Understanding Youth Aggression and School-based Violence Prevention with Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt

Dr. Tracy

Written by: Lianne Castelino

Published: Jul 4, 2022

A leading Canadian researcher in mental health and violence prevention in schools says that more can and should be done to reduce the prevalence of bullying among young people, especially in school.

“The bulk of bullying occurs in schools, on the way to school, from school, in school,” says Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in school-based mental health and violence prevention told Lianne Castelino during an interview for Where Parents Talk. “And what happens online is usually a spillover effect of what happened at school.”

Click for video transcription

Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a Canada Research Chair in school based mental health and violence prevention. Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt is also a full professor in the faculty of education, counseling psychology and the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa. Her research delves into the association between bullying and mental health through the lens of social neuroscience. Dr. Vaillancourt is also a mother of two. And she joins us today from Ottawa. Thank you so much for being here.

I’m happy to be here.

So certainly an unfortunate, timely and increasingly growing topic of concern for many of us. Can you tell us what are some of the trends that are emerging that we should be watching for as it relates to youth aggression in this country,

I think we how we actually hold a misperception that it is getting worse. And if you look at the violent crime index, it’s not increasing, although the data just come to about 2020. So just at the beginning of the pandemic, so things may change, I’d like to see the latest Stats Canada data coming out. And then when you look at rates of bullying, so we did a really big study, I did it with my colleague, Deborah Pepler who I know you know, and we looked at a whole school district and the rates of bullying, and they were reduced by 50%. And we’ve never seen rates so low, and that was during the pandemic. And this has since been replicated by other countries around the world who all noted a substantial decrease in bullying. So it looks like when it comes to youth aggression, it’s going down. Now that said, in the past few months, I have noticed a big upswing in the media reports of youth violence. And I don’t know if that reflects a true increase or just an increase in our attention.

Now, that’s interesting, because obviously, those of us who don’t research this and follow this as closely as you do, but you know, rely on the media for that kind of information. So what do you then make, if anything of this upswing, and certainly, you know, not just in Canada, but North America as well as it relates to youth?

Well, it’ll be interesting, again, to see if this is really a true upswing, right. And it’s not just a focus from the media. If it is increasing, I would probably relate it back to frustration, there’s been a lot of frustration and stress on children and youth. I know that from the literature on externalizing problems. So when you look at conduct problems, ADHD, and and the like, there has been a reported increase. Most of the studies have used parental reports and parents were at home a lot with their kids more so than ever before. So it could just be that they noticed something more. Whereas if they were in their school environment, that we wouldn’t have seen that increase. So it’s really hard to know what’s going on. With the latest mass murder in the United States where 19 children were murdered and to teachers, there has been an increase in threats made in schools in Canada. And that is consistent with what we usually see with very visible events like this. So I know it’s a bit of a nuanced conversation. And it’s probably a little frustrating to hear, but I can’t really say for sure at this point. If we have this conversation again next year, I might hold a very different viewpoint.

Well, it’s interesting, right? Because there have been quite a number of reported gun violence incidents involving youth, certainly, in Toronto and surrounding area. Let me ask you, Dr. Vaillancourt, what, if anything, then concerns you with respect to what you research on a daily basis.

It concerns me that we could get such a high reduction in bullying by simply, in my opinion, increasing supervision. So that’s the good news, right, that we saw this reduction. But the bad news is that I’ve been advocating for this for the better part of 20 years. And so it’s really frustrating that everybody’s showing this reduction, we have a good idea of what’s linked to this reduction. And yet, people don’t really listen to us. Despite our best efforts, and bullying causes a lot of harm. It has an immediate effect on children’s health and wellness. It affects their academic achievement, but it also sticks with them for life. You know, it changes their health trajectory changes their learning trajectories, it changes their relationships. It’s like a prototype for how they’re going to relate with others. So it’s frustrating to me to know that what we thought would be a key mitigation strategy to reduce bullying seems to be true, and and I’m hoping we can retain it but I don’t Like we will.

