Will Words Ever Harm Me? Escalation From Verbal to Physical Abuse in 6th Grade Classrooms

Brenda Geiger, Bar - Ilan University
Michael Fischer, Norfolk State University

The establishment of a positive sense of identity is one of the main developmental outcomes of adolescence. By playing the role of a mirror, peers are a major source of self-esteem regulation and evaluation for young adolescents as they go through the developmental stage of identity vs. role diffusion (Erickson, 1950). This fact makes young adolescents particularly sensitive and vulnerable to the criticism, ridicule, sarcasm, and verbal abuse of their peers, which may testify to their own inadequacy and worthlessness. Based on in-depth qualitative interviews, this study provides the opportunity to 145 sixth graders to tell in their own words how they feel and react when subjected to verbal and emotional abuse from classmates. Content analysis of these interviews used a constant comparative method. Findings indicate that students differentiated between verbally aggressive messages that were meant to be "for fun" from those that were not based on (1) contextual cues, (2) the reaction of the other peers present, and (2) malleability of the personal features that were the topic of the attack. When interpreted as not being for fun, verbally aggressive messages primed hostile thoughts, anger, and a desire for retaliation. Pronounced gender differences were found in the reasons provided for not acting upon such a desire, with girls being better able to rationalize away verbal abuse as a sign of their male classmates' immaturity. However, when verbal provocation touched a permanent trait or characteristic that is an integral and indispensable part of the student's sense of self and social identity, then gender differences disappear concerning the affective state of the students. Feelings of suffering, humiliation, and anger often justify escalation from verbal to physical aggression. The reaction of peers present during the provocation was found to play an important role in either reducing or escalating tension and resultant violence. Recommendations for practitioners are suggested.

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Updated 05/20/2006