Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

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Teaching About Social Meanness In Middle School

Developmental insecurity in early adolescence can cause social cruelty at school

Several books ago I wrote one, Why Good Kids Act Cruel, to help parents help their early adolescents in middle school deal with mistreatment from social cruelty in any of the five forms it commonly takes: teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up.

Why is social meanness more prevalent at this time? I believe the answer is because developmental insecurity from early adolescent change makes for a very vulnerable age. Pushing against and pulling away from parents, the young person begins separating from the sheltered and simpler life of childhood. Not only does fitting into family becomes more difficult to do as relationships with parents become more abrasive, but the young person must face the challenges of making a more independent way through a much larger, more complex, more daunting, and less caring world.

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Now there is more sadness at the loss of childhood, more anxiety from feeling out of control, and experiencing less confidence and competence that both conspire to lower self-esteem. The early adolescent knows they can’t go back home to childhood again and that their only choice is to somehow, some way, find an adequate belonging place among their peers, all of whom are struggling to adapt to the same overwhelming sense of change. So making and maintaining friends, establishing and holding social position, can become a ruthless competition where social survival feels at stake, peers doing to peers what they feel they must to secure themselves, frequently resorting to social meanness to gain this end.

This is no age for adults to abandon adolescents to their own social devices, to figure out independently what are the rules of getting along with each other. Allow that social freedom and you risk young people generating some degree of a Lord of the Flies scenario that can play out to an extremely formative and destructive end, both for those who are given hurt and for those who learn to inflict it.

What to do? As the most significant adults, parents and middle school teachers can use their influence to help young people moderate the incidence of social cruelty and practice a more socially considerate way.

First, consider what parents might do. They can weigh in at home by stating that they are in the know. Specifically, they communicate understanding that this is a more socially aggressive age, that in middle school more teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up is likely to occur. Then they can request to be informed should any of this mistreatment come their child’s way so they can offer emotional and coaching support, and that failing, and with the young person’s permission, state a willingness to speak to the authorities at school to get the cruelty stopped. They also declare their wish that their son or daughter does not participate in these harmful behaviors.

Second, consider what the primary authorities at middle school might do, the classroom teachers. I suggest three influential actions they can take: define and openly discuss the five common forms of social cruelty; explain and discuss the larger social correlates of social cruelty in the adult world; and declare and discuss rules for communication and treatment among students in the teacher’s classroom.

DISCUSS THE FIVE FORMS OF SOCIAL CRUELTY.

Define social cruelty in terms of its five component behaviors. TEASING makes fun of or puts down some human characteristic or difference, usually by calling the person a negative name. EXCLUSION ignores or sets someone apart, isolating them as outsider to be left alone. BULLYING threatens, injures, or coerces so one person can dominate and control another. RUMORING spreads lies and damaging information through gossip to hurt someone’s social standing. GANGING UP unifies the greater number to hurt a single individual or a chosen few. When the teacher can bring these behaviors up for general discussion, then students are more likely to see them as a matter of choice.

This discussion raises the question: would they rather choose to create a student community ruled by social cruelty or by social consideration?

DISCUSS THE LARGER CORRELATES OF SOCIAL CRUELTY

Relate the five acts of social cruelty to larger societal dynamics to which they can lead.

Teasing can lead to social labeling and prejudice—the use of stereotyping and name-calling. “He’s worthless like all of them!” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people label other people in prejudicial ways, how does it feel to be so labeled, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Exclusion can lead to social selection and discrimination—the use of refusing membership and denying opportunity. “They don’t belong with us.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people exclude others in discriminatory ways, how does it feel to be left out and kept out, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Bullying can lead to social harassment and coercion—the use of threats and acts of harm. “It’s fun to push her around.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society how do people subordinate others in threatening ways, how does it feel to be so intimidated, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Rumoring can lead to social defamation and libeling—the use of lies to slander. “I’ve heard a lot about them and none of it is good.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society, how do people defame others, how does it feel to have one’s reputation attacked, and what kinds of damage can be done?

Ganging Up can lead to social persecution and oppression—the use of domination and might. “We get our way with them because there are more of us.” The classroom discussion question might be: In the larger society how do people use their majority against a smaller group, how does it feel to be in that minority, and what kinds of damage can be done?

This discussion helps students understand that social cruelty behaviors are not limited to school, but can contribute to larger and more damaging issues in the larger society.

DISCUSS RULES OF SOCIAL TREATMENT IN THE CLASSROOM COMMUNITY.

The classroom is a community, and its leader is the teacher who is empowered to say: “As your teacher, this is my classroom. I am responsible for what goes on in here so I make the rules. These are five kinds of rules for how people treat each other and communicate with each other that I expect to be observed.

No Teasing: Only call people by the name they want to be called. Don’t use names or labels that hurt people’s feelings. The point of teasing is to wound other people with mean words. In this classroom, everyone has a right to be spoken to kindly.

No Exclusion: If you see someone being left out or sitting alone, invite them to join you. Don’t shun people or try to keep them out. The point of exclusion is to show other people they don’t belong. In this classroom, everyone has a right to belong.

No Bullying: Don’t push anyone around to get your way. Don’t try to threaten or scare anyone. The point of bullying is to intimidate others. In this classroom, everyone has a right to feel safe.

No Rumoring: If mean gossip comes your way don’t pass it on. Don’t make up and tell stories about people that you know can be hurtful if believed. The point of rumoring is to damage someone’s reputation. In this classroom, everyone has a right to their good name.

No Ganging up: Don’t join a group to torment someone else. Don’t play the game of greater numbers against anyone. The point of ganging up is to use the force of many to hurt a few. In this classroom, everyone has a right to be treated as an equally valued part of the whole.”

Discussing and posting these rules of classroom conduct can remind students about how not to mistreat each other.

The greater the incidence of social cruelty in middle school, the more the well of student relationships becomes poisoned, the more students grow concerned with personal safety at the expense of academic focus and classroom learning. In this sense, social cruelty is usually the enemy of academic achievement.

Since it is rooted in the developmental insecurity of early adolescent change, social cruelty in middle school should not be treated as a problem to be fixed and done away with by a one-time intervention, but treated as developmental adolescent reality that must be continually addressed by ongoing adult attention.

Incidents of social cruelty are never going to go away in middle school. For this reason, I believe that parents, and particularly teachers, have a pivotal role to play in helping students keep the incidence of these harmful behaviors down.

I am gratified that the Holocaust Museum Houston has adopted my book, “Why Good Kids Act Cruel,” as the instructional framework for their anti-bullying curriculum in the schools: “All Behavior Counts.”

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.)Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome questions and suggestions for future blogs.

Next week’s entry: When Adolescents are Embarassed by their Parents

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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