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Bullying and Conflict Resolution


There are numerous influences on young people's behavior. Bullying is a particularly egregious behavior that has to be addressed, while other problems may be missed that have tremendous influence on their lives. Ethical and moral development, identity development, neurological plasticity, peer influence, communications development, and overexposure to immoral or risky behavior coupled with opportunity, are often the keys to abberant behavior, such as bullying.

It's a young adult thing

I learned fairly early in my child-raising years to stop blaming parents. Not that parents can't be the cause of children's problems, they certainly can, but children already have more than enough going on to cause all of the problems that we typically see, and every child presents different problems that require different approaches. A recent article on bullying, which Lina Parker contacted me about, spurred my thoughts on this issue that I have written much about, such as Wild Kids: Increasing violence among youth.

We like to view children as if they were reflections of their parents, already embracing their values and behaviors. In fact, they may oppose these very things, or at least hold them at arm's length. Research by people like Lawrence Kohlberg showed that moral develop is actually a very slow process, fraught with erroneous decisions, and other research indicates that people don't fully understand the consequences of behavior until they are around 28. Of course, that doesn't mean that they aren't responsible and accountable. For more on a current overview of this field, see Moral Development Study in the 21st Century: Introduction to Moral Motivation through the Life Span: Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, volume 51.

It may seem that ethical and moral choices, which are at the heart of a child's behavior, are natural or a reflection of parenting problems. But they are actually intentional choices that are informed or shaped by attitudes, children's parents, peers, schools, religious organizations, and other influences in our society. Predominately these choices are shaped by the children's wants and attitudes, which are the biggest influences of choices and behavior. Their choice of peers becomes very influential.

Peer influence peeks around age 14, and slowly diminishes with many children as they age. "Middle adolescence is an especially significant period for the development of the capacity to stand up for what one believes and resist the pressures of one's peers to do otherwise." "Resistance to peer influences increases linearly between ages 14 and 18. In contrast, there is little evidence for growth in this capacity between ages 10 and 14 or between 18 and 30."

- Age Differences in Resistance to Peer Influences. (study)

Parents would love to think they are the most important influence in a child's life, but actually peers are, and not just for youth. Freakonomics recently published two articles about behavior that is shaped by peers. The most recent, Garbage and the Herd Mentality, a study shows that people litter more in environments that already have a lot of litter.

In their earlier article, Riding the Herd Mentality, they cite practical measures taken to influence behavior. In one, people hung different knob hangers on people's homes to see which messages were most effective in influencing people to reduce energy. The most effective, as judged by actual energy usage, turned out to be one that mentioned their neighbors were doing it. Another example from that broadcast, Bogata, Colombia had a serious accidental death problem with people crossing streets, ignoring traffic signs. The Mayor replaced the corrupt police with mimes, who followed people who broke the rules with signs that called attention to their behavior, shaming them. The death rate dropped 60%. Shame is a social or peer influence.

While guilt and shame have notably negative side effects in some contexts, such as prompting defensive behaviors and causing people to cease progressing or become destructive, shame can often be very useful in getting the recalcitrant in our society to clean up their act. It could be helpful if teen influencers on social media steered teens away from things like sexting.

Peer influence can be good or bad. If young people identify with peers and attitudes that are antisocial and anti-authority, they can bring us such things as the shootings at Columbine. See Trajectories of Antisocial Behavior and Psychosocial Maturity from Adolescence to Young Adulthood. Often peers push young adults into those attitudes by their disrespectful attitudes. Susceptibility to peer influence depends to some extent on the youth's temperament. See Temperament Alters Susceptibility to Negative Peer Influence in Early Adolescence.

Recent neurobiology research indicates that the brain's neural wiring is very pliable during these early years, and such things as safety and acceptable social behavior are not "hard wired," but subject to a lot of risky and adventurous behavior, which young adults love. One of young adults' favorite phrases throughout history has been, "Is that all there is?" Young adults have unquenchable appetites for exploring the extremes of the universe, and this, coupled with their starry eyed innocence and idealism, impetuousness, and a very keen sense of fairness, probably has a lot to do with human progress.

One of my favorite phrases, in explaining children, is that they are at some intermediate stage of development, and their brain is not whole. They have only part of a brain. Young adults are not capable of making decisions like older adults are - they don't have all of the experience or information. Because of that, I recommend that parents get a T shirt that says, "I'm a survivor of raising kids," because no matter how well you think you have done, their partial brains and natural choices bring you all kinds of unpleasant surprises.

Yet we can't coddle children in totally safe and overprotective environments, or they will never have the chance to make the choices and mistakes that lead to maturity. So they are going to display immature or extreme behavior, and make decisions that older adults consider bad because "They should know better; they were taught better than that." Not to excuse young adults - they also have to learn that behavior results in consequences, and just being young doesn't may be a mitigating factor, but their youth doesn't excuse them. Some consequences are naturally immediate, and some are naturally permanent.

