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'Why Good Kids Act Cruel'

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Momlogic's Vivian: Ah, the glorious preteen years. Who could forget the tremendous stress we experienced as preteens, courtesy of mounting physical changes, an influx of hormones, and shape-shifting social structures that inspired us to pick-or-be-picked-on?

Teenage boys bullying younger boy

Today, the unfortunate statistics of school-grounds cruelty go a little something like this: it's estimated that 5.7 million kids in the U.S. are involved in school bullying, and 39% of middle schoolers say they don't feel safe at school. So how can we help our kids get through it?

Psychologist Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., author of Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth About the Pre-Teen Years, sheds some light on why good kids sometimes treat each other badly, and what we, as parents, can do to help them avoid social cruelty.

Momlogic: Why do good kids engage in social cruelty?

Carl Pickhardt: Once a kid gets close to adolescence, between the ages of 9-13, they become very developmentally insecure, and a lot of self-esteem that they enjoy falls away. They don't want to be treated or defined as children anymore. They tend to get more abrasive and argumentative with their parents, they get more negative to live with, and they test more limits. So what happens is their relationship with their parents gets more strained, and the child no longer wants to fit into the family the way they used to, so they feel cut off.

Then puberty sets in, so their bodies feel out of control and they feel extremely self-conscious, like they are the only people in the world who go through it. They worry everyone's going to see these horrible changes and tease them, so what they do is strive for a level of social independence, and they do this by setting up an independent social world at school. They try to compensate for their insecurities by establishing some kind of social belonging or social dominance in their world to get some sort of social security for themselves. They aren't going to tell their parents about this world, and they don't want their parents in this world. And during this vulnerable time, they are doing this with all the other kids who are equally developmentally insecure.

ML: Does a pecking order mentality enter into things?

CP: That often happens in cliques -- you don't tease the people above you because it will jeopardize your position, you tease the people below you in order to maintain your position. And most schools abandon kids to their own youth groups without providing some kind of salient presence or advice on how to communicate with and treat each other.

ML: What are some clues parents can look for to detect whether their kid is the picker or pickee?

CP: If parents wait for their kids to tell them if they've either been a participant of or a victim of social cruelty, they will never be told, because the code of the school yard is you don't tell anybody. Kids assume that adults don't know, don't care, and can't do anything about it. And if you ask a kid what their parent thinks, they often say their parent hasn't a clue.

Around the age of 9 or 10, parents should declare something like: "We know that you are entering into a period over the next few years where people are sometimes going to be mean to each other because they are scrambling for some kind of social place for themselves. They may tease, they may exclude, they may bully, they may rumor, and they may gang up. We want you to know, should any of those things happen to you, we would like you to be able to talk to us, so we can offer you some ideas on how to deal with those things. The other side of it is we hope you won't find yourself in a position where you feel you have to act that way to take care of yourself in this harsh social world. Whether you are being bullied or are the bully, you are hurt in both ways. If you're being bullied, you might develop a habit where it's hard to stand up for yourself. If you're the bully, you may start pushing people around, and neither of those behaviors are going to help you in future relationships."

Parents really need to be vigilant in assessing how their kid is doing at this socially difficult age. If you ask how their day was, you'll get a one-word "okay" answer. Instead, ask about a couple of good things that happened and a couple of hard things that happened, and share the same about your day. If you want your kid to share with you, you have to share with your kid. To them, questions feel like you are invading their privacy. Instead, say something like, "I would really love to know a little bit about what happened to you today and what kind of time you had with your friends today." By doing this, you show that you respect that your child is in control of that information, and if they share, you'd appreciate it, as opposed to a question, which sounds like a command to a lot of adolescents.

Most importantly, don't just give your kid this message one time. It's got to be an ongoing conversation where you come at them with interest, empathy, and concern. They might not tell you if they're involved in social cruelty right away, but if you sense your child isn't in a good place, you can try again later in the evening. At bedtime, your child is relaxing their waking guardedness and stuff just floats up. Another good time to talk is if you're transporting them somewhere, just keeping quiet company with each other. Just stay away from questions as much as possible -- you want to move from asking questions to making requests.

ML: Is it true that if a child acts vulnerable in the face of social cruelty, that they'll get picked on more? And if so, what are some tools they can use to deflect social cruelty when it starts?

CP: Ask the child to identify some classmates who didn't get involved because it helps the kid see that just because some kids are mean, not everybody is. You want your child to realize that the popular kids are really just a minority, or a clique. The key is to maximize social contact and encourage them to have multiple social circles. A kid who limits their social circles to school is much more vulnerable than kids with some outside of school. They need social circles in which they are well treated and well thought of.

Also, make sure that your kid is a target of social cruelty -- not a victim of social cruelty. Victims have no choice, but targets do. Talk about some of the ways they can act that might be different from what they've done in the past to get a different response. Ask your kid what they think the bully thought they'd do in response, then ask what would happen if they violated that prediction. Suppose they spoke up and acted friendly? Suppose they laughed or blew it off? If the bully doesn't get what they want, they're likely to move onto someone else, and you've empowered your kid with choice.

Finally, if your kid really has tried everything and is still the target of relentless, nonstop bullying, then the parent has to have a talk with them about intervening on their behalf to get some support in ending the situation. Tell them you aren't sending them to school to be a target of hateful behavior, and that they have a right to be safe. But bear in mind, whenever you jump into your kid's world, it helps to discuss it with them first.

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33 comments so far | Post a comment now
Lydia Kolman February 4, 2010, 7:15 AM

My daughter was bullied in 5th grade and we have spent the past four years trying to help her with the depression that has occurred since. The sad thing is this could have been prevented. Anti bullying training needs to happen early in the schools to keep “good kids” from going bad.

Tricia Powe February 4, 2010, 9:39 AM

I found truth in the “Why Good Kids Act Cruel” article. I would like to add that the hearts of children are shaped by their home environment. Political correctness might not agree, but to a large degree we have abandoned the spiritual training of the hearts of our children in the United States. This has simply made way for more hurtful and inherently self-centered behavior. Parents are to train up their children in the way they should go while they are teachable - to include what my mother taught me about being others-minded no matter how I was feeling. I did not always succeed, but when I failed, I felt bad for hurting someone else’s feelings. Futhermore, parents would do well to take a stronger stand against television’s innuendos gone wild! The problem, as I see it, is that parents are so tapped out for free time, they are not able to attend to everything that matters and that influences the hearts of their children. Parents must find a way to return to having a greater sense of balance themselves to have the time to include training the hearts of their children and asserting parental oversights in the lives of their children.

adelaide dancing February 4, 2010, 3:45 PM

great article, very insightful!

Doreen  March 16, 2010, 7:09 AM

While this may be true for teenagers, is there an explanation for adults over the age of 21 engaging in cruel behaviour just because they know they can? What does it say about someone’s character if they feel that another human being is so much less than them that it is okay for them to trample on? My experience is that anyone, regardless of age, who enages in belittling another human being is probably acting on their insecurities and building themselves up (in their own eyes) by breaking another person down. However, the author gives good advice about not restricting oneself to only one social circle and instead having a variety of social circles. Doreen

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