Therapists Talk about Bullying: It’s About Kindness and Connecting to the Big Picture

Not long ago, the world took notice of — then took a stand against — bullying, creating a zero-tolerance policy against those who were inflicting harm. 

“While that sounds great,” says Stephanie Zapata, M.S., program director of Pacific Clinics Multicultural Family Center, “when we did that, we systematically isolated and demonized those inflicting the harm.” 

In doing so, she says, we strengthened the source of their harmful behaviors, which boils down to a lack of compassion — for oneself and others. Specifically, factors such as identity issues, cultural microaggressions or racism can be at play, or even being victims of bullying themselves, according to Zapata.

Now, she says, newer trauma-informed and restorative justice-focused research models are focusing on kindness (including towards those who are doing the bullying) and a more holistic approach.

Patrick Neddersen, LMFT, clinical program manager of Pacific Clinic’s School-Based Intervention Teams (SBIT) in the Bay Area, agrees.

“It’s all about the big picture,” he says. “We [the intervention team] are on the ground in the schools trying to impact the system as a whole, by involving and connecting all participants and by connecting it back to home.” 

And while connection and a sense of community are both key to well-adjusted kids, according to Cindy Melendez, clinicianDr. Glenn I. Masuda of Pacific Clinics, says the pandemic created a “perfect storm of uncertainty, isolation and anonymity… which we are all needing to recover from.”

According to both Neddersen and Zapata, the pandemic and recent years have intensified maladaptive communication styles, such as polarized thinking, “shutting down,” aggressive and competitive communication, which are learned techniques.

“Adults, these days, are modeling some pretty harmful behaviors,” says Zapata.

This is why it’s so important to include not only the one being bullied, she says, but also the parents, educators, extended family and the one inflicting the harm — and just focus on what’s happening in a collaborative approach, without blame.

Leon Beauchman, Pacific Clinics clinician, says, “we need to stop talking about bullying and start talking about kindness.”

Dr. Masuda, also senior clinical director of Pacific Clinic’s Asian Pacific Family Center, says that developing kindness and empathy have been challenging in recent years, but are possible with courage and positive modeling.

As someone who has experienced bullying firsthand, Zapata says if she could give one piece of advice to someone who is being bullied, it would be this: 

“I would say it’s not their fault and they are not alone. There is nothing they did to bring on that harm. And, I would thank them for saying something and encourage them to share with their parents and talk with a trusted therapist. It takes a lot of courage, and they deserve to be treated with kindness and compassion.”

For more information on resources about bullying prevention, leadership development, community support, and bystander intervention in the Los Angeles/South Coast region contact Stephanie Zapata at szapata@pacificclinics.org. To be connected to the School-Based Intervention Team in the Bay Area region, contact Patrick Neddersen at patrickneddersen@pacificclinics.org