Chapter 2: The Secret School Life of Adolescents
Over and over again parents are surprised, even stunned, to discover the extent and nature of the emotional and physical violence that their teenagers face at school. Have parents been blind to the reality right under their noses, or are they in a state of denial? The more likely explanation is that teenagers and their parents live in different worlds. Jason, who is fifteen years old, attends a large suburban high school in New York. He has a small group of friends who, like him, are in the band. He is not the kind of kid who gets into trouble at school or at home. He believes in "minding my own business" and still does not understand why he was singled out at school. He described his sense of surprise and helplessness this way:
When I was a freshman, I was attacked by four guys at school. I was coming back from band practice, and they dragged me into the boys' restroom and beat me up. I never knew why. No, I never told my parents about it. What for? There was nothing they could do about it. There's nothing anybody can do about it.
We have heard many other teens talk with the same level of conviction that there is nothing that they or anyone else can do to change their circumstances during the school day. They just have to figure out how to "take it." This resignation breeds silence, and the students' conviction is reinforced by the rest of the players in the system. For example, as parents, when our daughters come home and tell us that the boys are chasing them on the playground or teasing them with sexual remarks, we might respond with, "Well, they're just doing that because they like you."
While this may be true in some instances, it is not enough of a response to help. We need to say more. We need to give girls strategies for thinking through what to do and how to do it. For many of them, every day that they feel tormented by this kind of bullying, their self-esteem is slipping, and their feelings of helplessness are growing. Boys, too, are the recipients of this kind of harassment, particularly those who are smaller, slighter, and gentler than the typical masculine norm.
Teachers and other adults often ignore this kind of "play" between teenagers in the mistaken belief that kids have to figure out how to handle these kinds of interactions for themselves. Some pediatricians have supported this approach, advising parents to allow siblings to work out their rivalries without any intervention. The problem with this philosophy is that the solutions children come up with on their own are not always healthy, and often lead to escalating conflict rather than its resolution.
For some children, of course, the solutions turn out to be good and adequate and healthy. They learn how to stand up for themselves. They learn assertiveness. But often we fail to see the full scope and impact of these solutions immediately, if we ever see them at all. For many children, the "solutions" to being harassed, bullied, and tormented can include becoming a bully in response, staying in the building during recess, feeling "sick" at recess or during gym class, joining a group that is "tough" ("my homies") for defense, and beginning to use some sort of drug (whether cigarettes, alcohol, or pot) to try to dull the pain they experience.
With these attempted solutions come many future repercussions. Instead of a secure child, we see a child who shuns activities that we consider good and wholesome. We see children who are no longer sure of themselves, and we attribute this to "normal adolescence." We see a child who is full of rage at home or seems depressed, and again, we think, "This is how it is to be a teenager, isn't it?"
The sources of anxiety and fear for children are not obvious to adults, and parents are often shocked to find out what their kids have been going through at school. Survey research we conducted with college students revealed that many of them felt threatened when they were attending high school but never told their parents. For example, 51 percent of the males said that while they were in high school they were afraid of people at school, and 46 percent say their parents never knew this.
Most parents are unaware of the fact that in confidential surveys, kids say the rides to and from school on the bus are often the periods of greatest vulnerability for them. Why don't parents know? How can they know more? In this chapter we explore the impediments parents and other adults face in trying to understand their kids' day-to-day life in high school. We offer some suggestions on how to break through the domains of silence and misinformation between kids and parents.
Journalist Patricia Hersch spent six years doing research for a book about teenagers called A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence. What did she learn? "Today's teens are a tribe apart. The most striking characteristic of many adolescents today is their aloneness....I've learned how much their world eludes us adults -- not necessarily because they are rebelling or evading us but because we are not part of it....That freedom changes everything for kids."
She concludes: "There have always been troubled kids, but today their increased isolation allows pressures to build up with no release, no guidance. There is often little monitoring of how adolescents spend their time, whether it be on the Internet, with video games, music, building bombs, or doing their homework." This isolation is the foundation for the secret life of teenagers, a life most teens experience in common ways but taking its darkest form in the life and death of a boy like Dylan Klebold.
