This document is the heart of The Joseph Project. A Resource for Parents, Teachers and Youth Workers the Joseph Project's goal is as follows:
THE JOSEPH PROJECT - Bullying and Youth Suicide In the Modern Age
When I was growing up there were bullies also. They were the tougher kids in town, maybe from a broken family situation, maybe they were abused at one point, or maybe they were the youngest of six boys who learned to be tough and yearned to have someone smaller than them to pick on. Sometimes they were physically bigger, stronger or tougher kids who otherwise lacked self-confidence and saw bullying as a way to assert their dominance. At its roots, bullying comes from a very simple need for children to feel power and control, which manifests itself in asserting control physically or mentally over someone else, thereby making the child feel than he or she has comparative control and/or power. Bullying is not restricted to children but children were traditionally more subject to it for several reasons:
1) Children have less developed self control than adults do. As we grow up, and presuming that we do so in an environment which is not severely counterproductive (ie - highly abusive home, abandoned and living in an orphanage, etc), we develop the ability to control both our actions and our words. While we still do break through our boundaries from time to time, we generally conduct ourselves in a more self-controlled manner than children, giving thought and pause before acting or speaking.
2) Lack of societal consequences such as concern about lawsuits, losing their jobs or being dragged into courts by ex-spouses.
3) Perceivedly smaller actual consequences. A simple schoolyard fight results in a bloody nose not a gunshot wound or a stabbing. Name calling results in someone's feelings getting hurt and some crying perhaps rather than a six year old feud.
Unfortunately, the bullying of old has given way to a new manifestation of pretty much the same old set of feelings, emotions and lack of self-restraint. However unlike the bullying of old, where black eyes and hurt feelings which a good visit to Dairy Queen could usually fix, the bullying of today is far more serious, insidious, irretrievable and yes, deadly. A few cases in point:
September 1998 Thirteen year old Jared High was assulted in a school gym by a known school bully. Already suffering from depression from persistent bullying at school, Jared became more severely depressed after being attacked and eventually took his own life. Read about Jared and his Mom's quest to help other teens who suffer from depression here.
October 2003 Ryan Halligan from Essex Juction, VT takes his own life over distress caused by online conversations. See the youtube video essay here featuring Ryan's father telling the story of what happened to Ryan. (video no longer available)
October 2006: In Dardenne, Missouri, thirteen year old Megan Taylor Meier hung herself after being repeatedly cyberbullied through Myspace.*
March 2009: In Springfield, Massachusetts Carl Walker-Hoover, an eleven year old boy who was repeatedly taunted for being gay, hangs himself with a belt.
March 2010: In South Hadley, Massachusetts, Phoebe Prince, a 15 year old school girl hung herself after being repeatedly taunted and verbally abused and harassed by students in school. Several students have been criminally charged in this pending case.
April 2010: 13 year old John Carmichael of Josuha, TX hung himself in the family barn after being repeatedly bullied for being 'little'
January 2010: In Colony, TX, nine year old Montana Lance hangs himself in the school bathroom. Children from the school said that he was continuously picked on.
April 2010: A Middle School Principal urges parents to "Get Children Off Facebook", citing not the dangers of online predation but instead the dangers of online bullying.
April 2010: HS Sophomore Ashley Rodgers from Kenersville, NC hangs herself after being harassed by text messaging from two classmates.
September 2010 - Nineteen year old Tyler Clementi, an accomplished violinist who happened to be gay is video taped by his room mate involved in a sexual encounter which was subsequently broadcast online. Tyler jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge. Clementi's room mate and accomplice may be charged with invasion of privacy.
October 2010 - Asher Brown, a straight-A 13 year old student from Cypress, Texas shot himself in the head with his step fathers gun after coming out as gay. Asher was bullied relentlessly over his sexuality. Asher's mom insisted that she had tried for 18 months to get some intervention from the school board but to no avail.
September 2011 - Fourteen year old Jamey Rodemeyer takes his own life in spite of repeated calls for help on social networking sites on struggles with his sexuality.
This is a small list of several recent high profile stories. Yet, it hardly scratches the surface of what modern day bullying has become and the long term damage that it is doing to a generation of children. Not all children are thankfully going to hang themselves, but all children are at risk to the affects that modern day bullying may bring and if we do nothing more than 'outlaw' the offense in certain states, we will once again try to solve a problem by legislating a symptomatic action, rather than understanding a root cause and helping to address it.
So, lets begin again by reviewing the root source of bullying.
All people, need to feel competent, loved and validated. This happens in a myriad of ways far too lengthily to begin covering here. We all know that children need to be held when they are babies, we know that kids need to be commended and encouraged, just as much as they are reprimanded and corrected (and yes, they need that too). We all want someone to love us, want to feel good at what we do and want to feel like we have some value in the world. There are lots of healthy ways that we seek out these emotional needs and of course lots of ways that others seek them out in unhealthy ways (as in the case of the married individual who searches for love by having an affair with a series of lovers). Written into these basic needs are needs for control and needs for power. While men are associated with these needs more than women, both genders need them. They are just perceived in different ways to a degree. For example, a woman may find control in having a husband who is confident and successful, allowing her to feel the comfort to attend to needs such as the home and the family (sorry if this is a sexist example, but its just an example and many women are quite happy with this traditional arrangement). In a more contemporary example, many women find power by achieving high degrees and becoming just as successful as their male counterparts in the working world. Regardless of how we seek out power and control, we all need it to some degree and as outlined earlier, school children who seek power and control in unhealthy ways, often do so by seeking power and control over their peers by bullying.
