Social Cruelty - Why early adolescents treat each other mean

For social survival, early adolescents can treat each other mean.

Posted Jan 03, 2010

I wrote my book, "Why Good Kids Act Cruel," to help parents help their children cope with the increased amount of social meanness that comes with the early adolescent age (around years 9 - 13). I also wanted to give middle school principals, teachers, and counselors strategies for reducing incidents of social cruelty at school where it is most likely to occur.

Because the five kinds of social cruelty - teasing, exclusion, bullying, rumoring, and ganging up - endanger social safety, they also reduce the academic focus of student targets or victims who now become primarily concerned about their own social safety.

There is simply no way you can have students attending to instructional content and performing up to potential if the school setting is one in which they have daily cause to act guarded and feel afraid. The safer the school, the better students are likely to learn.

But why focus on middle school? The answer is simply this: by the middle school years virtually all the students have been destabilized by early adolescent change. How can parents identify this new stage of growth? Consider four common alterations.

Now the young person begins to separate from the shelter of childhood by no longer being content to be defined and treated as a child, fitting into family less easily than before.

Now the young person pulls away from family to spend more time in the company of friends, usually inclining the young person to less communication with parents.

Now the young person passively (with delay) and actively (with argument) pushes against parental authority for more freedom to grow, engendering more conflict in the process.

Now the young person begins to differentiate from the old child identity by experimenting with new images and experiences that he or she associates with acting older and more grown up, some of which parents are unwilling to tolerate.

On all four counts, the relationship with parents becomes more strained and estranged.

In addition to insecurities at home caused by these early adolescent changes, there is another source of insecurity that in most cases begins in these years - puberty and all the physical changes that cause young people to feel out of control of their bodies. Waking up in the morning they have to gather the courage to look in the mirror and behold the latest unwanted alteration that has afflicted their body overnight that they must take to school for all their world of peers to see.

Adolescence and puberty are not the same. Adolescence is the ten to twelve year process of psychological and social growth that transforms a dependent child into an autonomous young adult. Puberty is the one and a half to three year chemical and biological process that grows a child to sexual maturity.

Adolescence starts the child's journey to adulthood. Puberty starts the adolescent's journey to young womanhood or your manhood. In early adolescence, the two changes usually overlap.

Of course, most parents understand that with the entry into adolescence comes the young person's push for more social independence, but they usually just see one half of the picture - a push for more social independence from them. What they seem to totally miss is the other half - social independence with peers.

Now young people, instinctively knowing that the adolescent journey is not one to take alone and feeling more distant from family, obey the social imperative to create a "family" of friends independent of, and separate from their biological one. It is this new social world that they not only want to create, but they want to manage on their own, including making the rules of communication and treatment of each other, no adults consulted or admitted. It's almost like they post a sign to keep parents out: "No Adults Allowed."

The problem is, however, that the developmental insecurity of their peers, who are all destabilized by early adolescence too, causes everyone to compensate by striving against each other to establish a firm social place to belong with friends.

But there is no firm place in this quickly changing, fickle, and ruthless social world. Now your best friend today may not speak to you tomorrow, now public put downs put people in their place, now bigger and stronger prey on smaller and weaker for social dominance, now people take sides as the many torment the one, and now malicious rumors bring reputations crashing down.

Does every student this age receive this mistreatment? No, but they all witness it. Thus a single act of social cruelty poisons the well for all who know that what happened to someone else could happen to them, so they better watch out, be careful, be on guard. Does every student participate in this mistreatment? No, but they all see it, and when they choose not to intervene they only enable its continuation.

Severe social cruelty can be formative. For example, the bullied student can grow up to become submissive and the bully can grow up to become coercive. Habits of social behavior learned in middle school and unquestioned in high school can carry forward into adulthood.

I believe parents should not "keep out" of their early adolescent's social world, but stay informed and be prepared to act when they see social harm being done. And it is my hope that middle schools would actively engage with young people about their social behavior at this formative age.

I believe middle schools have a window of social influence that closes by high school. They can help students create ways of communicating with and treating each other that offer a healthy alternative to the social cruelty that will naturally develop if salient adults do not step up, speak up, and become actively involved.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Also my book, "Why Good Kids Act Cruel." See:

Next week's entry: Helping adolescents cope with social cruelty.