Author: Alison Johnson
The recent videotaped bullying of a bus monitor in upstate New York is just one example of a truth that everyone who has survived middle school knows: kids in 6th, 7th and 8th grades can be really, really mean.
But why? What is it about this age that seems to bring out the worst in kids?
Experts say much of it revolves around insecurity. Middle school kids are figuring out who they are and becoming more independent, and at the same time, peer pressure is increasing. If they're feeling depressed or anxious -- which many of them are -- they try to make themselves feel better and more in control by making others feel worse.
"The issue of belonging becomes even more critical," writes Joshua Mandel, Psy.D., of the NYU Child Study Center, on the site education.com. "Bullying in schools peaks in middle school and drops off by grades 11 and 12." Nearly nine in 10 middle schoolers report seeing someone being bullied, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Young teenagers also tend to be very self-focused, which means they may have trouble understanding the impact of their actions on others. That could explain why they might bully someone to tears without stopping.
And here's something interesting to consider: They may be able to sympathize much better than they can empathize -- meaning they can feel sorry for someone else but not fully understand what is happening to that person could happen to them, and how that would feel.
None of that, of course, excuses mean behavior. For parents, teaching empathy at all possible moments is critical:
-- See someone screaming at someone else on a TV show? Tell your kids why it's hurtful.
-- Hear about a case of bullying, or see a kid who is sad? Talk about how a child might feel if he or she was in that same situation.
-- Play up the power of kindness to people of all ages, as well as respect for authority figures.
-- Praise kids when they do something nice, whether it's including a child who doesn't have many friends or comforting a teammate who has made a bad play.
-- Explain that bullying is really a sign of weakness. Talk about why the bully might be acting in a particular way.
-- Monitor your own behavior and show kids how to resolve conflicts in a peaceful way. If someone is mean to you, talk about how it makes you feel.
-- Explain the importance of a child being himself or herself. If people don't like it, they aren't true friends.
Finally, if middle school turns out to be a very tough time, get help as needed, while reassuring the child that it's tough for lots of people... and that it will end.