In the seventies, we began sending a very clear message to children: Keep your hands to yourself. Children who used to duke out every problem after school in the sand pits, were bitterly threatened against doing this partially as a result of the peace rebellions taking place against war (in Vietnam to be specific). Charges of assault against a child were absolutely laughable in earlier decades, as it was assumed that children would beat each other up from time to time. As we continued to civilize children though and to hold a hard line against physical confrontation, we may have forced children in new directions with the same underlying emotions that generate bullying.
And then, in walked technology.
My first encounter with the use of technology as a tool for bullying was the all popular crank call. In the days where caller ID didn't exist and it took a subpoena and 20 minutes of "keeping him on the line" to trace a call, crank calling was a wonderfully entertaining activity for us middle school boys to have fun with a kid in the classroom who we didn't like or to find a way to just hear one of the little girls in our class giggle at the "is your refrigerator running" jokes that pervaded the crank calls of those days. Initially, crank calls were just funny, not mean, and while often directed towards some unwitting classmate who we might not have liked the best, it was rarely geared towards being hurtful.
The next crossroad where technology and bullying briefly met, was in media. Newspaper reporters for generations before had made a living breaking news stories which nobody else had. It was incumbent upon reporters to uphold the trust of the public by being honest and reporting information accurately and without bias, but it was also necessary for them to sometimes be aggressive like detectives, digging deeper into issues like government corruption until the real truth emerged for them to report. In the 1920s a reporter uncovered a botched investigation by the Wineville California police department, where the local police tried to show that they recovered a missing boy by presenting a runaway to his grieving mother. While the mother fought back her natural intuition which told her that the replacement child was not her real son, the Wineville police posed for newspaper photos lauding them for their fine work. Meanwhile, the real missing child was being held by a child killer who, unpursued by police, was massacring young children on an isolated ranch in the desert. It was the press who finally helped the mother uncover the real story, but this required aggressive persistence by a reporter who had to fight city hall for the real story. As media has evolved, the advent of aggressive reporters has become prolific. Each one is trying to outdo the one before him or her, pushing everyone from government officials to bank executive to even judges themselves to answer to their public.
Television evolved further however when reality TV began taking hold. Now it was suddenly a form of entertainment to confront or embarrass someone. From Temptation Island, where scantily clad women try to draw men away from their fiancees, to American Idol where brutally honest judges tell people to their face that their dreams of being a singer are a complete joke. There is so much reality television on the airwaves today that the lines between entertainment, news, reporting and documentaries has been blurred.
Also concurrent with the advent of reality television is of course the ubiquitousness of both the internet and digital imaging. Virtually every handheld communication device contains a camera. Our phones, our computers, our iPODS all have cameras and they all upload images to the internet. Additionally, social networking has made the posting and sharing of these images a part of every day life. Some may remember a day when you went to visit a friend and you were unexpectedly forced to sit and watch six carousels of slides from their family vacation to Florida or Hawaii. All of this has been replaced by a virtually instant uploading of what is happening that very second. I couldn't believe it in fact, when the news came that one of my cousins had just given birth again and 4 hours later I still hadn't been bombarded with photos.
If we look at the convergence of technology and of culture, on the ever present tendency that children will have to bully each other, you see a ripe opportunity for a new type of bullying to emerge which pits the instantaneous, prolific, creative and effective communications tool that is the internet against a culture that asks for aggressive pursuit of information and the reality that everyone's "profile" must be public. Couple that with the ability to be completely anonymous (at least in our perception) on the internet, and the opportunity for going overboard is far greater than if we were just in hand to hand combat on the school yard. Furthermore, the power of online bullying and the fragility of a child's reputation in the eyes of her peers, makes traditional bullying more powerful. Children may be bullied at school as before, but children realize now that it can become a mob mentality, instead of viewing it as an isolated action by a child who is on the fringe. Children traditionally did not gang up against other children unless they had a common thread. In other words, a group of tough boys might have ganged up on a "weaker" boy, but it was not common for children who had an unrelated reason for joining in to do so. Part of this comes from the opportunity presented for power, when children can join in on bullying that was started by someone else. The targets also realize that bullying at school may end up online. This is a big fear for children today and parents need to realize it. Children know how to find things on the internet, so it is often only a matter of time before the opinion that they have heard at school, ends up on someone's MySpace page. Even after more than 20 years of the internet being part of our daily lives, we still have a very difficult time realize that things that we see on television and read on the internet are not necessarily true. Something about seeing something imprinted through the media makes the sting of bullying much harder to forget or overlook.
But one more ingredient to this already dangerous mixture has added an insidious danger and it is that ingredient that I believe has really put the culture that our children are living in over the edge.
That ingredient is stress and the resulting frustration from stress.
Frustration in children has emerged from several fronts. The first one comes from the same frustration that their parents are feeling. In any extended time of war, people will begin to get frustrated. Parents are away from their families, people are dying, money is being spent somewhere else and bad news pervades the airwaves. Nobody seems to agree with the politicians any more. Nobody seems content. Nobody likes war but in critical times, such as right after 9/11 we all stand united for the cause. After a decade though, people start to get frustrated, and societal rebellion shows up in everything from music to religion. Next, we have the problem of tough economic times, where people are out of work and money is tight and parents are fighting to feed their families. Nothing creates stress in families, with or without children, like tightness in the money supply. A child who sees their parents nervous about being able to put food on the table will live in almost constant stress. Finally, you have frustration which comes from increasing levels of corruption, both of government and private industry. We live in a world which is very frustrated with the big elephants running amok in our world, overspending tax money, abusing use of government funds, taking advantage of loan seekers and seeming to fail to come to the rescue when the levies fail and the flood waters rush in. Earthquakes bury schools full of young children and men run through classrooms wielding butcher knives and tsunamis wipe out tens of thousands of villagers. People blow themselves up on planes and in shopping malls "in the name of God" and our kids take all of this in. We live in a world that is not just frustrating and stressful, but that frustration and stress are piped into our living rooms and computers at every hour of the day.
