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Conversations to have with teens about bullying

A recent initiative in Kenya is a great example of how we can empower children to stand up for themselves with energy and confidence. In these consent classes, which have reduced rape by 50%, the girls are taught to yell ‘I said no’ and ‘I can defend myself’ while pushing their aggressor away. Joyful projects such as these are effective because they focus on the strength and power that we need to harness in our children.  The power is within. It’s the parents’ job to see the flicker of strength, nourish it, nurture it and guard it so that it becomes a natural and reflexive element of their personality.

Preparing your children about possible future events that are bound to happen enables them to be prepared for the curve balls that life often throws us. If the parent can impart the idea that problems can cause difficulties but, with the right support, they are rarely insurmountable, then the parent has set the tone for the children to feel capable and able for the challenges they will face in life.The acclaimed writer Andrew Solomon gives an inspiring TED talk about ‘How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are’ and in this talk Solomon points out that when we are confronted with our worst demons, it is only then we can tap into our deepest strengths.

How to open a dialogue with your child

Communication is the royal road to recovery and it’s the parents who need to help the child to communicate their difficulties. In a bullying situation, the parent needs to chat subtly, sensitively and comprehensively with their child, with their children’s friends, with their children’s friends’ parents and with relevant teachers so as to ascertain the whole picture. It can also be helpful to chat with an aunt or someone who has known your child for a long time so that they can add an objective perspective.

Dismissing the bullies as ‘pure evil’ is rarely helpful, nor is deciding that it is a simple case of racism or homophobia or jealousy, etc. Although such clear comments often make everyone feel a fleeting sense of satisfaction, it is usually too simplistic an analysis of what is taking place. It is much more helpful to attempt to understand the complexities behind the attack. While intolerance, racism orhomophobia might be at the root of the problem, there are usually other issues that also need to be addressed, such as the school environment, the bully’s personality, the bystander effect and aculture of bullying.

Many parents immediately fly off the handle when they hear the cruelties that their child has been exposed to. However, parents need to be better than that if they are to achieve a productive result. Parents need to keep their rage and emotions in check as they encourage their child to open up. The following questions might help parents stay focused:

  • When did it first happen?
  • Why did it first happen?
  • What happened after the first incident?
  • Why did the bullying/teasing/hostility/behaviour continue after the first incident?
  • How did it continue?
  • What is unhelpful?
  • What makes it worse?
  • What is helpful?
  • What makes it better?
  • Who are the bystanders?
  • Who are the sympathetic bystanders – those who have potential to be upstanders?
  • Who, of the bystanders, might be brave enough to help?
  • What is preventing the bystanders from being upstanders?
  • What is the position of the authorities (the teachers)?
  • Is there any teacher who might be more helpful than others?

This will help you open your eyes to the bigger story as well as ensuring that you can better empathise with your child.  If your child is being bullied online then the online environment needs to be analysed just as thoroughly as the schoolyard. This will mean that your child needs to open up about their online activities so that you can help them explore the dynamics.

This isn’t the time to begin preaching at your teenagers about disobeying you – instead, this is a crucial time to reconnect with your child by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their hour of need. If you have no idea of your child’s social media activity, now is the time to change that. Ask your child to allow you some access to their social media presence; although it might not be appropriate to have full access, it is also inappropriate to have no access – the parent holds the keys to the kingdom as it is they who are usually paying for the Wi-Fi.

Just like talking about sex, talking about bullying isn’t a one-off conversation.  Ideally, there should be a whole series of talks, comments and remarks about bullying that build up to a general outlook about bullying, difficult online behaviour, exclusion and tricky people. Children need to learn how to think for themselves so that one day if they are involved in a complicated peer group situation, they can figure out themselves the best route to take.

No matter how much we wrap our kids in cotton wool, at some point, whether it is when they are 14, 16 or 18 years old, they will probably be offered some drugs, or offered a lift from a drunk but ‘cool’ friend, or engaged inappropriately online – and your teenager will have to make a decision on their own. If teenagers are to learn how to handle themselves, they will need to have some practice in learning to rely on themselves. The parent can come up with supportive, helpful ideas and different options but the teenager will usually need to be the one who has to try them out. The parents can open the door but the teenager must walk through.

Stella O'Malley (Guest Blogger)

Stella O’Malley is a psychotherapist, writer, public speaker, parent and best selling author of ‘Cotton Wool Kids’ and ‘Bully-Proof Kids’