There are millions of kids around the country who are alienated, who feel like outcasts, who echo the nineteen-year-old boy quoted in Mark Jacobson's May 17, 1999, New York magazine article about teenagers' reactions to the Columbine shootings: "To be honest, when I first heard about it, part of me feels like, 'Yay!' This is what every outcast kid has been dreaming about doing since freshman year."
Ask almost any adult this question: "Did your parents know about everything you did when you were a teenager that was dangerous, illegal, or dishonest?" For most of us the answer is a resounding no. To test this out, we did a survey of undergraduate students at Cornell University enrolled in a course in human development. The results indicate that many of the respondents had some secret life of which their parents were unaware. Even among this sample of particularly successful and well-behaved adolescents and young adults, there were many with substantial dark secrets. Here are some sample responses when asked to describe the "worst thing, in the sense of most dangerous or troubling" that they had done or considered doing as a teenager in high school that "your parents never found out about":
I thought a lot about death. I thought about suicide, but after much thought I decided that was morally wrong and I couldn't do it, even if I really wanted to. I often prayed that perhaps I'd be in an accident or something similar so that way I could escape from my abusive father.
I was involved in a situation over a girl that escalated to the point that myself and my best friend were threatened with being shot by a guy who had an interest in this girl.
I drank almost every weekend of my senior year in high school, and my parents had no idea. On one occasion I almost died due to my impaired judgment. I was so drunk I jumped on the front end of a car full of my friends, and the car drove off down the bumpy road. After a while I slid off the front of the car and landed in front on the wheels. I heard the brakes squeal, and when the car stopped the right tire was flush against my ribs. I couldn't even get up until the car rolled back because my sweater was still caught under the wheel.
There are too many for there to be a "worst." I had unprotected sex with my boyfriend when I was fourteen and thought I was pregnant when my period was late. I was seriously depressed and contemplated suicide. I hung out with drug dealers.
A group of us broke into an old school during one winter on weekends so we could have keg parties. We vandalized the school and tore up countless records and important documents that were being stored there. Eventually the police found out, but my parents never did.
I seriously contemplated suicide for most of my high school years. Also, I often cut and hurt myself during high school as a way to transfer the emotional pain to physical pain, and probably also as an attempt to get their attention from the scars and bruises. They never noticed.
I considered suicide in high school. My parents never knew. I was diagnosed as manic-depressive my senior year of high school, which had manifested itself through an eating disorder. In retrospect, I can see that my bipolar disorder had been building since approximately twelve years of age. I was very smart and knew that there was something abnormal in my behavior. I used my intelligence to hide it.
These are academically successful young people, responsible and bright enough to succeed in a prestigious elite university, and majoring in human development. If these students have secret lives, then what could we expect of less able, less responsible, more troubled kids? In her work as a therapist, Ellen has heard and seen this firsthand over and over again. Kids and parents sometimes live in parallel worlds, with parents unaware of what their children face at school or what their children are doing to compensate for the pain they are experiencing.
Why Don't Parents Know?
Swedish psychologists Margaret Kerr and Hakan Stattin shed light on the process underlying teenagers' secret lives in a report entitled "What Parents Know, How They Know It, and Several Forms of Adolescent Adjustment." Kerr and Stattin studied over a thousand fourteen-year-olds and their parents. They found that the more parents knew about what their kids did, the better adjusted those kids were -- less delinquency, fewer school problems, less depression, more positive expectations of life, more positive peers, and better relations with parents. It sounds like an endorsement of the popular belief that parents who monitor have better kids. However, that is not the whole story.
Kerr and Stattin learned that the spontaneous disclosure of information by children explained more of what was happening than the efforts of parents to track and monitor their kids. The better-adjusted kids simply told their parents what they were doing more often than the less well-adjusted kids. The authors conclude, "There is no direct evidence, then, to link parents' tracking efforts with good adolescent adjustment in a broad, general way." What does all this mean? Kerr and Stattin report that kids who feel that their parents are trying to control them have worse adjustment than kids who feel their parents trust them. Remember that this is a study of fourteen-year-olds. By that age, parents and kids have developed a lot of momentum; there is a history to their relations. Some kids have established a momentum of positive behavior, and their parents rightfully trust them, and so these kids freely disclose what they are doing. Other kids have established a pattern of negative behavior, and their parents rightfully are suspicious (and seek to monitor these out-of-control kids).
