The emotional abuse of our children: Teachers, schools, and the sanctioned violence of our modern institutions.
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 are not 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 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 would feel? Singled out in a group of twenty, publicly labeled as a loser too stupid to follow the rules, the subject of derisive and degrading attention, isolated, even terrorized by the psychological horror, you would 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 would 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 the intent of socially isolating someone in this fashion) then that is how we are going to see ourselves. And that cannot help but have a negative, disturbing, impact on us.
Forms of emotional abuse: DEGRADATION – Of course, chances are the “classroom” you happen to be in is not 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. If an authority figure 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 would be right. Even adults buckle and break under the abuse of degradation. And it has 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 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) showed 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 snowball effect. First, you sit in the middle of the room and feel bad, while the authority figures treats you with derision and disrespect. 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 recess/coffee break, talk behind your back, titter and laugh and extend the boundaries created by the initial isolation. Pretty soon you become a bonafide social pariah, avoided by all and excluded by many. From a social control perspective, the whole things works very well because having experienced that kind of trauma once, you will never want to go through it again, and so for sure you will jump into line and tap along with the tune provided (either that or you will conform to the anti-authoritarian stereotype). But of course, once you have been labeled and humiliated, rejected and degraded the long-term emotional damage is done. All that is left to do is find a good therapist.
Talking about it now you can see, it just cannot be a good thing and as an adult experiencing something like that you would 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 put up with it? So if you are experiencing something like that, get up and walk away. And if you see someone else experiencing it, stand up and challenge the behavior.
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 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.
The outcome of emotional abuse: Emotional abuse of children can result in serious emotional and behavioral 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. Indeed, children who experience rejection are more likely than accepted children to exhibit hostility, aggressive or passive-aggressive behavior, 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 probably think 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 are lots of ways 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 do not 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 too 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 ID 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. But 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 do not know where he got his “not a public space” comment, ’cause clearly it is. And that is 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 am not kidding.
If my twelve-year-old daughter cannot “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 am sure it will be bad enough that I have 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 have 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 all sorts of mental, emotional, social, and behavioral problems (Sosteric, 2016). As a society we are 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 psychological and emotional harm is reason enough.
If our education system is turning out teachers and administrators who do not think twice about emotionally abusing our children, and if as parents we cannot see that abuse, and do not 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 educate yourself about the horrible consequences of all forms of child abuse. The fastest way to do that is to read this article on Toxic Socialization. That article outlines, in striking scientific detail, the long-term debilitating consequences of all forms of assault.
- Share your story. Use the #mybully hashtag. My daughter Vayda, whom this article is about, recently wrote a poem recounting her earliest experiences in school. As she says, her bully was her grade one teacher.
- Talk to the teacher. If that doesn’t work, talk to the principal. 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, print out the article on toxic socialization, and show it to them. Be confident when you approach them and make it clear to them that you feel they are hurting your children and you will not accept it.
- Pay attention to the initial reactions of teachers and principals. In some cases, they’ll be sympathetic, but in other cases they will react in strange ways. If you sense a note of weirdness, I strongly recommend recording any conversations and keeping any email transcripts you have. Tell them you want to record. If they refuse, refuse to meet and insist on email. And don’t let them tell you that email is no good, and they’d rather do it in person because in person is better, because in situations where the school is toxic, meeting in person is dangerous. When the school is toxic, email is the best way to discuss things happening because it allows you time to calm down, think, and consider, and (more importantly) it provides you with a legal record of anything they say to you. It is because of the record it provides that some school administrators don’t like it. At some level they know what they are doing is wrong; don’t let them hide that reality away.
- If the school doesn’t allow you to record the conversation, do it anyway, but check your provincial and state laws first. In many locations, it is totally legal to record conversations as long as one person knows about it. In some states, no. Don’t do anything illegal in your area, but do whatever it takes to protect your kids.
- 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 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 home schooled 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. Now that they’ve been home for a few years I can say, my kids are better adjusted than most adults. There are, knock on wood, no behavioral issues, no emotional issues, they don’t act out like traditional teenagers, they don’t cut, they don’t engage in risky behaviors, they aren’t depressed, there is no OCD, no eating disorders, no physical illness, nothing. Of course, if you are going to home school them, your home environment has to be once hundred percent safe one hundred percent of the time. We have a “no abuse” rule in our home, meaning that there is no physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual violence allowed. Our children are thus totally safe in their home environment, so they don’t need to escape from it. Protecting them from violence in the outside world, and keeping them safe at home, has made a world of difference in their development. Full-time safety has allowed them to pour their energy into physical and emotional development and they are strikingly intelligent and mature for their age. One person who met them expressed total shock that she was speaking to a twelve and fourteen-year-old. 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 if 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.
- If you have the resources, talk to a lawyer. It is becoming increasingly easy to build a case for serious long-term damage caused by teachers abusing in schools. More importantly, precedent is slowly building. Just recently a Wisconsin town passed a law giving police the ability to fine the parents of bullies! More and more people are waking up to the consequences of abuse and, word to the wise, it is only a matter of a short period of time now before a teacher, a school, a jurisdiction gets sued for emotionally and psychologically harming a child. Hasten that day. I encourage all people reading this to book mark this page and post precedent setting actions in the comment section below.
Of course, sometimes as parents we don’t see what’s happening to our kids at school, but teachers often do. If you are a teacher and you witness emotional abuse, here are some things that you can do.
