Understanding How 'Power' Plays

For more than 30 years, Dr. Debra Pepler’s research efforts have focused on aggression, bullying, and victimization involving children and youth. A psychologist, mother, grandmother, global expert on the subject, and an upcoming speaker for ParenTalks at St. Michael’s College School (SMCS), Dr. Pepler --- whose work has shaped policy --- remains optimistic about both the discourse and its direction.

“I have a lot of hope,” she says. “I have hope when I meet young people. There are extraordinary young people who have a larger sense of the world, their place in the world, and their impact on the world than I did growing up. My context was much more limited without social media and all of the other channels that connect young people to the world these days,” says the Distinguished Research Professor of Psychology at York University.

Dr. Debra Pepler was a guest speaker at a ParenTalks event at SMCS.

Dr. Debra Pepler is a psychologist and distinguished research professor of psychology at York University.

“I’m also very hopeful because the issues of ‘power over’ within an adult context are coming to the fore. We used to think that only children bullied. But, as we step back and look at human relationships and dynamics in relationships, it’s very easy to see that the children who bully and learn how to use power over others become the adolescents who sexually harass, become the adolescents who use date violence, become the partners who use violence in intimate relationships, become the parents who haven’t a toolbox other than harsh behaviour.”


She adds, “Developments like the ‘Me Too’ movement and other discussions around the abuse of power in politics, in relationships, in businesses, in the workplace. These issues are coming to the table where they haven’t been -- certainly for the first two decades when I was doing this research. I’m very hopeful that we’ve not isolated this as a problem that children experience, but a problem in relationships across the life-span.”

Dr. Pepler will appear as part of the fourth edition of ParenTalks at SMCS with Dr. Mark Broussenko ’07, family physician and hospitalist at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The pair will discuss ‘Supporting your Son to Build Healthy Relationships and Positive Surroundings: A Conversation’. The event will also be livestreamed.

SMCS ParenTalks set-up in the Robert Campeau Lecture Hall.

An initiative of the Student Affairs Department and the Community and Learning Partnerships Programme at SMCS, ParenTalks is designed to be a series of conversations for current SMCS parents providing advice from leading experts on how to support the well-being of teenagers as they navigate their formative years.


“The critical issue in bullying is the abuse of power,” says Dr. Pepler. “Those who do it have power over others. Thirty years ago, people really discounted bullying. I think there has been a big swing from discounting it to concerns that everything is identified as bullying. If there is a ‘power over’ dynamic and it is repeated and it harms, then it would be considered bullying. It has been interesting to watch the growth of public interest and understanding of bullying.”.

Dr. Pepler says research has shown that aggressive behaviour often emanates from people who have been victimized themselves. 

“In my observational research, this finding helped me understand how the peer interactions of aggressive children were in fact sustaining some of their behaviours,” she continues. “So although they were aggressive to others, people were aggressive to them or excluded, neglected, or rejected them.”


She adds, “Children who haven’t had the early life experiences to lay down the brain connections to avoid being aggressive aren’t helped by their peer interactions, because others quickly dislike them, so they have fewer and fewer opportunities to play with positive children and learn the skills that we’d like them to learn.”

The co-founder of PREVnet (Promoting Relationships and Eliminating Violence Network), established in 2006, Dr. Pepler says understanding power in its varying forms, is central to addressing bullying problems.

“The nature of bullying is very complex, because power is a wonderful thing to have,” she says. “We, as adults, have a lot of power and young people are seeking power. The critical point is we need to teach young people to use their power positively and gain power positively rather than negatively.”


When it comes to advice for parents of a child who bullies, Dr. Pepler offers this:

“I would have a conversation that is very matter-of-fact and not accusatory but curious because children are drawn into bullying episodes and sometimes they don’t want to be involved, but when other children invite a child in or challenge a child to join in bullying, there is a very high probability that that child will join --- even if he/she doesn’t want to.”

As far as how parents can support a child who may be a bully, she says, “Helping your child to find positive ways to be a leader, having discussions about this, watching sibling interaction carefully to ensure bullying is not occurring there and if there is, using it as a learning opportunity to ensure that your child is learning that hurting others is wrong and that there are many other ways of solving problems.”

For children who may be victims of bullying, Dr. Pepler says, “Speaking with your child in a matter-of-fact way rather than a highly-emotional way is really important. Children are extremely attuned to our emotions as parents and if we seem upset and worried, they are probably not going to talk about it because they don’t want to cause us trouble or upset us. Talking about it matter-of-factly --- asking what has happened, asking how they spent lunch hour, how things are going --- and then if you learn that your child has been victimized, ask them what they’ve done to solve the problem. Children try many things, unfortunately for the children who are persistently victimized, those things don’t work, they don’t have enough power in the relationship to extract themselves.

At that point it’s really important to do some problem-solving with the child --- think about things they could do to avoid those who are bullying. Being with friends is one example. Children who have friends they can spend time with are much less likely to be victimized than children who are alone and isolated,” she says. If the bullying persists, it is critical to talk with the school to develop a safety plan and ensure the bullying stops. 

Dr. Debra Pepler was a guest speaker at a ParenTalks event at SMCS.


“This is where it is really important to have conversations because bystanders play a critical role in bullying,” says Dr. Pepler. “Talk to them about it and why young people stand by and watch, why they don’t intervene and explore the cost of intervening because sometimes it’s not safe. Explore constructive ways of intervening that keep them safe and don’t exacerbate the likelihood that they’re going to be bullied. Help them to develop strategies to avoid reinforcing the bullying and find ways to intervene safely or report the bullying to school staff.”


“It is really not necessary and not constructive to try to figure out who did what to whom, when, why, how, etc. It is important for the teacher to look forward to think of a safety plan for the child who is victimized, to perhaps engage in discussions around safety. 

There are strategies to work with the groups of children who bully. Our research showed that bullying always involves a group, it is never one child. It is a group of students who are either actively bullying or there may be one or two who are bullying and the others are watching and supporting it by their attention and reinforcement.

Often when a child comes forward and is victimized, there may be a tendency not to believe that child. I think it’s really important to believe the child who’s been victimized or the child who’s coming forward and says ‘I’m really worried, so-and-so is being bullied’ and to explore that, to protect the children who come forward and report, but to address it again as a learning opportunity --- that’s the biggest thing. Learning how to get along with others is perhaps the most complex thing that we need to do as developing human beings.”


On the subject of how best to manage ‘power over’ behaviour, Dr. Pepler admits to undergoing an evolution in her own thinking.

“I’ve come to realize that this is not a discipline problem, it’s a developmental programme,” she says. “It does nothing to sit a child on a bench for two hours or four hours to teach them how to get along with others in a positive way. These are developmental issues and if a child is having a problem, we need to see why that’s an issue and what we can do to support that child and his or her family to learn how to use power positively rather than negatively.”

ParenTalks will be held on Thursday, November 21, 2019 at St. Michael’s College School.  It is open to current SMCS parents. Registration required: smcsevents.com

SMCS ParenTalks event poster featuring Dr. Debra Pepler and Dr. Mark Broussenko.