The trial of two British Columbia teenagers, awaiting judgment, has again highlighted the problem of school bullying.
The girls were charged with uttering threats in the wake of the suicide of 14-year-old Dawn-Marie Wesley. In November, 2000, Dawn-Marie killed herself shortly after she was accused of spreading false rumours. She was allegedly threatened with a beating, or even death.
Throughout North America, there have been more and more reports of bullying, of the suicide of bullying victims, and, occasionally, of bloody revenge taken by adolescents who have suffered ostracization.
Parents and teachers seem helpless. Instead of in-depth analysis, experts hand out bland homilies, typified by the advice an imported consultant gave a group of Vancouver teachers recently. The solution, she said, is to teach children “respect” in the classroom — which is akin to telling the parents of an asthmatic with inflamed lungs that they must teach their child not to cough. As with asthma, we need to understand what causes the pathological process before we can intervene effectively.
Three questions need to be asked: Who gets bullied? Who does the bullying? And what gives rise to this group aggression? The answers are to be found in the relationships — or non-relationships — of children with the adult world.
Although any child may be subjected to random acts of hostility, only children who lack a strong connection with the adults in their lives will be the victims of chronic bullying. All children I have ever seen who have faced persistent ostracization by schoolmates came from homes where the parents were either directly abusive or, more often, were simply unable to provide a warm, safe emotional environmnent.
Lacking the positive sense of themselves that only the unconditional support of adults can give, such children are driven to look desperately to their peers for acceptance. To the peer pack, neediness is like the smell of blood to predators. Reena Virk, the Victoria teenager beaten and drowned by a group of her peers, was obsessively drawn to her tormentors, longing to belong to their crowd, telling them she loved them even as they were battering her to death.
Not so paradoxically, bullies are also disconnected from emotionally relevant adults. That is the fundamental source of their anger — what the U.S. poet and cultural guru Robert Bly has aptly called “the deepening rage of the unparented.”
Developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld points out that attachment is the most powerful force in human behaviour. Much of the circuitry of emotional functioning in the human brain is dedicated to preserving our attachment relationships, beginning in infancy and continuing throughout our lifetime. Attachment is the very anchoring of the self: It is from what Dr. Neufeld calls the “attachment womb” that the independent, active self will arise.
Children need to get their orientation, their bearings, their sense of direction from someone. Much like the imprinting instinct of the duckling that, if the mother duck is absent, will imprint on whatever is around, the orienting instinct will be focused on a child’s peers if the adults are physically or emotionally unavailable.
For complex economic and cultural reasons, children in our society have become increasingly peer oriented over the past two or three generations. “More and more children are being sent into situations where the adults are not cultivating the attachment with them, they are only supervising,” says Dr. Neufeld. “Children are attaching to those who are not responsible for them. Our species simply cannot survive this regime.”
What is wrong with peer orientation? Emotional maturation can occur only in a context of unconditional love and acceptance. The dominant peer ethic is “cool” — emotional shutdown, a flight from openness and vulnerability. The peer culture is most unforgiving of “sissies,” of “babies” — of children, that is, who retain a capacity for emotional expression.
A hardening takes place, underneath which powerful emotions are blocked, a veritable volcano of frustration. When it erupts, that volcanic rage will find its targets in the individuals who most clearly embody the very traits children are unable to accept in themselves: neediness, vulnerability, loneliness.
Children who enjoy a healthy relationship with adults do not ostracize others, nor are they objects of ostracization. But why does one peer-oriented child become a bully, another a victim? A perceptive 13-year-old pointed out to me that the difference is based on how successfully a child is able to assimilate the rules and social cues governing peer interaction. The bullies, she said, gave up on adult contact early, but were able to learn the laws of “cool.” The ostracized child is more confused, still looking for love, unable to recognize or accept love’s absence.
The resolution of the bullying problem is not a didactic one by which we “teach” children respect, nor an administrative one of stronger rule-enforcement and stricter punishments. “We need to reclaim our children in order to civilize them,” says Gordon Neufeld.
The ultimate solution is to reverse the large-scale abandonment of our youth to the peer culture and, in every way we can, to rebuild children’s lost relationships with parents, teachers and the other adults in whose hands their future lies.