Live Chat: The 'In Crowd' and
Social Cruelty - February 19th, 2002
Moderated by Dr. Michael Thompson
It's an age when cliques rule and being excluded by the
"in crowd" hurts. What makes some middle school kids popular? Why
are others labeled "geeks" or "dorks"?
Psychologist Dr. Michael Thompson says he knows what it
takes. Traits that put girls in the "in crowd" are looks, clothes and a
charismatic personality, he says. And for boys, it's athletic ability,
size and humor.
Thompson says that 20 percent of kids in every school
are at the bottom of the social ladder - and their peers let them know
Thompson has worked with parents, teachers and students
in more than 200 public and private schools across the United States. He
is the author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies and co-author
of The New York Times bestseller Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional
Life of Boys. Please post your chat questions in the space below.
Plus: Does high school ever end? How do the "popular"
kids in school fare later in life? Share your thoughts on our message board.
MODERATOR at 12:32pm ET
Thanks for joining us. Our guest today is Dr. Michael
Thompson, a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children
You say you're most worried about kids in the "bottom
20 percent" of the class who don't have friends.
Carol writes: "I fear that my child is in that
'20 percent' who needs help. He has always had difficulty establishing
friendships, is NOT 'sports-oriented' and we have recently moved to a new
state. All the warning signs for concern are there and I know that the
school system does not have social skills classes (our other school did)
... where do I go for help?"
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:35pm
When a school does not not run friendship groups, you
need to turn to church youth groups, Boy or Girl scouts, and especially
community service groups.
There is something about helping disadvantaged adults
and families that brings people together. If your child can participate
in such an activity, working shoulder to shoulder with other kids, the
likelihood of finding a friend is very much increased.
I am also a great believer in summer day camps and summer
sleep-over camps as a way of making friends. I know summer is six months
off, but keep that in mind.
MODERATOR at 12:36pm ET
At what age does social cruelty become most problematic?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:39pm
Social cruelty occurs as young as pre-kindergarten. Kids
begin to exclude one another very deliberately and systematically in kindergarten
and it is then a feature of school life right through twelfth grade.
Social cruelty increases dramatically around fourth grade
and peaks around 6th, 7th and 8th because kids are so vulnerable to the
lure of popularity.
After 8th, girls start to treat each other better. After
9th, boys start to treat each other better. High school is better than
middle school. And college is much better than high school.
That's cold comfort for a 4th grader. However, as a parent
you can say, "This is a tough time; it does get better."
MODERATOR at 12:39pm ET
Is there an effective way for kids to stand up to bullies?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:44pm
The most effective way to manage a bully is with a sense
of humor -- by making deflecting, humorous remarks. Unfortunately, most
kids can't do that when they're under attack. None of us has much of a
sense of humor when we're being tormented in public.
The next best method is to ignore it and walk away. This
is what we should teach children. "The ignore" is powerful. But not necessarily
the first time you do it. You may have to ignore and walk away four or
five or six times before the bully gets discouraged and turns his attention
The third thing to do if you're trapped in a situation
is to pick out the child in the group who is most ambivalent about teasing
you. Look into that child's eyes and say, "This is me. I used to
think you were my friend." Or: "This is me. You wouldn't like this done
to you." You don't verbally attack a bully directly. You pick off his followers
by making them uncomfortable with what the bully is doing.
The bully picks on kids to impress his followers. If you
make the followers uncomfortable, you deprive the bully of his enthusiastic
AlmostBlue2 at 12:44pm ET
Are docile, obedient children more susceptible to be
bullied? And are they likely to be unable to stand up for themselves as
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:48pm
Over-compliant children are at risk because their success
strategy in life is to go along with the person in authority. That's a
bad strategy when you're faced with a bully, because he'll use your compliance
to subjugate or humiliate you.
It is important for over-compliant kids to be helped to
recognize that they are being taken advantage of, to give them the vocabulary
so they can articulate the bad things that are happening to them, and to
be encouraged to stand up for themselves.
If an over compliant child is picked on for too many months
or years, they can become completely enrolled in being a victim and that
may have a bad effect on the adult personality.
Hassan Jackson at 12:49pm ET
Do the bullies need as much help as those bullied. After
all, what would cause one to enjoy tormenting another?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:52pm
Yes. Bullies need monitoring, supervision, leadership
training and, in some cases, psychotherapy.
They need monitoring and supervision because bullying
is exciting and even addictive. They need leadership training because they
already have leadership qualities and if they're given another way to express
it, they can be turned into positive leaders.
There may be a large minority of bullies who have an unhappy
life situation and are recreating the violence and intimidation that they
experience in the rest of their lives in their relationship with peers
Those children definitely need help. But psychotherapy
alone is insufficient. They need to be stopped from bullying and then helped.
Lindsey Taylor at 12:53pm ET
What can teachers do in the classroom to discourage bullying?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:58pm
First and foremost, teachers need to address bullying
behavior when they see it in front of them.
On the Stossel show, the psychologist Wendy Craig said
that teachers intervene in bullying situations only 5% of the time. That
is too little. They need to intervene 20 or 25% of the time. That would
make a school environment vastly safer for all kids.
Teachers must run a classroom based on the principle of
tolerance and inclusiveness. Every child must feel safe in a classroom.
That means if one child says, "That's so stupid!" when another child makes
a comment in class, the teacher needs to stop, address the child who has
made the devaluing comment, and say, "That's cruel. Everybody in my classroom
must feel safe. Do you understand?"
