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Thursday, October 14, 2010

The bullying epidemic

Lately there has been a lot of news coverage about the suicides of bullied teenagers. Of course like any parent, I am troubled by it and think the behavior of those doing the bullying is reprehensible. I can't help but wonder, where are we as parents - as a society - going wrong?

I look at my own kids and those in my neighborhood and wonder how things will turn out in 10 years or so. I've blogged about this before - one of my son's friends has particular trouble adjusting to new and different situations, and for the most part it seems like his parents comply. Mom nervously laughs it off like "I wonder where he got that from?" referring to her husband.

In this case, the apple doesn't fall far from the tree: her husband is probably one of the most uptight, constrained individuals I've ever met. One change in routine is cause for complaint, and honestly, if he saw someone dying on the side of the road, I wonder if he'd feel too uncomfortable to get involved. My husband, who is much more outspoken and troubled by societal matters, deals with him on a daily basis and we often marvel at how much these people can't think outside the parameters of their own comfort zone. Which makes we wonder: Do we raise our kids to be bullied? Do our non-confrontational behaviors pass down to our children, as in this case?

I can't, obviously, look into my crystal ball and say that's what happened in the cases of these students who committed suicide over being bullied. One father did speculate, though, whether he raised his son to be "too polite."

Sometimes I wonder, though, if our society's "everybody's a winner!" approach to life is actually enabling our children to not take rejection and loss well. In the case of our neighbors, I'm not sure how they're teaching their children coping mechanisms to make it in the real world. Additionally, I've blogged about another family we're friends with, too - who fit the description of 'helicopter parents' pretty well. How does that teach our kids to deal with stressful situations?

Conversely, what are parents doing if their kids are the ones doing the bullying? One mother whose daughter committed suicide related how she did defend herself, but eventually the bullying got so bad she just gave up. At her funeral, the girls who picked on her the most actually came up to the casket and laughed over what the dead girl was dressed in. I can't even imagine. Did anyone confront the parents? Does it even matter if they did?

In this country, at least, the pendulum seems to swing both ways: on one hand, some like to use their "Freedom of Speech" to hurt others. Strangely enough, as a result it seems like we've gotten totally non-confrontational and no one wants to say anything at all. I'm not sure why those bullies were even at that girl's funeral, or why anyone let them in. They should have been turned away at the door. The article doesn't say if the bullies' parents were confronted - unfortunately sometimes the parents are just as bad, or are in complete denial that their kids could ever so anything so terrible.

As a teacher, my husband continues to see an escalation in the number of inappropriate things happening here on campus. Sometimes, the school's "powers that be" act on it; sometimes not. My husband has lectured students on things seemingly as trivial as wardrobe choices - you know the old saying, "If you give them an inch, they'll take a mile." Other teachers have taken him aside and personally thanked him for actually saying something. Is that what it's come to - that we let ourselves feel uncomfortable because we're too afraid to say something?

Several of the parents in question are suing the school district because they feel it did not do enough to protect the kids. Perhaps they're right. Any time kids get away with physical abuse - smacking someone in the face with a water bottle, as one kid did - and the kind of torture these teens were subjected to, the school district better be prepared to take a stand and make it stop. I fail to understand how this behavior could have gone unnoticed, and only wonder if perhaps the school is afraid to take a stand - after all, it seems like everyone is easily offended these days and no one wants to speak out. So much for our "zero tolerance" policies, which somehow seem to get twisted around and protect the very people they're designed to weed out, or at the very least, they go overboard.

I wonder if parents themselves are also afraid to take a stand against their own children. Are they too afraid of making their kids mad, too afraid that their child will rebel and they'll lose them? That their kids will no longer see them as a "friend"? Teens and young people seem to have an overwhelming lack of respect - we read stories of the "Barefoot Bandit," a 19-year-old with a history of burglary and theft who was wanted across international lines. His mother thinks it's "neat." She's tried to parent him, tried to stop him, but it just doesn't work any longer. Excuse me? Who's the parent here? You or him?

Just the other night I passed a police officer pulling over what looked to be a young woman in her late teens or early twenties. I could tell by her stance and body language that she was not happy, and didn't doubt the conversation they were having was not a positive one. Whatever happened to respect for authority?

The idea of teens being bullied obviously isn't new - the rash of school shootings since the 1990s shows us that. Guys like the shooters at Columbine were troubled, bullied teens who carried out their death wishes very differently, unfortunately. One kid, Kip Kinkel, decided to come into his school and shoot his peers after being expelled for having a loaded, stolen handgun in his possession at school. Prior to that, his parents, desperate to "control and connect" with him, decided to use his interest (obsession) in explosives and handguns to actually buy him a handgun. What were they possibly thinking and how could they have missed the warning signs of their son's problem? We may never know, because he shot and killed both of them. (Apparently the teen's psychologist told his parents to let him have the guns, because it would be a 'good outlet.')

One thing that does concern me in all of this is how these parents approached the idea of depression and conflict resolution in their kids - how do you deal with emotions and positive ways to express them? Anytime someone commits suicide I find it so sad, especially in knowing that it's not the best solution, obviously, to solving a problem. The article mentions a friend of one of the dead teens and how she committed suicide as well - and so did her two brothers, leaving a mother of three with three dead children. What is happening here? How can we adequately express to our kids that yes, the teenage years are difficult, but there is life after being bullied? That it doesn't have to be the end but that you can be made stronger from this and eventually triumph?