So there it is, the perfect recipe for children to go online and write things about other children. They see reporters doing it, they see the mayhem and frustration in the world, they feel frustrated, they lash out. The words don't go away though and anyone with an internet connection (and that's generally everyone) can see the results of some 12 year olds bad idea of a joke. Yet it won't go away and the technology makes it very very convincing and real. And so the bullied child feels, quite literally, like there is no way out. Everyone will see this, everyone will think this, everyone will believe it, everyone will laugh at me, my life is ruined, what is said online represents the opinion of everyone because it is in writing and even has my picture, my life is ruined, there is no way out.
"There is no way out".
People generally commit suicide when they believe that there is a problem in their life which cannot be solved and which they do not feel they can live with. Either they can solve the problem or they do not want to live. Each child has a different ability to understand the permanence of death and so some will be in a better position to decide that living with the problem is better than not living at all. If a child can find a way to either realize that the problem is not as bad as they feel it is or that even though it is bad they can live with it, they will not have to finally resort to the balancing of the consequences of dying. But a child's ego, especially in the preteen and early teen years is extremely fragile on a good day. Already unsure of themselves, their appearance, their social standing, their awkwardness and their identity, it takes very little to unsettle a child entering into adolescence. Even a dirty look in school can send a young girl or boy into self-doubt, and constant social banter puts them ever on their guard with their emotions. So, when a preteen or teenage child ends up in a socially frustrating situation, it is very easy for them to resort to bullying and doing so online is both anonymous and powerful. Yet the target child is just as vulnerable, and etching something negative in writing (and perhaps including photos) on the internet is so destructive to a young child's self-image, the power and the permanence of this attack can be devastating beyond comprehension.
A twelve year old boy, to impress some girls in his class who he met at the mall, put on some female clothing in the women's section and allowed the young girls to snap a photo of him with their cell phones. The boy apparently already questioned his own sexuality, a very very common situation for boys his age, but obviously was brave enough to play dress up for a few minutes in a harmless game. Little did he know that the girls would then create a mySpace page about him, depicting him as a cross-dressing fag, and sealing the ideal with the damning photos. From that harmless game, came a decision to die and so that young boy hung himself for his mother to finally find. The boys name was never made public.
These are really stories which not only highlight the ultimate price that may be paid for the bullying of children, but which must bring into clear view the emotional trauma that children are inflicting on each other in our world and the damaging and destructive ways that they are doing it. The children who choose to die are not the majority, though the numbers are increasing at a terrifying rate. The children who never make the news are your children and mine, walking to school every day, knowing that someone might say something on the internet about them which will given them the perception that their lives will be destroyed and there is nothing that they can do.
Speaking of nothing they can do, the media companies are not helping.
Free speech advocates stand behind tv, news, blog sites and social networking sites who refuse to monitor and remove material. They have decided that they run a public blackboard service and they are just the blackboard providers. They provide the chalk and the board space and they turn a blind eye to what is written, knowing that ultimately they don't care what is written, as long as someone visits their blackboard and views their advertisements. Not only is online bullying anonymous in general, it can be very difficult to remove once it is posted. Often times, the hosts of these online blackboards have huge legal budgets making it nearly impossible for the unsuspecting parent of a young child to use legal means to pressure sites to remove online bullying. They do not want to incur the extra costs associated with reviewing and censoring material, so they take the "none approach" to the all-or-none question. These companies could save young lives and make the world a better place if they just took some simple steps to err on the side of removing things posted online which are likely to hurt someone, especially a young child. Yet they wont and they stand behind their boilerplate legal indemnifications, leaving children with the further message that there is nothing that can be done. Other sites such as Facebook take a much more responsible approach, making it more difficult to create an annonymous smear campaign. Still, one could create a false online identity and then create an online smear campaign. Facebook however is likely to be willing to remove a smear campaign or false persona if it is brought to their attention. Facebook realizes that so many people trust it, that it has to act with some degree of integrity if it is to maintain its following. Other sites, which vy for people's loyalty, just let you post whatever you want about whoever you want.
Media companies are further not helping by blurring the lines between voluntary participation in reality television and making all television reality television, thereby leaving no sanctity to the privacy and care which was once afforded all people with respect to what is said about them and what is written about them. It has become politically correct to publicly humiliate people and therefore the sensitivity that people once had to the use of technology to hurt others is eroding.
Finally, and most importantly, children need our help desperately.
They need to know first that online bullying is so horribly destructive that they would be better off punching someone in the nose than writing something about them online. Online bullying is cowardly and is so damaging and so permanent that it simply must never happen. Children must not just stop it, but they must stand against it with each other. The boy who taunted young John Carmichael in Texas for being 'little' before he took his own life was interviewed by the local media. The boy simply said, "I wish I could take it back now but I can't". And that is the simple understanding that children must have. You can say whatever you want and you can swing your fists and while all of that is not right, you can make up for it. Until media companies step up and prevent destructive blogging on their money making blackboards, kids need to realize that online bullying cannot be taken back. They need to realize that the extra sting of having something online or in writing, whether in a text message or an email or on a MySpace account or on Facebook, is so powerful, that their actions could actually cause someone to decide to die. And most kids at their very core do not want this. At their very core, even the most aggressive, angry, frustrated and confrontational of children, do not want to be known as the person who caused another person to take their own life. There is no honor in that, no dignity, and no sense of self worth that comes from carrying such a burden.
Schools have had anti-bullying programs for several years now. As with any social problem though, the schools can only do so much to address non-academic issues with children. The ultimate role of parenting children still must rest in the hands of the parents. However, given the nature of bullying as something which generally either occurs in school or occurs because of a child's involvement with a school community, the schools cannot avoid having to address bullying at some level.