For the most part, adolescence is the culmination of childhood patterns, not some dramatically discrepant period of life with little relation to what has gone before. This provides a sensible context for understanding Kerr and Stattin's conclusion: "It would be a mistake to conclude, however, that child disclosure is something completely separate from anything parents do, because parents' actions probably play a role in a child's willingness to disclose. How parents have reacted to information in the past and how accepting and warm they are, in general, are likely to influence disclosure....Parents' past solicitation efforts could influence child disclosure by encouraging the child to develop a habit of disclosing. Very young children could begin talking to parents about their daily activities because the parents ask and listen with interest, and this could become habitual until the disclosure is independent of parents' asking." As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Another vital reason that adults do not know some of the secret parts of their children's lives has nothing to do with purposefully keeping adults in the dark. It has to do with teenagers themselves not naming what is happening to them. Because the everyday environment of adolescents is filled with gossip, name-calling, and several forms of harassment, it is often difficult for them to pinpoint which behaviors go over the line into the unacceptable, which behaviors have created the bad feelings they are experiencing. Therapists and other interventionists believe you have to be able to identify or name something for what it is before you can adequately deal with it. If adults fail to react to situations where one kid is emotionally abusing another, it is nearly impossible for kids to label that behavior as abusive. It becomes the norm. Kids, like adults, do not come home and report what they see as mundane or usual. This is true even for kids with the most receptive parents.
Why Can't Parents Discover the Secret Life?
Why is it hard for parents to discover the secret life of their teenager? Like all the tough questions, this one has many answers. For one thing, most parents have a concept of who their child is, and it is difficult to receive information which contradicts that concept. In a sense, it seems disloyal to be capable of thinking the worst of your child. Parental love is strong -- and sometimes blind.
Second, parents don't have all the information that they need to draw accurate conclusions. Some of this is because they have no connection with people outside the family who know their child, or because others deliberately withhold information about the child. At times it is because the behavior of children and teenagers differs from setting to setting. Oftentimes, as we mentioned before, it is because children believe that there is nothing their parents can do with the information anyway.
Most of us think kids have one identity, but actually they may have several. Psychologists call this the fundamental attribution error -- the tendency to focus on one set of behaviors in one situation and naively assume that this one pattern is the sum total of that person. Different settings and contexts evoke different patterns of behavior in the same person, even if he or she is a child. At the "normal" end of the continuum, many kids have somewhat different personalities at home and at school, for example. A shy, polite child at home may be boisterous and loud at school. At the "abnormal" end, some kids actually are different people in the two settings. This is often the case with kids who are so deeply troubled that they are en route to being psychopaths (like the proverbial "nice guy" who turns out to be a mass murderer).
And, of course, some kids deliberately set out to deceive their parents. They create secret lives at home and at school in order to hide their experiences on the dark side of the culture. Writing in Time magazine in May 1999, columnist Amy Dickenson put it this way: "Teenagers are good at hiding their true selves -- or the selves they're trying out this month -- behind the 'grandma face' they wear when they're trotted out to see the relatives. Behind that pleasant mask there can be volumes of bad poetry, body piercing, and tattoos." But this too is not confined to children and youth. Adults sometimes have dark secret lives that they fiercely work to keep private for fear that disclosure will open them to ridicule or legal sanctions.
A word of caution is important here. While it is true that adolescents can have a secret school life (and want to keep it secret due to their growing sense of a right to privacy, feelings of shame, or feelings of helplessness) it is a mistake to conclude that most kids are involved in serious patterns of bad or shameful behavior. Unfounded accusations impede future communication, so get the facts before you say anything, and be careful about coming down too hard on kids. Rather, seek to keep the lines open and find out what you need to know.
What is true is that kids keep secrets or perhaps better put, kids don't share information with their parents or other adults, about their school day for many reasons. It is our job to provide room and opportunity for kids to fill in the blanks for us.
