A mother picks her sixth-grade daughter, Cara, up from school. Cara looks upset. The mother asks what's wrong. Cara says her friend Annie was mean to her, calling her a "slut" and refusing to sit with her at lunch.
The mother is not surprised. She has never liked Annie, or Annie's parents, the way they let their daughter wear skimpy clothes and buy whatever she wants regardless of price. She is also aware that bullying is a widespread national problem that, according to everything she hears and reads, requires prompt adult intervention. When she gets home, she calls the school principal and other mothers in her bucolic Massachusetts neighborhood to say that Annie has been bullying her daughter.
The news this year has been full of stories about kids whose lives were ruined—and in some cases ended—by the trauma of bullying. Phoebe Prince, the Massachusetts high-school freshman who hanged herself in January after being relentlessly teased. Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate exposed him as having a same-sex encounter. Lexi Pilkington, who killed herself following months of harassment on Facebook. According to recent studies, about 15 percent of students are traumatized by bullying and as many as 30 percent may suffer significant harassment.
But a subject too touchy to broach with many parents is that some situations don't need intervention, and that adult involvement in certain incidents can actually do more harm than good. Some psychologists worry that all the klieg lights focused on bullying have left many hyper-vigilant parents, like Cara's mother, unable to distinguish between genuine bullying and relatively minor conflicts that would best be left for a child to handle. When parents intervene too readily, experts say, they damage their child's ability to work out problems for themselves. They can also harm the child they accuse, who is not necessarily a bully, but an insecure or troubled kid who has simply acted out.
"Obviously if your kid feels pushed around or teased, it's agony," said Susan Engel, a psychologist and the author of the forthcoming Red Flags or Red Herrings? "It's not an overreaction to feel your child's pain. That's what parents do. The problem comes with the way parents deal with the pain. They need to ask, is this something that can be worked out, or is it something that requires me to call the school? They jump in now with the idea that bullying is a chronic problem whereas there is a big difference between the normal kinds of misunderstandings and conflict that can happen between kids—or anyone—and what is a pattern."
One problem is the tendency of overanxious parents to “interview for pain” at the end of a school day.
Many parents fail to understand that bullying is defined as a repeated act of abuse, though psychologists say that extreme one-time incidents where, for instance, one child is targeted by a group or is harassed on the internet, can also qualify. Isolated incidents of name calling, teasing, or exclusion, however, are usually just that: one-off incidents that, if left to a child to handle, can build strength and character in the way that resistance training can build a muscle. But experts say that many anxious parents, eager to protect their children in an age of fear and uncertainty—or, perhaps, to settle scores from their own pasts—are defining Zero Tolerance against bullying to mean Zero Pain at all, taking it upon themselves to smooth every bump on their child's social road.
"I want there to be a lot of bumps!" said Wendy Mogel, a psychologist and the author of The Blessing of a B Minus. "You know why? Because these children are going to go to college. They are going to go out into the world. They are going to have a roommate who wants her boyfriend to sleep over every night, colleagues who won't jump up and down to welcome them on the team. They'll need emotional resilience and social street smarts to finesse all sorts of unexpected bumps. But if parents go riding into school like a Viking on a horse whenever their child complains of unfair treatment or ruffled feelings, the children are actually deprived of rich opportunities to develop essential social skills."
This is not the same as simply saying that “kids will be kids.” Recent research has given us a deeper understanding of just how damaging bullying can be to a child's emerging sense of self. But in the same way that states and schools are working to improve their anti-bullying policies—adopting new regulations and consulting with experts about the development of newer ones still—so do parents need to refine their understanding of what constitutes effective intervention. Cara and Annie's situation may well have resolved itself on its own, but it only deteriorated when Annie found out about Cara's mother's phone calls and further tormented Cara—who then vowed never to tell her mom anything ever again.
"The standard shouldn't be, is my child suffering a little, but is my child's core sense of self in the process of being destroyed?" said Michael Gurian, a psychologist and the author of Nurture the Nature. "The core self is that center of morality and strength that's building every day. If that's being destroyed we must intervene, but if it's being teased a little then it's best to let the child utilize his or her own assets to meet the challenge."
Parents who intervene in bothering rather than bullying situations, experts say, are not only robbing their children of important learning experiences, but may be inadvertently sending the message they don't trust their child to handle the situation. This can have the effect of feeding the child's vulnerability and actually increase the chance that they'll be targeted by bullies. Conversely, parents who send the message "I know you can do this" increase the likelihood of their child going back to school with a shielding aura of strength.
And then there is the effect on the child who has been unfairly accused. "I've seen groups of mothers completely demonize other children," said Michael Thompson, a psychologist and the author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies. "There are sometimes socially unskilled children who are impulsive or who have low frustration tolerance. They lash out, say unfortunate things, or sometimes hit. The parents decide that child is the class bully. Things are more complex than that. On a genetic basis, a child may have limited social skills. His or her parents may have limited social skills and be unable to help them navigate the situation."
Another problem is what Thompson calls the tendency of overanxious parents to "interview for pain" at the end of a school day, which teaches children to see school and social interactions through a lens of fear and negativity. "When parents talk about a school being 'so mean' or a class being 'so mean' they are overlooking the power of children's friendships and the thousands acts of love and tolerance in a school day," he said.
But acts of kindness rarely make news. When we close our eyes, we don't picture the girl who invites an awkward acquaintance to sit at her lunch table, the boy who pats a discouraged friend on the back. We see the doomed young face of Phoebe Prince. We recall the words Tyler Clementi is said to have posted on Facebook the day of his suicide: "all too much jumping off gw sorry."
In a world where the dangers of bullying are flashing on our TV, computer and Blackberry screens 24/7, how's a responsible parent to respond? When it comes to the Internet, experts advise parents to keep a close eye on everything their young children watch and do. "Giving a child unlimited access to the Internet is like giving them a race car without a license," said Dr. Mogel. When a child recounts something hurtful that happened at school, Dr. Mogel advises parents to ask themselves whether the incident can be viewed as a "challenge" rather than a "potential or guaranteed trauma." Parents should empathize with a child's hurt feelings, ask how she plans to handle the situation, and, perhaps, help her figure out a strategy. Parents should keep an eye on the situation in coming days to see if it recurs, and they should also watch for signs that their child is losing their zest for life.
The key is to respond rationally rather than emotionally. Susan Davis, a psychologist and the co-author of Raising Children Who Soar, says parents should handle children's distress the way they handle upsetting situations at work. "You wouldn't burst into your boss's office and start to cry," she said. "You would take a minute to collect yourself and think about how to respond. In other words, you would tap a different aspect of yourself. Obviously this is harder to do when your child is involved. Their pain gets to you like nothing else. But it's your job as a parent to zip it up and think of what's best for them."
Lisa Wolfe has worked at 60 Minutes and written for The New York Times and O Magazine, among other publications.