In the Trenches

By Bob Ditter
Dear Bob,
 
We have a high elements ropes course at camp that became the scene of some harassment last summer. As you probably know, it is not so unusual for some campers to get up on a high element, like the pamper pole or Burma bridge, and momentarily freeze. Some campers become temporarily frightened and need support and encouragement to proceed. Instead of supporting their fellow campers, some of the other kids last summer would jeer at the kids on the element or make fun of them. It was something our ropes course instructors hadn't encountered before and they were somewhat perplexed about why it was happening and what to do about it.
 
I was wondering what you would recommend. I suspect there were some man reasons for the behavior we were witnessing. Any light you might shed on this would be helpful.
 
— Up-in-the-Air
 
Dear Up-in-the-Air,
 
Before I give you my condensed version of what I think might be going on and what to do about it, let me make a supposition about the situation you describe. I am assuming that the campers involved in this "high drama" ropes course scene are mostly boys. It is important to know because boys and girls put one another down in different ways for different reasons.
 
You said you thought there were some "man reasons" at play, by which I take it you mean the real or self-imposed social pressure boys experience to live up to certain standards of performance or to "look tough." That pressure to "measure up" often creates the conditions that result in boys tormenting others. More specifically, boys can taunt for the following reasons:
 
  1. They have been bullied themselves and identify with the aggressor, which means they take on the position of the attacker rather than the victim. It is as if kids think they have only two alternatives: being the victim or being the aggressor. Though this imagined "choice" is clearly an illusion, it is a powerful one in the minds of most boys who need help seeing there are other options.
  2. They feel deep shame about a perceived inadequacy or personal flaw, real or imagined, that if revealed would cause them to experience great humiliation. They in turn project that sense of defect onto others, both to draw attention away from themselves and to alleviate their worry of being exposed.
  3. They are overloaded with feelings and seem to be able only to express anger as a legitimate male feeling because being angry allows you to show up as tough! You know the old saying, "When boys can't cry tears they shoot bullets (real or figurative ones)."
 
Generally speaking, what we as adults need to help boys with are the following three things:
  1. To expand their tolerance of other feelings besides anger, such as sadness, disappointment, fear, joy, and so on. Boys need help thinking of these feelings as being just as legitimate — just as "manly" — as anger.
  2. To realize that to be strong doesn't include being mean or hurtful to others (as if the weakness of others allows them to feel powerful by comparison).
  3. To gain competence in various skill areas so they feel more adequate and therefore less likely to project any sense of defect onto other boys.
 
All of these general efforts will help reduce bullying in boys. So let's get practical: How would one specifically go about intervening with the boys in the situation you describe at the ropes course?
 
To answer that let me first propose another possible way to think about what your campers are doing by harassing the boys briefly stuck on those high elements. What if we were to think of it as their own primitive way of attempting to toughen up those floundering boys? Viewing it this way is obviously more complimentary to the aggressors and actually gives your instructors a more powerful way of intervening with them. If you were to sit those boys down and begin by saying something like, "Hey, guys, I know you are just trying to help those other boys out by toughening them up," you would indeed be giving them the benefit of the doubt, perhaps giving them credit where credit is not due. Approaching the offending boys this way does not mean reducing their ultimate responsibility for their provocative and hurtful behavior. You would, however, immediately increase the level of listening in that group of boys, a tactic that in my experience works much more effectively than shaming them or making them wrong!
 
Opening your remarks this way allows you to "agree" with the offending boys: The boys up in the air do need help to tough it out and be stronger! It's just that your method does just the opposite! This approach gives the boys a way to see themselves more benevolently — not simply as bullies, but as powerful agents who can get the other boys past their fear. You are actually modeling restraint and compassion — exactly the traits you are trying to engender in the boys. I would continue with something like, "No one likes to see another guy struggle. It reminds us of a feeling no one likes to have, and that is helplessness. So I know down deep you guys are only trying to help, but I don't think it is working. Besides, the way you are going about it might make some of the other kids get the wrong idea about you. They might think you're really just bullies!"
 
I find boys appreciate a collaborative approach. They like being experts! Indeed, if your instructors simply yell at them, they are unwittingly doing to the hecklers what the hecklers are doing to the frightened boys on the high wire. I suggest engaging them in thinking about what would work. Remember that there are always some boys who are uncomfortable with the abusive tactics of their peers, and if we give them cover or support, one of them will speak up. Especially if we don't make them wrong right off the bat! Remember, too, that people in general are more likely to adhere to a set of rules or guidelines they have created than ones that have been imposed on them.
 
If, by the way, you do have a more provocative boy who says, "I don't care if anyone thinks I'm a bully! I want to make those guys feel bad! They're just wimps!" then you separate him from the others and deal with that boy differently. I'd have a serious one-on-one talk with him and some recognized male authority at camp and then set up a call with his parents. The object of the call is not so much to punish the boy but to enlist his parents' help in changing his behavior!
 
Let me mention one more thing. Some counselors use the "how-would-you-like-it-if-that-were-you-up-there" approach. Well-intentioned as this approach is, it doesn't work. In fact, it results in kids telling us what they think we want to hear even as it increases their hidden resentment. The result is that they give the victims an even worse time later when we aren't around to see it.
 
Dear Bob,
 
We had a young lady at camp last summer who just didn't seem to want to be here. She had a terrible time getting up in the morning, would not listen to her counselors, picked fights with many of her cabin mates, and often refused to go to activities. We ended up assigning a specific counselor to watch her during the day, as she would refuse to go activities. Getting her parents involved on the phone moderated her behavior for maybe twenty-four hours, after which time she'd go right back to her old tricks. We finally sent her home halfway through the session, but now her mother is lobbying us for her to return next summer. Help!
 
— Between a Rock and a Hard Place
 
Dear Rock,
 
You haven't said whether the girl herself wants to come back or not, but I wouldn't trust her answer anyway, as she might only be trying to please or placate her mother and not be able to give you her own uncensored opinion. I would do three things as follows:
  1. Talk with the mother about what it is she thinks has changed that would make her daughter behave differently this year. If she tells you that she's really grown up and this year she wants to come back so badly, be the healthy skeptic. Tell her you need to speak to someone outside the family who can attest to this great maturation — a therapist; a teacher; a guidance counselor. Mom can refuse; and you can politely decline the girl's return to camp.
  2. Even if the mother says something that seems to make sense to you, ask to speak to the father and get his opinion. Too often we speak only to one parent or the other and don't get another perspective. The father may tell you that he's not too sure his daughter does want to come back!
  3. Require that the girl come back on a binding "agreement" that you would work out well before camp directly with the young lady herself and then with her parents. The agreement would require the girl to do three things: 1) get up in the morning; 2) listen to her counselors; and 3) go to activities. As long as the girl can keep her end of the agreement, she gets to do more of her favorite things at camp. If she does not keep the agreement, first you would call the parents and put her on warning; second, she would go home. Having an agreement keeps the decision grounded in the camper's actual behavior and offers you a practical and fair way to deal with the situation.
 
Bob Ditter is a licensed clinical social worker specializing in child, adolescent, and family therapy. For more information about the author, visit www.BobDitter.com.
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