In fragility of youth, bullying can leave lasting devastation

Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Copyright © 2011 Sun-Sentinel

For many kids, the first weeks of a new school year are a happy time of discovery and reconnection – seeing old friends, meeting new ones, trying out a fresh wardrobe, a new slate of classes.

But for too many others, going back to school is nothing more than an angst-filled experience, riddled with feelings of isolation, fear and anxiety about the teasing, taunts and intimidation that are sure to come.

That’s the crippling impact bullying has on so many young people’s lives. Once considered a normal part of growing up, we now know it is not child’s play, but instead can have lasting, devastating repercussions.

For a few who are pushed too far, the consequences can be deadly, for the bullied and the bully.

In a 2003 study published in the American Behavioral Scientist, State University of New York at Stony Brook researchers made this disturbing observation about the 28 random school shootings at mostly rural U.S. middle and high schools between 1982 and 2001:

”Most of the boys that opened fire were mercilessly and routinely teased and bullied, and their violence was retaliatory against the threats to manhood,” the researchers wrote, adding that “the specific content of the teasing and bullying is homophobia.”

That study became the springboard for a movement to require all schools to have enforced, strict, zero-tolerance policies on bullying behavior. Inherent in the push to root out and stop the mistreatment was a key philosophical shift that encouraged children, instead of worrying about being tattletales, to speak up if they witness any form of violence. Parents, too, share an obligation in this new climate, since adults typically recognize when a child is a victim of any sort of peer persecution.

It’s a movement, especially in light of the carnage, that is long overdue.

There is nothing worse than a child with a broken spirit. And if you have the experience of seeing a sibling, friend or loved one on the receiving end of dishonor, humiliation and emotional manipulation – or physical harm – you know that few experiences evoke such deep despair.

Our message should be simple: No assaults on the human spirit. No fists, nasty names, threats or intimidation – no matter the age. It is essential to intervene if we even suspect a young person is a participant in bullying, because this nation is suffering from a growing epidemic in that regard.

I guess that’s why bully-themed pop culture aimed at young people today is so important. The impact of Fox’s hit TV show, “Glee,” for example, is profound: It is making the rebuke of bullying the next “cool” thing.

As adults, we must follow suit, which means we must have some tough conversations with young people early. Our youth today are going global young. They are so connected that they must be taught that aggressive, vindictive or immature behavior can lead to life-altering consequences. Bullying, as an adult, is considered criminal assault, so there is no reason to allow kids to view their behavior any differently.

Today’s adults, though, are hardly proving to be responsible role models.

No one wants young people to be on the opposite side of every aisle, treating each other like their conservative vs. liberal and Republican vs. Democratic elders. Just look at adult politics and you’ll see we rarely communicate differences with kindness. Rather, bullying is practically a prerequisite for our engagements.

Likewise, when adults tolerate the nasty things kids do and say to one another, we are just being lazy or disrespecting the possible depth of injuries inflicted. So it is our role to empower youth to be assertive, not aggressive with one another. When we see otherwise, we must stop it on the spot.

But recognizing the pervasiveness of bullying is just the first step.

Every adult knows the experience of being bullied. People use strength or power to harm or intimidate those they perceive as weaker all the time. Most of us can admit to being a bully at one time or another, too. But as adults, we often have the power to change our circumstances or make amends, or benefit from maturity, self-esteem and experience.

Of course, bullying is worst when we are young and our world is small, when the end to being bullied is nowhere in sight and we have little control over our personal circumstances. Adolescence is awkward as it is, and it is the most significant, personal experience we all share from the ages of 10 to 40. However, we all experience it so differently, so personally, that it can make us inordinately self-conscious and emotionally fragile during the most formative years of our lives.

It is at this vulnerable young age that struggles with sexuality or gender identity make for an easy target in schools. That’s why there’s been such a strong push for policies that specifically enumerate protected classes. Guys are supposed to be taller than girls. Girls should be thin. Guys should have hair on their legs and be shaving by high school. Girls should be curvy with flawless skin. And then there is the expectation of dating.

With bodies and relationships changing rapidly, siblings, adults and peers might offer feedback about what is happening to us physically – at an often intimate and embarrassing time. Constantly critical of ourselves and aware of the observations of others, young adults begin to make strong assumptions about the look of the rest of their lives.

And the most terrible reality of this biological bewilderment is youth have no control over the process, or its outcome, or its timing. It becomes easy to doubt whether or not we will ever be fit to make it in the “real world.” Here is where the sting of unkind words or aggressive acts breaks spirits. And even though bullying instills fear, it has become such a common part of the human experience that many of us dismiss it as a part of growing up.

However, when you are the object of bullying, and if the subject for which you are harassed is peer-endorsed, a small pang of anxiety can balloon to a consuming paranoia that prevents young people from pursuing their greatest passions. Or worse, it leads them to do something self-destructive, with terrible consequences – things they would otherwise never do but for being mercilessly harassed.

At its core, bullying is violence. It can be passive, or incredibly aggressive and physical. But too often, being treated poorly is an emotional torment that festers inside a vacuum of loneliness, and we’ve been losing a growing number kids willing to do harm to themselves and others because of it.

The rash of teen suicides and elevated school violence makes it clear that decisions youth make when forced into this mental space can dramatically impact their actions. Their perspectives become slanted or depressed, aggressive or reflexive, and some youth even adopt an awful story line – one that leads to an all-too-predictable, unavoidable outcome – that their lives will be suffering without end. Unlike Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign suggests, some of our kids simply embrace the belief that things will not get better, ever.

Have you ever thought about what it would take to make you not want to go on living? Is there a thing that could influence you to take your own life or throw it away? Or worse, can you imagine the type of torment you’d have to endure to motivate you to commit an open act of violence so devastating that you murder people, and then maybe even kill yourself? We all have limits, and when we are pushed too far, we can justify just about any action, especially when we’re young.

The Stony Brook study’s link between adolescent masculinity, homophobia and violence makes you realize why a simple word like “faggot” can be received as the worst label attributed to a young male – regardless of his sexual orientation. Like being shoved, ridiculed or threatened, it is part of establishing a pecking order. But some acts make others feel so low on the social totem pole, they opt to bury themselves instead, and sometimes take others with them.

After all we know, what concerns me the most is that some adults still believe all kids need a little bullying, that it is an essential component of growing up. After all, how will kids know how to behave if they don’t get roughed up a bit when they step out of line – deviating from peers or by not acting as adults expect?

Unconditional love should be a standard family value and unconditional kindness a standard of the schoolyard. Respect and dignity cannot have conditions, or the safe environments we maintain for our youth will only serve to damage diverse generations of young people who will one day be asked to pave the way for our nation, together, with civility and respect for all.

Tony Plakas is CEO of Compass Inc., the gay and lesbian community center of the Palm Beaches.