The anxiety and fear that accompany bullying increase the odds that teens will disengage from healthy identity development. Bullying as a stand-alone issue is problematic, but teens who are bullied often face other significant stressors. In saying this, I am not minimizing bullying. I am emphasizing how dangerous bullying can be when layered on top of these other pressures. It can be the final straw that breaks one’s hope – or even one’s will to live.
The best way to elevate the danger of bullying and its’ impact on identity development is to paint a portrait of typical gay teens that I encounter. Today, I will focus on males. Later this week, I will focus on females. For brevity, I will use the term “SSA male youth” to represent both those who identify as LGBT+ and those who experience same-sex attraction but as a matter of faith neither identify as gay nor act upon such desires. Let us consider the weight of burdens experienced by both of these types of teens.
(1) Many SSA male youth report feeling different as early as age 5 or 6. This sense of “differentness” usually emerges as a stressor between first and third grade as difficulties surface in same-gender peer integration. These youth sense that other boys possess something they lack. Some retreat to female camaraderie, which socializes them into a feminine world. This does not mean that such males are necessarily effeminate (I know many who are not), but those that are face additional socialization challenges.
(2) As the years pass, this early separation from male peers solidifies as a life pattern of withdrawal. An internal worldview develops telling SSA male youth that real guys are not safe. Other boys embolden this belief by teasing and taunting them. Soon, the bullying produces a seemingly unscalable wall separating these youth from the world of guys. Many believe it is this separation that sets up a chemical attraction to males at the onset of puberty. Others suggest that the attractions emerge well before puberty, but even non-sexual impulses may be triggered by a boy’s separation from his male peers (this is not to discount biological factors). It is worth noting that not all SSA male youth actually withdraw – some become accomplished athletes or remain socially integrated with boys but internally they perceive distance or separation.
(3) Many SSA male youth experience years of teasing. Some on a daily basis. The long-term accumulation of bullying incidents creates unhealthy disruptions to identity development. First, it generates a fearful expectation of impending physical or verbal assault. Second, it produces an anxious anticipation of peer rejection. Third, it yields an inner shame that can fuel withdrawal from friends, family and faith. Fourth, it solidifies a distorted perception that one is viewed as weak, weird, and/or unworthy. If these burdens become too heavy, these youth can shut down and give up.
Humans are resilient: those who shut down and give up tend to get back up. By the time they get back up, however, they may exhibit a justified anger about their pain. Part of this anger is good – it represents an inner strength to press on. Part of it, however, serves as an outer covering of protection that hardens a resolve to prove oneself valuable. In other words, identity gets shaped around deep hurts.
To illustrate this, the word queer was once the ultimate put down that could inflict great pain. It has slowly morphed into a positive identifier. It all started with one beaten down gay teen getting back up and saying in just defiance, “You’re right. I am queer.” Today, millions of teens take pride in this personal identifier as a symbol of strength. Yet behind the strength I often find the pain of name-calling and physical intimidation.
As I mentioned at the start, bullying is rarely the only stressor in the lives of SSA youth. Many have endured various degrees of verbal abuse or yelling in the home. Others have been physically or sexually abused. Some face other issues such as ADD/ADHD or Bipolar Disorder. Many have lived or are living through the divorce of their parents – or the death of a parent. Some feel ostracized at church or moralized by people of faith. School difficulties caused by these stressors can become an additional stressor in and of itself. I have not even mentioned the fear associated with coming out to parents.
Pause and think about how quickly we resort to moralistic approaches with those who have suffered deep and painful soul-wounds. Imagine for a moment what it is like for SSA youth to feel different and endure one or more of the additional stressors mentioned above. Now imagine what happens when bullying is layered on top of all this. Where there is even a degree of diminished self-worth, the risk factors for suicide quickly rise.
I don’t know about you, but this is all pretty humbling to me. We need to pray for SSA youth and be proactive in protecting them. We need to exchange distant and unfeeling moralistic approaches for more intimate and redemptive ways to help them experience healthy identity development. Is there any hope?
Join me tomorrow for Matt’s story. The death of his mother at an early age became a predominant factor in his disconnecting from healthy identity development. God saw his pain and reached out to surround him with the Body of Christ. Matt’s story demonstrates that where there is acceptance and love, there is hope.
NOTE: I define “healthy identity development” as the process by which a child incrementally grows into an independent adult who is secure in his or her gifts, talents, interests, capabilities, body image and spiritual purposes; who is functional in giving and receiving social, emotional, and spiritual support; who is free of sexual and substance addictions and destructive disorders (eating, cutting); and who experiences this growth process free of abuse, assault and intimidation. This definition levels the playing field by showing that all of us ultimately have wounded identities. I stress the impact of bullying because this preventable wound is a top risk factor for suicidality. If we want to help teens stay on the path to healthy identity formation, we must – as people of faith – be definitively engaged in preventing bullying.
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