I don’t know if the distinction I am going to describe can be useful to all parents of a middle school age child who is receiving significantly mean treatment from fellow students, but it is one I have sometimes used in counseling to helpful effect. Start this way
In my book, “Why Good Kids Act Cruel,” I describe five forms of “Social Cruelty” that peak in middle school often to devastating effect as young people fight for social belonging at this developmentally insecure, early adolescent age (roughly 9-13.). The forms of this social mistreatment are: teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up. Of the five, bullying is the one that usually gets the most press and popular attention. Why is that?
Because the image it invokes is of a student getting threatened, pushed around, and beaten up, bullying had become the “poster child” for Social Cruelty. However, in my experience the other four forms of mistreatment can do comparable psychological harm, particularly now that we have three realities—offline, online, and cellular—in which mean behavior can be socially expressed.
Of course, not only do all five forms of social cruelty endanger student well-being and create an atmosphere of fear at school, but they distract from academic focus because now vigilance for social survival matters more than attention to classroom learning. Left unaddressed by responsible adults and allowed to grow, Social Cruelty also violates any student right to a safe education. I always wonder: if we believe in safe homes for our children, why wouldn’t we believe in safe “second” homes for our children—the schools in which so much of their lifetimes are spent growing up?
In counseling with early adolescents receiving social cruelty like bullying, I have found it can make a significant difference whether the young person considers themselves a Target or a Victim of this mean behavior, and I believe this distinction should be important to parents of a bullied child to determine too.
Although both feel unhappy, being a Target of bullying and a Victim of bullying are not the same. The Target maintains a viewpoint that the Victim often loses or lacks. The Target knows that she did nothing to deserve the bullying, but that she is absolutely responsible for how she responds to this aggression. The Victim believes she at least partly deserves being picked on and pushed around, and that there is nothing she can do about the mistreatment.
Contrast the Victim and Target roles in further ways.
The Victim often believes he should handle this mistreatment PRIVATELY and not tell adults like teachers or parents about what is going on. Why? Partly because he feels that confiding this mistreatment confesses inadequacy; partly because he feels that at an age of social independence he should act more grown up and handle his own adversity; and partly because the “code of the schoolyard” decrees that he is not supposed to tell or tattle on classmates, or worse consequences will follow.
The Victim often believes he should take this mistreatment PERSONALLY, like it is somehow deserved, is his fault, is the natural outcome of his own personal deficiency, and reflects his low worth. He believes social mistreatment reflects something wrong with him, that he somehow brought it on himself. The reasoning seems to be: good people don’t get treated badly; only bad people do.
The Victim often believes the he should PUNISH himself for provoking, inviting, deserving mistreatment. Beat up on by others, he switches to their side, self-punitively agrees with what is being said against him, and proceeds to beat up on himself. “They hate me and so do I!” And now maybe he withdraws into himself or isolates himself or gives up on himself or cuts on himself or attempts more serious injury against himself.
The Victim often believes he is POWERLESS to counter the mistreatment. “There is nothing I can do to stop it!” And based on that conviction of helplessness, he gives up trying and resigns himself to living with what he assumes cannot be changed. Now he is more vulnerable to ongoing injury because he assumes he has no power of choice to oppose it, his passivity sometimes giving encouragement to his tormentors.
The Victim often loses PERSPECTIVE and the ability to keep what is happening in realistic proportion. So in response to regular mistreatment from three students, he reports: “Nobody like me, everyone is against me!” Overwhelmed with hurt feelings, he exaggerates the social hositility against him. The whole world seems against him. Now he is more inclined to avoid social contact and keep to himself.
The Target takes a different path.
Instead of PRIVACY, he knows that when peers aggress against him, that is not a good time to keep the mistreatment to himself, but rather is a time to reach out and speak to someone who cares, understands, and may be able to help. He knows that social isolation makes bullying or any other form of social cruelty feel immeasurably worse. This is a time to talk to his supporters.
Instead of taking this treatment PERSONALLY, he knows that mean treatment from others is no bad reflection on him or on anything he did or didn’t do, but on them, showing how they want to act mean. He knows he has choice to place responsibility for this mistreatment where it belongs so he can act to take care of himself in the best possible way. This is a time to view what is happening objectively.
Instead of PUNISHING himself, he knows not to beat up on himself because others are “beating up” on him. He knows not to fault himself for what is going on. He knows not to blame himself but to boost himself for facing a hard challenge. He knows to be treated wrong should never be a cause for treating himself badly. This is a time to treat himself well.
Instead acting POWERLESS, he knows that so long as he has choices for opposing the mistreatment, he is not powerless against it. So he does not give up, but keeps up the will to try different approaches in hopes that one of them will work to some degree, at least for a while, and maybe once and for all. Personal power is the capacity to keep generating choices. He knows that those he goes to for support, like parents, can coach him in alternative responses to put in play. This is a time to keep brainstorming new strategies to counter and discourage what is going on.
Instead of losing PERSPECTIVE, he understands that although he must deal with a few students who regularly torment him, the majority of other students do not, and therefore among these it is still possible for him to be respected and to find good social company. A few adversaries need not deprive him of other friends. This is a time to develop relationships with other peers, at school and in outside social circles, who like and treat him well.
Obviously, parents of middle school students hope that the five common expressions of social cruelty at this insecure and vulnerable age (teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up) do not come their child’s way. However, should this unhappy outcome occur, they might want to remember that although it’s no fun being either the Target or Victim of this meanness, it is far better to consider oneself in the former role than in the latter.
Next week’s entry: Name-calling in Middle School