Develop youth and adult partnerships to address bullying

Don’t let adultism create barriers to your bullying education efforts.

If you’re looking for ways to strengthen your bullying prevention efforts, one way to do that is to develop youth and adult partnerships to address these issues. One reason this is important is that research shows that when young people have strong connections and relationships with adults they are more resilient. Resources such as Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments are available to guide your work in this area.

Be SAFE is a Michigan State University Extension initiative that includes a curriculum for use with 11-14 year-olds in youth settings such as 4-H, schools, scouts and afterschool programs. Be SAFE encourages adults to build relationships and to work in partnership with youth to create safe, affirming and fair environments. This involves moving away from the notion that adults “have all the answers” or that they need to “teach to” young people and be “in control” of youth. Working in partnership with youth includes seeing the assets, strengths and wisdom that both youth and adults bring into the setting. It recognizes that youth are “experts” on their own realities and honors their perspectives and ideas. Programs and efforts are developed “with” youth rather than “to” or “for” them. Youth and adults are seen as co-learners and co-teachers – each being open to what they can learn from each other.

Youth-adult partnerships involve multiple youth with multiple adults working together to address issues that are important to the overall health of people, groups and communities. Part of this is stimulating youth to develop social responsibility – a crucial factor in the promotion of health and well-being. Research on youth-adult partnerships shows that not only do youth benefit from these kinds of partnerships – adults, organizations and communities benefit as well.

Bullying efforts are particularly suited to youth-adult partnerships. Young people often know more about what’s really happening around these issues because they are the ones most impacted by mean-spirited, hurtful language and behaviors and the climate of fear that is created when bullying, bias and harassment go unaddressed.

Rather than relying on stereotypes of youth, labeling them as bullies or victims, and trying to “control” their behaviors, adults can strengthen their anti-bullying efforts by tapping the assets, strengths and wisdom of young people. Adults are encouraged to work in sustained partnerships with youth to address the complex issue of bullying – and to create settings that are safe, affirming and fair for all youth and adults. Group activities in Be SAFE invite adults to focus on building trust with youth with whom they work and to share power and decision-making with young people when appropriate. Whenever you can, consider ways to involve youth (or older teens) as co-creators and co-facilitators of your efforts – and explore ways that youth and adults can work together for positive change around these issues.

Adultism: A Barrier to Youth-Adult Partnerships

Too many anti-bullying efforts are adult-driven and grounded in “adultism.” According to John Bell of YouthBuild USA, adultism is reflected in stereotypes and negative attitudes of youth that are based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and that adults are entitled to act upon youth without their agreement. Adultism is a form of social control and is reinforced by many institutions (including schools and families) through laws, customs, policies, programs and practices. While youth definitely need healthy supports and guidance from adults, adultism disempowers youth. Young people consistently report that the messages they get from the adult world are that they are not as important, are not taken seriously, and that they have little to no power.

A powerful strategy for addressing adultism and creating healthier relationships and communities is the development of youth-adult partnerships. More than tokenism or involving one or two young people on a board or committee, youth-adult partnerships involve youth in significant, authentic and meaningful ways. Issues of trust, power and authority are addressed and youth and adults are expected to learn from each other. 

One way to model youth and adult partnerships is to involve older teens as co-leaders of your Be SAFE or other anti-bullying efforts. It’s likely that teens are much more knowledgeable than adults about the presence and impacts of bullying behaviors within the lives of kids. It’s also likely that the youth within your group will appreciate and look up to older teens as role models around these kinds of issues.

Work with teens in authentic and meaningful ways that tap their wisdom, knowledge, abilities and skills. Involve them as co-creators, co-planners, co-facilitators and co-learners in ways that account for their “place of readiness” and that avoid adultism. Offer teens opportunities to develop and practice skills that will serve their own positive development as well as contribute to the overall development of your group.

To learn more about this MSU Extension initiative visit Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments.