Popularity Wars

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 it. 

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 and families. 

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 ET
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 ET
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 ET
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 elsewhere. 

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 audience. 

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 adults? 

Dr. Michael Thompson at 12:48pm ET
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 ET
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 at school. 

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 ET
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 ET
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 discussion. 

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 ET
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 adults around. 

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 ET
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 wall. 

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 ET
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 ET
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 other." 

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 moral child. 

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 it? 

Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:22pm ET
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 one. 

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 ET
Twenty percent of kids are at the bottom of the social ladder: Five percent are neglected, five percent controversial and ten percent rejected. 

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 controversial. 

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 mental health. 

MODERATOR at 1:28pm ET
Can you suggest any books or Web sites for concerned parents and teachers? 

Dr. Michael Thompson at 1:30pm ET
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 edited by Graham. 

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! 


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