Social Cruelty in Middle School

How mid adolescent insecurity can cause social meanness, and what to do.

Posted Nov 26, 2018

Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph.D.

I was recently reminded how certain social problems in adolescence seem to never go entirely away. 

“In elementary school, the children generally acted nice with each other, teachers there to see they did. What is it about middle school? Now the same kids treat each other much worse!”

So, consider Social Cruelty again – that mistreatment that arises when changing young teenagers use some combination of teasing, exclusion, rumoring, bullying, and ganging up with each other, mostly at middle school, to vie for social standing and dominance during a developmentally complicated time. 

Why complicated? The answer is because most everyone is: 

  • Differentiating from childhood and expressing individuality;·     
  • Separating from childhood and detaching from parents; 
  • Approaching or undergoing puberty;
  • Trying to belong to a family of friends. 

At this sensitive age, there is a huge amount of personal change to manage, providing multiple grounds for young people to feel insecure. It is this insecurity, I believe, which drives much of the social mistreatment that occurs.

Does every middle school student receive acts of social cruelty? No, but they all see it and know it could happen to them.  Is it only ‘bad’ kids acting mean? No, that’s why I titled my book about this subject, “Why Good Kids Act Cruel.” 

Unless schools routinely take ongoing measures to promote and patrol a code of healthy conduct with each other, a certain amount of social cruelty will likely occur at this vulnerable age. The more rampant the occurrence, the more alert to danger students will be, and the less energy for academic engagement they may have. Social cruelty can be the enemy of school achievement when focusing on personal safety feels more important than attending to academic performance. 

In five common acts of social cruelty that endanger social safety which I describe, I include both short-term injury and possible long-term shaping damage that I believe each can cause.

TEASING humiliates with insults. Teasing immediately plays on the fear of being inferior: “There is something wrong with me!” In the long term, teasing can teach social labeling and prejudice – stereotyping and name-calling. "He's a worthless one of them!"

EXCLUSION shuns with rejection. Exclusion immediately plays on the fear of isolation: “I have no friends!” In the long term, exclusion can teach social bias and discrimination – denying membership and opportunity. "We don't want their kind!"

BULLYING intimidates with promised or actual injury. Bullying immediately plays on the fear of weakness: “I won’t be able to stand up for myself!” In the long term, bullying can teach intimidation and strong-arming -- harassment and coercion.  "They're made to be pushed around!"

RUMORING vilifies with lies. Rumoring immediately plays on the fear of being smeared: “I can’t control my reputation!” In the long term, rumoring can teach smearing and libeling – defamation and slander. "Everything bad you hear about them is true!"

GANGING-UP pits the group against the individual. Ganging-up immediately plays on the fear of persecution: “Everyone is against me!” In the long term, ganging-up can teach domination and subjugation – tyranny and oppression.  "We can join together to keep them down!"

The lasting power of social cruelty can be in the adjustment of the receiver and in the shaping influence it can have on the perpetrator. For example, the bullied person can learn to take mistreatment, while the bully can learn to act coercively. Both parties can end up paying a lasting price.  

How an adolescent is mistreated by peers at this impressionable age can affect how the young person comes to view and treat themselves. “How others see me is how I am. I’m treated badly because so much is wrong with me!”

There are two tendencies that can encourage not communicating to parents about what is going on. The teenager may shut up to conceal self-blame: “It’s my fault for how I’m treated.” The teenage may shut up to obey the code of the schoolyard: “Don’t tattle on peers.” Parents need to contradict both. “There is no shame in being mistreated, and it takes courage telling us to get the support you are entitled to. We want to listen to your hurt, and help you deal with a hard situation.”

In addition to providing emotional support, parents can also provide coaching. So after giving an empathetic listen, some responses to social cruelty that parents might consider are: 

·     “Don’t take what’s happening personally.” Help the young person understand that this painful treatment is not about anything the matter with her or him; it is about other people wanting to act mean.

·     “Be a target, not a victim.”  Act like passive victim and one can feel helpless, with nothing one can do; but act like an active target, one can strategize and try different choices for what may helpfully be done. 

·     “Try violating their prediction.” Ask the young person what response she or he believes the perpetrators are looking for; then consider ways of violating that anticipation. “Give them what they don’t expect.”

To reduce incidents of social cruelty, middle schools can take instructional initiative for teaching young people about treatment of each other and the difference between having an unsafe or a safe school experience. 

In class at the outset of each semester, a teacher might lead a student discussion about the five common social cruelty behaviors – how they work and how they feel when one receives them, identifying harm they can do. Then she or he can declare behaviors that are not allowed in this classroom. 

NO TEASING: Don’t use names or labels that hurt people’s feelings.

No EXCLUSION: Don’t socially isolate or deliberately keep anyone out.

No BULLYING: Don’t threaten or push anyone around to get your way.

No RUMORING: Don’t create or pass on mean gossip meant to hurt.

No GANGING UP: Don’t join in with others to pick on anyone.  

Finally, the teacher can contrast Socially Cruel treatment with Socially Kind treatment by reiterating the Golden Rule (“Treat others as you want them to treat you”) and then have students specify a code of positive social behaviors they would like to follow with each other. 

Young adolescents are an impressionable lot, so why not impress upon them the importance of treating each other well? 

Just as mistreatment from Social Cruelty can interfere with a student’s capacity to focus on academics, it also violates that student’s right to a safe education. If we believe in safe family homes for our children, why wouldn’t we believe in safe “second homes” for children – in the schools where so much of their lifetimes are spent growing up?

To promote and implement this value, particularly in middle school, the PTA might want to yearly make safe schooling a priority since their children’s welfare is always at stake and the problem will never subside without constant school attention and supervision. 

Next week’s entry: When Your Older Adolescent Calls in Crisis from College