Torment In The Schoolyard (a review by Dr. Maté of two books on bullying)

The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander: From Pre-School to High-School — How Parents and Teachers Can Break the Cycle of Violence
By Barbara Coloroso
HarperCollins, 217 pages, $34.95

And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence
By James Garbarino and Ellen de Lara
Free Press, 238 pages, $38

Bullying has a long and dishonourable tradition, as anyone will know who recalls the swaggering but cowardly ruffian Flashman from the Victorian boys’ classic, Tom Brown’s Schooldays. We may soothe ourselves with the notion that what we are witnessing today in our children’s lives is no fresh cause for alarm, but the facts are not reassuring.

In 1991, researchers at Toronto’s York University interviewed 211 students from Grades 4 through 8. Thirty-five per cent of these kids reported being involved in bullying incidents, as perpetrators, victims or close witnesses. When the researchers reviewed dozens of videotapes of playground bullying among elementary students, they found that most of the time the bystanders either remained passive or joined in taunting the victim. Only in 25 per cent of cases did a peer step in to help or call a teacher to help.

“Bullying is a life-and-death issue that we ignore at our children’s peril,” Barbara Coloroso writes in The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander. “Thousands of children go to school every day filled with fear and trepidation; others feign illness to avoid being taunted or attacked on the way to school.” As James Garbarino and Ellen de Lara point out in And Words Can Hurt Forever, the costs of physical and emotional violence in school reach beyond the actual victims. “The true snapshot of school violence must account for the millions of kids who experience diminished learning and peace of mind each day at school,” they write. “This means most of our kids, in most of our schools.”

Barbara Coloroso, a popular writer and speaker on parenting issues, depicts with moving empathy the psychological suffering of the victim: the loss of self-esteem, the loneliness, the fear, the frustration, the suppressed rage that may, if rarely, erupt in murderous violence. Her description of the three roles in the drama of bullying gives her book its title, but she rightly notes that these terms — the bully, the bullied and the bystander — do not characterize or definitively label any child. They simply identify the position the child is occupying at the particular moment of bullying. Ultimately, Coloroso believes the bully is as much a victim as the bullied. More than likely, she argues, the bully has been the helpless recipient of abuse at one time or another — if not at the hands of other children, then from adults.

Coloroso gives a helpful summary of the phenomenology of bullying. She recognizes, for example, that bullying extends beyond physical acts and, especially among girls, may take the form of relational torment: exclusion, ostracization, isolation. All parents and teachers should take to heart Coloroso’s compilation of the signs indicating that a child is being bullied. A few examples are a sudden refusal to go to school — in the United States, there are reported to be 160,000 children daily who avoid school for fear of being bullied; taking an unusual or circuitous route to school; showing a sudden drop in grades; developing physical symptoms such as headaches or abdominal pains.

Adults need to be aware of these signals because children generally remain silent about bullying. Few victims of bullying will complain to parents or teachers. It is striking that, in the histories of the children who have commited suicide after being chronically victimized by their peers, none of them felt free to tell the important adults in their lives about the depth of their despair and, in many cases, even that they were being bullied. Why that is so ought to be a matter for deep concern. Although Coloroso attempts a detailed explanation, her answers merely repeat what children might say about themselves without searching for deeper causes.

Garbarino and de Lara come closer to the mark when they write that “kids will, and do in fact, tell trustworthy adults — even their own parents — about the things that they see during the course of their school days. They do this if they are asked, know they will be believed, and have reason to believe some action will be taken to improve the situation for the better.” The central question is, Why do so many children feel so cut off from their parents, teachers and other significant adults that they suffer silently for long periods of time? Why, in other words, do they not feel that the adults in their lives are trustworthy?

Coloroso astutely recognizes that the most fundamental corrective to the problem of bullying rests in a stable and nurturing home environment. Children who feel loved and appreciated will neither bully others nor accept being bullied themselves. They are also more apt to have the courage not to be passive bystanders. Most of her more specific, practically oriented solutions are well-meant but naïve. They are likely to work when the problem is not too far out of hand, but will be of little value for children in whom the psychology of bullying or of victimization is deeply entrenched. Teaching a timorous child with low self-esteem clever and snappy “comebacks” will not rescue her from trouble. And Words Can Hurt Forever is deeper in its analysis, psychological insights and certainly in the questions raised by its authors — as would be expected from two developmental psychologists active in research, counselling and child advocacy.

Although both books are necessary contributions to the parenting literature on bullying, neither quite puts its finger on the pulse of the problem. What has happened in North American society and culture to cause an age-old nuisance, bullying, to reach epidemic proportions today? Barbara Coloroso is eloquent in urging us to acknowledge the need for action, but a more profound understanding is required before we can effectively confront the victimization of children by children.

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