Mar 13, 2013

How P.E.T. Helped Our Family Handle An Incident Of Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is a phenomenon that is unique to this generation and it personally touched my family when my daughter was 10 years old and in the 5th grade.  It is a form of bullying that has evolved due to the rapid onset of our use of electronic technology and the arrival of social media sites in the late 1990's.  According to (, "Cyberbullying is willful and repeated harm (i.e., harassing, humiliating, or threatening text or images) inflicted through the Internet, interactive technologies, or mobile phones."  In short, anyone who uses a computer, email, instant messaging, social media sites, mobile phone, or interactive online video games, is using the tools that enable cyberbullying to take place.  As a result there is a high risk of experiencing cyberbullying either as a victim, a bystander, or as the perpetrator.  
This week there has been a Cyberbullying Prevention Act put forward in the state of Maryland in response to a few high profile suicides by young teens who were the victims of cyberbullying.  Cyberbullying has real and serious consequences.  There is some evidence to show that the rates of depression are higher among children who experience cyberbullying versus "traditional" bullying.  In the words of Noah Brocklebank ( (, who was a young victim of cyberbullying, "Words have power."  In my opinion there is no better book or course than Dr. Thomas Gordon's Parent Effectiveness Training in order to equip parents, and everyone who interacts with children, with the communication tools ensure that their words have positive and not negative power.

Cyberbullying is a fact of modern life that we all need to take seriously, but especially anyone who interacts with children.  In my daughter's instance, cyberbullying occurred in the first year that she was actively using the internet to socialize with her friends after school via Skype conference calls and Skype instant messaging.  It started as a form of social acceptance and camaraderie.  It quickly and very easily turned into cyberbullying. defines cyberbullying tactics as the following:

  • Gossip: Posting or sending cruel gossip to damage a person’s reputation and relationships with friends, family, and acquaintances  
  • Exclusion: Deliberately excluding someone from an online group
  • Impersonation: Breaking into someone’s e-mail or other online account and sending messages that will cause embarrassment or damage to the person’s reputation and affect his or her relationship with others 
  • Harassment: Repeatedly posting or sending offensive, rude, and insulting messages 
  • Cyberstalking: Posting or sending unwanted or intimidating messages, which may include threats 
  • Flaming: Online fights where scornful and offensive messages are posted on websites, forums, or blogs
  • Outing and Trickery: Tricking someone into revealing secrets or embarrassing information, which is then shared online
  • Cyberthreats: Remarks on the Internet threatening or implying violent behavior, displaying suicidal tendencies

According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, cyberbullying is the “most common online risk for all teens” and girls are more likely to engage in cyberbullying than boys are.  Our children are using these interactive technologies more and more, at younger and younger ages, and they can have access to them in every area of their life.  Although cyberbullying may be a fact of modern life I believe that the skills taught in the P.E.T. course provide a model of communication and parenting that can help turn the tide on cyberbullying in two key ways.

Modeling How to Resolve Conflicts Without the Use of Power

Firstly, the P.E.T. model of communication and parenting is unique because of the fact that it dissects how power is used in relationships and puts forward a model of resolving conflicts without the use of power, called Method III.  Cyberbullying is a form of power that the perpetrator inflicts on the victim and bystanders.  By raising our children using the P.E.T. model, and specifically the Method III approach to resolving conflicts without the use of power, we are modelling behavior that they can then follow themselves in their interactions with others.

Helping Children Meet Their Needs

Secondly, the P.E.T. model of communication and parenting does not use the term misbehavior but rather states that "all behavior is to get a need met".  Think about this in terms of the behavior that the victim of cyberbullying will exhibit, the behavior of a bystander, and then the behavior of the perpetrator.  All three are exhibiting behavior to have a need met and the better we all are at identifying when a child needs our help, whether they are a victim, bystander or perpetrator, the sooner we can begin to put an end to an incidence of cyberbullying.  The P.E.T. parent uses the Helping Characteristics of Empathy, Acceptance and Genuineness, combined with the powerful Helping Skill of Active Listening in order to help their children meet their unique needs.  In turn, by modeling this type of communication, the P.E.T. parent helps their child learn how to communicate more effectively in order to meet their own needs or to ask for help when it is needed.

In our personal experience of handling my daughter's instance of cyberbullying I can identify the following things that I learned through the P.E.T. course that helped us to resolve the situation.