I do intend to develop some material on how schools (and camps also) can address the issue of bullying in their communities. I do not believe that the issue is as great for other youth organizations such as sports teams, YMCAs and religious organizations because all of these tend to be more voluntary. Children who are being bullied on their sports teams often just leave or threaten to leave (given the coach no choice but to address, lest she lose a player). Programs are being developed all over the world right now, equipping children with the skills that they need to be able to handle and hopefully ward off bullying. Not all bullying needs to be addressed by having teachers and administrators prosecute fifth grade offenders, either. One of the best ways that kids can combat bullying is by building strong friendships, defending each other, diverting bullies with humor and deflective comebacks, or just learning to ignore and diffuse. Just as at one time being black, not speaking English as a first language, or being handicapped made a child's school life more difficult, years of addressing these problems and redirected culture, have really headed these problems off. The same can be done with bullying in schools and not one solution fits all circumstances.
My primary focus is going to be not the bullier(s) but the target. I believe this is the least tapped knowledge base right now and I also believe that it is the critical ground zero where children are immediately and currently at risk. It is critical that we identify and reach out to children who right now have been bullied or are being bullied and are at emotional risk. There are children right now who have been bullied enough that they have thought about suicide. Some have tried it out but not finished the job. Others already have a plan but perhaps have not mustered up the courage. Be sure, children are about to die if we don't educate ourselves on how to identify them and how to act. The first step of course is to determine which kids are at risk and to identify their need.
Bullying can begin at a very young age. However early bullying, that is from 3-4 years old, generally begins as either:
1) Imitating anti-social behavior seen in siblings or even adults
2) Expressions of frustration towards another child who is latent in some way, impeding play or interaction.
3) Aggressive or otherwise anti-social behavior.
At these very young ages, the bullying is not rooted in social dynamics, but instead in personal needs or immaturity. However, the bullied child will typical interpret the message as either being "meanness by the other child" or as "a message about personal shortcoming". in the former, the child does not blame herself per se. In the latter, they do.
As children get older, the bullying and the being bullied makes a natural transition to groups. This can occur in late elementary school around 4th grade or higher, but typically reaches its strongest point in the middle school years. In can either recede in high school or continue.
In high school, as some children will have developed significant antisocial patterns, bullying can become more disturbing, sometimes involving weapons and fire.
Although there are no hard and fast rules about bullying ages, I strongly believe that early bullying can be more easily identified and children can be taught to process the bullying in a healthy manner so that they do not internalize it. As they age, if the bullying continues or progresses, parents can try to work on the situation with the school. For example, if the bullying is coming from a single child, the problem may lie more squarely with the bully than the bullied. If the bullying seems more prolific, then a parent can start to make further decisions about whether the child is best served in that particular school.
As for ages when children may become suicidal because of bullying, this can be influenced by a significant number of factors, not the least of which is the child's inherent mental and emotional development. Young children who have been abused or are depressed or bipolar may be more predisposed, than children who are emotionally strong and healthy. Individual bullying which occurs in early childhood does not typically drive children to consider suicide. These children do not fully understand death, may not really understand suicide even, but also do not have a context in which to perceive the bullying as a personal shortcoming.
As children become more social though, in late elementary school, they begin to compare themselves to other children. This is when the group bullying is more likely to develop, and when the child is more likely to perceive herself as different or inferior to other children.
Children may begin cutting themselves in elementary school, but suicide attempts are very rare below the age of 9, peaking out around 13 years of age, a time when children are emotionally very vulnerable.
Generally speaking, all children are at risk of being bullied, but some carry more 'risk factors' than others. Many people are overweight and will never ever have diabetes. Yet those who are overweight, are carrying an extra risk factor. On the other hand, regardless of how likely a child is to be a target, some children are at greater risk of being affected than others. An interesting article in Science News even brings up a genetic risk to the affects of bullying on children. All parents should be aware that their child can become a target. Any parent who knows that their child is being bullied (ie - you see the emails or the web postings, you hear the phone calls, you hear the other children when you pick your child up from school, your child was in a fight that they did not propagate, your child simply tells you that he or she is being bullied, etc) needs to take action. Parents must understand that bullying is so potentially destructive to children, that ignoring it is like ignoring a skin melanoma. It may be benign, but it must never be ignored. All bullied children run the risk of emotional trauma that they will need help with and in the worst of cases, that trauma can lead to permanent problems and even suicide in the rarest of cases.
Aside from obvious signs that your child is in fact being bullied, there are signs that a child is at greater risk of being a target. Here are some potential risk factors:
IF YOUR CHILD IS A GIRL...
- Very socially intense (constant phone calls/text/email, boyfriend changes, etc)
- Has an online presence (MySpace, Facebook, etc)
- Has clearly delineated groups of friends and enemies. In other words, is actively associating herself with certain groups of friends and dissociating herself with others. Girls will say things like "oh shes not my friend anymore, we all hate her now".
- Is involved in either end of alot of social 'backstabbing'
- Girls can occasionally be targets who are physically or socially less accepted such as overweight, wears thick glasses, not socially adept, etc. However these girls are not always targets.
IF YOUR CHILD IS A BOY...
- Small, gentle, not good at sports, perceived as weak or effeminate
- Socially awkward or from a different religious or socio-economic or ethnic background than the mainstream (ethnic is less common)
- Educational obstacles such as learning differences, ADHD and dyslexia.
