were genuinely interested in fostering friendships tended to react in healthful, positive ways. They asked their teacher for advice, sought emotional support, and found means to solve the tension with those who harassed them.
Promoting an egoless approach to building relationships that encourages children to react in such mindful ways is key to protecting kids from the psychological blowback of bullying. Rudolph's study shows that kids who are able to respond with care have better mental health than those who respond to stress thoughtlessly. As University of Maine psychologist Cynthia Erdley puts it, "Children who adopt pro-social development goals seem to be well-prepared to deal adaptively with the challenges they are likely to experience."
The tendency of the effects of bullying to worsen when left untreated underscores the need for early intervention as well. Rudolph and her team, who followed the children through the third grade, noticed that, the more frequently children were bullied, the more likely they were "to freeze up or to keep going over it in their mind, but not actually do something about it." A previous study on mistreated kids in middle school also found that responding to bullies violently, impulsively, or in over-the-top ways can make the abused less accepted and a more attractive target to aggressors.
Another way to improve victim behavior may be to inculcate the value of working on relationships, according to an earlier study by Rudolph. Children who believed friendships are fixed, succeeding or failing without their involvement, tended to be more enamored with popularity and may be more vengeful as a result. On the contrary, those who viewed their friendships as works in progress tended to appreciate their peers more and interact more responsibly. "If children believe that effort is worthwhile, they'll feel less threatened or helpless when they hit bumps in their relationships," she says, "and they'll be more likely to try to resolve relationship problems."
Further research is needed to see if these victim-oriented strategies apply beyond middle childhood, as the politics of bullying becomes infinitely more complicated as kids get older. Seeking help from teachers, which is considered a viable recourse for kids in elementary, may incite ridicule and more attacks from high school bullies, for example. Tweens and teens, especially girls, also become much savvier bullies with time. Targets of so-called "mean girls" may have to learn to detect and counter a less overt form of bullying, called relational aggression, that involves spreading rumors or excluding peers. Victims may also feel weighed down by reputations that are harder to shake off, especially online. And, naturally, adolescents may be especially inclined to improve their image to impress others as hormones kick in.