Monday, May 19, 2008

From Teasing to Violence:
Getting Attention to Getting Even

With the recent focus on violence in suburban schools, there has
been increased curiosity about the sources of social ostracism
among youth, painful facts of life about the healthiest and, we
presume, happiest of our kids. The focus of this article is on
teasing, an almost universal experience with implications far
beyond the attention we generally give to it. In Norway, following
two suicides determined to be related to teasing, an anti-teasing
curriculum was introduced in the schools in 1992 with a resulting
decrease in teasing by 50% over the next two years.

Most of us can sympathize with the child who complains miserably of
being teased or bullied. Our advice is usually simplistic: "Try
to ignore it," on the theory that the teaser will get bored and
drop it when the victim does not react. But this discounts the
reactions of the other participants, the onlookers or the audience
for whom the bully is performing and who reward the scene with
their attention. Besides, none of us is good at ignoring our own
feelings, and the feelings that can be triggered by teasing are
more powerful and painful than we like to admit, perhaps because we
feel powerless to protect our children from this kind of an attack,
ubiquitous as it is. The two primary feelings involved are often
topics of discussion in the therapy session: shame and anger, or in
their extreme: humiliation and rage.

Looking back on it, it seems to me that the relationship between
shame and rage should be obvious. When something or someone makes
you feel powerless, terribly hopelessly powerless, the thing you
crave most is something that will help you feel powerful, or at
least safe. We don't like to talk about these disturbing
feelings. Shame is something we hide, or minimize, because
exposing our shame only seems to make it worse. So the impact and
consequences of teasing, shaming and excessive criticism remain
obscure for many of us. And the resulting rage catches us by

Many things can make us feel powerless. Whenever we experience an
important loss or disappointment, we feel powerless. When we are
shamed, teased, criticized or bullied, we feel powerless. When we
are ignored, we may feel powerless. When we are sick, tired, or
hungry and as a result, confused, we may feel powerless.

When a young child craves power, there are only a few options. He
can reach out for the loving protection of a comparatively powerful
parent or caretaker. He can practice those few things that give
him a child's sense of mastery and control. He can exercise power
over someone or something smaller or weaker. He can imagine
fantasy scenarios of power, or revenge.

Babies are good at reaching out for protection. Though some may be
fussier than others, most babies have a powerful way of making most
adults feel nurturing and protective toward them.

A toddler is experimenting with a growing repertoire of movement
and communication skills that offer a sense of mastery and control
over a small part of his universe. But if you speak sharply to a
toddler, you will see the downcast eyes that represent the classic
posture and facial expression of the primary affect of shame. Some
anguished sobbing will usually follow, and it is not unusual for
the anguish to be followed by rage, as the toddler regroups and
assaults you with the worst insult in his vocabulary.

The surge of aggression following the shame of defeat is part of
our emotional evolutionary heritage. The two feelings are hard
wired together, the sequence normal and unavoidable. But we do
have some choice in what to think and how to act in response to the
feelings, and these choices are learnable and therefore teachable.

The parent who finds a toddler's tantrum cute and laughs at it, or
the parent who finds it intolerable and punishes it, will see the
child's shame and rage reenacted immediately. With a few
repetitions of this scene, the child soon develops a memory for the
experience of helpless rage. Another alternative for the parent
in this situation is to help the child release the shame and rage,
and to begin to learn how that is done. By listening seriously,
and labeling the feeling, the parent can accept the expression of
emotion, while firmly limiting any dangerous or destructive
behavior. Understanding, accepting, and labeling the shame and
anger (and predicting that it will soon pass) reassures the child
of continued respect and love; these responses help the child learn
to get past the feelings of helplessness sooner, an important
emotional skill to learn.

A five-year-old entering school is suddenly faced with a much
larger world full of dangers and chances to feel powerless. What
has he learned about this painful and confusing feeling and what to
do about it? If he has not learned how to recover from shame and
rage fairly quickly, he may be in for a crash course. Before long,
he will encounter a disapproving adult or a competitive peer who
will trigger feelings of shame and helplessness, followed by some
feelings of aggression or rage. He will practice one or more
strategies for dealing with this situation and choose one as his
favorite. He may try to bury the rage by taking it out on himself
in a damaging flurry of self-criticism. He may fantasize about
revenge, and even plan and execute some form of retaliation. He
may take his aggression out on someone else, seeking a way to
restore status by teasing or harassing another, or by shifting
blame. Or he may find a supportive listener with whom to work out
this problem, though this requires skill and sensitive
communication from the child and the listener. There are so many
such episodes in his young life, that a preference for one of the
strategies is soon established. It may work well enough in the
short term to hide the helplessness and take the shame inside, or
to gain back a sense of power. But often it may result in some
unreleased shame or anger that grows into a chronic expectation of
social danger.

The adolescent lives in a world in which the option of reaching out
for protection from a loving adult becomes enormously more
complicated and difficult. Even the need to seek understanding
and help from an adult can be the source of embarrassment or shame
when the primary psychological task is establishing independence.
Competition for status within the all-important peer group often
takes the form of teasing or hazing, where one youngster seeks to
make himself the center of attention by making fun of another. It
is a universal game, and within limits, can be a healthy kind of
flexing of social muscles. But the limits are not well known, and
therefore easy to cross. The young person who is the butt of the
joke is in a poor position to define the rules of this game. Shame
and hurt rule in silence, and the inevitable anger soon begins to
grow. The young person may direct this anger at any of a number of
targets. He may define himself as a loser and experience anger at
himself, eroding his self-esteem. He may become angry with the
adults of the world for not protecting him, or with the "winners'
of the game for their cruelty or insensitivity. This anger is
difficult to express, especially toward the teasers who provoked
it. So it is more likely to be turned inward and become the stuff
of self-hatred or angry fantasies of revenge. Fortunately, many
kids find some way through this minefield without significant
scars. But many others do not. Eating disorders, adolescent
depression, and oppositional disorders all share a chronic
expectation of criticism or shame, with chronic anger focused
either on the self or the outside world or both. For some the
anger fuels constant fantasies of getting even. Their angry
demeanor subtly repels some of their peers, leaving them more
isolated, and angrier. They find sympathy with angry lyrics in
songs, angry images in movies, and a few angry friends, their
fellow misfits. Academic and social failure and isolation add to
the shame, and to the rage. Emotion "motivates" us to act. And
rage motivates angry or violent behavior, toward oneself or the
outside world.

To be continued in an article in the next issue on what families
can do.