For 30 years I have been a psychotherapist in private practice, beginning in outpatient mental health clinics and various fields of social work including a Big Brother/Big Sister program. At Big Brother/Big Sister, I worked with and assessed many children and adolescents who were victims of bullying, as well as adults who carried the scars of emotional denigration from childhood. I have observed through my teaching at a University that there is an inclination for students to be drawn to peer groups that feel or look similar, creating an atmosphere at times of “cliques” and unintentional exclusion of peers who may not have the confidence to reach out or assert themselves. And of course, I was once an awkward adolescent navigating the elements of popularity and desire to fit in, often time without success. In fact, I was bullied. In our culture, one of the most commonplace forms of denigration occurs through bullying and this experience during such vulnerable stages of development poses serious implications. The question becomes how do we prime our children to be good citizens and set the stage for developing their ability to empathize, be kind, self-confident and contribute towards a culture of acceptance?
There are many factors that can contribute to a child bullying others or becoming a victim of bullying. We need to construct a culture of acceptance of ourselves and those we teach in the home or in schools during this most difficult time where we seem to find what’s wrong with others as opposed to what’s right.
Bullying hurts. We all know that. Life at times can feel like a continuum of trying to find one’s place in the world. We are consistently subjected to feedback on how we are perceived by others, and most of us are quite impacted by those perceptions. In fact, we tend to internalize/”take in” the perceptions others have of us, and make them our own. In other words, we believe what we are told or how we are treated. Interestingly, we are more prone to adopting the negative perceptions and dismissing the positive ones. Consider our culture of women in which a compliment is often undone with an excuse or explanation rather than an acknowledgement and appreciation. For example, how many of us can relate to the theme of being praised for our dress and our response is “this was very inexpensive” or “I don’t even like this shirt” rather than simply responding with a “thank you”. We may be able to trace this common response back to a society in which women were taught to be submissive; subservient, and if we acknowledge a personal strength or attribute it is aligned with boasting or not being humble.
As a psychotherapist, I am struck by the numerous people, predominantly women, I have treated over the years who are challenged by “what others think”. Granted I have not treated as many men as women, though I can say with conviction, that this is not as prominent an underlying issue or obstacle to interpersonal happiness or self-satisfaction.
We do all have childhood experiences that shape us as adults: shape our sense of self, our view of others, and of the world. Is it a safe place? Is it a threatening place? Am I a good, likable, personable, fun, smart… person? To feel safe when one has had a childhood filled with unhappy, challenging, or conflictual interpersonal experiences (such as bullying), requires replacing negative “voices'' with positive ones. I would like to be clear that those “voices” do not have to literally be spoken. Much of the time messages of acceptance or nonacceptance are sent to us non-verbally. We know when someone disapproves of us either through physical force, name-calling, facial gestures, or simply rejection in its various forms such as exclusionary behavior. Positive “voices” can also come from others, and this can be the start of healing; truly hearing and/or feeling the way you are being received. Or, it can come from cognitive dissonance, which involves the active self-talk of disputing our own irrational thoughts.
As part of our life-course, everyone is trying to find their place in the world. Research has demonstrated the challenge of “fitting in” at the most complicated time of identity development; middle school and high school. According to Erik Erikson, during this stage of development experiences of positive reinforcement are critical to developing a secure sense of self. During adolescence, teenagers explore their personal sense of identity through values, appearance, and taking risks. When an individual achieves feelings of pride and accomplishment, they are likely to emerge from this stage with a steady state of confidence. This results in feelings of independence and control. Erikson emphasized our development through social interaction. When an adolescent is bullied, they will likely remain unsure of their beliefs and desires and feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future. Because our identity is shaped by our interpersonal experiences, it is essential to develop positive social interactions from a young age. Yet, how are social interactions developed positively?
When a parent has children, they tend to have ideas about the values they want to impart and they are usually aware of the protectiveness they feel; the “mamma bear syndrome”: no one, ever, will harm my child. Not to be confused with helicopter parenting , in which a parent is overzealously controlling in a protective manner or smothering. “Mamma bear syndrome” is the nurturing, loving instinct to protect one’s child. Despite the reality that we cannot manage every aspect of our child’s experience, we can strive to instill perspectives and perceptions and values, and build character that will arm our children with the ability to manage outside influences. We have to accept that we cannot control every interaction a child has. We must learn to let go and trust. And, we can hope to correct or pick up the pieces of “damage” that we may learn of later. What we do have control over, in the name of developing that sense of protectiveness, is the following: modeling appropriate behavior; conveying empathy and developing empathy in your child; and creating appropriate social interactions beginning at home. I will post a follow-up blog on the shaping aspects of development that parents do have control over.