And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence

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9780743228985: And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence
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Citing the pervasiveness of emotional violence in schools, a guide for parents and educators identifies ways in which schools unwittingly support hostile environments while explaining why listening to teens is a key to addressing all forms of violence. 50,000 first printing.

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About the Author:

James Garbarino, Ph.D., is the author of Lost Boys and coauthor of Parents Under Siege. He is Codirector of the Family Life Development Center and Professor of Human Development at Cornell University. Formerly President of the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development, he has also consulted for the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health. He lives in Ithaca, New York.

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Chapter 2: The Secret School Life of Adolescents

Over and over again parents are surprised, even stunned, to discover the extent and nature of the emotional and physical violence that their teenagers face at school. Have parents been blind to the reality right under their noses, or are they in a state of denial? The more likely explanation is that teenagers and their parents live in different worlds. Jason, who is fifteen years old, attends a large suburban high school in New York. He has a small group of friends who, like him, are in the band. He is not the kind of kid who gets into trouble at school or at home. He believes in "minding my own business" and still does not understand why he was singled out at school. He described his sense of surprise and helplessness this way:

When I was a freshman, I was attacked by four guys at school. I was coming back from band practice, and they dragged me into the boys' restroom and beat me up. I never knew why. No, I never told my parents about it. What for? There was nothing they could do about it. There's nothing anybody can do about it.

We have heard many other teens talk with the same level of conviction that there is nothing that they or anyone else can do to change their circumstances during the school day. They just have to figure out how to "take it." This resignation breeds silence, and the students' conviction is reinforced by the rest of the players in the system. For example, as parents, when our daughters come home and tell us that the boys are chasing them on the playground or teasing them with sexual remarks, we might respond with, "Well, they're just doing that because they like you."

While this may be true in some instances, it is not enough of a response to help. We need to say more. We need to give girls strategies for thinking through what to do and how to do it. For many of them, every day that they feel tormented by this kind of bullying, their self-esteem is slipping, and their feelings of helplessness are growing. Boys, too, are the recipients of this kind of harassment, particularly those who are smaller, slighter, and gentler than the typical masculine norm.

Teachers and other adults often ignore this kind of "play" between teenagers in the mistaken belief that kids have to figure out how to handle these kinds of interactions for themselves. Some pediatricians have supported this approach, advising parents to allow siblings to work out their rivalries without any intervention. The problem with this philosophy is that the solutions children come up with on their own are not always healthy, and often lead to escalating conflict rather than its resolution.

For some children, of course, the solutions turn out to be good and adequate and healthy. They learn how to stand up for themselves. They learn assertiveness. But often we fail to see the full scope and impact of these solutions immediately, if we ever see them at all. For many children, the "solutions" to being harassed, bullied, and tormented can include becoming a bully in response, staying in the building during recess, feeling "sick" at recess or during gym class, joining a group that is "tough" ("my homies") for defense, and beginning to use some sort of drug (whether cigarettes, alcohol, or pot) to try to dull the pain they experience.

With these attempted solutions come many future repercussions. Instead of a secure child, we see a child who shuns activities that we consider good and wholesome. We see children who are no longer sure of themselves, and we attribute this to "normal adolescence." We see a child who is full of rage at home or seems depressed, and again, we think, "This is how it is to be a teenager, isn't it?"

The sources of anxiety and fear for children are not obvious to adults, and parents are often shocked to find out what their kids have been going through at school. Survey research we conducted with college students revealed that many of them felt threatened when they were attending high school but never told their parents. For example, 51 percent of the males said that while they were in high school they were afraid of people at school, and 46 percent say their parents never knew this.

Most parents are unaware of the fact that in confidential surveys, kids say the rides to and from school on the bus are often the periods of greatest vulnerability for them. Why don't parents know? How can they know more? In this chapter we explore the impediments parents and other adults face in trying to understand their kids' day-to-day life in high school. We offer some suggestions on how to break through the domains of silence and misinformation between kids and parents.

