Why do we need yet another program for the prevention of bullying, harassment and violence?

Violence and other risk-taking behaviors are a prevalent and serious concern for adolescents. Changing laws are demanding greater clarity in the treatment of bullying, sexual harassment and peer aggression. While a major focus of many activities and interventions conducted by school districts to reduce adolescent aggression has been to identify and punish the bully, provide ‘do’s and don’ts’ for the general student population, and provide information on all aspects of being respectful, little attention has been devoted to understanding the implications of adolescent development and maturation on peer aggression.

Research has consistently shown that in many areas adolescents lack the problem-solving decision-making and empathic skills (Gini et al., 2007) of adults. This problem is especially salient in adolescents who engage in violence and harassment. Dodge (1992) found that perpetrators tend to (mis)interpret social interactions as being more hostile than their non-bullying counterparts. Research has shown that students who learn problem-solving strategies are significantly more likely to de-escalate conflict compared to the typical responses most likely demonstrated by aggressive students (Biggam & Power, 1999). Therefore, it appears that an intervention program that teaches students effective problem-solving and encourages empathy can reduce student bullying and aggression. Most compelling, however, is the impact of maturation and development on any problem-solving approaches used with adolescents.

A new finding: Adolescent misperceptions
Twelve years ago we discovered that adolescents, by age and grade, have particular misperceptions of the motivations and intentions of their peers that prevent them from developing self-protection skills. These misperceptions are normal, naturally occurring psychological phenomena that are universal and result from maturational constraints in cognition and emotional development. Most important, these misperceptions can cause breaches in empathy among adolescents that increase the risk of aggression and violence.

Misperceptions can lead to empathy breaches
As psychologists, we know that our perceptions influence behavior. When these misperceptions occur, there is a corresponding shift in empathy for the associated peer. Empathy is bi-directional. When an adolescent loses the empathy of the group, there is an increased risk of victimization. When an adolescent loses empathy for the group, there is an increased risk of perpetration.

Empathy breaches can lead to disruption of the peer group
The regulatory function of the adolescent peer group is to contain the sexual and aggressive impulses of its members. Disputes between peers disturb group harmony and temporarily disable its protective function. Most often, disputes occur when one member matures more quickly than the others. We call these normative empathy breaches. Other times, a deviant peer may overwhelm group defenses, which can be more serious. We call these traumatic breaches.

When the peer group is disrupted outbreaks are likely to occur
We know from extensive research that disturbances in peer relations frequently give rise to fighting, bullying, sexual harassment and violence in adolescence. The form of outbreak may be instrumental (e.g., physical fighting, violence) or relational (e.g., social exclusion, malicious rumor spreading, withdrawal of friendship). Whatever the surface act, the underlying psychological root cause is the same. Because of this connection, the peer group serves as a good gateway to prevention. The developmental model we use describes the psychological mechanisms that trigger all forms of peer aggression. Based on an extensive body of literature on each of the constructs shown in the model below, it is supported by our own research using RESPECT data.