The society of young children is not a gentle one. Untutored in the art of tact, they tend to speak to one another what they feel: “Why I don’t want to play with you is because I don’t like you.” While in groups they soon come to learn that he or she who make the rules, rules what happens: “It’s my game so I decide how we play.” To make matters worse, the group itself begins to exercise arbitrary powers of inclusion and exclusion: “This is our game, stay out!”

Unkind as these early experiences can be, however, they pale in comparison to the cruelties which late elementary and middle school students, individually and in groups, can visit upon one another as early adolescence causes friendships to become more important and difficult at the same time.

For parents, seeing their child head off in the morning for certain torment at school can be agonizing for them. “It’s so hard to sit by while bigger, more confident, and more popular kids make fun of our son just be cause he acts different, is smaller, and is not so outgoing. I don’t see how they can take any pleasure putting him down and pushing him around every day. How can they feel good making him feel bad? There are times when I think his classmates are nothing but a bunch of little sadists!”

Well, perhaps not sadists, but at least young people whose best way of easing the pain of their own developmental insecurity and self-doubt from growth change they don’t control is by dominating the weakness and demeaning the esteem of those around them. And when suitable victims cannot be found at school, a younger brother or sister to pick on at home will do (unless parents declare that this mistreatment is not allowed.)

Why do feelings of insecurity run so wide and deep at this beleaguered age? Because early adolescence, in addition to creating developmental change, is the time when the separation from childhood begins, and with it a loosening of old bonds of dependency on family that was once the center of the child’s world. Now the struggle for more social independence at home and away from home creates more conflict and new distance between parents and child, causing the world of friends to become more important. Social belonging with peers becomes the antidote to more feelings of estrangement from family. Social popularity becomes the antidote to personal insecurity.

Unhappily for most children, since popularity is an exclusive club, not everyone is allowed in, which is where social meanness comes into play – to preserve the social order, limit membership, and keep the undeserving out. Thus in upper elementary school and middle school, for many children coping with social cruelty is a hard part of their day – the teasing, name calling, bullying, vandalizing, rumoring, gossiping, excluding, and ganging up that can make this passage through early adolescence so painful.

Sometimes, if one is being temporary target of this mistreatment, the best strategy, in addition to ignoring it or standing up for oneself, is not to take it personally. Like the boy whose small size is regularly made fun of, they can make an important distinction. “The teasing isn’t about anything wrong with me; it’s about something mean in them. If you want to know the truth, I think kids just tease another kid about what they’re afraid of being teased about themselves.”

So for many parents, high school, with its larger size and older children comes as a welcome relief: “At least our child’s happy going to school again, at least the meanness of middle school is done!” That’s right. Now all parents have to worry about is driving, drinking, dating, and drugs.

© Carl Pickhardt Ph.D. For permission to use this article, contact the author.