It has to make you wonder what kind of coping skills these kids had to deal with certain situations, even those outside the scope of bullying. With my own kids, we're now dealing with minor issues like bus ride quarrels and an occasional exchange of words. I tell my son who cares if Jack thinks your zucchini muffin is weird? If you like it, then ignore him and eat it. I hope to teach my kids skills that can help them deal, make them more compassionate and ultimately allow them to grow a thick enough skin to ignore even the worst of it. They are learning that life is not always fair, and they will not always get what they want, along with understanding why people say and do silly, hurtful things. Only time will tell.

More reading: Expert says media dangerously ignore mental illness in coverage of gay teen suicides


Anonymous said...

I think we got it all wrong. We send our kids to an unnatural place where they are locked in for 6 hours a day with complete strangers with nobody to fend or protect them. Just like prison, they have to do all sort of things to fit in or just survive. They have to join groups or gangs to try to belong to something and not be bullied.

School is not a lab for real life. In real life people are not herded by age. People are no segregated by groups or gangs they join. If that does happen they become vehicles or victims of prejudice or violence.

As civilized people we have to aim to accept all people, if not accept them completely, at least treat them civilly. If that does not happen, people end up being fined, put in jail or sued for breaking civil laws.

I don't understand why is it that we think that because children are in school it's alright for children to be bullied and hurt.

I homeschool my children. I have 4. When they hurt each other, I tell them clearly that it's unacceptable behavior. That if they did that to a friend they would probably lose their friendship. If they did that to a stranger, they would probably end up in jail. If they broke a law and disrespected a policeman or another civil authority they would end up in jail or sued.

so, why is it that for children that go to school it's alright for them to break all civil laws?

When I was a child I was bullied. I remember in first grade in a public school being called a bag of rotten bananas. I remember being called fat. if you look at my pictures at that age I was a beautiful girl and not fat at all.

I never told my parents. I was all alone in a strange environment. I think it was mutual unspoken consent that I was supposed to fend for myself. At 7 y.o.????!!!! But what else was I to think if my parents had abandoned me to this place where I was locked with other kids that were mean to me and the adults around did nothing about it??

part I...

Anonymous said...

part II and final...

30+++ years later the same story is seen and heard all over the world. Children belong in their families. There they are safe to grown, to learn.

yes, there are families that bully their children and hurt them and that too is not right. But that is not how it was ordained. In the family environment children belong there, they were placed there to be protected from birth until they are ready to go out and make their own families.

When I was a teenager I attempted suicide. I felt I did not belong anywhere. I didn't think my parents were a safe harbor for me. I never brought them problems. If I broke the law I made sure they never found out.

When I was 14 I attempted suicide, it was my cry for help. It was my attempt to be heard and seen.

It's sad that these stories are repeated over and over again.

Fortunately, Jesus found me and now I am safe. :) I want to raise my children to know that they can come to me for anything, be it pretty or ugly. I want to be right there next to them to protect them.

I don't want them locked in a place where others are hostile to them. Who in their sane mind would put oneself through that? So, why is it that we think it's ok to put our kids through it?

If a friend told you that a neighbor was calling her names, or throwing things at her, or damaging her property what would you do? Tell her to tough it out? who cares that your neighbor calls you a whore? No, you would encourage her to go to the police. You would probably help her collect evidence by being a witness or documenting the damage. If that didn't help, and the police didn't do anything you would encourage her to move, or go to the media or to court. (We all know of stories like this that ended in tragedy and/ or jail) But we would do something.

So, why, why do we stand and do nothing when it comes to our children? why do we tell our children to ignore and pretend it's nothing? Why do we tell our kids to endure torture?

Oh, you say they need to learn to be strong and take a stand. Let it be done inside your home where You, the parent, can oversee their learning process in safety.

I think, like everything else in this country, it's our own fault. We are standing by and letting it happen right under our eyes and doing nothing. :(

The Deranged Housewife said...

I appreciate your comments.

Part of what I mentioned, especially in the situation with the girls mocking the dead teenager at her own funeral, were that the parents need to speak up. I would say that parallels your idea of going to the police. Confront the girls at the funeral, in front of everyone - call them to the carpet and demand to know what they're doing there. Call their parents. Call these bullies out and show everyone else that they have no power if you don't give it to them.

If you as a parent knew your child was being bullied, what would you do? I think I'd listen, assess the situation and depending on the severity of it, take action. Have a meeting with the principal. If you get no where, call the parents - have a meeting with them and the principal. It's probably no secret with the administration who's doing the bullying in these situations. Maybe the parents are a real piece of work - maybe not. You never know. I think so many times people are afraid to defend themselves and their kids.

My gut reaction would be to give the bully at least a verbal ass-kicking, but I dunno ... :)

Yvonne said...

Hi, Just doing some research and came across your posting. We would love to use your BW picture of the Teenager resting head on knees for an upcoming issue on Child and Youth Mental Health. Issue like bullying are
covered in this issue and we would like to get a high resolution photo to use.

Many thanks,
Yvonne Koo
Longwoods Publishing
Design and Production
ykoo [at] longwoods[dot]com

The Deranged Housewife said...

Actually, this photo comes from a stock photography site that I use often for a number of projects.

Here is a link to the original photo and a way to contact the photographer. Thanks! (which reminds me, I need to go back and credit him/her.) :)