So let’s unpack that a little bit. You’re talking about, statistics show that bullying goes down when there’s increased supervision, if I understand you correctly. So, as a parent, I’m listening to this thinking, Well, I’m not with my child 24/7. We’re talking about supervision, not just in person, but online in every other aspect of my child’s life. So how does a parent go about trying to manage that?

So I’m talking about school supervision, because the bulk of bullying occurs in schools, on the way to school, from school, in school. And what happens online is usually a spillover effect of what happened at school. So if we want to reduce these rates, I think that we need to have more adults watching kids. And so what happened during the pandemic, I believe, and other scientists from around the world believe this to be the case as well, that we were so concerned with our virus mitigation strategies, we were really concerned whether or not they had their mask on properly, did they sanitize their hands? Did they socially distance, that sort of thing, that we then reduce bullying by pain, so close attention to these virus mitigation strategies? I’m hoping that as we go to an endemic stage for the pandemic, that we will retain what we did in terms of what promoted positive peer relationships. So having more teachers in the hallways during class transitions, having more teachers on the playground, supervising recess, and lunch periods and the like.

Does that help? Yes, it does. Certainly it does. And, you know, for teachers listening to that, they might be thinking, Well, I’m already stretched way beyond maximum. So what does supervision entail? And when do I intervene? Because obviously, there’s different situations, and when when is it necessary for an adult to, to get involved with these children.

I can appreciate your point, I think that teachers are maxed out, and they’re doing the best that they can, and they’re doing a really good job on a really difficult circumstances, perhaps, then our ministry needs to education needs to rethink what we mean by supervision. When I was a kid, we used to have lunch room monitors, and hall monitors that were adults in the community. Sometimes they were volunteers, sometimes they were paid, it wasn’t the best paying job, we can certainly do better in terms of how we paid them. But it did have a positive effect. So um, maybe it’s not teachers per se, who have to increase their supervision. But we need to have more adults in our school community, we kind of went away from school being like a community hub, to being this insulated environment. So I feel like as a parent, and maybe you have a similar experience, that it hasn’t always been as welcoming for me to come. And this I’m talking about before the pandemic, it was sort of like, no, no, let us do our job. And, and, you know, I think this was born out of risk management, making sure that we didn’t have inappropriate adults in the school who weren’t properly vetted. But maybe we went too far over, we’re now we don’t have a community helping raise our kids.

And I grew up with school lunch monitors as well. So I absolutely understand that point and their importance. Can you take us through what you would describe as the correlation that you want people to understand between aggression among youth, and the mental health of these youth?

So I would actually challenge the word correlation. And I will say it’s causation. And there’s enough longitudinal evidence to support a causal link. And scientists are really shy about saying causation in the absence of a randomized controlled trial. But there, there have been tons of published studies, meta analysis, and the conclusions have always come to this as a causal effect. So the reason I say it’s causal is that we have a whole bunch of kids coming to school who are healthy to begin with, and their peer relationships are difficult, and it derails them. It causes them mental health problems, it causes physical health problems, it affects their academic achievement, it affects their self esteem, and the like. And when we do very long, very long term studies with sophisticated analyses, we can show to patterns that are typical, most kids are well and become unwell because of the way their peers treat them for if they’re treated poorly. And there’s a really smaller subset who are unwell to begin with, the peer group picks up on this, this different profile and then picks on them and then that exacerbates an already vulnerable child’s mental health trajectory. So that’s called the symptoms driven pathway. But most kids kids come to school with really good intentions, right? The intention to make friends the intention to learn, and then they’re treated poorly by their peer group. And then that causes them harm in the immediate and in the long term. And there’s studies that span from childhood all the way to adulthood, like 50 years after the fact. And it shows that that experience of being treated poorly and childhood still confers risks for them and adulthood in terms of mental health and even physical health.

So how would you term where we are with that in Canadian society in terms of bullying in schools, if we’re just going to talk about the school environment? How would you you know, describe that? Is it an epidemic is it is it is a huge cause for concern? Have we? Is there more to come? How would you describe it?

