I have a cousin who is intelligent and very attractive. As a child she was a good student, cute, and appeared to have many positive things going for her. In about the fourth grade the other children in her class started to tease, torment and degrade her with all the viciousness they possessed. It became so negative that her mother removed her from school and enrolled her in another school. Nearly 40 years later, that experience sticks out as a traumatic part of her life.

There are children in every classroom who are picked on and abused. Sometimes they don't look or smell as good as everyone thinks they should. Other times there isn't an obvious reason as to why they are chosen to be the object of ridicule. No matter the reason, the result is nearly always the same.

The child loses confidence in himself and in his abilities. A steady diet of harassment and put-downs is extremely poor nutrition for a growing ego.

We wonder why kids are so cruel to each other. Some of the mean behaviors are just thoughtless attempts to belong with a crowd. Belonging is sometimes a much higher priority than being sensitive to another person's feelings. Sometimes the mean or abusive child is just acting out behaviors he sees at home, only he makes sure he is the perpetrator and not the victim.

Parents who call names, belittle, abuse each other and their children, are teaching children that problems are handled by these behaviors. Some children are simply never taught to be conscious of another person's feelings and of the negative effects their behaviors have on another person. They are not aware and they don't care. Young people cannot always deal with the hurt and frustration they face in their lives so they take those frustrations out on those scapegoats that are less capable than they are. There are many "little" people in the world who try to look "big" by putting others down.

Despite the reasons, the fact remains that kids can be cruel and their behaviors can have a lifelong negative effect on their peers. Ideally all parents and children could be taught to respect others. Because the likelihood of this happening is small, the child who is being taunted and ridiculed should be the focus of our efforts.

The child whose life is being made miserable can be taught that he cannot change or control others but he can control himself. He needs to learn who he is and not believe what everyone says he is. His good, positive, traits should constantly be reinforced at home. If he takes a beating out in the world, at least he will know that someone loves and appreciates him at home. Educators and administrators have great power to intercede and stop harassment if they know about it.

Children learn quickly that life is not always fair and just. They may have characteristics that invite ridicule. They can work on overcoming these characteristics without feeling that they deserve poor treatment. If there is any way to ignore, put distance between, or get the heck off the same planet as the hurtful kids are on, a child should be coached to do so. Anything he can do to avoid the harassment he should do. If he can be taught to act rather than react, he will feel he has more control over the situation.

In a world where "put-downs" are common place, we need to teach our children as well as we can, how to handle these situations. We also need to make sure that we are on the building side of the fence in our interactions with others, rather than the tearing down side.

Sherry Berteaux, BSW MA, is a licensed mental health therapist. Please submit topics or questions you would like to have addressed in Family Forum to sherryb@reachone.com or mail to the Chinook Observer, Attn: Sherry Berteaux, P.O. Box 427, Long Beach, WA 98631.

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