- Overweight (used to be a bigger issue than today when overweight is almost a norm but some overweight boys, particularly those who are sedentary and gentle can still be at risk)
- Struggling with sexual identify (I think I'm gay, I like girls clothes, I prefer girls as friends rather than boys, etc)
Not every child subscribes to all of the risk factors and some have none of the above. But one or more of the above is often a sign that your child is at greater risk of being bullied. They do not mean though that your child is at greater risk of trauma from bullying. Many children are not in a high risk category but can be very susceptible to hurt from bullying whereas others may be a daily target for bullying but brush it off. It is true however that even the most well adjusted child who is subjected to constant, severe or situationally traumatic bullying (see below) may eventually suffer from bullying. Understand as well that quite a bit of bullying begins as nothing more than just 'rough play'. This is especially true with boys who may start bullying campaigns just because they think its fun. They may not realize that as other children join along, the game turns toxic. School curricula about bullying will help address this, limiting the risk that children will simply think that they are playing. When children understand that bullying is inherently bad and hurtful, we will curtail bullying that did not have its genesis in malice.
One seventh grade girl tells of a boy in her school who was targeted by another boy just as a game. The boy was well liked, with no particular weakness that attracted attention. So, the bully started a Facebook fan page for those who don't like so and so, and other kids in the grade joined in the fun. The boy who was bullied told his parents, who then contacted the police and the entire grade was gathered for an informational debriefing on what was done. Although that state did not require that police be contacted about bullying, the local police wisely got involved and helped the children understand that what they did was wrong. Most fortunately, Facebook takes its responsibility seriously and does not allow people to anonymously start smear campaigns and then stand behind free speech laws. The author of the fan page was known and thus the bullying ended when everyone came to understand that what was done was wrong. To the best of my knowledge, the child was able to take what was done in stride, and continues in the school with friends and support. Still, even the most adjusted child would feel bruised from having been a bullying target. The fact that he knew enough and was confident enough to tell his parents, saved not just him but also his classmates from having the lesson go untaught.
This section is really the key to this project. I have worked with youth for decades and have carefully observed how children react to bullying.
We look at how you identify children who are at risk for internalizing bullying to such a degree that it becomes harmful to them. In other words, we look at how well children deal with bullying whether or not they are at high risk or not for being a target. In order to do this first, we have to lay an understanding for what bullying does to a child:
Bullying sends highly negative messages to a child about him/herself affecting how he/she feels about him/herself. These messages carry a more severe sting than many other types of negative messages because they come from peers. As children move from young childhood into their preteen years, they place an increasingly greater importance on their peers, their social standing and their emerging identity. This begins around the age of 8 or 9 for girls and 9 or 10 for boys. Children of both genders are constantly comparing themselves to other children around them, consciously and unconsciously, assessing their own value and place in the world. Because children place such a high value on the opinions of their peers, negative messages from peers are substantially more hurtful. When bullying becomes a group activity, a child not only feels the sting of negative messages from a peer, but the child perceives the bullying from the group as being from 'everyone'. Thus the common gripe of tween-age child, "Everyone hates me". Who is doing the bullying and how big a group activity it becomes and how often it recurs, will all affect how bad the sting on a child's fragile sense of self worth. Bullying from an unknown child at the local park, may not really bother some children (though others it may if they are already feeling 'fragile'). Bullying from a child who is known to bully many kids in school, may also not carry such a bad sting. Bullying from half of the classroom, but only on an isolated day, may not bother some children. Really, the question that has to be answered is simply this: How does the child internalize this negative message?
Alot of the answer to that question, has to do with the already progressing path of self-identity that the child is undergoing.
You should presume that all children from the age of pre-adolescence is on a moving path of determining who he or she is. All children make a transition from just being the daughter of mommy, to being an independent person who has looks, friends, popularity, talents, abilities, faults and standing in the world that surrounds her (and not to forget as well, a MySpace or Facebook page). That is an ongoing process that you have to assume is continuous. That child is constantly checking for signs as to who he or she is and where he or she stands relative to others. For example, a 10 year old girl enters a room and 3 other girls light up and say "Hi!" and our example girl is excited to see them and to tell them whatever just happened to her an hour ago. This child is receiving very positive messages that she is liked, valued and important to others. Compare this to another little girl who walks in with her head down and nobody notices, yet she notices that her presence in the room was of importance to nobody. In another example, a 13 year old boy shows up at a recess basketball game and sheepishly stands on the sidelines, hoping that somebody might let him play. Another boy shows up and 2 of the kids shout, "Hey - where have you been! We're down by 4 so come-on!". The messages that children receive in social situations, whether they are self-propagated, or truly a result of what others think, are replayed by children again and again. We can even look back to infancy, where studies have been done to compare the progress of 'attractive babies' versus those who are less 'cute' (even though this author sees that as being in the eyes of the beholder). The study found that universally 'cute' babies elicit more smiles from people and that constant positive response helps the babies to develop a greater sense of self from early on . Understand that a child is not condemned to disparity if they were not a cute baby however. Lots of things can happen between infancy and adulthood which shift that child's perception. But that cute factor at infancy predisposes them to presume that the whole world will smile at them. The little girl whose presence lit up the face of 3 other little girls, is likely to be able to brush off a bullying comment from somewhere else. She would see the comment as 'mean' rather than 'accurate'. The second little girl however, might internalize a negative comment as more confirmation that nobody likes her, a message that she was already presuming to be true. The more athletic boy might take a negative comment from someone else on the court as just an attempt to downplay his accomplishments. In other words if one of the kids on the other team said, "You suck, you can't shoot for beans" (they don't say beans anymore, but I'm saying it to keep it clean), he might respond, "Oh yeah, we'll see what you got." and just try harder on the court. The shy boy might view the same comment as a message to "get lost and go play with the girls". In these simple, if a bit stereotypical, examples, it is easy to see how the same situation can affect children differently.
However these are examples of specific situations, and do not paint the larger picture of what is going on with the child's current path to self confidence.
