I want to start this article by doing a little thought experiment. Imagine for a moment that you are in a group of twenty people. In that twenty people there is a defined leader and that leader is responsible for motivating you, teaching you, and otherwise organizing group activities. Things are going along OK but then at some point the group leader decides that they aren’t happy with the activities of the group. Some of you are going to the bathroom too much, some of you are too easily distracted, and others are simply not following the rules. You, in particular, are a problem for the group leader and so in an attempt to control your behavior and enforce “the rules,” the group leader singles you out and forces you to sit in the middle of the group on the floor for a week.
Forms of emotional abuse: ISOLATION - Physical confinement; limiting freedom within a person’s own environment; The group leader says it is for your own good and that it will teach you life skills, but for you it is an emotional horror show. I mean, can you imagine the emotions that you’d feel? Singled out in a group of twenty, publicly labelled as a loser too stupid to follow the rules, the subject of derisive and degrading attention, isolated, even terrorized by the psychological horror, you’d be traumatized for a long period of time, maybe for life. And this would be true even if the group you were in was relatively supportive. Even if they downplayed the social isolation and public shaming, you’d still feel it at a deep level. We are social beings after all and as the great Robert Merton said, we get our self image in part by the way others see us. And if we think others are seeing us as some stupid loser (which is actually the intent of socially isolating someone in this fashion) then that is how we are going to see ourselves. And that can’t help but have a negative, disturbing, impact on us.
Forms of emotional abuse: DEGRADING – Of course, chances are the “classroom” you happen to be in isn’t so supportive. Your illustrious leader has isolated you and degraded you in front of his or her charges, and they are likely to do the same. Human beings, children, adults, learn what is modeled to them, so if an authority figures models isolation, degradation, and abuse, chances are that the people watching are going to do it to. Sadly even when you leave the confines of the classroom, even when you leave isolation and re-enter the social fabric, degradation is going to follow you. This means that the deep psychological, emotional, even spiritual trauma of the initial event is going to be revisited on you over, and over, and over again. If this sounds like hell on Earth, you’d be right. Even adults buckle and break under the abuse of degradation. And its just gotten worse. Adults model emotional abuse to children, and children take the hammer and bring it down even harder. New social media like Facebook has made emotional and psychological terror a ubiquitous, and, sadly, inescapable, phenomena.
Forms of emotional abuse: REJECTION - Refusing to acknowledge a person’s presence, value or worth; communicating (by word, deed, or example) to a person that she or he is useless or inferior; devaluing her/his thoughts and feelings. Of course the sad thing is, it is a lot worse than just your own personal feelings about it. The reality is most groups would not be supportive. A lot of psychological research in the sixties (look up Zimbardo’s prison experiments) show very clearly just how ugly it can get for people who are publicly separated and isolated. People, even close friends and family, turn on you when an authority figure labels, isolates, and rejects. There can be a snow ball effect. First you sit in the middle of the room and feel bad. Then the people around you start to treat you differently. They laugh and point fingers and find other ways to isolate and exclude you. They avoid you at coffee break, talk behind your back, titter and laugh and generally extend the boundaries created by the visual isolation. Pretty soon you become a bonafied social pariah, avoided by all and excluded by many. Of course from a social control perspective the whole things works very well because having experienced that kind of trauma once, you’ll never want to go through it again, and so for sure you’ll jump into line and tap along with the tune provided (either that or you’ll confirm to the anti-authoritarian stereotype). But of course once you’ve been labelled and humiliated, the emotional damage is done.
Talking about it now you can see, it just can’t be a good thing and as an adult experiencing something like that you’d probably (hopefully) recognize the abuse for what it was and leave the group. I’d certainly encourage it. Research (see below) shows that people who experience emotional abuse have problems with anger, attachment, bonding, emotional responsiveness, and have problems applying even basic social skills. How damaging would that kind of public isolation and rejection be for you if you actually put up with it? So if you’re experiencing something like that, get up and walk away. And if you see someone else experiencing it, stand up and challenge the behaviour.
