DBT Peer Connections

Building Hope, Community and Skillful Means

Could DBT skills training prevent bullying?



Bullying is a significant problem the world over that only continues to grow. With the threat of harassment, physical and sexual assault affecting youth at a critical stage of human development that eventually shapes the pattern of behaviors people will show as adults, it is imperative that researchers press for greater understanding of the causes and effects of bullying to construct means to reduce it. The preceding discussion offers an outline for preventing future victimization. 

Defining, Treating, and Preventing Bullying

With the increasing population, school systems that have high student to teacher ratios, and cultural traditions that generally place responsibility for preventing victimization upon parents or those victimized, if there is any addressing of prevention at all, it becomes apparent that the problem of bullying is one that society cannot afford to ignore any further. The problem is widespread, pervasive, and the methods employed by perpetrators of bullying are equally diverse. Bullying is apparently an important risk factor to developing a number behavioral problems and mental disorders as an adult, and, currently, preventative strategies for bullying are largely non-existent.


The aim of this analysis is to define bullying with specificity toward behavior, persons involved, causes, effects and measures of prevention. In examining the current facts related to issues of bullying, a clearer description of the problem hopes to emerge and likewise inspire more dynamic, insightful solutions.


Implementing a requisite skills training class for sixth graders that uses the four learning modules taught in dialectical behavior therapy skills training groups including core mindfulness skills, interpersonal effectiveness skills, emotion regulation skills, and distress tolerance skills (Linehan, 2014) may be a useful means to prevent bullying. Furthermore, skills training may concurrently address other problematic behaviors that tend to surface in adolescence and/or are a risk to increasing problematic behaviors that may lead to mental disorders and/or other problems in adulthood.


Bullying shall be defined, for the purposes of this paper as, “aggressive behavior that is intentional, is repetitive in nature, and involves an imbalance of power between the aggressor and his or her target” (Haltigan & Vaillancourt, 2014). In the process of bullying it appears there are three types. There are those who perpetrate bullying, those victimized by bullying, and those who engaging in bullying both as a perpetrator and a victim depending on the circumstance. The theoretical framework for the proceeding treatment proposal emphasizes a developmental psychopathology and cognitive-behavioral perspective, respectively. In addition, there is special consideration given to the social and cultural contexts that influence bullying.


Haltigan & Vaillancourt’s 2014 study finds that bullying is strongest between the ages of 13-17. This means that targets for the purposes of prevention and treatment may likewise be sensitive to the period and the nature of this developmental stage commonly termed adolescence. Additionally, as children get older they tend to bully the same targets. Specifically, in the early stages of group formation (i.e., at the beginning of middle school), bullies are more likely to direct negative and aggressive behavior toward a variety of targets. As they learn the reactions of their victims, the field of victims then becomes increasingly restricted.

This statement offers a compelling aspect of the facts related to developmental trajectories for bullying in the context of social learning. Since the evidence shows that victim responses are critical in the development, perpetuation and maintenance of bullying behaviors, it is logical to assume that intervening within the social and time framework of perpetration would necessarily augment the learning process. In this case, the suggestion is to teach adolescent youth a variety of skills gleaned from dialectical behavior therapy to fit within a mutually ideal time frame of adolescent academic and physical development. The aim is to enhance the developmental process in favor of effective interpersonal relations and emotional wellness. Those that would bully or be victims of bullying will learn more effective means to cope with the process of forming social bonds in the context of group membership, thereby preventing  bullying.

Contemporary Culture & Bullying Concepts

To date, there are no formal requirements at the school level to teach students how to interact with each other effectively as members of society. Most consider teaching children to behave socially the parents responsibility. As such, it is easy to see why problematic interpersonal patterns of behavior may occur over generations through social, as well as, biological paradigms and, furthermore, why it is so difficult to define and enforce codes of conduct at the individual and case level. What is more, parents often teach their children how to behave appropriately in social situations from a perspective of personal values, morality, and socioeconomic status. This makes teaching problem-solving much more difficult because generating behavioral solutions depends upon a solution’s relation to a system of values more than a solution’s relation to a desired outcome.