Some of the children, particularly boys, are already on a dangerous path particularly if they see themselves as being 'defective' in some way. Boys who are small, or weak or are struggling with sexual identity, traditionally withdrew to places where they would not have to hear negative messages. They would avoid sports, they might avoid social situations, they might withdraw into books, video games, fantasy and the internet. Boys like this avoid their perceived defectiveness, and as a result, they basically live with negative messages about themselves instead of returning to the sources of the messages for corrective messages. Girls are a little different, because perceived defectiveness in girls is usually about looks and almost all little girls have the ability to come to terms with their looks. How the child already perceives them self, also greatly affects their ability to handle negative messages that come from bullying. The other danger that we face with our boys is that boys who are bullied are humiliated and often will hide the fact that they are being bullied. I will talk about this much more later on because it may actually be the most potent reason why young boys are taking their lives because of bullying. Little girls will be much more willing to externalize. They will cry, they will tell their mom that everyone hates them or that they feel ugly and while they are also embarrassed, it is socially acceptable for a girl to talk about that and even to be perceived as being a target. Boys do not generally want anyone to know that they are a target, even when logic would dictate that it is no secret. As boys who are bullied withdraw and as they keep the negative messages to themselves, they tend to draw their own incorrect conclusions about themselves. They conclude that they are different, weak, inferior and defective and they are at risk for emotional damage that often cannot be undone. Girls who are bullied often get more help and usually can overcome the negative messages that come from bullying, even if they have to endure some difficult times in the teen years.
In order for us as adults to help children who are bullied from highly damaging and disruptive paths towards self confidence and a sense of self worth, we have to open our eyes to:
1) Who are the likely targets
2) Who is at risk to not be able to handle bullying confidently
3) Who is already so fragile that bullying become a final straw for them
If we as caring adults can learn more about these three things, we are far more likely to be able to help children who are at risk. Furthermore, while teachers and youth workers may be the ones most likely to actually witness bullying, and perhaps to be the ones to identify likely targets, it is really parents who need to know what is going on with their child and to know what their capacity is to handle bullying.
Simple school yard bullying is probably the least powerful type of bullying. For instance, three girls are talking together during a break in school by their lockers. A third girl comes by and says to one of the three that her shirt is really lame. Surrounded by friends, that off handed comment is not likely to cause long term emotional trauma. However, the gamut begins there and ranges through any number of more damaging circumstances:
1) Bullying is repetitive
2) Child who is being bullied is alone.
3) Multiple children are doing the bullying
4) Bullying elevates to something posted online which CAN be removed (ie - from a mySpace or Facebook page)
5) Bullying elevates to something posted online which CANNOT be removed (ie - from an annonymous blog site)
6) Child is 'set up'. In other words, the bully hangs out at the entrance to the locker room on gym day. The child has no choice but to endure the bullying if he does not want to be late for gym.
7) Child is 'trapped'. A group of boys circle up against another boy in the woods, for example. Or a child is bullied by his group at sleepaway camp and feels that he cannot escape.
The above can be partially if not completely addressed by good adult supervision. Ideally, a child would feel comfortable to tell an adult about any of the above situations but adults have to watch for opportunities as well. Anyone dealing with children in an overnight setting has to be keenly aware of what is going on with a child. It is very traumatic for a young child to be away from his or her parents for a week of scout camp, when that child feels that he or she is being bullied by all of those around him or her. All bullying has the potential to be traumatic to a child but the above situations increase the risk of emotional trauma to a child.
As mentioned in the previous section, a particularly detrimental reality with respect to boys who are being bullied (and boys who are dealing with many other types of social pressure) is that they often hide their situations. The reasons are fairly obvious: Traditionally, boys were taught to be tough, to "act like men" and to hide their feelings. In our modern age, it is much more acceptable and even encouraged for boys to share their feelings than in the previous one. However, they still have trouble doing it because sharing problems often means admitting something that they fear is a defect and boys don't want to feel or talk about being defective even if talking might help. While we ask boys to be open, we still don't applaud them being vulnerable. They are often convinced that they are defective and are not looking for affirmation. After all, they know that their mom is going to tell them that they really are tall or that they will be tall some day or that their father also was bad at sports. That's not necessarily what that boy needs. On the other hand, if a boy tells his father and his father tells him that he was just as bad at sports as his son, then the son will view not just himself as hopelessly defective but will also view the father (the role model who he is depending on) as also defective. On the other hand, if he feels that he falls short of who he thinks his father is, talking about it will basically be like admitting to the man that he wants to impress the most that he can't live up to the standard. Boys like this are in a no win situation. Other boys might be willing to talk and might not feel afraid of how their parents will perceive them but just don't have the relationship with their parent that fertilizes the ground for discussion. They may be one of many children in a busy home, or they may want to talk about it but not have a father around. The best shot at bringing out these issues in boys is from a trusted friend such as a school counselor, coach, family friend, uncle or youth leader. It is not the only shot, but it can be a better shot in a large number of situations. Boys generally need adults to help them deal with bullying, whereas girls generally can be helped by adults, by other kids or by adults speaking with a group of kids. Girls will listen to their peers encouragement and can overcome through that. Boys do not want to hear their best friend say, "Don't worry Johnny, you will grow up to be big and strong some day!".
For this reason, adults who are working with boys have to be willing to watch and listen and sometimes to probe for clues. Parents can do it to (and should do it) but they are going to have to be present and they are going to have to do so with assertiveness and bravery (or to get someone else involved if their child puts up a wall, which he might).
The good news is that this is improving in our culture. For better or for worse, the progression that has been made for boys, particularly in more liberal parts of the countries, to be able to self-identify as gay, while fraught with some other issues not addressed her, has also allowed boys to talk more openly about their own identities. Thus many boys will not be held back by embarrassment in seeking help from adults. This is in the early stages, but it is one glimmer of good news.