Sharing Values Respectfully - It is a strong value of mine to treat others the way that you want to be treated and I share this with my children in different ways.  About 6 months before my daughter experienced cyberbullying I had asked the kids to watch a series of talks with me on CNN called Stop Bullying: Speak Up (  This initiative is also the first place that I heard about a recently released documentary about bullying called Bully (  The timing could not have been better. When my daughter began experiencing cyberbullying, she knew that this behavior was not okay, she also knew that I was aware that it can happen and that she could talk to me about it.  I know that the discussions we had following our viewing of the CNN programs had a positive impact on the situation she experienced.

Modeling behavior - Shortly after reality shows became a popular form of television viewing, I recognized that some of them condone the use of bullying behavior in the name of entertainment.  I made the decision not to watch those shows and since we don't have cable television my children have not watched those shows either.  Funnily enough, the discussion has never come up but if it did I would explain to my children why I don't watch shows of that nature, because they normalize bullying tactics and desensitize society to their impact.  I would be sharing a value with them while at the same time ensuring my behavior was consistent with that value.

Active Listening - As a parent who has taken the P.E.T. course, and as a P.E.T. Instructor, I know the power that Active Listening can have on your day to day interactions with your children.  When your child is going through something like cyberbullying, the power of Active Listening really comes into its own.  Throughout the period that my daughter was experiencing cyberbullying, we were using Active Listening and this allowed her to share with us the story of what was happening to her.  We helped her to problem solve and she took examples of the cyberbullying she was experiencing through the use of instant messages to her school counselor.  The fact that she had cut and pasted the examples onto a piece of paper and scheduled a meeting with the school counselor were totally her initiatives.  She knew she had our support and I was so proud of her for feeling empowered to take this course of action.  I know that Active Listening helped her begin to solve the problem.

More Active Listening

The element of Active Listening that completely caught me off guard involved me Active Listening in an email communication from one of the perpetrators.  In this email he was threatening my daughter and encouraging others in the email chain to exclude her.  He stated that her actions in bringing the situation to the school's attention had resulted in his friend, the primary perpetrator, getting into big trouble at home.  Now believe me, his email was very serious and threatening in nature and I got on the phone and called his mother straight away to inform her that I needed to bring this to the school's attention.  What was different about how I did this was a result of what I had learned in the P.E.T. course.  I explained to her that I could tell that her son was being a loyal friend, and that his need in that moment was to protect a friend that he was worried about.  His email provided me with the information I needed about both of the perpetrators unmet needs that had led to their behavior.

Resolving Conflicts Without the Use of Power

The fact that I knew what the perpetrators needs were and had empathy for them and their families as well as for my daughter, the victim, had a huge impact on how we dealt with the situation as a combined team with the school principal and counselor, the parents and the children.   We had a very constructive discussion, the children were able to become friends again and are still in touch today.  I feel certain that it is because my daughter also began to use some of the P.E.T. skills that she saw us modelling and that empowered her.  The parents of the perpetrators were able to better understand what had led to their children's behavior and help them to meet their unique needs at the time.

I will forever be grateful that P.E.T. had come into my life before I had to handle the situation of cyberbullying that my daughter experienced.  If you have already taken the course and you have an evening to watch the Bully movie you will see many instances of parents, teachers and school administrators who do not handle the situations they encounter with the P.E.T. skills and you so wish they would.

All of the resources mentioned above are a great source of further information about cyberbullying, and what to look out for if you or someone you know is experiencing cyberbullying.  In addition Robert Pereira, head of the Effectiveness Training Institute of Australia, has written a powerful book called "Why We Bully" which I highly recommend:  

Heidi Mulligan Walker is a mother to three children and is the Founder of The Difference.  As a certified Parent Effectiveness Training Instructor she assists families achieve more peaceful and rewarding family dynamics by sharing the communication techniques pioneered by Dr. Thomas Gordon.  Heidi and her family relocated to Cary, North Carolina in 2012 after living abroad in the UK and China for the past 18 years.  She is loving sharing the American experience with her husband and young family.  You can register to join a course, take part in a free monthly parenting call, find family reflections and read her blog on her website and follow her on Facebook


  1. Thank you for this wonderful post. At Paradigm Malibu we use PET with every family that we serve. Cyberbullying is impacting more and more teens. The idea that we can use PET to effectively impact this is very appealing. For all who know the value of PET- if you know anyone looking for teen rehab, or treatment for chemical dependency, emotional health or behavioral health issues, please consider telling them about . We welcome any opportunity to be of service.


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