Doctor Mom is a physician who lives in Ontario
This week CMAJ published a research study looking at how peer victimization in early childhood is related to mental health problems and suicidality in adolescence. Peer victimization is a broad term that encompasses bullying. The study was published with a linked podcast that I wish I had been able to listen to a few months ago when I was trying to work out how to deal with a situation in which my younger son was being victimized.
The study, which analyzed data from a late-1990s Quebec birth cohort, found that mild to moderate peer victimization is really common. No surprises there. Taunts and spats are the bread and butter of childhood. (I’m all too aware that our own family life plays out to a soundtrack of nigh constant taunting and name-calling between our two sons.)
The authors of the study found that a small proportion of children are severely victimized over time in early childhood. These kids are more likely to go on to have mental health problems serious enough to interfere with day to day functioning and to experience suicidality. Sadly, these findings didn’t surprise me either. Kids who experience mild to moderate peer victimization – even if it’s regular and enduring - don’t, as a group, seem to show any increased risk of mental health problems in adolescence when you adjust for other risk factors associated with early life mental illness. That’s reassuring. But epidemiological studies like this one tell us about patterns and risks at the population level, offering insight into how peer victimization plays out. However, bullying is something that is perpetrated by and happens to individuals and the study can’t tell us much about kids' individual experiences.
The thing is, I am interested in the individual experience because I’m trying to raise two sons, and if you read my last blog you’ll know that I care about protecting their mental health. Recently my younger son experienced peer victimization and it was tricky to work out what to do.
Even figuring out whether or not what Son #2 was experiencing was bullying – as opposed to something within the realm of normal – was tricky. Some might have just considered him to have a ‘healthy rivalry’ with another kid in the context of a competitive sport. The kid’s mom definitely described it to me in those terms when we first began carpooling to sport practice with their family. And I’m under no illusions about Son #2. He can be as annoyingly verbally competitive and provocative as any other child. So what made me worry?
After the start of a new sport season a few months ago, Son #2 began to tell us about incidents of name-calling, shoving, deliberate obstruction in practice and put-downs from his ‘rival’ almost every other day. What’s more, another kid on the same team, who also happened to start carpooling with us, joined in with the teasing and put-downs. Teasing is normal. The others were older. It’s not unusual for older, more verbally sophisticated, kids to make a younger kid the butt of their jokes and taunts. You could say that none of this was really remarkable in the realm of childhood interaction. The problem was that it became relentless. And largely unavoidable because of the carpooling arrangement. One day I overheard the two kids talking disparagingly about my son before he came out of the locker room and it gave me more insight into his experience.
As soon as he began telling us about these encounters, we encouraged Son #2 to talk about how the experiences made him feel; we talked him through what he might be able to say in response to the kids’ teasing and put-downs (e.g. “what you said hurt my feelings” ….. just in case they hadn’t thought about that!) He said he had done that but thought it might have made it worse. We encouraged him to talk to his coach if it became a problem during sport practices. We asked him if he wanted us to talk to the other kids’ parents about it. He said no. In fact he said it would be embarrassing, both for him and for the other kids, and please we must never mention it to the kids’ parents. We told him that we could pull out of the carpool arrangement and for three months he said no to that too.
It didn’t take long before the two kids came up with two nicknames for our son – versions of his own name that sounded like a word for pee and a word for poop, respectively. They called him these names daily for a while and one day he cried about it. The tears were a red flag. Son #2’s generally a tough kid and he’s weathered a fair bit of name-calling from his older brother. We asked him again if he wanted us to talk to the other kids’ parents. He said no. But when we asked again if he wanted to leave the carpool he said yes, on condition that we not tell the parents of the kids why we were pulling out of the arrangement. My husband, angered by the whole affair, wanted very much to speak to the parents of the kids involved. I persuaded him not to because I believed it was important that we support our son in finding the best solution for himself, and if that involved ‘saving face’ or preserving his pride - or even protecting the kids who were victimizing him - then so be it.
To be honest I experienced a lot of self-doubt about the way I was handling the situation. I worried about the long term effect of the victimization on Son #2’s mental health. Wasn’t I meant to do a better job of mediating the world for my son? Would I look back at some point and wish I had intervened to try to put a stop to it? Listening to the podcast linked to the recent CMAJ study reassured me that the way we handled it as parents was just fine.
In the podcast one of the study authors, a professor of developmental psychology, says acting to build a victimized child’s resilience and offering them tools to enhance their social interaction is probably the most important thing one can do. She cites a UK study that tried to figure out what factors helped children to remain mentally healthy despite experiencing severe bullying. A structured, supportive and empowering family environment for the child was found to be most strongly protective. Expecting/asking others (such as schools or parents) to intervene is less helpful than offering the victimized child coping skills. Another of the study’s authors, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, warns parents and teachers not to overreact, and to remember that bullies are vulnerable too. Online resources advise against shaming the bully, who has often been the victim of bullying him- or herself.
We gave our Son #2 space to talk about his experience. He wasn’t judged for it and, even though I felt hurt and upset on his behalf, I didn’t really judge too harshly the kids who gave him a hard time. When his dad and I talked about it with him we kept the focus on him. We suggested options and he got to choose a solution for himself. We respected his decision. No longer being part of the carpool arrangement means some greater inconvenience, both for our son and for us, but our Son #2 knows that we are 100% okay with that because we are committed to supporting him. He still wants to be on the sports team so he can’t avoid entirely the kids who victimized him. And that’s fine. It’s enough that we have been able to lessen the intensity of the contact to give him space to re-equilibrate the balance of power in his relationships with the other two kids.
I’m all for teaching and encouraging resilience. I believe we did that. But part of that was helping our son to learn a more general life lesson. It is this. If an arrangement is not working for you – if it is causing you distress - you don’t need to put up with it or swallow it or pretend it is working for you. You don’t need to do that to please your parents or anyone else who seems comfortable with the status quo. You can choose just to walk away. And you are under no obligation to explain why.