The bad news is that identifying the child who is at risk to being bullied, and to not being able to handle it well is not always easy. The good news is that correcting things does not have to be terribly difficult. Here are basic steps that an adult can take in the event that a child is being bullied:
1a) If the bullying was one-time, insure that the child(ren) who did it are identified and dealt with. In some states this is now law. Even if it is not, an adult needs to step in and inform the teacher, parent or even to confront (verbally!) the child them self and to convey a clear message that it was not okay.
1b) If the bullying is ongoing it needs to stop NOW. Every situation is a little different and every environment has different protocols, but you as an adult can put it to a stop and you need to do it immediately. I have no hesitation whatsoever advising a parent to remove a child from a school, camp or team where that child is being mercilessly bullied. Some situations can be corrected and that is great, but in situations where it cannot easily, the child needs to be someplace where he/she is emotionally safe.
2) Someone needs to find out what is going on with that child. They need to know how this child perceives him/her self and what conclusions he/she is drawing about his/her sense of worth and value in the world.
3) Someone needs to understand how that child has internalized the negative messages of the bullying. As mentioned before, some kids will brush off a negative message without trouble. This is not a critical situation. It is school yard play, a learning environment, that often needs no adult intervention at all.
4) Someone needs to help that child develop corrective messages and understanding about who he/she is, their value, their lack of being defective and proper context for negative messages that came from a bully.
It is important for us to remind ourselves that communication is a two way street. Husbands shout things at their wives that they simply don't believe to be true. In a moment of anger, children tell their parents that they hate them. Doctors tell us that carbs will make us fat, then sugar will make us fat, then fat will make us fat, then its all about what you drink. News stations blurt untruths that later get corrected but too late for each viewer to get the update. We are bombarded with messages and as adults we intellectually know that not everything that is said is true. Yet we still fall victim to taking what we hear at face value, at least to one degree or another. Children have far less ability to mitigate what they see and hear and to rationalize those messages as being filtered through a sender. So when a child is bullied, and thus receives a negative message about them self, they do not necessarily have the same ability that we as adults do to think it through and to prevent that message as being a source of truth about them self.
Fortunately, we can help. As adults, we can help them understand and we can correct the message. Lets take two examples:
1) An eleven year old girl is worried that she is not developing as quickly as some of her peers. She looks in the mirror and questions her attractiveness. Her parents think that she is the most adorable child that ever walked the earth (at least when she's happy). In gym class, another girl makes a comment about her body and several others join in. She is regularly the brunt of jokes throughout that gym rotation. She is humiliated and feels infinitely more ugly than she already felt. The comments of her peers sting badly and she concludes that in fact she is ugly and will never be a beautiful woman. The correct messages to girls are often fairly easy to apply. As an adult, you KNOW that some day she will develop into a woman. You also KNOW that beauty is not just external and you may KNOW too that in fact this girl will actually be quite beautiful someday. You can also help her to feel beautiful today by helping her see that girls her age develop at very different speeds. Often a girl will develop in similar ways as her mother or aunt did, and seeing pictures of a relative at the same age will help her to see that what she looks like today is simply a passing stage. There are corrective messages that an adult can help with. Additionally, a bullied child needs to have a very clear picture of the message conveyed by the bulliers:
a) What they are doing is not right and if an adult knew about it, that adult would object
b) The bullier is motivated by insecurity. They are not reporting fact. They are making themselves feel strong, powerful, smart or attractive. They are pushing someone else down so they feel bigger.
c) What the bully is saying is simply NOT TRUE or the conclusion is not true. You may not have developed yet, but everyone develops at different rates. Today you might feel 'behind' but two years from now you may be ahead. This is not permanent. You are not ugly.
2) A fourteen year old boy is fascinated with space and space ships and has no interest in girls or sports or contemporary music. He dresses unfashionably, showers infrequently, smells and has greasy hair and acne. He is smart and has built his own model space ships and has one good friend who enjoys these things too. He is the brunt of everyone's jokes it seems. His looks and his oddness compared with the mainstream are constant sources of classroom discussion. Some of the boys in the class begin saying that they are going to break into his house one day and crush all of his model space ships. They tear his Star Trek book covers off his books.
Corrective messages to this child are not quite as simple. It may be that he doesn't realize that he is not taking care of his appearance. It may be that he is completely aware but just doesn't care how he looks. It may be that he WANTS to look different. Maybe he likes space ships because he tried sports and girls and didn't succeed the first time and had no one to help him modify his approach and work towards success. Maybe he likes space ships because he really likes them more than anything. Maybe he likes them because he knows he is different and dreams of far away places where he can fit in. How the child views the situation will affect how an adult can help that child. I have worked with children in virtually every one of these combination over twenty or so years and know that each child's situation is just a little bit different. So without attempting to address each possible permutation, let me generalize in this way: This child needs the negative aspect of the message corrected. If the child really just likes space ships and knows that he could shower and clean up if he really wanted to, then the message looks something like this: Ignore what they are saying because they are not taking the time to really know who you are. Your interest in space is special and unique and you are choosing it. If you want to fit in with the crowd, you can, but you are choosing to pursue what you love. Don't let others take you down for that. On the other hand, if this same boy is using his interest in space to hide from sports or social life, then the message might look like this: It is not true that you are bad at all sports and that you have to build space ships. Do you want to just build space ships? Because if you do, that's great too. But do you want to play sports? There are hundreds of sports out there and I know you haven't tried all of them. You could be good at something if you found something that you liked and was really willing to work on. Are you willing to explore some choices? You may not be good at ball sports but you are a great swimmer, so how about we forget basketball right now and try out for swimming? You might not be tall, but neither are most gymnasts. How about trying gymnastics this winter?
And the options go on for this child depending on what a caring adult finds out about what he is thinking.
Yet sometimes the truth hurts too much, or the child is just not willing to accept as truth the corrective messaages from an adult.
