Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Middle School Bullying Problem

I finished a touching, emotionally wrenching book this weekend called The Grief of others by Leah Hager Cohen. The story revolves around a family where each member feeling isolated in their own lives, struggle with feelings of loss, self-esteem and connection. One of the characters is a 12 year old seventh grade boy. The transition from elementary to middle school has been agonizing for him. Here is his assessment after a walk home that was marred by two boys from his school who taunt him for being "fat" and for "blushing" when they try to embarrass him. 'Paul' feels completely inept in dealing with these boys, allowing them to make him feel worthless, ugly and fat.

Here is Paul. " it has been this way more or less for almost the past two years. He had no idea why. He'd been liked well enough in elementary school. Of course it hadn't helped that his best friend Alexi had moved to Florida at the end of fifth grade. But it wasn't as if Alexi had been his only friend. In fifth grade fifteen kids had attended his birthday party. By the following autumn most of these same kids, if they did not actually abuse him outright, would greet him in the hallways, abstractedly if at all. And not one rose to his defense when other kids, those who had never been his friends, targeted him with their teasing."

Paul, like many middle school kids is stuck in the middle of puberty. His acne is pronounced, he has "chubbed" out as his tormentors never let him forget, and he is awkward around those kids who have magically become so much more adept at talking and hanging with each other. In short he is a magnet for bullying. Self consciousness, shyness, passivity and awkwardness are no weapons when it comes to savy, confident young teens who love the power of making someone feel less than.

Not only was Paul's everyday life at school torture, but he was so humiliated by his lack of action that he never shared his blight with adults who could support or help. And adults, caught up in their own lives only became aware when an act of physical aggression occurred. Though Paul's easy going nature changed to sullen, his parents chalked it up to becoming a teen, and too engaged in their own hardships just weren't paying attention.

Perhaps you have a 6th or 7th grader whose life has similarly changed since heading into the jungle of middle school. Maybe puberty has been unkind, and weight gain, lack of height, and acne has turned your once carefree child into a young teen who hides under big sweatshirts, hats, hair, and bowed head and silence. Perhaps he or she has been made fun during gym class for running to slow, or eating too much during lunch in the cafeteria, or who knows what, and has absolutely no idea what to say or do when it happens. Like Paul, they are literally at a loss of words. And unfortunately saying nothing is worse than saying something, at least to a bully. It is an opening for more!

So if you see some change in your young teen. From happy and carefree to notably quiet, and isolating, and as you objectively look at your teen can you see that the changes of puberty have not been kind to your son/daughter, don't wait for them to come to you. They probably won't, much too embarrassing to tell your mom and dad kids are picking on you. They want to be able to handle it, not run to mom and dad, even though you might be able to support and help them.

Here is an "I get it" moment maybe while walking the dog, taking a ride in the car, not sitting face to face. "You know honey, I've noticed you don't seem as happy as you used to be. I get it's been a tough year, changing schools can really be a pain. I remember when I went to middle school, kids that used to be my friends, found other friends, and left me kind of out of it. And forget about how I looked, that's a whole other story. How about you, I've noticed you don't hang with X and X anymore. Have they moved on to some new friends? I know your skin has been a problem for you, is there anything you are really hating these days about yourself, cause that's totally normal. Have other kids been giving you a hard time, I know that happens alot in middle school. You know I can help you with that, maybe help you come up with things to say back to kids that makes you feel as strong as they are. I am always here to help you know, middle school can be torture, I know cause I've been there. "

And then just leave it there. Don't ask a thousand questions. You have opened the door, to let them know you are aware of a change, and you are there to support them, not solve their problems, but give them help in solving their own problems. Middle school can suck big time!!!

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