Almost nothing evokes more fear and dread in parents today than the omnipresent specter of social cruelty and bullying in schools.
Bullying in schools, combined with the seemingly inescapable online universe of hurt, has become part of the fabric of life today for kids and their parents. With 2.7 million incidents being reported each year, at least a third of kids report having been bullied recently. Bullying in schools knows no age, gender, economic, or ethnic bounds and can result in any number of issues, including kids avoiding school and the development of serious emotional problems.
Social cruelty is reported in every gathering of professionals I teach. By age 4, nursery school kids are forming exclusionary in-groups—“kindergarten-cool,” as I call it. A group of high school students recently went online to encourage a despondent peer “to end it already” and finally jump off his roof, as he’d been threatening to do for weeks.
Social cruelty and bullying in schools have always evoked strong reactions in my audiences, but it used to be that bullying triggered vociferous battles between the parents of presumed perpetrators and those of their alleged victims. Lately, however, I’ve noted that most parents identify with one another, recognizing that with a 24/7 gossip cycle, none of them has any real control over what their kids do, or what’s done to them.
Because of this shared vulnerability, parents direct harsh words less to one another and more toward school personnel and child professionals for their perceived ineptitude in addressing the bullying problem. Since most studies reveal that kids go to us adults for help and end up feeling we don’t know what to do either, it’s striking how little formal training we receive in this area. Thus it’s understandable that parents seek help elsewhere.
I recently consulted about Ian, an otherwise ordinary 7th-grader in a suburban public school. Things had gone missing from kids’ backpacks, and after talking it over with his stepmom, who wanted him to “do the right thing,” Ian told the guidance counselor who the thief was. The counselor then made a classic mistake: Somehow, he let the word out that Ian was the person who “ratted.”
For almost a year, every boy in his class taunted him. What was striking was that the girls were equally as relentless, assuring Ian—in case he had any thoughts otherwise—that no one in the school liked him. “Why don’t you just die?” one after another remarked.
When I consulted the school officials, no one had any answers other than to briefly suspend the perpetrators, implement prepackaged social-emotional interventions, mediate, and hope for the best. By contrast, Ian’s parents, furious as this ineptitude, told me about numerous “bully-sites” that assist parents in helping one another.
I was stunned to discover the extent of the practical suggestions and concrete action steps parents (and an increasing numbers of professionals) offered, which I then shared with school officials. In the end, finding one key “popular” boy to approach Ian in a friendly way changed the tide and let him slowly emerge from the hell of middle-school ostracism.
Ron Taffel, PhD, is Chair, Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in NYC, the author of eight books and over 100 articles on therapy and family life.