Thursday, 28 March 2013

Beyond Bullying: Healthy Development Depends on Healthy Relationships

Beyond Bullying:

Healthy Development Depends on

Healthy Relationships

Debra Pepler
Scientific Co-Director, PREVNet


Where are we in our quest to address the problems of bullying at school and beyond?

  • We currently have comprehensive legislation that provides clear direction for principals and teachers about the responses required with both the children who are victimized and those who bully.
  • We have Canadian-grown programs with clear evidence that they work, such as WITS ( and the Fourth R (
  • We have extensive Canadian and international research describing bullying, the complex peer dynamics involved, and the destructive impact of involvement in bullying on those who bully, those who are victimized, and even those who observe bullying. 

Are we there yet in our efforts to address these problems in consistent and constructive ways so that all children feel safe and included?

  • Not according to a teacher whom I met at a party who confronted me with the accusation that “my” bullying programs weren’t working in Ontario schools.
  • Not according to a colleague who spoke to principals who were not sure what they should do if they received a letter indicating that a child in their school was being bullied and suffering health problems as a result of victimization.

Are we there yet? I don’t think so – not yet – not until all our children are safe and healthy. But what can we do?

Perhaps we need to look beyond bullying at the broader picture of children’s health and development? 

  • There is heightened awareness of bullying problems now – 25 years after Wendy Craig and I started our research on bullying. 
  • There is an attitude that children who bully behave “badly” and need to be disciplined. 
  • There is growing recognition that children who are victimized need to be protected and supported. 

But children are struggling with a problem that is more complex and broader than bullying.

The problem is that we, as a society, have not fully understood that children’s healthy development depends primarily on the quality of relationships in which they grow up – at home, at school, with friends, in the neighbourhood, and in the electronic world. We need to help everyone involved with children and youth to understand what cutting-edge research is now showing us:

  • The quality of children’s relationships shapes gene expression, DNA, brain architecture, brain functioning, behavior, emotions, health, and daily functioning.

Simply put – without healthy relationships, children cannot develop in healthy ways.

What do children need in relationships?

  • After their basic needs for food, water, shelter, and safety, children need to feel valued and included. We are essentially social beings and our need for social connections is paramount.
  • From birth, children need loving, secure relationships with caregivers whom they can trust to meet their needs, make them feel valued, and support their development. They need these caregivers to be predictable, loving, and to guide them along the rocky developmental pathway – to help them learn from their mistakes, become more regulated, develop social skills and understanding, and explore their world of possibilities.
  • The same healthy relationships dynamics can unfold at school with the adults and other students.  When these relationships are positive, warm, and accepting, children thrive and are motivated to engage and learn at school.

What happens in unhealthy relationships?

  • In unhealthy family relationships, children cannot predict whether their caregivers will be available to support them, will be loving or hostile or distant, whether fighting between parents will break out, whether they will be at the receiving end of abuse or neglect. 
  • In unhealthy relationships at school, children cannot predict whether teachers and other staff will be available to support them and will help them when they make mistakes (which is how they learn). They may worry that the adults and other students will be neglectful or hostile, as in bullying. The stress that children experience in these relationships not only undermines their abilities to learn, but also their physical and mental health.

What undermines healthy development in unhealthy relationships? It appears from the emerging research that stress in relationships is the unhealthy ingredient.

We have a dream! That every child and youth in Canada will grow up in healthy relationships and have healthy development, as a result!

How can this happen? As leaders of PREVNet (Promoting Relationships and Preventing Violence Network), Wendy and I believe that promoting healthy relationships has to be viewed as a critical public health issue… every bit as important, or perhaps even more important than healthy eating and healthy active living.

What will it take? --- efforts from every one of us involved in the lives of children and youth because –

All adults in children’s and youths’ lives are essential in providing support for the development of healthy relationships, social responsibility, and citizenship for our children and youth. Learning how to get along with others and maintain healthy relationships is as critical as learning how to read and do math. It is only through strong, healthy relationships that children and youth will be prepared to be the partners, parents, employees, and leaders of tomorrow.