Hurting the Ones You Love


Putting others down to raise ourselves up is, in my view, one of the most invidious forms of bullying. But, we’ve got a problem that needs to be called out – young people’s environment today is full of it.ย  It’s doing enormous harm and hurt, but nobody’s supposed to say anything about it.

As far as I can tell a big part of it has come out of American culture alongside cultural icons like WWE wrestling. In this pseudo sport, athletes (sic) who are supposedly friends turn on each other, cause each other physical pain and injury and this is all supposed to be terribly entertaining and fun.

It’s part of a major theme of American entertainment culture sold to young people over the last 25 years or so that, I believe deliberately bends and distorts friendship, loyalty and other positive aspects of human relations. And then people wonder why, in parallel we have a generation of young people who’ve grown up more needy, more flaky and vulnerable, more lonely and lacking in human closeness than any before.

There are some particularly sickening aspects of this phenomenon. One of the very worst is “the roast”. When I was growing up i was always taught that good comedy laughs with people, and not at them – that laughing at people was not clever, kind or reflecting positively on the perpetrator. However, the roast manipulates these norms and principles horribly. They take place usually on TV. A specific person is treated as the Guest of Honour (but there’s no honour in this) and is subjected to a barrage of jokes made at them, at their expense and this is intended to entertain the event’s wider audience. We even now have a President of America who was the subject of one such MTV channel roasts (he’s also paraded as part of a stupid, purile storyline in WWE (because that’s what friends do to each other).

The idea is that somehow, personal and brutal humour is the modern equivalent of jousting and the strong person can ‘suck it up’, taking criticism and insult with a smile on their face. This is like friends putting on velvet gloves before punching each other in the face.

Another media manifestation is the Punk’d style of hidden camera shows where practical jokes are played on people by their friends. The more the trick entails a betrayal of friendship and trust, apparently the more entertaining it is. If the person being punk’d shows themselves to be human, hurt, ashamed, embarrassed, humiliated so much the better. I’ve often wondered what the conversations are like that happen just after these humiliations. In most countries it must be necessary for the person to sign something that permits the TV company to broadcast the incident. In all honesty, if I was on the receiving end I wouldn’t sign. No amount of waffle about 15 minutes of fame, popularity etc. would win me over. They would have been wasting their time and expense. But, sadly, the pressure is obviously applied so cleverly that many people are lured by their 15 minutes of fame, just as Andy Warhol predicted 50 years ago.

My belief has always been that friendship is a relationship that is especially important for children and young people growing up today – one that provides something different to relationships within the family. It’s a relationship in which it should be safe for youngsters to explore their views on the world, with someone who has their best interests at heart, where there is strong trust, caring and loyalty. It should be a relationship that children feel can be relied upon, to fall back on for advice, help and support in dealing with life’s challenges and uncertainties.

Instead, I fear that all that all too often what we’re getting is relationships that appear to be supportive and protective, but are in fact the environments within which young people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses are most abused. Around nine years ago i was so alarmed by what I was seeing that I took the support and guidance of our school clinical psychologist and counselors to write an article to address myself to parents and particularly to students aged around 9 – 12. What we were seeing was an almost incessant needling and digging by children in to each other’s vulnerabilities. Children who claimed to be friends were engaged in almost continuous insults and innuendo about whatever were their greatest weaknesses or vulnerabilities. One child might be carrying some excess weight, another had a mother who didn’t buy him/ her the top designer label clothes, another had parents who were separating, yet another had given an unfortunately wrong and thoughtless answer to a class question in Maths. Whatever makes you most vulnerable is most likely to be known by your friends. However, when friendship starts to consist of parading each others’ vulnerabilities in public for ridicule and belittling there has to be something very wrong.

We had concluded from research and interviews with children, parents and teachers that often this was a deflection method to protect themselves from feeling vulnerable. In other words – I tear you down in order to feel good (or at least a little less bad) about myself. The best analogy might be a playground seesaw. in order to raise me up, you must be pushed down – as though there was only so much self esteem to go around.

Just like the victim in a roast, the child being ridiculed was supposed to show resilience, hide all evidence that the comments and criticisms hurt and, if really ‘playing the game’ to come back with equal vigour in the battle. This may have been the face children were showing each other. However, teachers, parents and school councilors were seeing the evidence of the harm and damage done as children were repeatedly being betrayed by those they trusted, or feeling guilt because they had betrayed their friends (or both!) This was not victimless fun, but a massive erosion of self worth and self esteem.

In the most extreme of cases, I’ve had a group of 16 year old boys admit to me that amongs their friend group they had instituted ‘safe words’ – words that individuals could speak with an unwritten rule that when spoken, then this meant enough was enough. These young people were hurting each other so much and with such disregard for each other’s health and wellbeing – all while convincing themselves and others that they were friends. The safe words came in to play when an individual couldn’t take the emotional battering any more, when they were likely to act violently towards their friend or themselves or take some other drastic action.

This is tragic in the extreme and a gross distortion of anything that can be called friendship. This wasn’t a little harmless leg pulling amongst people who cared for each other. This was risk taking on a gross scale, mirroring the worst of TV and media habits where people appear to bate each other, probe the festering wounds of each others weaknesses, vulnerabilities and shortcomings in ways that make them look big, clever, witty and popular. The one who is ready to risk their friendships most is the coolest?!

What an awful state to have reached, and what terrible prices are being paid in the alienation, loneliness and low self esteem of our young people today. What can be done about it? Well, for starters, those who believe in a healthier, more wholesome and uplifting/ empowering model for friendship need to model this for young people.

More needs to be done to counteract the negative messages of the media and entertainment. We need to put more emphasis on social and emotional learning, the development of emotional intelligence, empathy and caring. Above all, we need to convey the messages to children about how they have choices about whether to build another up or pull them down, the implications of both and the understanding that self esteem is not a zero sum game. If my friend’s self esteem is emboldened today, then he or she is more likely and available to boost mine tomorrow when i need it, going in to a difficult conversation with an adult, a sports event or an exam.

Less emphasis on anti-bullying campaigns and more focus on building strong, resilient emotionally intelligent children who place as much importance on holding up their friends and peers as on boosting themselves up. It’s not always an easy world in which to grow up and our children need all the help they can get. In the words of the theme tune of long running and ever popular comedy, ‘Friends’;
“I’ll be there for you
When the rain starts to pour
I’ll be there for you
Like I’ve been there before
I’ll be there for you
‘Cause you’re there for me too”



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