A bully should never go unchallenged by a teacher in a
classroom. There are many anti-bullying programs and they are helpful and
effective, but the most important thing is teachers who are working constantly
to make the environment safe.
School Teacher at 12:58pm ET
I'm disappointed that you failed to mention the parents'
role in tonight's broadcast. Perhaps things could get better if parents
discussed and modeled for their children love and kindness. Society needs
to stop blaming the schools for not "raising their children right". Your
program tonight only encourages the mentality that these issues are "the
schools problem". These issues are society's problem.
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:01pm
Parents blaming teachers and teachers blaming parents
doesn't get us close to a solution. The adult community must take responsibility
for seeing to it that schools are safe. Finger pointing doesn't advance
The difficulty is that good children do bad things when
they are in groups. Good children do bad things when they are away from
their parents and are in groups. It is essential that schools and teachers
act on these issues because the school situation has built-in dangers for
kids. We have to do that whether they are well-parented or not.
Jeri at 1:01pm ET
My daughter who is 11 is a victim of bullying in the
5th grade. She suffers from depression from such acts and is seeing a clinical
psychologist on a weekly basis. Any suggestions of how we can help
at home to make her feel good about herself again, to bring her self-esteem
level back up, to give her a positive attitude?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:04pm
Get your family involved in community activities with
other families and their children. It is easier for kids who have
been traumatized in a group to begin to make friends again when there are
It is natural for kids to gravitate towards one another
and feel close to one another when there are adults there. What else are
they gonna do? They are certainly not going to hang around adults and talk.
They will go off with other kids.
MODERATOR at 1:04pm ET
Tracy asks: "What do you do when you have a problem and
you take it to the school administration and they just blow you off?"
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:06pm
Go to a guidance counselor or a trusted teacher. Keep
talking to people in school until you find an advocate for your child.
Then ask that advocate's advice on how best to approach
school administration. School administrators are often so weary of being
attacked by parents that they just put up a defensive wall. It is important
to find a diplomatic, thoughtful advocate who can help you get around that
Malcolm Aquinas at 1:06pm ET
I am a fourth grade public school teacher. How can one
intervene in a bullying situation while minimizing the consequences of
attaching the label "bully" to a child? As any teacher can attest, there
are those students who receive "special treatment" because of their (read:
their parent's) status and those who receive the full force of so-called
"zero tolerance" policy protocols. I believe most teachers share the physician's
oath in their desire to "first do no harm."
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:11pm
Calling a child a "bully" doesn't solve the problem.
Just labeling and blaming doesn't solve the problem. We need to understand
why a child bullies, why it's important to them, what they're hoping to
get from it. It is important that some adult talk to the bully. The child
may be unhappy and need help. The child is certainly out of control and
needs better supervision.
Your reference to the status of parents suggests to me
that you understand that there are many different kinds of bullies. Some
are angry, deprived kids. Some are bully victims who have been mistreated
themselves in the past. And some are the entitled children of prominent
parents. It is up to school personnel to figure out the source of a child's
power and address it with that understanding.
Howard at 1:11pm ET
Evolutionary Psychology has taken a foothold in our culture,
and it is very common to hear arguments for letting brutality proceed in
order to weed out the weak. Do you see a difference in how teenagers incorporate
this sensibility these days than they may have several decades ago, when
traditional virtues once dominated over awareness of biological determinism?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:19pm
Whenever I ask children about child cruelty, they always
shrug and say, "This is the way kids are. They've always been mean to each
In a sense I hear the biological explanation from kids,
and have done so for 30 years.
It hasn't been psychologists and evolutionary thinkers
who have brought biology into the discussion. Adults have always rationalized
cruel behavior by saying, "Boys will be boys" or something like that.
We must continually reaffirm that what separates us from
other animals is our capacity for moral thinking and our capacity for disciplined
moral behavior. But it has never been easy for humans to act in moral ways.
It takes work, thought, practice, training, and expectation to create a
All parents and teachers must work consistently with children
to help them reach that goal.
Faith Beatty at 1:20pm ET
We just buried a 12 year old who shot himself due to
bullying and teasing. My son who is a peer mediator in high school with
this boy's brother wants to start a bullying program. How can he go about
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:22pm
There are many good anti-bullying programs such as Garrity's
"Bully-Proofing Your School " developed in the Denver public schools.
I commend your son for wanting to start a peer-mediation
or an anti-bullying program. The research suggests that these are very
effective. All he needs is a supportive faculty sponsor. I hope he finds
MODERATOR at 1:23pm ET
How are the kids who are severely bullied in middle school
and high school affected as adults? How permanent is the damage?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:27pm
Twenty percent of kids are at the bottom of the social
ladder: Five percent are neglected, five percent controversial and ten
Most neglected kids have a friend by the end of elementary
school, and that gets them out of trouble. Many controversial children
(kids that have traits that the majority of kids like, and traits that
annoy them) can be coached to eliminate habits or behavior that make them
It is rejected kids whose mental health is at risk. They
have no friends, and they either develop a pattern of being passive and
sad or they strike back and become rejected-aggressive children. This bottom
ten percent is severely at risk for their mental health. The loneliness,
the humiliation, or the constant conflict is extremely stressful for their
MODERATOR at 1:28pm ET
Can you suggest any books or Web sites for concerned
parents and teachers?
Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:30pm
There are many good books on bullying.
There's a new book out with the current research on rejected
children called Harassment in School and the Plight of the Victimized
There's about a twenty page bibliography in my book Best
Friends, Worst Enemies . I recommend you use that as a resource.
MODERATOR at 1:31pm ET
Thanks to all those who joined the chat!