For example, a parent may teach a child to turn the other cheek in the event that a peer intentionally acts to inflict physical harm because the parent values non-violence. A value of non-violence may mutually align with the behavioral goal of preventing or stopping physical harm from occurring. However, a value-based perspective does not offer a framework for understanding the causes and effects that lead to a problem behavior or solution.

Therefore, the adolescent seeking to prevent current or future harm from happening has no means to frame his or her responses without adopting a totalitarian stance. This means that solutions are more likely grounded in judgments, lacking flexibility, and/or alternative explanations. As an example, a parent might suggest to a child to remain silent or not to press requests because social appropriateness may be more valued than the goal of the child getting what he or she wants. Therefore, a child may never learn to assert herself because effectively getting her needs and wants met is contingent upon a behavior’s apparent moral rightness or wrongness.

In DBT, the rationale behind interpersonal effectiveness skills progresses from a behavioral perspective. Getting what one wants breaks down into detailed steps of action that are consistent and applicable across interpersonal situations. Furthermore, by bringing these skills into the classroom, adolescents can apply what they learn in a controlled, safe environment.

DBT Skills Training: A Bullying Prevention Model

Dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) skills developed initially to treat suicidal behavior, particularly in individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) (Linehan, 1993). However, mounting research is showing DBT skills training to be an effective transdiagnostic treatment (Neacsiu, et al, 2014). With an emphasis on dialectical thinking, a primary difference between DBT skills training models and other prevention models for problem behaviors is its emphasis on viewing problems from a non-judgmental stance and adopting a behavioral perspective over a trait-based perspective in describing patterns of problematic actions like bullying. Furthermore, “a dialectical or transactional model assumes that individual functioning and environmental conditions are mutually and continuously interactive, reciprocal, and interdependent. Within social learning theory, this is the principle of ‘reciprocal determinism’” (Linehan, 1993 p. 39). This means that the causes of dysfunctional behavior are not necessarily the fault of any one person or circumstance but rather a result of persons and their environment mutually affecting each other over time. From the perspective of reciprocal determinism, the progression toward a dysfunctional or functional pattern of behavior depends on the nature of the behavior, the environment, and the transacting response from all sides involved. To place this concept in the context of bullying, here is an example of progression from dysfunction to a pattern of bullying.

Let us say that an individual bullies, specifically, threatens bodily harm toward another peer. The threatened peer, wanting to deter the threat of violence responds by offering the perpetrator his or her lunch money in lieu of being the target of violence. While for all intents and purposes, the act of paying the perpetrator money solves the problem in the short-term; in the long-term, the likelihood of the perpetrator engaging in threats again increases and may further escalate into real bodily harm in the process of fulfilling conditioned expectations. Therefore, the more beneficial social consequences for problematic behaviors like bullying the more likely the behavior is to increase. On the other hand, the more undesired social consequences there are in place, the less likely problematic behaviors like bullying are to increase.

Initiating DBT skills training at a target age of 12-13 and teaching the four skill sets from within the non-judgmental framework of academic learning provides a context for applying and, therefore, integrating acquired knowledge for the purposes of preventing bullying. What this means is that first, youth may findbuild a common language for describing and understanding behavior, emotions, and interpersonal relationships. Second, because the learning facilitates in a group setting, adults have more control over directing the way adolescents interpret and respond to their own and others bullying behaviors so that they learn to interact more effectively in interpersonal situations. This strengthens behavioral reinforcement.

The DBT skill sets may apply preventively as follows. Mindfulness skills will teach adolescents how to build non-judgmental awareness to the present through a variety of strategies. Awareness, in the context of bullying, helps to identify the source of a problem as it happens one-mindfully and non-judgmentally through observing, describing, and participating. Interpersonal effectiveness skills shall teach youth how to go about getting what they want in an effective way that works toward building healthy mutually beneficial relationships. Emotion regulation skills shall teach youth how to identify, label, and emotion functions, as well as, how to accept, tolerate, and solve difficult emotions. This skill set may be particularly helpful in teaching victims of bullying how to cope with painful emotions caused by bullying and teaching those who bully how to manage urges caused by intense emotions like the urge to attack when angry. Therefore, emotion regulation skills may serve to teach the bullying person more effective means to respond to problematic and/or unwanted emotions.