Yet another issue in understanding the secret lives of teenagers is the way kids and their parents differ in their interpretation of family events and history. Tough as it is for us as parents to see the world through the eyes of our children, we must do so. Too many families get caught up in denial and distortion of family events as a way to save face or avoid conflict, only to find that in the long run any short-term gains are washed away by the costs of secrecy.
The Impact of Emotional Violence on "Average" Kids
What happens to kids who get harassed or threatened? What are some of the consequences of bullying and emotional violence? While we are beginning to understand that chronic harassment can lead some children to commit serious acts of violence in retaliation toward others or to gain relief for themselves, most adults are not aware of the consequences for their children -- the ones who don't act in a violent manner. In Lost Boys, Jim wrote about boys who turn violent to deal with the problems they encounter. But how do "average" kids contend with the obstacles they face every day at school?
Consider the following diagram:
Resilient Kids Violent
No noticeable impact Some psychological damage Fully developed
"dark side" (including shame, lessened self-esteem, impaired self-image, learned helplessness)
On this continuum, we see that at one end are the "resilient" children who, though subjected to instances of bullying and emotional violence (even chronically), do not seem to be impaired in any discernable way. That part of the equation is important. As parents and educators, we tend to look at a child's success in terms of academics and social development. We don't tend to attribute academic underachievement or a bit of social disengagement to emotional violence at school. Maybe we should.
Consider Nathan, who never goes to his high school library. When Nathan was a freshman, he made his way to the library on several occasions with the good intentions of a new student beginning his high school career. He knew that good grades were important to his parents, to himself, and for his future. On each and every occasion, he was met outside the doorway by a group who claimed that spot as their territory in the building. They owned it; they had power there.
To get into the library, Nathan had to first get through a series of taunts about being a nerd, then get past a volley of objects being thrown at him. Nathan was an athlete; he was capable and strong on the field. But he was not "strong enough" to deal with the ridicule and bullying of his peers, so Nathan stopped using the library. The culture that degraded him for trying to do his best infiltrated the rest of his high school experience. Though he was quite bright, Nathan's low grades reflected this poisoning of his social experience at school.
Where were the teachers, staff, and other administrators when Nathan was facing this emotional abuse? Why was this group of bullies allowed to prevail, making each student run an emotional gauntlet before reaching the inner sanctum of the library? The answer is that Nathan attended a very large high school, and the staff at this school did not consider hallway supervision as part of their "professional role."
In their work about school safety, Ron Avi Astor, Heather Meyer, and William Behre while at the University of Michigan focused on the ways in which schools have many "unowned spaces" -- places that are not supervised by adults or occupied by positive, community-minded students. Students are all aware of where the dangerous places are in the building and on the campus, and some take advantage of these opportunities to bully others. Children are particularly vulnerable in the hallways.
Most kids will bear up under this kind of emotional violence. But some children who are not as resilient will experience psychological damage. The damage can include (but is not limited to) shame, lessened self-esteem, impaired self-image, and learned helplessness. The basic components of learned helplessness are the beliefs that one has no control over what is happening, that a bad event will continue to recur, and that nothing can effectively happen to change the situation. As a result of these damaging perceptions, kids begin to make important choices that hurt them academically and socially, perhaps in ways that affect the rest of their lives.
As we see in the case of Nathan, kids who are ridiculed by peers for their attempts academically may begin to make choices that result in lower grades or reduced academic interest. Kids who are degraded by their peers can end up with shaky self-confidence, damaged self-image and self-esteem. It is not easy to buck the culture of your peers if you are being tormented for being different.
As adults, sometimes we tend to think, "Students, especially teenagers, should stand up for themselves. They need to fight for what is important to them." While that sentiment has some merit, we must always be humble about matters like this. How difficult is it for adults to stand up or to stand out? On some job sites, the eager or quick workers are told by the rest, "Slow down. You're making the rest of us look bad." How can we expect children to do something that most adults cannot do? Adults will tolerate racist or sexist comments at work, even when they find them offensive, because the social costs of objecting are high. Do we expect more of our kids than we do of ourselves?
