Monday, July 26, 2010

Bullying: Nowhere to Turn?

It's one of those things that's difficult to define, but we know it when we see it. Or do we? The youthful scourge of bullying has proven a very difficult monster to tame. It seems the more this phenomenon is studied, the more nebulous its core characteristics become, which is in fact where much of the problem lies.

Too often bullying is portrayed as a harmless right of passage in our pop culture media, laughing it up all the way while helpless nerd types are consigned the indignity of atomic wedgies, toilet swirlies, and the oh-I-didn't-mean-to-bump-into-you-so-hard body slam in the hallway. In the real world, however, bullying is more nuanced and subtle so as to camouflage its sinister essence and provide the offender with the plausible deniability he or she needs to avoid responsibility and consequences.

The difference between normal boundary testing among kids and the invidious institution of bullying is that bullying is used for the express purpose of hurting its victims; hurting, alienating, and subordinating are the objective, its willfulness the most defining trait. The everyday border skirmish between young personalities carries no such odious motivation and is much less likely to result in serious emotional injury.

There is also an unlikely and unwitting co-conspirator committing the ominous sin of omission when most bullying incidents occur: the nearest adult authority figure. Passively instructing an apparent offender to "knock it off" or "return to your seat" while his victim fumes with silent desperation reveals a profound ignorance about what is often really occurring. Even when a teacher does recognize serious bullying for what it is, he or she is sometimes met with an unsympathetic administration whose agenda often involves denial. So often the abused feel most disappointed by the very adults charged with maintaining civility and administering consequences. Not only will incidents be rationalized and minimized as mere misunderstandings, worse yet is the sense of betrayal victims experience when their emotional pain is not even validated by those in authority.

When those who have been repeatedly abused by their peers feel they have no place—or no one—to turn to for help, long-term consequences are all but inevitable.

These observations are informed, sadly, by the experience of having a child who was mistreated by her peers. As parents we, too, felt most aggrieved by the adults, the administration, guidance counselor, etc., who kept trying to turn the page without ever really reading what was on the page. One counselor had the effrontery to say, after our child was admitted to a psychiatric facility, that maybe 'in there' she would finally see some real suffering which would "snap her out of it." Inexplicably, this person did not even comprehend the seriousness of her plight and the reality of her already painful predicament.

Today my daughter is my hero. She is committed to turning the page, but knows full well the way to get beyond the pain is to work her way through the pain—not go around it.

The conspiracy of denial must end. It is time the bullies were sent to the school psychologist to gain some insight into their own behavior. Counseling should be part of a comprehensive approach to dealing with offenders. Bullies need to learn the craft of empathy. The consequences of not learning we know all too well.

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