Teaching adolescents interpersonal effectiveness skills provides youth means to assert themselves, to communicate needs, wants, and how to handle relational conflict. It is important to note, however, that because interpersonal behavior occurs within the broader context of cultural norms, the interpersonal effectiveness skills, according to DBT may need further consideration for those cultures whose norms may differ considerably from those of Western conception.


Bullying is a problem dominating school concerns the world over. It appears most prevalent between the ages of 13-17. While there is much focus on the causes and effects of bullying, comprehensive prevention strategies remain elusive. This study proposes incorporation of a DBT skills training to school curriculums to prevent bullying, mental disorders, and other problematic behaviors developed in adolescence. A process of in vivo group exposure to peer dynamics takes place in the course of skills training that creates a social learning environment that is more malleable than that of the one where parents instruct their children on how to respond to problems outside of the social environment that the problem occurs.

Emotion regulation and distress tolerance skills are further important factors in fostering resiliency in that they teach people how to accept, tolerate, and/or change problematic responses to emotions that, if left unaddressed in adolescence, may grow from a problematic response into dysfunctional patterns of behavior or even into mental disorders (Haltigan & Vaillancourt, 2014). Developing a year-long curriculum that teaches sixth graders core mindfulness, interpersonal effectiveness, emotion regulation, and distress tolerance skills provides a context to apply learning in a safe group environment. Therefore, a DBT skill training class for adolescents appears an effective means to prevention The strategy is reasonable in logic, scientific principles, and would seem a cost efficient, widely applicable solution to the continuously growing problem of bullying.


Haltigan, J. D., & Vaillancourt, T. (2014, November). Joint trajectories of bullying and peer victimization across elementary and middle school and associations with symptoms of psychopathology. Developmental Psychology, 50(11), 2426-2436. doi:10.1037/a0038030

Linehan, M. M. (1993). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of borderline personality disorder. New York: Guilford Press. 

Linehan, M. M. (2014). DBT skills training manual second edition. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Neacsiu, A. D., Eberle, J. W., Kramer, R., Taylor Wiesmann, T., & Linehan, M. M. (2014). Dialectical behavior therapy skills for transdiagnostic emotion dysregulation: A pilot randomized controlled trial. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 59, 40-51. doi:10.1016/j.brat.2014.05.005


Author: Rachel Gill

I am a survivor on mission to synthesize balance from division, to find dialectical healing, learn to love what I am feeling, live in the now, show my peers how.

5 thoughts on “Could DBT skills training prevent bullying?

  1. Happy Tuesday Rachel,

    This is a great topic. Something I am really thinking about and what steps can be taken to implement a program in public schools. I would like to speak to you one on one regarding this topic.

    I am currently attending an Advocacy educational course, followed by a peer recovery support specialist. I would love to be able to introduce or utilize teaching the skills to children. Knowing your level of knowledge and skill, I would like to discuss more in detail, steps I can or should take to start such a process in my community.

    Thank you, Tracey Knight 203-770-2538 Sigkroft@ATT.net

    Sent from my MOTOROLA ATRIX™ HD on AT&T

    DBT Peer Connections wrote:

    > a:hover { color: red; } a { text-decoration: none; color: #0088cc; } a.primaryactionlink:link, a.primaryactionlink:visited { background-color: #2585B2; color: #fff; } a.primaryactionlink:hover, a.primaryactionlink:active { background-color: #11729E !important; color: #fff !important; } /* @media only screen and (max-device-width: 480px) { .post { min-width: 700px !important; } } */ WordPress.com Rachel Gill aka Pinki Tuscaderro posted: “It seems to me that bullying is unkind at best and malicious at worst and depending upon the person on the receiving end, the result could be as mild as irritation or as serious as suicide with infinite possibilities in between. Given the many taxes upon “


  2. Hi Rachel,
    I replied in more detail to the email I received for this topic. Please read and reply to me at your earliest convenience.
    Thank you.


  3. I have always felt that this, done right, would result in much lower rates of mental illness & crime & a much more happy, productive, & compassionate society. It’s just a matter of getting the board of ed. on board :’-/


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