I’d say that Canada stinks when it comes to bullying rates. So we are one of the highest of economically advanced countries, our rates are right at the top. They’ve always been so when we’ve been we’ve been comparing these with national level statistics and statistics that compare to other countries, population based studies that are very well done, and we consistently do poorly on this indicator. So we’ve always had really high rates of bullying, about 30% of our youth are bullied and about 10% are bullied every single day. And that’s way too hard high, especially given how hard this is for children in terms of managing this. So I would say that it is a long standing concern for me. And it’s not just a little concerning to me. It’s quite concerning. And it’s quite concerning, because so I look at the long term effects of bullying. That’s what I studied. And you said, I do as a social neuroscience focus on it. So I know how bullying gets under the skin to confer a risk for future health impairment, mental health, physical and the like. So I’ll give you one example. And it may, you know, I’m hoping that it’s going to cause some alarm so that people can we can start addressing us in earnest. So we have so shown and others have replicated this, that children who are bullied, have a dysregulated hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which is their stress response system. So it is a stressful event. And what happens is they overproduce cortisol at the beginning of being bullied. And that makes sense, right? So if you saw a bear in the forest, your cortisol is going to go right up. Because you know, you need to decide if you’re going to stay and fight it, or you’re going to run away. And so the same reaction is what we see in kids who are being treated poorly by their peer group. So over time, though, the receptor sites for clerk for cortisol, they’re called glucocorticoid receptor sites, they’re in your brain, mostly in the prefrontal cortex. And in your hippocampus, they get damaged because they’re constantly bathed in high circulating cortisol. And so the end result of that is lower cortisol. And so you’d think, okay, Laura, lower cortisol is good. But it’s actually not good. Because once you get to that point, you’ve already have the damage in terms of how it affects learning and memory. It also then means you’re going to have greater inflammation, which isn’t good for cardiovascular risk and cancers and the like. So I’m just giving you one little snapshot of a really big biological system, they’re all working together, and they’re working together in a really problematic way. Because the individual is so challenged, and bullying is persistent and repeated and entrenched, that they have a really hard time getting past the stressor. And and then, studies show, for example, that if you’re bullied in childhood, your inflammation rates are higher in adulthood, even though you’re not being bullied anymore. So it’s something that sticks with people over time. So I hope I didn’t completely cause some, like, cause too much concern, but I will hope I caused enough concern that we can think about it as if these aren’t squeaky kids. These aren’t kids who are, you know, exaggerating their plight, these are kids who are really, really suffering at the psychological level and at the physiological level.

So along those lines, what would you say are signs that you believe parents need to be aware of with respect to potential aggressive behavior, potentially leading to violent behavior in their children?

So it’s interesting that you’re saying about like, basically, the perpetration of aggression is what you’re asking about, right? And I’ll just say this, that there’s quite a few studies and we’ve done. We did a longitudinal study on this showing that a lot of times, kids too are bullied them become bullies. And so I think what happens is if you’re bullied, you either get mad or you get sad. So you’re asking about the Mad reaction. And and that that’s problematic. I mean, that is linked to issues of the abuse of power and other relationships. So I think that parents are really good at recognizing when their kids are bullied. Because the sadness is so profound and obvious, but they’re not really good at recognizing when their kids bully others. And they tend to be a little defensive about this. So if we’re going to actually, if we want to help children, and we care about children beyond our own, we need to be really mindful of signs that our kids are abusing their power. So one good indication would be how do they treat their siblings in the home? Their younger siblings in particular? Do they treat them poorly? Are they abusing their power in that relationship? And how do they talk about their peers? Do they put them down all the time? Do they call them losers? Do they make fun of them? When they have other friends around? How are they behaving? Are they excluding other peers? Are they talking poorly about their peers, all of those are good indicators that your kid is not doing right in their peer relations that they may be causing harm to other. And also if the school contacts you or another parent contacts you to say that your child is hurting their child, don’t be defensive. Listen to them. I mean, that was a it’s a big step, it’s a hard step to make, it’s hard reach out. And if they do it, recognize that it doesn’t mean that you failed as a parent, kids are learning and they need you to guide them in this moment, too. But if you ignore it, or worse, deny it, then you’re condoning the violence, and it’s going to just continue on.