Every time we are tempted to blame the individual student for not being tough enough, being too thin-skinned, or not making good choices during the school day while being taunted, we are forgetting that kids are operating as a part of a bigger context, the system of the school. What is the responsibility of that system to each child? Each time we say, "If a child is being bullied, sexually harassed or whatever, it is up to that child to say something to an adult," we are basically saying that the adults -- teachers, administrators and parents -- who should be and legally are responsible for the functioning of the system are not really responsible at all. As long as it is up to the children to be the signal-bearers to the adults, nothing much will change in the schools.
Adults Who Ridicule and Harass
And even this is not the whole story. Unfortunately, there are teachers and other staff members in our schools who ridicule and humiliate kids. The research of psychologist Irwin Hyman at Temple University documents that many of today's adults experienced being the target of this particular form of shaming when they were young. A seventy-seven-year-old woman of our acquaintance describes how in elementary school she was caught sticking colored paper on her hands during art class. As punishment, she was made to visit each classroom in the entire school and tell the other children what a "silly and naughty girl" she was. The shame and rage she felt are as vivid today in the remembrance as they were seven decades ago. Many adults today find it difficult to believe that school personnel still engage in this shameful behavior. We may think it is ancient history, but it isn't. We hear about it from today's kids in our interviews.
The saddest part is that although it is the adults who should be ashamed of bullying children in these ways, it is the children who end up feeling ashamed and hurt. It is true that some teachers and other adults do not as yet recognize that what they do is bullying, and that it is harmful. However, it is both of those things and it needs to stop every bit as much, if not more so, than student-to-student harassment.
Here are two examples of the powerful impact of teacher ridicule on impressionable young people. When Tom was in the seventh grade, he walked into his English class and overheard his teacher and a colleague discussing his paper, laughing and commenting negatively. At first they didn't see him, so he heard more than he should have, and certainly more than they intended. Tom was crushed. He had no idea that teachers would ever laugh about a student, or that his work would be the subject of a joke.
After that, he gave up trying and became a mediocre student, even though in elementary school he had received straight A's. Years later, he remembers this event vividly and with pain as the turning point in his academic career. And Tom was just a typical kid, not an "at-risk" kid. But when he stopped trying, it began a ripple effect that cascaded negatively through his life. He made choices that affected his future, including where he went to college. Most of all, his confrontation with adult ridicule diminished his sense of himself as smart and talented.
Though they had a close family, Tom's parents never knew what happened. They never understood why his grades slipped so much, attributing it to the idea that junior high school was just more difficult. That is the explanation that most parents give themselves when they have no other feedback to go on.
At age thirteen, Amy was a very good math student. She loved its concepts and its precision. Her parents were not worried at all that Amy would be one of the many girls who are intimidated by boys into not liking math. She wouldn't be one of the ones who took a back seat to the aggressive boys in math classes. However, one day in an advanced class in eighth grade, Amy asked a question. The teacher turned to the whole class and responded, "Isn't that the dumbest question you've ever heard?" The teacher's sarcasm gave the class permission to laugh at Amy, and she was shocked and humiliated.
This was her first encounter with a teacher's disrespectful behavior toward her. It was early in the school year, and Amy's self-protective reaction was a decision not to ask any more questions in class. This seemed like a reasonable thing to do. She did not want to risk the harassment of the teacher, nor the ridicule of her classmates. Of course, Amy's grades suffered. Math is not a subject where even most good students can afford to stop participating and still do well.
Amy did inform her parents, but when they approached the teacher, they encountered not regret and apology but arrogance and denial. There was no recovery from this bad situation; Amy just had to suffer through it until the end of the year. But, as with Tom, the impact did not end there. Amy's interest in math waned. Her sense of herself as a good math student disappeared, and her ability to ask questions in other classes all but vanished.
Students who are ridiculed by teachers in front of their peers are more likely to stop participating in class and lose interest in the subject, concluding (rightly or wrongly) that "the teacher doesn't like me." These are all coping strategies for dealing with adult bullying.