Take for example, a nine year old boy with burns on his face from an accident many years ago. Although on the inside this boy may be completely normal, on the outside, he is not. Generally, the schools have become good at helping children with all sorts of differences to integrate well and children who grow up in classrooms with such children often learn wonderful life long lessons about tolerance for others. Yet lets presume that after living in one town all his life, this boy moves to a new town and the teachers are not as well trained in helping the other children to respect his appearance. So he is shunned and called names like 'elephant boy. While a parent can help a child to work through senstive feelings, the reality is that he does have burns on his face and they are ugly to look at. Parents need to work with teachers to try to help educate the children around him. It may not be enough for the parents to just tell him that he isn't really ugly or scary looking, because he just may be that, as hard as that truth hurts.
In other situations, particularly in the tween to teen years, the opinions of adults are just not as important to a child as the opinions of peers. Our little eleven year old girl a while back, may believe it when her parents tell her that she will develop some day but she may not be willing to believe that even right now, she is still beautiful.
At a certain point, there are not enough corrective messages that exist or that a child will believe in which will help the child to remove the negative sting. A caring adult who is helping a bullied child needs to recognize the point at which they are not able to help any further. At this point, there are two options:
1) Professional help - School counselor, psychologist, etc.
2) Removal from the situation - Change schools, removal from summer camp, etc
In my opinion, it is not an option to leave a child in a situation where that child believes the negative aspects of messages received through bullying. While there is an excellent chance that bullied children will get over the negative messages, there is also an undeniable possibility that the negative messages will have long term emotional consequences and in some cases children have been known to attempt suicide. Given the rash of recent suicides and the ability of the internet and television to spark ideas in the minds of impressionable children, we cannot take the chance. In the United Kingdom, earlier this year, ten year old Cameron McWilliams hung himself in his bedroom window because he felt guilt over his desire to wear little girls underwear to bed. In a stunning irony, eleven year old Cameron McDonald, a school mate of McWilliams, also hung himself shortly after in what police called a copy cat suicide. According to reports, McDonald was so mesmerized with the suicide of the 'other Cameron' he became obsessed with the suicide and repeated the act on himself. We no longer live in a world where the power of suggestion transmitted instantaneously through media and the internet can be ignored. Children do not think about killing themselves out of their own thought processes. A child who commits suicide got that idea from somewhere else, and because it is difficult to buffer a child from knowing what is going on in the world, we have to help children who may have bullying injuries.
Aside from suicide however, lay many other potential dangers to children who have been bullied. There are almost too many possible consequences to cover at one time, which is why professional help is often the best solution. Nevertheless, I would be remiss if I neglected to mention a few of the more obvious examples:
Bullying about appearance -
Can lead to - Negative self image, negative body image, negative sense of self worth
Can manifest itself in - Seeking approval through sex, provocative dressing, even prostitution, drug use, gang participation
Bullying about popularity -
Can lead to - Frustration, anger, peer relationship problems
Can manifest itself in - Vengeful/hurtful behavior and backstabbing, stress and alcohol use, poor social development and negative feelings
Bullying about size, strength, athletic ability -
Can lead to - Low self esteem, sexual problems
Can manifest itself in - Homosexuality or other paraphillia (I do not believe that all homosexuality is a symptom of trauma, here. I do believe that many children are born with a predisposition towards same sex attraction and that it is sometimes explored and imprinted in the absence of any traumatic experience. However, I also believe that it can either be created or brought out from traumatic experiences of this kind.), risk taking behavior, drug and alcohol use, and more.
I reiterate once again, that not all bullied children are at risk of trauma from bullying. I have worked with many boys who were small or weak or effeminate who knew they were a bit different, but who were confident and well adjusted enough that they did not crumble under the weight of occasional bullying. I have seen hundreds of children who were being bullied and handled it just fine and in fact I would prefer to let a child handle it himself if it seems like he's able to do it (which they very often are). Adults do not need to step in always and equipping children to defend themselves actually helps them to feel more confident and more empowered than an adult solving it. It is critical that we as adults do not insist that a bullied child is injured, but it is also critical that we do not ignore the possibility that any bullied child could be injured and therefore we have to be there to ask questions to determine if something could be going on that we can help with. After twenty plus years of working with youth, I have a pretty good idea of which kids are going to be just fine on their own. But if I'm not sure, it never hurts to ask. Adults who are aware of the impact that bullying can have are able to teach kids to be empathetic towards each other and might just be able to notice when a young child is so severely impacted by bullying that she might be driven to do something that cannot be reversed.
* The chilling events surrounding Megan Meier's bullying and eventual suicide are summarized below, taken directly from Wikipedia. I believe that Wikipedia information is public domain but if not, please let me know.
Soon after opening an account on MySpace, Meier received a message from Lori Drew, using a fabricated account attributed to a 16-year-old boy, Josh Evans. Meier and "Josh" became online friends, but never met in person or spoke. Meier thought he was attractive. Meier began to exchange messages with this person, and was described by family as having had her "spirits lifted". This person claimed to have just moved to the nearby city of O'Fallon, was home schooled, and did not yet have a phone number. .
On October 15, 2006, the tone of the messages changed, with Drew saying (via the account) "I don't know if I want to be friends with you anymore because I've heard that you are not very nice to your friends". Similar messages were sent; some of Megan's messages were shared with others; and bulletins were posted about her. According to Meier's father Ronald Meier, and a neighbor who had discussed the hoax with Drew, the last message sent by the Evans account read: "Everybody in O'Fallon knows how you are. You are a bad person and everybody hates you. Have a shitty rest of your life. The world would be a better place without you." Meier responded with a message reading “You’re the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over.” The last few correspondences were made via AOL Messenger instead of Myspace. She was found twenty minutes later in her closet; Megan had hanged herself. Despite attempts to revive her, she was pronounced dead the following day. .