Now, the other side of this coin is certainly children who will grow up in homes where they are bullied, whether that is overt or less noticeable, if you want to call it that. So what what would you have to say about that for parents who may not realize that they are in some way, exerting power, you know, more than the norm of a parent and what a parent should on their children.

I don’t think that parents who abuse their power consistently, who bully their children are is aware of the harm that they’re enacting on the harm that they’re causing. I also think that they’re, they justify their egregious acts to make them more palatable. We call this morally disengaged. So I actually think that they use a variety cognitive mechanisms to make their negative behavior feel okay for them. I need them to feel the discomfort and live in the discomfort so that they don’t do it so that they work on their own self regulate self regulation. But this is a really big ask. And a lot of times it actually requires the help of others, to help them manage their their behavior and their mood.

In addition to better supervision, is there anything else that you would suggest that parents primarily, as well, as teachers secondarily need to be doing more of to prevent, you know, negative mental health consequences in school and at home, as well as violence prevention among youth?

I’d say like, the big thing is to not let it happen in front of you. Because if you do that, and you’re silent about it, then you’re complicit. And it’s very frustrating. So I’ll give you one example. I had a mother call me the other day where a boy attacked her daughter in high school and embarrassed her. So yelled at her called her names in front of everybody. And the teacher then she responded back and she swore at the boy told them to eff off and the teacher responded to her retaliation, and said, Watch your language. And so what’s the lesson there? Right, like, so when the parent addressed it with the teacher, the teacher said, I thought they were just having a disagreement, and they were going to handle it. But it wasn’t handled, right. Like we can’t allow this to ever happen. You’re allowed to have disagreements, but you’re not allowed to have a disagreement where you’re violating my rights, where you humiliated me where you’re embarrassing me, that sort of thing. So there’s a disagreement, and then there’s the abuse of power. And we let it slide way too often we let it slide in our families. We let it slide in front of us as teachers and the like. I often see siblings bullying each other and the parents just put up their hands and say, you know how kids are Are with their siblings. And it’s like, no, you can do something about this, you can say that this isn’t acceptable, that we don’t pick on others that you know that we regulate our emotions and the like. So I would like to see better monitoring, and better interventions and more timely interventions. And I’ll just add to this Leann, we did a study where we asked educators, it was a really big study involved over 1700 educators. And we said, like, why would you intervene? Like, what are the cues that you would use to intervene on behalf of somebody who’s being bullied? And they said, distress is the number of reasons that they would intervene. And yet kids hide their distress, because it’s so embarrassing. So I think that we should just err on the side of, we don’t want to see any type of teasing like that, or any negative interaction, because the cue you’re looking for as an adult is the cue that’s going to be suppressed in kids.

That’s, that’s a really interesting point. Let me ask you this. Dr. Vaillancourt, you are the mother of a young adult and a teenager? How did you go about as somebody who you know, is on the forefront of this, as a scientist, how did you go about handling these conversations and topics in your own home?