- Say something about it, to the teacher if you can, to the school authorities if you cannot, or if they don’t listen. And make sure it gets into the person’s HR record, if there is one. You may not get any traction to begin with, but if all people who witness abuse learn to say something instead of remaining silent, it becomes impossible to dissemble and deny, we’ll stop the abuse much faster. And fast we got to be. The short years of childhood are an extremely sensitive period and children should experience no abuse at all. We’ve got a long way to go, but the faster people speak out, the sooner we will get there.
- If you can, let the parents know. If you want to remain anonymous, get an anonymous email account from yandex.com or something. Let them know their children are being bullied. Sign it “Anonymous Teacher” to give it a little more weight.
Finally, litigate. Litigation is starting to emerge as a response to schools (and eventually parents) who do nothing to protect their children. I’ll keep a list of actions below. If you have examples, send them to [email protected]
Since writing this article a few years ago it has attracted a lot of attention from parents, students, and teachers. Recently it has been picked up by Educational Testing Service in the U.S.A. It is to be used in their teacher certification materials. The contract I signed specified a license for 50,000 teachers over the next ten years! A lot of student teachers will be reading this article over the next decade. I have to say, when I wrote the article I had no idea the life that it would take on.
Up until now, the discussion generated by the article has been, I feel, constructive. However recently it is attracting some very negative commentary, always from teachers (or people claiming to be teachers) in the K12 system. These teachers display anger, hostility, and defensiveness, act like I am attacking them personally, suggest that I have a particular vendetta against teachers, and even call me names like “idiot”. I can see why some teachers would be angry with this article. However, I would like to assure any teacher reading this article that I have nothing against teachers. Like everybody I’ve had both good teachers (I actually ascribe my success in University to the intervention of a single, caring, English teacher) and bad teachers. I have had teachers who have supported me, and I have teachers who have engaged in profound and devastating acts of emotional and psychological abuse. I even had a teacher who sexually molested the girls in my grade eight class. He went to jail, but the damage is done.
I think teachers as a whole often do an amazing job within the political, economic, and social limits within which they must act. However, unless one wants to make the case that the school system as it is works perfectly for all those involved, unless one wants to argue that all teachers are necessarily perfect in all respects and never hurt children, and unless one wants to dismiss the growing list of student/parent accounts of bullying by teachers listed in the comments section below, there is no ground for defense. Kids suffer in schools just like they suffer at home. To deny this is to deny the victims a voice and to undermine and subvert the possibility of open discussion and necessary change.
Of course, parents and students also have to be accountable. Abuse and neglect in the home often translates to misbehaviour in schools. Parents can deny it if they want, but it happens. I am a parent and unfortunately I cannot claim perfection. I had my first child when I was nineteen and I was not emotionally or intellectually equipped to deal with that. I myself was dealing with the abuse and neglect in my own childhood, I was immature, and as a result the poor child experienced years of abuse and neglect. I feel bad about it even to this day, and even worse because there is nothing I can do to fix it, but it happened. I have two teenage children now and even though their childhood is a vast improvement over my own, or even my first born, we still struggle as parents. We are not perfect and we make mistakes. I feel bad about the way we treated my first born, but we are very proud that we grew and did better with a subsequent cohort.
Anyway, I don’t want to ramble on. My main point here is that we’re all perpetrators of abuse at some point. There is no sense in denying that, no sense in judging each other as a result, and no sense in getting worked up over an open discussion. I became a better parent, and a better teacher, by admitting to my failures and weaknesses (denying was such a waste of energy anyway), by talking to therapists, teachers, even my own children about it, and by searching around for ways to improve my understanding of human beings in general, and children in particular. We worked hard to translate greater awareness and understanding into better behaviour. I am hardly perfect in this regard even today, but I am a much better parent now as a result.
If this article amounts to anything, I would like it to be a catalyst for awareness, discussion, and change. Whether you are a parent, a student, or a teacher, take what you read here and listen. Listen to parents anguish and confusion over the abuse their children experience. Listen to the teachers struggle as they try to do good within a system that is underfunded, under supported, and arguably broken. Listen listen listen and when you are satisfied you have heard, discuss, think, and make change. We need to do it and we need to do it now because our children are suffering, and we are to blame. We are raising generations of damaged children. It is horrific to think about it, but every single girl that my daughter has connected to since she was ten has revealed an emotional disorder to her (depression, cutting, suicidal ideation)! She has friends as young as twelve who are already on antidepressants. This is not normal; this is a sign of serious societal dysfunction. True, parents and teachers are not the only ones to blame here (we can draw in the media, corporations who continually pimp products, a political system that privileges every other form of spending over education, and so on), but we are still front line agents of socialization and we have a duty to make it better for our own children, and for all future generations. There is no excuse.
So, if you are a teacher and if reading this article makes you want to lash out at me, take a deep breath. I am not blaming and judging anybody, and I am certainly not wanting to shame and punish teachers for “misbehaving” in the classroom. I know the negative emotional impact this has and I think we all got to stop doing it to each other. I am simply saying, there’s a problem and we need to fix it. We fix it by a) becoming aware of it, b) talking about it, and c) coming up with positive, inclusive (for parents, teachers, and students) solutions. It is time to end the suffering and abuse. Our children and our children’s children are depending on us getting this right once and for all.
November 2, 2015
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.
Mike Sosteric (Dr. S.)