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Emotional Intelligence Skills

Brock Hansen, LCSW

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 surprise.

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 Teasing and Bullying: What Parents Can Do.

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