Next: What we can do to help young adults: Controlled environments, calculated risks, counseling, accepting responsibility for behavior

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What we can do to help young adults: Controlled environments, calculated risks, counseling, accepting responsibility for behavior

Wow - if I had arrived at the bad consequences possible for much of my youthful behavior, I wouldn't be here today. But my appetite for taking risks was tempered by my high desire to stay alive, so I took "calculated risks." They could have gone very wrong, but I was lucky. If my parents had know what I was doing, they would have killed me.

Today parents can't kill their kids, not that the threat would control them anyway. But we are at the other extreme of the pendulum. Kids learn very early that there really isn't much that their parents or school system can legally do to them for bad behavior. Advice from authority is interpreted as, "blah, blah, blah." With the ubiquitous Internet, every negative behavior in the world is on display for them to copy or try. And as it turns out, since their brains (neural connections) are developing and very plastic, their higher appetite for risk-taking ignores negative consequences. So what we can do for young people, rather than fill our wheelchairs and prisons with them at age 21, is try to keep them safe and well informed.

Parents, schools, and religious organizations can play key roles in helping children through the very difficult formative phase from age 7 to 19.

The first thing that can be done for young people is informational. Since young people typically interpret advice as, "Blah, blah, blah," information has to come in a different form. Experiential transfer of information works best. Role playing is an excellent form for helping kids understand what it is like, for example, to be bullied. They get to experience it themselves.

A second experiential way for people to transfer information is through discussing ethical behavior and decisions (or morals). Through discussing them, they get to hear what their peers think (and how they judge and see others), hear very challenging and thought provoking dilemmas, and get to thoroughly explore these issues in a non-threatening life environment.

One very effective way is through martial arts training in dojos and dojangs that emphasize respect. In these environments, young people have a very respectable mentor leading the class, and interact with other young people above and below them in abilities. Through teaching respect, and interaction, behavior problems often disappear. This is the experience of instructors and youth at martial arts dojos and dojangs. In addition to youth and service professional classes, these places teach self-defense and women's empowerment.

Ethical and moral development don't happen on their own. Ethics and morals are part of civilized behavior, and are given by society. Peer influence, basically luring children to fit in, either for good or bad, is an influence that is stronger than parental influence. As mentioned earlier, the biggest influencers are the child's wants and attitudes. Without guidance, ethical and moral development may not happen until adults are in their latter years with a heavy load of bad experience, or may never happen. Strong ethics and morals are developed through experience (making decisions in situations) and guidance.

“Non-violence, which is the quality of the heart, cannot come by an appeal to the brain.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

Help them find strong and lasting goals to work toward, to keep their focus on things that are wholesome and help their development. Guide them into programs like martial arts and scouting, which develop respectful attitudes, offer deep interest, peer support, and long term goals with many rewards along the way, that keep kids interested and motivated.

Be an example to your children. One of the most difficult things to maintain in today's world is respect for others. The second most difficult is to give to others. The third is a healthy attitude toward others. We all get negative messages every day, and youth are especially susceptible to other's negative attitudes, either as an injury to themselves, or to indoctrinate them. Hate and conflict are much more powerful messages than love, and much more difficult to overcome. Both Buddha and the Bible teach people to practice love (charity to others), and so it becomes a part of their attitude and behavior. Selfishness, that is, excluding others from consideration when making ethical and moral choices, is not easily overcome. These things are taught by example, peer communities, and education.

Maintaining safe environments is important to youth. Children in native and developing countries often learn the hard way. Yes, they can take a machete and cut weeds or food at 5. But if we gave all of our children in the US machetes, there would be an epidemic of maimed children, and a lot of deaths. Statistically, accident avoidance comes from training, practice, and acceptance of responsibility. The earlier the training, the more effective it is, while brains are still pliable and receptive.

Young people's choices at this time have a lot to do with forming their identity. Identity formation is critical in personality (personal characteristics) development. Children both want to fit in, and yet stand out for their achievements or popularity. Children who identify strongly with those who are rebellious and despise authority, and prefer to remain separate from the group, often continue in this vein as they get older. They don't develop the social skills required to benefit from or contribute to society, and sometimes are in trouble with the law.

Children who feel they fit well in groups with stronger moral tendencies tend to keep those tendencies as they age. Parents have some long-term influence over this, since early neural connections become sheathed and more permanent as people age, so their more youthful knowledge and experience are more determinative of their patterns and attitudes. Whether or not people remain religious or loyal to a particular denomination, as the Bible says in Proverbs 2:26 (NIV), "Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it." While it is sometimes popular to let children "make their own choices," in reality those choices become the providence of peers and opportunists. It is very important to set examples and help shape children's ethical and moral attitudes.

Early exposure to risky behavior, such as sex, drugs, and rebelliousness, often leads to lifelong behavior problems. At the extreme, children lured or forced into man/boy sexual relationships, or coerced into prostitution, never fully recover, and typically continue in these types of environments and relationships. Early introduction to recreational drugs and pornography, may possibly lead to early rejection of those, or may lead to a life full of them and the inability to form lasting relationships or excell in life pursuits.

