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Beline Obeid

Meanness is starter fluid for bullying

Ask the Experts


September 20, 2012
Q. There is so much education on bullying in the schools, but I'm not sure I understand what the difference is between unkindness between peers and bullying? What do I need to know to help my children navigate these issues in school and socially? What's the major difference between meanness and bullying?

A. All bullying involves meanness but not all meanness is bullying. What distinguishes bullying from unkind behavior is that it is intentional, aggressive and involves an imbalance of power.

Bullying and meanness is becoming more prevalent in children's lives:

* Adults are bullying when they are mean to children. Their authority and power creates a child as a target when they are treated with disrespect.

* Relational aggression seems to be today's culture. Vulgar and mean language is tolerated in public, the media and some families, resulting in the erosion of authority.

* Technology allows for name-calling, put-downs and threats with an anonymity and absence of seeing hurt, fear and shame on another's face.

* Meanness is fueled by anger. In large part, this is driven by the increased frustration, over-scheduling and multiple stressors are part of every day life. Children and adults have become desensitized to crude language and tolerate disrespect toward each other.

Parents, teachers and coaches are the primary influences and authorities in a child's life. Yet, parents under siege of their children become angry and express it by yelling and swearing. This becomes the family conflict resolution model.

In other areas where there is an opportunity to positively engage children, coaches react with sarcasm, belittling and domineering with the excuse it makes them stronger and motivates them to win. Academically, there are some teachers who insult or publicly humiliate students to feel in control over disturbing classroom behavior.

This erosion of respectful authority trickles down and effects the attitude and language of children.

Boys and girls are mean to each other. This begins as young as pre-school these days and peaks in middle school. By mid-adolescence it seems more centered on parents and other adults.

Boys are mean in different ways than girls. Connections to each other are often expressed in action oriented behavior, such as hitting, yelling, or swearing. When boys are mean to girls it usually involves some form of taunting of statements about them being inferior.

Girls meanness to each other is often from their "closest "friends, and may include gossip, rumors, being excluded and finding out indirectly. Thus, the creation of "frenemies" in middle school. Much of girl meanness gets communicated in body language. This often flies under the radar of detection in classrooms. Girls can smile and be mean at the same time. The cliques and passing of gossip and rumors to girls already sensitive to the max about belonging, looks and dress has a long lasting effect. Far too many girls grow into women who can't interact with their peers in a direct healthy way.

What to focus on?

* Restablishing or re-enforcing respectful communication. This takes a great deal of consistent effort and self-awareness and it needs to begin within the family. Can't teach what you haven't learned.

* Using and modeling competent anger management skills and teaching frustration tolerance. Parents are the best line of defense in helping kids to develop the skills to express anger and frustration without being mean.

* Have healthy expectations. Every adult and child has to come to believe they don't deserve to be treated with meanness. Over time we have come to expect less from each other, but we need to raise the bar again.

* The key is connecting, not controlling. Engaged face-time with your children allows you to be present and role model respectful interaction.

Sean Hogan-Downey is a licensed master social worker and licensed marriage and family therapist.

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