Many years back (too many to count), when I was growing up, school represented so much more than just academics and learning. Beyond the books, lesson plans, and final exams was the all-important social aspect that made up a significant portion of my school memories. For many of us, where you stood in the social order played a significant role in your overall experience, and this position was largely determined by who you associated with.

For those individuals who either by choice or as a result of their circumstances operated outside of the popular social circles, their choices often times set them up for a life on the periphery, and unfortunately established them as targets for attack from the so-called “in-crowd.”

Not that I would try to lessen the profound impact that bullying had back then, but I don’t ever recall things getting so out of hand that children’s lives were at stake. Sure, ridicule on any level can be cruel, and can result in a lifetime of scarring, but I don’t remember any incidences that resulted in any of my classmates taking their own lives or the lives of their classmates.

This really came to light recently with a story reported on MSNBC.com about a teenage girl who committed suicide as a result of bullying from her classmates. The student was the target of cruel and excessive abuse, exacerbated by the internet, so much so that it led her to take her own life. Her classmates who were behind the torment are currently being charged with her death as the entire community grapples with how to deal with the tragedy and how they can prevent it from every happening again.

Such tragedies are thankfully not the norm, but they have become increasingly common today, and just the fact that they even occur is cause for alarm. While parents, administrators and policymakers scratch their heads over this incident, it does beg the question, what exactly is going on? Why do certain kids target and bully their peers, sometimes to such extremes to illicit such extreme behavior?

Needless to say, it is an issue that deserves the utmost attention from parents and school administrators, because the fact of the matter is, in schools today, bullying is a fact of life. As many as 10 to 13% of school kids report some form of peer rejection. As a consequence, the same kids who are targeted are also more prone to problems in other areas of their lives, including school performance, experimenting with substance abuse, experiencing depression, and in certain extreme instances, the taking of their own or other children’s lives.

In an effort to better understand why certain kids are targeted for bullying, researchers delved deeper into the issue. What they found was that certain behavioral patterns predispose children to rejection and isolation, many of which are based on the the child's inability to recognize and respond to nonverbal cues from their peers. These mistakes are usually unintentional, but the consequences are nonetheless painful, especially in light of the fact that humans are social creatures that crave acceptance. When we are denied it, the results can be painful.

Researchers arrived at their conclusions, published in the Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, as a result of a series of experiments that examined children’s reactions to visual cues. The subjects, ages 4 to 16, were asked to interpret facial expressions, voices, and body postures in order to get a sense of how the kids perceived another person’s emotions. They were also presented with various social situations and asked what they felt were the proper responses.

The results were compared to accounts from teachers and parents about the participants actual behavior. What they found was that kids who were prone to social problems also had difficulty in one or more areas of nonverbal communication, which included recognizing the actual cues, grasping their social meaning, and resolving the ensuing social conflict.

This inability to comprehend what is being conveyed to them by their peers is believed to be at the root of many instances of social ostracization. It is also the first step in a “vicious cycle” whereby kids on the periphery lack the opportunity to develop and nurture their social skills, thus aggravating an already existing problem. In these instances, having just one or two friends might be enough to offset this isolation.

And, of course, adults can play a significant role, as well. While current trends in child oversight encourage parents to take a step back and allow kids to work things out for themselves, children need a strong foundation for this to be effective. The basis for proper behavior begins with adults teaching and setting proper examples that the children will hopefully emulate. This, of course, involves kids on both sides of the equation: those who are targeted and ridiculed, as well as the bullies themselves.

Parents are therefore encouraged to take the time to teach proper social skills through encouragement and support, as opposed to reacting angrily or embarrassing the child. In a proper learning environment, children are more apt to embrace the lessons being taught, and therefore act appropriately in any given social situation.

Some experts recommend intervening immediately after a situation has developed. In his book, “It's So Much Work to Be Your Friend: Helping the Child with Learning Disabilities Find Social Success,” Richard Lavoie recommends taking the following steps to teach the child about the nature of his or her actions:

  • Discussing the matter without being judgmental
     
  • Affording the child a chance to identify the mistake
     
  • Helping the child understand the nature of the other person’s response and trying to instill some empathy
     
  • Helping the child envision a different scenario with a better outcome
     
  • Following up with the lesson the next day

The reality is, most kids do not actively choose to be outsiders, and if anything, they want to have friends. Furthermore, I think it is fair to say nobody likes to be targeted for bullying. The process of growing and maturing, however, can be a difficult path, and kids need the strong emotional wherewithal to get through it, as well as the knowledge and ability to act appropriately.

But it all begins with us, the parents, caregivers, and teachers, who need to take the time to recognize a problem, and more importantly, make an effort to help the child out rather than doing nothing and kidding ourselves that things will work out on their own.