When social cruelty in adolescence isn't stopped

Damage of teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, ganging up at school.

Posted May 23, 2011

Travelling around giving talks about social cruelty during adolescence (student teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up to secure social place), I sometimes have parents come up and confide how no appeal they have made has caused the school to shut the mean behavior down. Why is that?

Perhaps because school officials minimize what's going on. They may believe "kids will be kids," it's not that bad, or it will pass. They may think parents of the target student are oversensitive, overprotective, or exaggerating. They may not want to make possible trouble by stirring up parents of the social aggressors. They may be inclined to "blame the victim" for inviting the mean treatment by acting so socially vulnerable (quiet, timid, shy) or appearing so different from the "manly" or "womanly" or otherwise accepted social norm.

When this kind of official discounting occurs, school officials need to be reminded of the serious harm that lasting social cruelty can do.

Social cruelty is a HUMAN RIGHTS ISSUE: students should have the right to feel socially safe at school.

Social cruelty is an ACADEMIC PEFORMANCE ISSUE: under threat of harm, fear for social safety undercuts academic focus and reduces school achievement.

Social cruelty is a MENTAL HEALTH ISSUE: mistreatment not only causes hard feelings toward the aggressors but also painful feelings of helplessness and unworthiness in oneself.

Social cruelty is a FORMATIVE ISSUE: getting used to giving or receiving social cruelty growing up can produce adults who more readily commit abuse or may accept or expect abuse in their relationships.

Social cruelty is a SOCIETAL ISSUE: any act of social cruelty toward one not only contributes to an unsafe community for all, it encourages the intolerance and mistreatment of human differences.

Social cruelty in the schools only receives public attention in response to some extremely destructive incident of aggression toward the target child, by the target in retaliation toward the aggressors, or by the target toward him or her self to end the misery.

At this point there is public outrage for as long as the story is newsworthy, and then the incident is forgotten. Only the tip of the iceberg of social cruelty merits public concern, and then not for very long. The ninety plus percent of social cruelty that occurs every school day, less dramatic but still very harmful, is ignored and let go.

How does social cruelty harm developing adolescents? Each of the five tactics of social cruelty plays on a different adolescent fear.

TEASING: to humiliate with insults. Teasing plays on the fear of being inferior: "There is something wrong with me."

EXCLUSION: to shun with rejection. Exclusion plays on the fear of isolation: "I have no friends."

BULLYING: to intimidate with threatened or actual harm. Bullying plays on the fear of weakness: "I won't be able to stand up for myself."

RUMORING: to slander with confidential truths or lies. Rumoring plays on the fear of defamation: "I can't control my reputation."

GANGING UP: to pit the group against the individual. Ganging up plays on the fear of persecution: "They're all against me."

For targets of unrelenting social cruelty, the most lasting formative effect of significant social cruelty is fear for safety, fear that is coupled with anger at mistreatment not just at the aggressors, but at those adults who run the system who choose to look the other way.

As parents, how do you tell when your child is the target of unrelenting social cruelty when he or she will not directly tell you (from needing to appear independent and in charge or from fear of telling on peers)? Six signs to look for are:

1) Observable drop in self-esteem by talking badly about themselves: "There's something wrong with me, I hate how I am!" This can be a sign of taking social cruelty personally, believing mean treatment is deserved.

2) Unexplained anxiety about attending school, harder to get ready, or making up excuses not to go: "I feel sick today." But nothing physically the matter can be found.

3) Before and after school observable changes in normal mood -- acting more sad, anxious, socially withdrawn, less communicative, angry.

4) Response to electronic communication (text messages, Internet postings) is secretive and dispirited.

5) Evidence of being physically harased or hurt, unexplained bruises on body, torn clothes, possessions damaged or missing ("lost.")

6) Drop in grades as fears for social safety causes a loss of academic focus. 

So what can parents do when social cruelty toward their child is continually ignored by the powers that be at school? Well, they might want to organize. They might want to form a watchdog group of parents in their community that that monitors the social safety of all students. They might want to form a local Safe School Committee.

This group would be created:

To recognize the ongoing problem of social cruelty,

To inform parents about the nature and tactics of social cruelty,

To coach parents in coaching their children in coping with social cruelty,

To advocate for parents to get social mistreatment of their child at school to stop.

To encourage schools to take ongoing measures to ensure the social safety of all students.

Now the message to the school is: "We have formed a safe school committee in this community because we believe you have a responsibility that is not only academic, but social as well. When you ignore the safety needs of one child, you ignore the safety needs of all. You are no longer dealing with just one unhappy parent. You are dealing with an organized group of parents who are committed to holding the schools accountable for providing a safe school experience for all the children in your care."

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Also my book about social cruelty, "Why Good Kids Act Cruel." Informaton at: www.carlpickhardt.com

Next week's entry: Communicating clearly with your adolescent.