Forms of emotional abuse: PUBLIC HUMILIATION – Exposing a person to unwanted attention; using social exposure to manipulate and control. Encouraging others to exclude and harass. Now of course, saying it like this makes a solution to the problem seem relatively easy, just get up and walk away. But now imagine that the team leader has authority over you. Imagine that your group leader actually had the power to confine you to that “box” in front of twenty of your friends and colleagues. It would be bad enough to begin with, but it would be even worse under conditions of force and duress. Not only could you not get up and leave no matter how you were feeling, but all the negative emotions would be amplified to that point that even a tough, independent, adult might succumb to the damaging effects of the abuse. It is not even too much to say that a sensitive adult may experience post-traumatic stress. After all, being shamed in a public space is a traumatic event by any standards.
Outcome of emotional abuse: Emotional abuse of children can result in serious emotional and/or behavioural problems, including depression, lack of attachment or emotional bond to a parent or guardian, low cognitive ability and educational achievement, and poor social skills. One study which looked at emotionally abused children in infancy and then again during their preschool years consistently found them to be angry, uncooperative and unattached to their primary caregiver. The children also lacked creativity, persistence and enthusiasm. Children who experience rejection are more likely than accepted children to exhibit hostility, aggressive or passive-aggressive behaviour, to be extremely dependent, to have negative opinions of themselves and their abilities, to be emotionally unstable or unresponsive, and to have a negative perception of the world around them.
So, if you are following along with me now you are probably thinking that this form of bald faced abuse of power and authority is something that we, as a civilized modern society, should be able to do without. There’s lots of way to motivate people without resorting to either physical or emotional abuse. In fact, as anybody with a clue will tell you, physical and emotional abuse are horrible motivators leading to far more problems than they solve. So imagine now that we take this box thing and do it to children in school. Imagine you have a twelve year old daughter and imagine the teacher has threatened that child that if they don’t behave and live up to expectations, they are going to have to sit on the floor for a week. You remember what school is like, and how horrible children can be to each other. I imagine that a psychologically and emotionally defenseless child would be TERRORIZED by even the thought of that sort of public display and humiliation. You can imagine the damage done should the child actually be forced, by the teacher, to submit to the public humiliation. Self esteem would take a hit, their social network would probably crumble, and the effects would no doubt trickle out into the schoolyard in ways to innumerable to enumerate in this short article. Schools have a hard enough time dealing with bullying to begin with without teachers painting a target on a child’s back in this fashion.
Now I know what you are saying, no school would ever do something like this. I mean, we now know that emotional abuse is bad, and we know that isolation, rejection, and public shaming is emotionally abusive, and we would never allow our teachers to engage in it. Shockingly however, emotional abuse is a problem in school. As a parent I have had to go to bat for my kids several times. For example, my son’s teacher put his name on a board and publicly humiliated him for not doing his work properly. When I told her that her public humiliation was making him feel bad, all she could say was that if he wanted to avoid the bad feelings, he’d have to perform to her expectations. I was shocked that she seemed so unconcerned about his feelings, and when I pointed this out to the principal, and when I said that as an adult post-secondary teacher it was against the law for me to even post student numbers in a public space because I was not allowed to violate their right to privacy and safety (in Alberta FOIP laws protect adults from this sort of public exposure, so why not children??), he said that the classroom was hardly a public space. Of course, it is a public space. Not only does everybody in the school get to see how my son is doing, but parents of the kids that go to the school can have a look as well, so I don’t know where he got his “not a public space” comment, ’cause clearly it is. And that’s not even the worst of it you know. Last week my daughter came home and said that her teacher told her that if she didn’t perform as expected, she might lose her desk “privileges” and have to sit on the floor for a week.
I’m not kidding.
If my twelve year old daughter can’t “make the rent” in her classroom, her teacher is going to identify, isolate, ridicule, and publicly humiliate her by taking away her desk and forcing her to sit on the floor in the midst of thirty of her school age peers. And while her teacher says that it probably won’t be a problem for my daughter, I am horrified nonetheless that even the threat has been issued. I mean, this same teacher, and this school principal, would never ever in a million years think they could pull a stunt like this with adults (can you imagine how upset the teaching staff of the school would be if I put their names and pictures here, put them in a box in public, and held them up for public shaming and ridicule? Furious they’ll be. I’m sure it will be bad enough that I’ve just pointed at them in this fashion), so why are the feelings of our children so irrelevant that they do not even register on their radar? Frankly I feel sorry for the three kids she’s done it to in the past. I mean, I’ve read the research, I am counselor by trade, I am aware of how profoundly damaging something like this can be, and frankly I am shocked that professional teachers seem unaware of basic psychological research. I hate being such a boisterous critic but this is important. The research shows this kind of thing undermines creativity, damages productivity, and causes social problems. As a society we’re always looking for ways to save money so if these practices undermine our global competitiveness and cost us in terms of damaged creativity, lower productivity, and the cash dollars it takes to deal with social problems, then on those grounds alone we should be up in arms over this kind of nonsense. If you ask me though, protecting our kids from emotional harm is reason enough.
