Kids can be incredibly cruel to one another, but parents can help minimize the pain. That's the reassuring message from Carl Pickhardt, a clinical psychologist in Austin who recently wrote Why Good Kids Act Cruel: The Hidden Truth About the Pre-Teen Years (Sourcebooks, $14.99). Though Pickhardt's book is aimed at tweeners, I found his book helpful as the mom of a first grader already faced with "I'm not inviting you to my birthday party."
I called up Pickhardt for firsthand advice and to ask him why he focused on the middle-school years, when social cruelty knows no age restrictions. "It's not that you don't get it in childhood," Pickhardt says. "It's just that the most damaging point is in middle school. The kids are right in the midst of this developmental change from childhood to adolescence. Combine that with self-awareness and striving for social place. It can be really devastating." Kids who don't feel safe at school can't concentrate on academics, and nobody wants to see a child suffer.
That's why parents and teachers need to take the initiative, Pickhardt says. It's too easy for kids to think that school is just about grades and that parents and teachers don't care about social problems or can't do anything about it. "Parents should let kids know that at this age, what very frequently happens is that people are trying to get a secure social place. They will treat each other meanly in service of that. There will be teasing, and exclusion, and bullying, and ganging up.
"Parents should say, 'If any of this should ever come your way, please let me know. I can help you with that.' "
OK, sounds good, but what do I do? Pickhardt's advice: Ask your child to explain what's going on, listen sympathetically, and try these six things as a way to help him or her cope:
1. Confront. Ask the child: "Are you being treated meanly by other students at school?"
2. Support: Tell your child he won't feel so all alone if he lets you know what's happening. I particularly liked Pickhardt's suggestion about what parents should say when a child takes teasing personally: "You need to understand, when you are being teased in a mean way, that teasing says nothing about you. It says the person who is teasing wants to be mean. It's not about you. It's about them."
3. Get specifics: Find out exactly what's going on, when, and where, and how many students are involved.
4. Strategize options: Come up with different choices, so that if it happens again, your child will have a plan.
5. Motivate: Praise your child for hanging in there and having the courage to go to school despite the hard times.
6. Assess: "Do you think with our support and coaching you can see this through, or do you think we need to communicate directly with the school?" Intervening with the school may be essential if your child is in physical or psychological danger or frightened about being hurt. "We need safe schools," Pickhardt says. "We owe our children that."
Bullies and mean kids won't go away altogether, of course. But there's a world of difference between a kid being a target of social cruelty and a victim of social cruelty. Pickhardt says. "A target says, 'Hey, this is happening to me, and I don't like it, and I am trying to figure out what to do about it.' A victim says, 'This is happening to me, and I have no choice.' "