Self-esteem is critical for today’s youth

By: Jennie Miller | C&G Newspapers | Published March 7, 2012

 Students at Larson Middle School in Troy watch as their teachers do a line dance during an assembly last spring designed to identify and stop bullying.

Students at Larson Middle School in Troy watch as their teachers do a line dance during an assembly last spring designed to identify and stop bullying.

File photo by David Schreiber

Bullying hurts.

It can make someone feel small, rejected, disrespected, stupid, ugly, unloved and unimportant.

While not a new concept — the bullies and bullied have been around for years — it seems to have entered a new realm as an alarming number of youth have responded to bullying in more dramatic ways than society has been accustomed to. Suicide. Violence. Murder.

“I definitely think the reactions to bullying are becoming more extreme,” said Natalie Haupt, social studies teacher and student council adviser at Lutheran High School North in Macomb Township.

“I think kids have been bullied for a long, long time, but I think schools are becoming more aware of the implications for bullying as there’s more legal issues now and more victims are coming forth,” said Camille Klimecki, director of counseling at De La Salle Collegiate High School in Warren. “I think it’s a very serious concern for young kids these days.”

School districts around the country are recognizing the responsibility they have to protect students at such critical developmental times of their lives and are not taking bullying lightly. Repercussions have been elevated, and in some cases created, and many districts are responding proactively by focusing on the importance of boosting self-esteem.

During the teen years, students are dealing with a whole lot of emotions and responding to a lot of messages from society.

“They’re wanting to assert their independence, develop who they are as individuals. They’re trying to determine what they ultimately want to see themselves doing in the world,” Haupt said of this critical time. “It becomes tricky for them to determine their value as a unique individual, given the fact that many times they’re given the message that some behaviors, accomplishments or images are better than others. That can create a lot of anxiety for them. We want to help them to see that their self-esteem doesn’t have to come from being in a pecking order with their peers, but rather, how they are unique — that they can have a different knowledge and ability that the community can benefit from. Trying to identify why they’re better or worse than other people is a pitfall they can fall into. But we all have our strengths and weaknesses. We want to give them the opportunity to see that you are valuable simply because you exist. At Lutheran North, we try to be able to have those open discussions with them, seeing that even though they’re going to make mistakes, there’s forgiveness, there’s a new opportunity. We try to teach them to make choices that protect your integrity and uplift others’ integrity.”

Having open conversations with students is vital, she said. At this age, there are a lot of sensitivities — a lot of reasons to compare oneself to another and find differences and wonder if one is better than another. Religious beliefs, sexual orientation, height, weight, athletic ability, intelligence level — “kids can find almost any reason to bully someone, to pick on kids who are more vulnerable or more noticeable,” Klimecki said.

There are many forms of bullying — it’s not simply putting someone else down.

“If someone teases you, that’s bullying,” Klimecki said. “If someone is physical with you, that’s bullying. Rumors — that’s a form of bullying. Excluding — that’s one thing that happens a lot in a school climate. Kids make a lot of cliques, and they exclude other kids. Or gang up on other kids. Cyberbullying is becoming more invasive. The kids can use the Internet; they can use their phones or any kid of electronic devices. They’re sending mean texts, instant messages, damaging pictures. Sometimes they make up a fake identity to hide behind. That can have damaging consequences.”

Bullying as it correlates to self-esteem, in some cases, can been viewed as a chicken or the egg situation, according to Michele Ondersma, a clinical psychologist and department chair for student support services at University Liggett School in Grosse Pointe Woods. Are the bullies picking on those easy targets with pre-existing low self-esteem? Or is being a victim of bullying the cause of low self-esteem? It could be a combination of the two.

“Negative life events and negative self-esteem tend to go together,” Ondesrma said. “Some people will encounter the same number or type of negative life events, but not everyone is impacted in the same way. We have a variety of coping methods, and some of them are effective.”

Low self-esteem is a product of how one appraises a situation or oneself, Ondersma explained. If someone is not very skilled at tennis, for example, it may not have an impact on that individual’s self-esteem unless they take it to the next level of saying, because of this lack of skill, there is something wrong with them or they won’t ever succeed.

“Always viewing things in a bad light, or interpreting it as ‘nothing’s ever going to work out,’ or ‘I’m never going to get better at this thing,’” Ondersma said, is how someone with low self-esteem appraises such a situation.

Someone with a healthy self-esteem would accept that they lack the tennis skills and either try to improve on them or move on to focus on something at which they are skilled, without seeing it as a bad thing or having an impact.

But as a result of that low self-esteem, Ondersma said, that individual could be opening themselves up to bullying.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” she said. “Bullies tend to pick someone they can successfully bully. Someone who’s weaker, who is not necessarily going to fight back.”

A lot of focus has also been placed on the bystander — the fellow student or even a parent or teacher who observes bullying taking place and does nothing to stop it. Schools are trying to give students the skills to not only stand up to bullying in a healthy way, but also to intervene.

“That’s what we try to teach the kids — to be watchful of each other, to be respectful, and if we’re doing the same thing as adults, we’re setting that example,” Ondersma said of the importance of adults practicing the behavior they expect of their students. “We want to give the sense of it’s a respectful, safe community, and we treat each other in a certain way.”

It’s vital that a school district addresses bullying as a problem and something that not only sparks repercussions, but fosters a more positive environment.

“We want to raise positive children into positive adults,” Klimecki said. “I think it’s very important in our elementary, middle and high schools that the climate is nurturing children and young adults who see themselves as valued and respected and important. If we don’t do that as schools, then we fail. If we don’t do that as teachers, then we fail. Obviously, we’re partners with parents and we’re partners with society, but we have those kids for a big part of the day. There’s a lot going on in school, and we want to make it as positive as it can be. We can turn lives around.”