If our education system is turning out teachers and administrators who don’t think twice about emotionally abusing our children, and if as parents we can’t see that abuse, and don’t stand up to stop it, then we as a society, got a problem.
What can you do?
Since writing this article I’ve got a lot of email from parents whose kids are experiencing emotional abuse at school, and teachers witnessing their colleagues perpetrating abuse. If you are a parent, here are some things you can do.
- First thing you should do is talk to the teacher. If that doesn’t work, talk to the principle. Be confident when you approach them and make it clear to them that you feel they are hurting your children. Teachers and administrators often don’t see their actions as harmful so part of your job is to educate them about it. Print out this article and show it to them.
- If you can’t get no satisfaction, and if you are able, or if your kids are old enough to be home alone, pull your kids out of school temporarily. Send an email to the principal telling them what’s happening. Tell them to arrange for your child’s work to be sent home and then allow your kids to do the work at home. Tell the principal and the teacher that your child won’t be coming back until they have sorted out their abuse. If the principal threatens you with truancy action, tell him to “bring it on.” Say you’re happy to go talk to a judge and tell the judge why you’re pulling your kids out. Nothing stops an an abuser faster than the possibility they might have to explain their abuse to others.
- If that doesn’t work, and you have the option, pull them out of school permanently and home school them. You’ll have to check the options that are available to you but it is becoming more and more of a viable possibility. My kids are now fully homeschooled and they love it. They aren’t exposed to the abusive students or the abusive teacher, they are happier, healthier, and are doing way better than before. There are challenges, of course, and as a parent you have to have the time and the resources to do this, but if it is an option, consider it. The more people who do this, and the more we are vocal about why we are doing it (abusive schools), the more schools will be forced to think about, and change, their actions and behaviours.
- Publicly humiliate your school. Download this article, write a short paragraph about what is happening to your children, and send it to your local media outlets. We all know the outcome of chronic bullying can be horrible violence, either self inflicted in the case of suicide, or inflicted on others in the case of school shootings. Remind your media contact of the long term consequences of emotional abuse and see of a little media attention doesn’t shame the bullies into stopping. At the very least the media attention will draw other concerned parents and teachers out of the woodwork.
Of course, sometimes as parents we don’t see what’s happening to our kids at school, but teachers often to. If you are a teacher and you witness emotional abuse, here are some things that you can do.
- VIDEO! Everybody has video these days so if you witness something, videotape it and send it to the media with a little note. You can always say you don’t want to be identified as the source, and the media contact person should honor that. The trick here is to EXPOSE, EXPOSE, EXPOSE. Don’t just stand there, fire up the smart-phone and change the world.
- Contact parents.
If you are at all interested in this topic, join our mailing list. We’d like to develop some resources, a blog, or a place to post experiences, but we need your support to share your experiences, write articles, and expose the problem. If you join our mailing list we’ll let you know when additional resources become available to you. The signup form is below. Finally, if you are interested in helping out at a more substantive level, email me at [email protected] and we can discuss getting something started.
Sources and References
Brendgen, Mara, Wanner, Brigitte, & Vitaro, Frank (2006). Verbal Abuse by the Teacher and Child Adjustment from Kindergarten Through Grad e6. Pediatrics, 117: 5.
Hyman, Irwin & Snook, Pamela (1999). [amazon_link id="0787943630" target="_blank" container="" container_class="" ]Dangerous Schools. What we can do about the physical and emotional abuse of our children[/amazon_link].
Krugmen, Richard D. & Krugman, Mary K (1984). Emotional Abuse in the Classroom: The Pediatrician’s Role in Diagnosis and Treatment. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 128: 284-286.
Moeller, James R. (2002). The Combined Effects of Physical, Sexual, and Emotional Abuse During Childhood: Long-term Health Consequences for Women. Child Abuse and Neglect, 17(5): 623-40.
- Zimbardo Documentary