This week I am fortunate to be writing from the idyllic Rancho la Puerta in Mexico, an environment that is in stark contrast to the subject of the horrific ongoing epidemic of child bullying that leads to suicide and suicide attempts. I attended a talk by prominent New York child and adolescent psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz about the role of the brain throughout life. He hit on the fragility and moodiness of the child that is particular to adolescence because of brain overload.
During the discussion he brought up the topic of bullying. It is easy to see why adolescents would be especially overwhelmed by fierce peer pressure during these years. In general, the child brain doesn't have the organizational abilities and steadiness to be allowed by Hertz to rent a car until the age of 25. Koplewicz said this is with good reason. He cited the recent episode in Southeast Houston where an eight year old dyslexic boy jumped from a second story window at his school in an apparent suicide attempt. Fortunately, he was saved by the bushes below, but his ego had been brutalized by two classmates who pulled down his pants and taunted him. Much like the case of Phoebe Prince making headlines this week, the Houston boy's mother had been calling the school since September of 2009 to report the bullying and ask administrators and teachers to protect her son.
In a bizarre post script, school authorities had this boy sign a statement that he wouldn't try a suicide attempt again, and in addition they didn't call for paramedics but rather only called his mother and a psychiatrist. This occurred after the teacher in charge was sent out of the room, instead of the malicious bullies. How sadly ironic is it that the only solution the school sought was to have a dyslexic victim (or any other eight year old child) sign a document basically promising something that nobody can promise.
News of this type and descriptions of this abuse and neglect have become all too familiar.
Our discussion here in Mexico turned to why children bully. Sure, adolescents are more vulnerable in their brain chemistry and in the overstimulation of their brains and fantasy. But I raised the issue of how children are modeling the adults they witness daily bullying and hating other adults, of the town hall meetings where hatred is a kind word for the weapons of community destruction hurled by citizens on other citizens. Personally, I cannot listen to a Fox radio broadcast for the fierce sadistic violence of what is called "commentating," and I doubt I could bear it even if I were a conservative that makes up their choir.
And that's the news. Such adult behavior is replete on so-called "reality" television and game shows.
We need to get serious about the urgent need to focus on adult bullying of other adults, something at times dramatic and at others so usual as to be part of the staples of our living conditions. We routinely demean those who think or believe things different than we, who are of a different race or sexual orientation. And, a propos of the brain, we have stopped thinking when it comes to the extent of the names we call each other whether out loud or behind the backs of so called friends and enemies alike. Recall the recent shout, "Baby killer," in the halls of Congress.
Do we really want to know why our kids are bullying? Dare we question the connections with our war in Iraq where opponents have been bullied and prisoners tortured by Americans who are trained to feel morally superior to our enemies? Before we get wrapped up in "superiority," do we have the capacity to use our brains to realize that those who commit bullying are at risk as well?
I submit that the adults who model bullying behavior are at as much risk as the children who bully in the schoolyard. There is an underlying depression and low self-worth. Simply put, secure and happy people do not hold onto resentments to the point at which they act out sadistically. Secure people are too busy loving and living to spend so much time hating.
Listen up, please. We need "zero tolerance" for the lack of tolerance in our society. Frankly, the whole notion of "zero tolerance" is a term that needs to be overhauled simply because, on the whole, we regularly prove an inability to tolerate, to have tolerance not only for each other but for finding out the real reasons all of this is occurring. We need to begin with listening (without a rush to judgment) to the stories on all sides: those of the bullied and the bullies as well. We need to know and understand not only the outer plot but the stories that are percolating on the inside of all of the players.
Just the other day, a young boy I treat in New York said it so clearly:
"Zero tolerance is a bad joke. It's a term with no meaning. Everybody bullies. The teachers can be just as bad because they panic or something, like they are so scared someone will hurt themselves. They either act like it's not happening or they rush to tell on you if you look the wrong way. It's not about caring -- it's about how scared they are of getting in trouble. Everyone is so messed up, so how do they expect kids to 'reach out' to grown-ups when it's just gonna make you feel like killing yourself even more? It is not a phenomenon, it is a school sport."
And this comes from the mouth of a child who is bullied, but sees through what is going on and that the adults around him are just staying on the surface. Even though his brain development leaves him vulnerable to impulsivity and poor social judgment, his brain is sophisticated enough to see through too many of us.
You -- we -- don't control hatred or statements of hostility by simply punishing the acts. The word we need to ask is why? That inconvenient word which will show us that the bullies are as scared as the kids they bully, and they feel a different pain. Our kids are alienated amidst a populace that is not including them or solving our own problems of how to get along.
With all the advances in our understanding of brain chemistry, we haven't gotten very far in understanding how potent is the undigested hatred, and the terror that lies within us all that is so often unknown, untamed and therefore toxic.
We used to think that when kids acted out they were trying to tell us something. I would suggest that we not merely issue decrees or judgments but that we start listening. We would be well served by taking some of these kids and listening to what they need for us to hear. It is our job as adults to protect them, to keep them safe, to be their models. They are speaking in desperate acts of drugging and digging into peers and themselves. These are all symptoms of an alienation they have inherited -- from us.
It's our obligation to understand the symptom lest we imprison the drug abusing teenagers and the chaotic child bullies who are already in a mental and emotional prison. We are the guardians and the guards. It is not okay that bullying is a normal school sport nor is it that we tolerate it in our chronologically adult lives, without questioning ourselves.