Sunday, May 06, 2007

What I Learned this Semester - Part I

I learned that there are really a lot of problems in society. Is it just a curious coincidence that I should take a “sexual abuse of humans” class, and a “social psychology” class that would work in conjunction to help me see how people learn to hurt each other? Add to that a woman stabbed to death here in Twin; two young men put on trial this spring for stabbing a young girl in Pocatello to death; and a young man on a shooting rampage at his college. My own past brought to life added to the mix, immersing me in the world of social dysfunction and antisocial behavior.

I can’t write all of what I learned in one blog post, there is just too much to tell! Therefore, this will be the first of a three part series that will include why I really quit my job (and it wasn’t so I could go back to school), and how being rejected by our parents can lead to a lifetime of addictive behaviors that don’t seem to make sense. This post will encompass what I learned about the antisocial behaviors we’ve been hearing about so much about lately.

Antisocial Disorder: We’re all hurting

Who among us has not been affected by antisocial behaviors? When confused people do hurtful things, we want answers. We look for patterns in behavior that set “them” apart from “us.” Fingers begin to point in every conceivable direction, and while there are some patterns, they are just correlations. There are no valid predictors of violent offenders. None the less, we are driven to understand, and everyone has a pet theory to promote. So why shouldn’t I have one?

No one disputes that social competence and mental illness play into violent, anti-social crimes. Society is riddled with people who are loners, misfits, depressed and psychotic; most get through their lives without ever committing a violent crime. Yet one cannot deny that these traits are shared by an overwhelming majority of the people who commit brutal crimes. Even though a strong correlation between anti-social violence and social/mental dysfunction exists, we still cannot guess which of these sufferers will be the next “monster” among us. It is easier to speculate than rectify.

The problems start very early in life. A combination of child temperament and parenting behaviors set the stage. Harsh, inconsistent parenting behaviors are difficult to navigate by good tempered children. A child who is not as easy to get along with, however, will develop conduct disorders very early.

Many agencies currently reach out to parents to try to teach positive parenting behaviors. Most parents understand and agree that physical and sexual abuse is unacceptable. It doesn’t stop many from being physically or sexually abusive, however. And what about the hidden abuses that cannot be physically proven?

Authoritarian parents can be very psychologically abusive. They teach children that consequences usually have more to do with parental moods than child behavior. The child learns to be distrustful, and fearful of those who are supposed to be their protectors.

Parents who were abused when they were children often do not have the ability to teach their children adaptive behaviors that will help them to navigate successfully when they start school. Parents, who had unpleasant school experiences as children, will not provide positive academic experiences for their children. Their children will start school academically unprepared and less socially competent than many of their children’s peers.

If parents can’t teach their children to socialize properly, then it is up to society to do it. We need to start in elementary school, by structuring, and adequately supervising social interactions on the playground.

The implementation of social skills classes in the early elementary grades is the perfect place to start, but it costs money, and taxpayers are reluctant to pay. “It was good enough for me, it’s good enough for them” no longer makes sense. Our children are sent to public school to learn. Who is teaching them?

When a child who has aggressive tendencies starts school, that child is typically excluded from peer groups. It is unclear how much of the exclusion is due to child discrimination and how much is due to teacher aversion. What is known, however, is that a child who is excluded is deprived of the opportunity to learn appropriate social skills.

Studies also show that the excluded child displays more reactionary aggression for each year he is rejected by peers. The good new is that if the child finds acceptance in a peer group, the aggressive tendencies decrease dramatically. In essence, by excluding a peer, children are direct participants in the escalation of anti-social behaviors and social incompetence in the rejected child. They can also be responsible for reversing that trend.

Unfortunately, children are typically left to themselves to learn how to socialize on the playground. Seeking help is reserved for serious behaviors, such as threats and physical aggression. Seeking help for teasing, which most rejected children see as serious, is considered a cowardly thing to do by students and by many teachers. It is assumed that children should be able to resolve such situations on their own.

Socially competent children have the skills necessary to resolve conflicts. The children who have never had the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills often find themselves victimized by the socially competent bully who manipulates the social situation to his advantage.

Even if the situation becomes physically threatening, the student is not likely to find a teacher for help. The teacher is usually attending to preparation and other teaching duties. The playground, then, becomes one of the most dangerous places for children, yet this is the place they learn much of how to socialize.

After years of parental abuse, peer and teacher rejection, and the feeling of not having any control over their environment, it is not surprising to see the kind of anger it takes to kill or otherwise harm other people. The kids who murder their peers are not monsters, they are simply confused individuals who are unable to cope with the stresses they have been forced to endure.

There is no good reason for violence when help is available. Helping perpetrators before they offend is difficult, however, because there is such a stigma of hate surrounding their thought patterns. A person would be understandably reluctant to reach out for help for fear of being labeled “sick” and suffer further rejection, or even arrest and incarceration. Offender hotlines have been suggested, and some incarcerated offenders say they would have used one if it had existed.

Public funded programs do not exist to help these people because the public doesn’t feel these people deserve the funds. Instead, all of the focus is directed toward the victim. While it is true that victims need and deserve the help to recover, fewer victims would be created if money was being directed toward the people at risk of committing the offenses.

Let’s start early, and teach our children how to socialize. All children have the right to competent social skills. Supervising playground activities, and teaching the aggressive child how to resolve conflicts in a socially acceptable manner is good for all of us. In the long run, we would save money by not having to house ever growing prison populations, or having to provide services to victims for recovery.

Many insist that the violent offender does not deserve the respect of being heard or understood. But I guarantee that just because the majority of people refuse to hear or try to understand it, there is a significant minority that not only hears and understands his pain, they feel it with him. Copy cat incidences always occur after such an episode, and they aren’t always done by cowards. Our kids are hurting, they are shouting out at the top of their lungs that they desperately need help, they need to be heard. Will we ever listen?


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