Luckily, Tom and Amy did not resort to the extreme response of dropping out of school entirely, so in that sense the danger was limited. But thousands of students every year drop out of our nation's schools because they do not feel welcomed and cherished.
Other strategies that kids come up with for avoiding harassment at school include joining some kind of a group or clique for protection, or prematurely getting involved in a romantic relationship to put a stop to sexual harassment. Psychologists have tended to believe that joining a group is a natural part of adolescence. What we have not looked at closely is the critical need of young people to protect their developing sense of self from the slings and arrows of their peers. One of the ways to do this is to have a group that accepts you and does not bully or harass you. Your own group may tease you, but they don't do it in a way that is meant to hurt you. Others will "tease" in a way that is meant to get under your skin and make you feel bad.
That is why even middle-class white boys talk to us about their "homies." This phrase, originally part of African-American culture, implies that you have a group of "home boys" from your neighborhood who will stand up for you and "watch your back." To have this certain protection for your physical well-being and for your honor is extremely important to many young people, especially boys during the school day. Interestingly, adults in schools dismiss this as simply a form of kids at play. Even many psychologists think that this is only an example of kids trying on different and new identities. In the meantime, kids are very serious about being part of a group as a means of protecting themselves emotionally.
Other kids have different ways of grouping themselves for protection. These other groups include sports teams (have you ever watched members of the boys' varsity football team walk down a school hallway together?), drama groups (who reinforce their joint "so not-average" and "crazy" self-image by sticking together), and service groups (the school leaders who are trying their best, doing their best, succeeding, and getting adult reinforcement for it).
Many young people get involved in romantic relationships before they really feel ready. While there are many reasons, one is to find an emotionally safe place when the larger social world of the teenager's life seems unsupportive, or dangerous. Often we hear about peer pressure to have sex and how that can influence our kids to act. What we have not known before is that many kids end up in romantic relationships as a means of escaping sexual harassment. We will discuss this in Chapter 6 (Sexual Harassment and Stalking).
Of course, there are many adults, including well-intentioned academics and educators, who still believe that bullying is "OK." Their argument is similar to psychologist Joan Goodman's when she says, "I think people have to experience being picked on. It's a part of life." This is analogous to saying, "Everyone should experience the impact of war. War is a fact of life." If you ask most kids, "Do you think everyone should experience being picked on? Has anything good ever come out of being picked on for you?" most kids say, "No, being picked on sucks." When we see the impact of bullying and an emotionally toxic daily environment on children, we can begin to understand why we need to intervene to help change it.
Prevention Starts with Strong Families and Willing Schools
There are no guarantees, but we can reduce the risk of emotional violence in two ways. One is by motivating schools to do a better job in maintaining a positive climate and keeping the channels of communication open. Once schools are motivated, we can support their efforts by attending meetings, voting for school boards that are committed to the process, and encouraging our own kids to participate in the school's efforts. Much of the discussion in later chapters will focus on how to do this.
Here we will focus on increasing the ability of families to demonstrate social competence for their kids. How do they do this? Research on strong and effective families identifies a variety of successful coping strategies. Each reduces the risk, although no one can say with certainty that the risk will reach zero. One list of characteristics for strong families developed by sociologist Nick Stennet and his colleagues includes the following elements.
Appreciation. The members regard each other warmly, positively, and give support to each other as individuals. This is vitally important for both children and adults. A family that appears successful from the outside may not be working well on the inside, in the feelings among its members. As we showed in Chapter 1, psychological acceptance is a wellspring of self-esteem, and self-esteem feeds competence. Rejection, on the other hand, is a psychological malignancy. When parents reject each other, a common unintended side effect is for their children to feel rejected too.
Spending time together. Strong families spend time together and enjoy it. Being a family is not a hypothetical exercise; it takes time to knit a family together and to keep it from unraveling. This is a big issue for today's families, who must contend with commuting, TV, dual-earner marriages, and the like. Eating together, enjoying working together on projects, participating together in community and school activities -- this is the stuff of which successful families are made.
