Stigmatization and Bullying – What’s the Connection?

stig’ ma: (archaic) a mark burned into the skin of a criminal or slave, a brand

stigmatization: being marked or regarded as different in a negative way

Earlier this year, at the Pediatric Academic Societies Annual Meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, the entire program was devoted to the subject of stigmatization, bullying, and children’s mental health. Why? Because increasing evidence points to the fact that stigma—whether due to a child’s race, religion, weight, size, family income, learning challenge, or any other attribute—is the root of bullying, and it can cause considerable harm to a child’s mental health.

stigmatization and bullyingMany can identify with the low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness that come from feeling different from others. Nearly all children have painful moments when they wonder if they’re really ok, since they perceive their differences as a sort of “wrong-ness.” What if the child likes things other kids scorn? What if they’re shorter or taller, smaller or bigger, or struggle to learn what seems to come easily to everyone else? What if they feel like they will never fit in?

Bullies are quick to notice these differences. Like hounds to the hunt, bullies are quick to sniff out these insecurities and expose them to the world. A vicious cycle ensues. The child already feels “less-than,” and projects that belief either non-verbally or through negative statements about themselves. When a peer chooses to victimize that child, he or she has their worst fears confirmed via bullying in any of its many forms, including cyber-bullying. The more a child has amplified outside validation of their perceived negative features or worth, the bigger a target they become. The cycle continues.

In this situation, differences are considered as a sort of justification to judge, isolate, reject, or ostracize, those who look, think, or behave differently than others. Stigmatization—the unfavorable marking or setting apart of those who are different from the perceived norm—is one of the last great prejudices, and as such, it is a learned behavior.

When toddlers from different races, socioeconomic backgrounds, body types, or abilities are put together in a play area or learning environment, there are no stigmas or exclusions made by these very young humans. Indeed, young ones seem very curious and compassionate towards those who may have impairments in movement or vocalization, and are quite willing to accept and accommodate the different individual as they are into the group. As witnesses of this phenomenon, we are reminded that kindness and compassion are a part of the true inner nature, even the essence, of our basic humanity. But over time this innocence and gentle curiosity can be conditioned out of growing children. And, sadly, it often has been.

What can we do? Here are a few take-away ideas to consider.

  • Have regular, warm dialog with your child. Find out what’s on their mind, what they’re afraid of. Take this time to discover what they are thinking about themselves, and what beliefs about themselves they are forming in their young minds that may need redirecting. (See my earlier post on how our words can heal and encourage.)
  • Model kindness and compassion. Kids imitate what they see. Strive to minimize critical or biased remarks and attitudes at home—even remarks you make about yourself.
  • Model empathy. When out and about with the family, and public examples of “different-ness” are observed, ask questions to get your kids to put themselves in the shoes of that homeless person, or the blind man with a guide dog, or the person in a wheelchair. Encourage them to use their powerful imagination to envision what it would be like to live under those circumstances. How would life be different? How hard would it be to feel like a worthwhile person in spite of those differences? How would they do so?
  • Create an environment where your child has reinforcement of their positive nature and efforts. Have they picked up their socks, done homework, set the table, said something kind or insightful that demonstrates compassion? Recognize them for it. Tell them how proud you are of them, and not just for the things they do, but for who they are.