Parallel Lives

Journalist Patricia Hersch spent six years doing research for a book about teenagers called A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. What did she learn? "Today's teens are a tribe apart. The most striking characteristic of many adolescents today is their aloneness....I've learned how much their world eludes us adults -- not necessarily because they are rebelling or evading us but because we are not part of it....That freedom changes everything for kids."

She concludes: "There have always been troubled kids, but today their increased isolation allows pressures to build up with no release, no guidance. There is often little monitoring of how adolescents spend their time, whether it be on the Internet, with video games, music, building bombs, or doing their homework." This isolation is the foundation for the secret life of teenagers, a life most teens experience in common ways but taking its darkest form in the life and death of a boy like Dylan Klebold.

There are millions of kids around the country who are alienated, who feel like outcasts, who echo the nineteen-year-old boy quoted in Mark Jacobson's May 17, 1999, New York magazine article about teenagers' reactions to the Columbine shootings: "To be honest, when I first heard about it, part of me feels like, 'Yay!' This is what every outcast kid has been dreaming about doing since freshman year."

Ask almost any adult this question: "Did your parents know about everything you did when you were a teenager that was dangerous, illegal, or dishonest?" For most of us the answer is a resounding no. To test this out, we did a survey of undergraduate students at Cornell University enrolled in a course in human development. The results indicate that many of the respondents had some secret life of which their parents were unaware. Even among this sample of particularly successful and well-behaved adolescents and young adults, there were many with substantial dark secrets. Here are some sample responses when asked to describe the "worst thing, in the sense of most dangerous or troubling" that they had done or considered doing as a teenager in high school that "your parents never found out about":

I thought a lot about death. I thought about suicide, but after much thought I decided that was morally wrong and I couldn't do it, even if I really wanted to. I often prayed that perhaps I'd be in an accident or something similar so that way I could escape from my abusive father.

I was involved in a situation over a girl that escalated to the point that myself and my best friend were threatened with being shot by a guy who had an interest in this girl.

I drank almost every weekend of my senior year in high school, and my parents had no idea. On one occasion I almost died due to my impaired judgment. I was so drunk I jumped on the front end of a car full of my friends, and the car drove off down the bumpy road. After a while I slid off the front of the car and landed in front on the wheels. I heard the brakes squeal, and when the car stopped the right tire was flush against my ribs. I couldn't even get up until the car rolled back because my sweater was still caught under the wheel.

There are too many for there to be a "worst." I had unprotected sex with my boyfriend when I was fourteen and thought I was pregnant when my period was late. I was seriously depressed and contemplated suicide. I hung out with drug dealers.

A group of us broke into an old school during one winter on weekends so we could have keg parties. We vandalized the school and tore up countless records and important documents that were being stored there. Eventually the police found out, but my parents never did.

I seriously contemplated suicide for most of my high school years. Also, I often cut and hurt myself during high school as a way to transfer the emotional pain to physical pain, and probably also as an attempt to get their attention from the scars and bruises. They never noticed.

I considered suicide in high school. My parents never knew. I was diagnosed as manic-depressive my senior year of high school, which had manifested itself through an eating disorder. In retrospect, I can see that my bipolar disorder had been building since approximately twelve years of age. I was very smart and knew that there was something abnormal in my behavior. I used my intelligence to hide it.

These are academically successful young people, responsible and bright enough to succeed in a prestigious elite university, and majoring in human development. If these students have secret lives, then what could we expect of less able, less responsible, more troubled kids? In her work as a therapist, Ellen has heard and seen this firsthand over and over again. Kids and parents sometimes live in parallel worlds, with parents unaware of what their children face at school or what their children are doing to compensate for the pain they are experiencing.

Why Don't Parents Know?

Swedish psychologists Margaret Kerr and Hakan Stattin shed light on the process underlying teenagers' secret lives in a report entitled "What Parents Know, How They Know It, and Several Forms of Adolescent Adjustment." Kerr and Stattin studied over a thousand fourteen-year-olds and their parents. They found that the more parents knew about what their kids did, the b...

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