Good communication patterns. Family members are honest and receptive toward each other. The process of seeking to maintain equilibrium within the family system thrives on communication. Families with many issues and topics that are off-limits for discussion become vulnerable to serious disequilibria. Conversely, families can handle a lot of change and stress if they keep talking things through, sharing needs, fears, joys, and strategies for coping. The result is a common social map that helps the whole family know where it is.
Commitment. The family unit is important to its members, as are the interpersonal relationships within the family, so energy and time need to be directed inward toward the family as a unit. Being a successful family today requires some hard choices. There are many things competing for the time and energy of family members (including work, school, friends, hobbies, and recreation). When there are no options, being committed to family is easy: it's the only show in town. In the modern world, though, you can't do everything. Particularly now, commitment is a clear and present element in successful families. Being committed means living your life with the needs of family high on your agenda.
Religious orientation. Strong families seem anchored in a sense of purpose that is religious or spiritual in its foundation. The strength required for commitment has to come from somewhere, drawn from a well of the soul. Connection with a higher spiritual force provides a firm foundation for this commitment, although it is not the only possible source. The point is that families need to be connected to something larger than just existing. Caring for the soul is an important function of a strong family. Children and adults need a sense of purpose, a sense that their lives together mean something more than just getting up, eating, going to school or work, watching TV, shopping, and going to bed. This is a deep spiritual need, and meeting it strengthens the fabric of the family.
Ability to deal with crises in a positive manner. Strong families are able to deal with conflicts, and band together in mutual support when bad times arise. Life always has thorns as well as roses. Almost every family faces painful challenges, such as illness, injury, death, separation, unemployment, natural disasters, and crime. Successful families rally together to meet these challenges, and may even emerge stronger from them. Vulnerable families fall apart or sacrifice members.
Does being a strong family mean the teenagers in that family have no secrets? The only honest answer is no. But it does reduce the risk. As Kerr and Stattin reported in their study, the best defense against adolescent secret lives is a family tradition of openness. While "the earlier, the better" is the rule, it is never too late to start the process.
The opposite of this openness that marks a successful family is what Robert Halpern and Judith Musick call "domains of silence" -- topics or issues that are taboo in family discussions. Sex is a common one. Violence is another. Humiliation is a third. All three are implicated in our focus in this book on bullying, sexual harassment, and emotional violence at school, because schools face the same domains as families. Once we recognize this, it should not come as a surprise that parents are often cut off from the secret lives of their kids -- even good families.
What Can You Do?
1. Listen to your children with an open mind. Try not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions. This is one message from Stattin and Miller's research: Start early with a pattern of hearing, without judgment and criticism. If you listen without interrupting, you will hear who your child really is and what he or she is experiencing at school.
2. Create ongoing opportunities for your children to talk about their lives. Talk about issues around the dinner table (of course, this requires having dinner together in the first place), or in the car during many of the transportation opportunities each week. Make it a tradition, so that when negative experiences do occur there is a habit of the heart to rely upon -- a habit of disclosing what is troubled and troubling.
3. Share information with other parents. Get a second opinion. Are their kids having any trouble at school? Have their kids let any hints drop about being bullied, about hating school "all of a sudden"? The American value on family privacy is a barrier to this, of course. But letting that value prevent parents who have useful information from sharing it with other parents is too costly for all of us.
4. Seek out information from the school about your children. Teachers and administrators often complain that parents are resistant to hearing troubling information about their kids. "Not my son!" or "Not my daughter!" is no way to open the flow of information from the school to the home.
5. Seek out information from teachers and other staff about the climate at the school. How do they see it? Are they seeing more and more trouble at school, more and more "troubled kids"? Are teachers and aides saying they are enjoying their jobs less?
6. Ask teachers what you can do as a parent to provide some help to them during the school day. Often the only thing teachers in middle or high schools get from parents and administrators is aggravation. Most are overworked and operate in overcrowded classrooms. They could use something more substantial from parents and the community than a "Teacher Recognition Luncheon" once a year.
7. Think outside the box. Even though the school has always done something one way, your idea or suggestion might be very welcome -- especially if you are willing to put some time into it yourself.
Copyright © 2002 by Dr. James Garbarino and Dr. Ellen deLara