Shame

Shame and Bullying


What do the Ugly Duckling, Cinderella, and Rudolph have in common? They're children's stories? Yes. But they're also horrible accounts of bullying and shame. You remember. The ugly duckling gets turned away from everyone he encounters, especially his family. Cinderella's stepsisters and stepmother taunt her because she is nicer and prettier. And Rudolph? "All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names." Sure, these are stories, but they are also a reality that happens in schools, day cares, and families every day.

Sadly, the real stories don't usually unfold in the joyous ways these stories do. Kids don't get fairy godmothers, and they certainly don't end up saving Christmas with the very object of the teasing (a nose).

We know these kids, and perhaps we adults were those kids at one time. The dynamics of bullying are complex. It feels like you're either one of the bullies, or one of the victims. If you stand up for a victim, you risk becoming one yourself. Children who are bullied feel badly about who they are. They may feel defective, small, ugly and stupid. Interestingly, the children who bully often feel the same way. By picking-on someone else, a bully can discharge their "yucky" feelings (i.e., Cinderella's stepsisters; and see also our article on "projective identification"), and temporarily feel better and "bigger." When the temporary relief dissipates, the yucky feelings need to be discharged again. It's a terrible cycle.

What is the solution? Well, it's not simply teaching social skills to the picked-on children, teaching them how to "fight," or punishing the bullies. The shame inherent in the dynamic of bullying is powerful for all involved, and often requires the help of a therapist. Children need help identifying their feelings, building a healthy view of themselves, developing empathy for others, and repairing the damage of the shaming messages they have received.

This process can begin at home, with parents and siblings being sensitive to possible peer problems and bullying. Parents can directly ask children if their classmates tease one another, or use one of the many stories containing bullying themes as a guide. The trick is not to read the story from beginning to end, as the endings are often magical and idealistic. As you read, ask your child what they think the characters should do, or how they think the story will end. See if they can come up with alternative scenarios that promote healthier relationships.

Children caught in the cycle of bullying - either as a victim or a bully - may need professional help to break the cycle. Play therapy is an effective way for children to express the feelings and conflicts they have trouble verbalizing directly. Addressing these problems early may prevent future problems, as the roles of bullies and victims - if left untreated - can continue well into adulthood. My guess is that, even though the Ugly Duckling looked into the pond and saw that he was a beautiful swan, the shame and humiliation didn't just disappear.

 

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