We know that most abuse victims don’t report, especially when they are in the situation. This is why we have elaborate campaigns to encourage children to speak up and not be a bystander because the instinct to stay quiet, put one’s head down and stay safe is very powerful. This instinct to stay safe becomes greatly intensified when the “bully” is a teacher or coach who uses emotional abuse and has power over the present and future of kids. You can transfer out of a class if the teacher is a bully, not so when the coach is a bully. The worst scenario is the coach because the child’s only options are to quit the sport or suffer the abuse. When we consider the statistic that 7 out of 10 kids quit sports in their teen years, it begs the question: does some of that have to do with how they’re being coached?
So, if kids can’t speak up, we must as parents learn to watch for the signs that they might be suffering emotional abuse from a teacher or coach. Experts—psychologists, psychiatrists and neuroscientists—say this kind of abuse is as serious and as damaging as physical and sexual abuse (see references at end of article). It is vital that we protect our kids.
Our son, along with many other boys, was brutally bullied by two basketball coaches at his high school. There were many warning signs when I look back:
Parents Not Welcome
The first red flag was that parents weren’t welcome at practices. We also received letters from the coaches saying that we shouldn’t stay at the same hotel as the team or interact with our kids at tournaments. We later learned that players were penalized if they missed practices set on holidays. Kids who were on family trips and had to miss a day or two lost their position as starter or were singled out as not running well or simply ignored.
Now that I look back, I realize that abusers need to keep kids as separate from their families as possible. There’s always the risk that a kid will report to his mom or dad what’s really going on. The more the coach controls the child’s mind, the less likely this will happen. Also, when a bully coach or teacher uses repeated humiliation and targeting, yelling and swearing to demean the child, they can’t afford for a loving family to build the child back up, make them feel good and worthy. An empowered, supported child puts the adult bully at risk. So if a coach or teacher encourages parents to stay away as if this will help the child mature or “bond with the team,” be suspicious. Ask questions.
Abusive Treatment Rationalized
Another indicator that there’s something wrong with the coaching is when parents raise concerns, the coaches reply that they are so “passionate”, that they “love all the players” and that they are working to “make them tough.” These kinds of statements indicate that the coaches either do not realize they are abusive or these statements are being used to cover up the abuse. Either way the damage done to kids is very serious.
Fear of Retaliation
When kids beg parents not to report, like our son did with us, that’s another sign that something is very wrong. If a kid knows that there’s a price to pay for speaking up, then emotional abuse is at work. Fourteen kids gave testimonies about the abusive coaches at the school and many of them said that they wanted to stop what was happening, but they were worried they’d be benched and they so badly wanted to play. When the bullies are coaches or teachers, there is a significant power imbalance, far greater than the ones between children on a playground or in a hallway. It makes it that much harder to speak up.
Social Withdrawal and Curt Replies
The next sign is when a child who previously loved a sport starts dragging their feet to practice. Not only should a player come home full of conversation and stories and joy about practice, as opposed to silence, he should also be very excited to go. Our son’s passion was basketball ever since he was five years old. As soon as he was on a team in grade four, he was in heaven. He would finish the season and couldn’t wait to go to any basketball training camps he could. But in grade ten, his joy was snuffed out. In grade 11, when the coach who bullied him in grade 10 connected with an equally abusive coach, it got even worse. The warning signs were clear, but as parents we were in a double bind. If it was a kid bullying our son, we’d simply report it, but when it’s teachers who are coaches and the only option is to quit the team, what should a parent do?
The most important thing to watch for when a child is being abused: oblique statements. Regardless of what kind of abuse the child is suffering, they are so unsure and so confused in their minds about whether or not it’s okay to tell, that they try out vague statements with their parents. When the bully is a teacher or coach, kids often think that they deserve the humiliation. They’re being sworn at and told demeaning things like “you’re soft” or “grow some balls” because they are at fault. Thus, we must listen closely to our children and not dismiss what they say. Parents tend to believe teachers and coaches as well—adult to adult. This is why it’s crucial to encourage your kids to trust you and to tell you as much as they can about what’s going on.
Oblique statements are the most important warning sign of a bullying teacher or coach. Our son then started saying he didn’t think he wanted to pursue basketball at college anymore. This was a surprise as he loved the game, was very talented, was six four and highly athletic. Again we tried to be respectful of his wishes and didn’t recognize it was a sign that he was being bullied and losing his love for the game. Experts say that the teen brain is highly susceptible to PTSD at this stage and we had no idea that our son was being traumatized.
Dropping Grades, Signs of Fatigue and Stress
In grades 7 and 8 our son won major awards as a learner. In grade 9, he was on the Headmaster’s honor role, but in grade 10, his grades declined. He started to collapse as a learner. This worsened in grade 11. A key indicator of abuse is when students’ grades drop. Then there are the physical symptoms. Our son ended the basketball season in grade 10 and was so ill he spent spring break on the couch. The basketball season in grade 11 brought him home with sores all over his mouth and tongue. He could barely swallow water let alone eat. Cortisol not only damages the brain according to neuroscientists, it can also act as a corrosive in a child’s mouth. It’s triggered by stress. Within twenty-four hours of being away from his coaches, our son’s mouth healed.
Watch for the warning signs of abuse and advocate for your child and all children. Encourage them to recognize the signs of emotional abuse and speak up and say “NO” whether they or any other kid is a target. We will never stop bullying among children, until we stop the adults who use it to teach kids a lesson whether in the classroom or on the court.
About the Author
Jennifer Fraser, PhD, author of Teaching Bullies, is herself a teacher. Teaching Bullies is her third book and it tells the story of fourteen courageous teenagers who spoke up about coaches who were bullying them. When these teens were re-victimized by school administrators, lawyers and educational authorities, Fraser knew she had to tell their story. Bullying is poisonous from peers, and even more deadly from adults in care-giver positions. It’s time adults were held accountable.