We had them often all the time. And I would always try and get my daughters to be morally engaged. You know. So I remember when they were young, we invited this one child to my daughter’s birthday party when she was five, and he had special needs. And the mother cried and said, It was the first time her son had been invited to a birthday party. But it wasn’t he wasn’t the first person on my daughter’s list. I mean, she’s a typically developing daughter, right, like Kid where, you know, she’s really interested in certain kids and not others. But I made it clear to her that, you know, inclusion means everybody’s included. So things like that. And we haven’t always been perfect. And I haven’t always been perfect. I’m really conscientious about having them think about the perspective of the other. So if they would tell me about how somebody hurt them, I would ask them about how are they going to tell this story to their mother, just to make sure that they didn’t play a role in it too, because a lot of times they come home with a story about how they were the victim, but don’t really tell you outright what role they may have played in the interaction. So little things like that we do a lot. And we did a lot, and we still do it. So we still talk about, we often talk about the perspective of others.
We’re talking about empathy, in large part, certainly, when you describe it that way. Let me ask you, is there anything else or a takeaway that you would like for parents to really focus on with respect to school based mental health and violence prevention, potentially, in their children,
I think I just want them to realize that if your child is engaging in negative behavior, that it doesn’t mean you did anything wrong as a parent. And if you become defensive, I don’t think you’re going to be in the right position to curtail that negative behavior. So I think we should be all open minded, and appreciate that our kids are going to make mistakes. And it is our job as parents to help guide them through these mistakes. But if we’re closed minded, and we don’t want to accept that that’s the case, then I think we’re going to be in a difficult position to guide them in the right direction. And I’ll give you one example. So the same daughter who had divided this child to her birthday when she was five, in grade one, she had a list of the kids she wanted to invite to her birthday party. So this list began in September. Her birthday is in July. So it’s kind of ridiculous. But you know, right away, she’s talking about who’s going to come. And I finally saw this list, you know, but it had been in her backpack, and she’d been revising it for weeks. And so your name might be on the list, Leanne, and if you did, if you did her wrong, then she would erase it and put you on the B list. And maybe you might get invited. And like how horrifying, right? So I’m this bullying expert, and I tried to reduce violence in school, and my daughter has an A list and a B list for her birthday party that is going to happen, you know, seven months, almost eight months later. So, um, you know, of course, I was a little embarrassed and I, you know, I thought she would not do this and yet she did. But then I also took a step back and said, she’s, you know, she’s in grade one she’s learning. She’s learning about pure relationships. She’s learning about power. And here in this instance, she abused her power. And so because I could be open minded about it, we could address the list.

That’s a great story and thank you for sharing it. Dr Tracy Vaillancourt, Canada Research Chair in school based mental health and violence prevention we really appreciate your perspective today.

Thanks for having me.

Dr. Vaillancourt is also a Professor in the Faculty of Education, Counselling Psychology and the School of Psychology at the University of Ottawa, and a mother of two.
Her research looks at the association between bullying and mental health using a social neuroscience lens.”Canada stinks when it comes to bullying rates,” adds Dr. Vaillancourt from her home in Ottawa. “We are one of the highest of economically advanced countries, our rates are right at the top. They’ve always been so when we’ve been we’ve been comparing these with national level statistics and statistics that compare to other countries, population- based studies that are very well done, and we consistently do poorly on this indicator,” she says.

“We’ve always had really high rates of bullying, about 30% of our youth are bullied and about 10% are bullied every single day,” she continues. “And that’s way too high, especially given how hard this is for children in terms of managing this.”

A recent spate of violent behaviour in schools both in Canada and the United States — involving teenaged perpetrators, guns, injuries or multiple deaths — has once again sharpened the focus on this topic.

According to Dr. Vaillancourt, evidence-based research suggests there are approaches to combat bullying that have been shown to work.

“If we want to reduce these rates, I think that we need to have more adults watching kids,” she says. “It concerns me that we could get such a high reduction in bullying by simply, in my opinion, increasing supervision. So that’s the good news, that we saw this reduction. But the bad news is that I’ve been advocating for this for the better part of 20 years. And so it’s really frustrating that everybody’s showing this reduction, we have a good idea of what’s linked to this reduction, and yet, people don’t really listen to us,” she says.

During her interview with Where Parents Talk, Dr. Tracy Vaillancourt also discusses:

  • the relationship between youth aggression and youth mental health
  • trends in youth aggression across Canada
  • approaches to curb bullying in school settings
  • short and long-term impacts of bullying
  • bullying intervention strategies

Related links:


University of Ottawa







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