Abuse of young people also leads them to a lifetime pattern of abuse to others, if not addressed. Today's youth have access to drugs, pornography, and sexual behavior through their peers, their parent's computers (Internet), cable TV, and an innumerable list of places. Parents can join with other parents (of peers) to make sure their environments are safe.

Bullies, have a number of developmental difficulties, as Lina Parker points out in her article Prevention and Tolerance: A Counselor’s Guide to Bullying, bullies "often have problems at home or may not experience the benefits of constant and positive parental involvement; they may have had previous instances of aggressive or violent behavior; they may have friends who also participate in bullying behavior." She also points out in a companion article, that the number one predictor of bully traits is poor academic performance. Counseling is a strong option for helping those young adults find the key to their own behavior, and begin to correct the deficits in their development.

Another part of preventing youth from falling into risky behavior, is simply innoculating them with a dose of facts and experience. This has worked for years with young adults that go on to college. Tell them why they should avoid certain things and certain behaviors, and cement this in their minds by telling them about the experiences of yourself and others. Experience is the most powerful teacher, but it doesn't have to be their experience.

Next: Behavior and Communications - interrelated problems

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Behavior and Communications - interrelated problems

Behavior and communications are very closely related in behavioral development. Experience indicates that without language development, we lack the ability to think higher order (abstract) thoughts. People with severe trauma to the language areas of the brain report the inability to process higher level thoughts, as do deaf people who were raised without language abilities. See my article Should We Dumb Down Communications and lose the ability to think?

From the field of semiotics, we realize that communications begins from signs that may be visual, verbal in nature, or auditory, sensory, or iconic. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful memory triggers. These are like road signs to most people. They remain important all of our lives. Studies indicate that verbal communication is 80% more effective when accompanied by non-verbal cues (facial expressions, body language, etc.). In fact, this is a key fundamental in acting performance.

The area of Autism Spectrum Disorder, shows what kind of effect these cues, or lack of them, have on people. According to a Wikipedia article on Asperger syndrome, "These disorders are typically characterized by social deficits, [and] communication difficulties...," while many do not have language semantic or syntax language deficits as part of their communication disorder. They often display repetitive behaviors, and "An individual with Asperger syndrome typically demonstrates obsessive interest in a single topic or activity."

Over 75% of students with learning disabilities have social skill deficits. Earlier than the development of verbal language, we develop some basic communications cues that are essential to behavior. Michelle DiFranco, CCC/SLP, has a Masters in Communications Disorders in Speech Language Pathology, and has studied and worked with Autistic Spectrum Disorder youth (includes Aspergers syndrome) in the school system. Michelle finds a strong correlation between youth with learning disorders and behavior problems.

Michelle finds that youth with these disorders, while occasionally also having other language, academic, and the label "behavioral" problems, have missed some of the basic social cues (pragmatic skills). These skills are non-verbal and develop from birth into adult life, together with verbal language. While no individual is stereotyical in their language deficit, and the cues they have missed may not be obvious, the deficit can cause them to not learn society's rules.

Students with this impairment often miscommunicate, not understanding other's intent or message, and others may not understand their intent, which is interpreted as a behavior problem. If they do become behavior problems, it is much more difficult for them to understand the social cues others use. Making it even more difficult for young people is that what is acceptable for kids at one age, is not acceptable a few years later, and they don't catch the non-verbal cues that would make them understand this.

The disorder remains until the person can figure out the cues they have missed and how they should respond to them. Learning the communication rules greatly enhances their social experience, and can be a goal in language training. Michelle's students become very interested when these social cues are unmasked, and are hungry for more.

Much of the key to working with these youths is to help them recognize the cues that for others have become ingrained. One of the developing problems in today's world is that youth, especially those who have social impediments, sometimes become preoccupied with technology, which can exacerbate the problem of learning social cues. Michelle, who continues to research and successfully work with these disorders, is creating an information and professional services Web site, Encompass Autism™ .com.

As shown by bullies, academic development, including language development, are essential to learning society's rules. But if people miss the first part, learning the basic non-verbal cues of communication, they have even more problems learning society's rules.

I believe that just as important as communications is in ethical and moral development, it is also in the vital best interests of youth to learn conflict resolution skills. People typically do not learn this skill to any depth on their own as they mature. Conflict resolution is a taught skill, and is essential to marriage, child raising, getting along with others, and even to conflicts between nations. Part of conflict resolution is looking for common ground, part looking for win-win solutions, part is fairness, and part is negotiations, and very importantly, part is not allowing problems to grow and escalate out of control. These are skills that can be taught in the school system (and should be), and in religious institutions, in courses, and at home.

Following are resources for conflict resolution: (Listing doesn't indicate endorsement or monetary interest)

Peace and Conflict Resolution

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