Junior High Is What Happened

Editor’s Note: Due to the nature of this piece, the identities of the young people are not disclosed.

Here goes nothing. I’ll be straight up with you from the beginning. This is not an easy article to write. There are many things I’ll need to be careful about. Please let me make it clear that I am not pointing fingers or accusing anyone of negligence. But its important for our community to know that kids are being subjected to what is now called bullying, and it seems that little can be done to fully stop it.

I’m not talking about outright aggressive physical or loud verbal abuse. The obvious stuff does get the appropriate attention. And yet, it seems that not a day goes by without media reporting on a child dying or suffering as a direct result of bullying that is not exactly out in the open. As I spoke to young people for this story, a disturbing theme slithered through. Although they all know about bullying policy in school, they felt that telling authority figures was very difficult. The sense was that either the adults were ineffective in stopping it, and/or that in telling an adult, they would be more relentlessly targeted.

School is a place where these negative behaviors may manifest themselves. I’m sure there is a bunch of psychological methodologies geared to a well-rounded, inclusive, nonthreatening educational experience. No one loves teachers more than I do, having no fewer than six in my family. Teachers, however, can’t be the moral compasses for the children in their care. The kids’ moral compasses should be developed in the wider community and assuredly at home.

Recently, a study was conducted on this troubling reality. Amazingly, the study lasted 20 years. Researchers at Duke Medicine report: “Bullied children grow into adults who are at increased risk of developing anxiety disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts.”

The findings, based on more than 20 years of data from a large group of participants initially enrolled as adolescents, are the most definitive to date in establishing the long-term psychological effects of bullying.

Published online February 20 in JAMA Psychiatry, this study belies a common perception that bullying, while hurtful, inflicts a fleeting injury that victims outgrow.

“We were surprised at how profoundly bullying affects a person’s long-term functioning,” said William Copeland, Ph.D., assistant clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Duke University and lead author of the study. “This psychological damage doesn’t just go away because a person grew up and is no longer bullied. This is something that stays with them. If we can address this now, we can prevent a whole host of problems down the road.”

By the time young people reach junior high school, their brains are basically running on the importance of being included – having friends. As they strive to develop an independent identity less aligned with the family identity, the group identity becomes paramount. When I asked some junior high students what was the most important part about going to school, without missing a beat they all said, “seeing my friends.” But if you are one of those kids with few relationships or excluded from the group dynamic, going to school can feel like torture. When you are excluded, you feel even more awkward then merely that which being a teenager engenders. It shows – like having a horrific stigma emblazoned on your forehead.

In a 2008 Yale University report published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health, researchers analyzed 37 studies that examined bullying and suicide among children and adolescents. Nearly all of the studies found a link between being bullied and suicidal thoughts among young people, and five even reported that victims of bullying were more likely to report suicidal thoughts than other young people. (Reported by CNN on May 24.)

At junior high, no longer will the kid whose parents can’t buy them the latest and greatest in cool clothing be considered worthy for pack inclusion. No longer will the girl who isn’t thin, or the boy who will never have a growth spurt be invited to the lunch table. By now there will be clearly defined “popular girls and boys.” There will probably be the athletes, the geeks, the band kids, the artists, the brains, the popular girls and boys and, of course, the outcasts. Loners will have their own special category. The human brain is very much a work in process during the teen years. But, like, who cares, you still have to survive junior high.

Back in the 1960s, when I was in junior high, no one talked about bullying. Oh, there were bullies and there were cliques – you were either part of a group or you were out. If you were out, not unlike a weakling in a zebra herd, you could be eaten alive.

One day, as I was changing classes, I had to walk past the gauntlet of boys who lined the halls near the shop door. This group was its own tong. They were the gear heads. These were the guys who smoked cigarettes, used bad language to punctuate every sentence, had muscles and hit on all the pretty girls relentlessly. As I approached, I tried to tuck into myself to disappear. Holding my books tightly to my chest I hurried past them, but just as I got to the last guy, he loomed up over my head and screamed down into my hair “U-G-L-Y!!!!!” The ensuing laughter rings in my ears nearly 50 years later. This was simply considered teasing. Sticks and stones hurt, words do not, right?

Why talk about all of this now, you may wonder. What could she possibly have to offer in the global conversation about bullying? She is not an authority on the subject. She doesn’t even have children in the school system. You’d be right. I don’t have answers. I just share in the pain as a survivor and I think the conversation needs to continue.

Bullying can be and most often is very subtle. It’s the passing derogatory comment made to the kid who already feels rejected or odd. It’s the invitation that is never offered when partners are being picked for projects. It’s the standing in a lunchroom looking out at a sea of unwelcoming faces. It’s exclusion or worse, it’s bullying, of a kind none of us would accept as adults. Are your kids facing it everyday?

It is happening today to someone’s kid. Recently a teenage girl told me, “I’m poor. That’s why the popular girls don’t like me.” This from an otherwise regular looking kid whose petite, smart, bright-eyed physical appearance conceals a lot of hurt.

From another I heard, “They make fun of my clothes, my hair, my everything.” This gentle-spirited young lady went on to say, “I can take it when they pick on me, but I won’t let them pick on my friends. I’m used to it; my friends aren’t.”

I said to her, “You sound so different when you talk about these things, what happened to that soft-spoken girl?”

She flatly replied, “Junior high is what happened.”

It’s hard to hear. And what to say? A friend of these girls told them, “[Popular kids who are mean] think they are on top, but they are really on the bottom!” Cold comfort when you are on the outside looking in at 14 years old.

No, we can’t make the kids who seem to have it all accept those they have grouped together as “excludable” worthy only of unrelenting snickering and snide remarks. Is it possible to at least have them stop being so overtly mean-spirited? Do the parents even realize that their precious child is really being a cold, hateful, sharp-tongued beast to others outside the home? And if they did, what would their reaction be? Would they recognize it as bullying? I want to believe they would be horrified.

We adults know that over time many of the boundaries established in junior high will fade away, becoming meaningless. We also know that others will not.

Truth be told, some of the kids being bullied right now will grow up very wounded. As the JAMA report cited: “Bullying, which we tend to think of as a normal and not terribly important part of childhood, turns out to have the potential for very serious consequences for children, adolescents and adults.”

How can we stop it? Maybe we’d need to do consider a “Jane Elliott” (brown eyes versus blue eyes) style experiment to demonstrate just how painful exclusion and ostracizing or bullying is to the victim. Maybe it should be part of the seventh grade curriculum, as the kids are just entering junior high. I don’t know. I can only bring it up for discussion and let you know that as a surviving witness, words do hurt, even 50 years later.

By Marilou Newell

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