Bullying: A Big Complicated Problem with Many Simple Solutions

If each one of us untangled one string at a time...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Bullying and the Brain

This week's Boston Globe article, "Inside the Bullied Brain" is riveting. Although many people don't consider bullying dangerous and are of the opinion that it's actually a normal part of childhood or a "right of passage," this article comes to a completely different conclusion:
A new wave of research into bullying’s effects, however, is now suggesting something more than that — that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

Read it. Really.

Studies researching the long term effects of peer to peer abuse suggest that the brain may actually become altered and the side effects range from depression to memory loss.

It's so sad but not shocking. It's obvious that when a child or teen is consistently mistreated, eventually their outward personality often changes. Those are the things we can see. What about all the things going on in a child's brain that we can't see? Children can function but they may be suffering. What IS shocking is that we continue to let it happen.

Early prevention should be a priority. If we catch kids at young ages, we may be able to prevent some brain damage. Sound dramatic? Not when you have studies like these to back you up.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Childhood Obesity and Bullying

In doing a little channel surfing today, it seemed like everyone was talking about childhood obesity and bullying. If you're an overweight child, you know they go hand in hand. Everyone from Rachel Ray to Dr. Oz to Dr. Phil mentioned this issue today. Although this post was written in September, I thought it would be an appropriate day to re-post this information. (Is that as bad as re-gifting??)

It's something to pay attention to for a variety of reasons. Kids who are overweight have long term emotional scars from the teasing, bullying and downright abuse of their peers.

That's a total bummer for kids with extra pounds. Physical AND mental health are at risk. It's also a total bummer for parents who worry about them.

Naturally, it's important for parents to take the reins and help their children with good nutrition and exercise. According to the Mayo Clinic: "Childhood obesity is particularly troubling because the extra pounds often start children on the path to health problems that were once confined to adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. Childhood obesity can also lead to poor self-esteem and depression."

So speaking of self esteem and depression, what can be done about the put downs from peers?

No. 1: If you're a parent or any adult with kids in your life who are NOT overweight, don't allow them to call other kids Fat...or Tubby...or Blubber. Seriously, it's in the same category as saying "You're so gay." You may not think so, but just read the study and think again.

No. 2: If you're the parent of a child that's overweight, let this be motivation to you to start helping them with their health. It's hard, I know. Weight, like bullying, is complicated. It's a Tangled Ball. It's not just about restricting calories, it's about emotions which makes it one of the hardest parenting issues to handle. More often than not, there's a lot of frustrating baggage that makes it hard to help a child with a weight issue.

There's a site for teen girls who struggle with their weight called Fitsmi, as well as a companion separate site, Fitsmi for Moms. Fitsmi recognizes that girls need to have a safe place to be teens first. Girls with extra pounds have the same interests in fashion, boys, celebrities, and makeup as any girl (as well as sports, academics, etc., etc.). They just need a network of friends who know what it's like to be a plus size in a size 2 world. It's a place online where they're not judged and they can be honest. It's a source for good information, including tips on clothes and relationships as well as nutrition and exercise. (Boys should have their own site, too! But if you're a parent of a boy, advice on Fitsmi for Moms might still be helpful to you.)

Here's the key: no judging.

Nothing about this issue is simple, except this. Kids will bully kids who are overweight. (It's gotten out of hand. A child doesn't even have to be technically overweight to be teased by their peers.) When they do, they are stealing their childhood as well as risking their long term emotional health. It's our job as adults to stop it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanks to Those Who Care about Kids and Bullying

Thanks to all those who spend their time, money, and expertise to help kids have a lighthearted and bully-free childhood.

There are so many great experts doing good work. There are also great parents paying attention to raising compassionate kids. And to parents who also volunteer in schools, you're awesome. Parents can't do it alone and schools can't do it alone. When we work together we have a shot at preventing and/or blunting the long tail of pain that bullying creates.

Is there a one-size fits all solution? Absolutely not.

I really like the list at the top right when it comes to training, research and tools. There are many others which I'll continue to share in future posts but... who -- and what -- would you recommend?

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday and the readers of this blog are my favorite people. (Other than the ones I lugged around for 9 months. Oh, and of course the guy that's my friend and husband.) So thanks for your interest in pulling out one damn string at a time.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Rock On in Bullying Prevention

Almost everyone has had a great teacher in their lives. One of mine was Mrs. Behrens in the third grade. If you went by looks alone, you'd be terrified. She was an imposing figure. Luckily for the hundreds of kids she taught over the years, that was only a brief first impression.

Although it was a small Catholic elementary school without any type of arts program, she created her own. She would often tell us in the afternoon to clear our desks except for crayons or colored pencils. She would pass out a sparkling white clean sheet of paper to each student and then ask us to just clear our minds. She would put on classical music and simply introduce it by saying, "Enjoy Bach." We just listened to music from a record player (yes, a record player) she brought from her own home and records from her own collection and let our minds just drift as we drew anything we wanted. It turned my whole day around and allowed my 8 year-old mind to relax and expand. We all loved it. Mrs. Behrens was brilliant!

Here's something that's not talked about enough -- music and bullying prevention.

Singing it, playing it, creating it, or listening to it, music is the great communicator. So why don't we use more of it to get messages across in school, lower kids' frustrations and create a better school climate in general?

There are hundreds of reasons why schools are often very tense, especially as kids approach middle and high school. Music is a great tension reliever. It allows all ages to express themselves and being able to express yourself, lowers frustration.

School budgets are always part of the challenge but introducing music in the classroom is easy and doesn't take a big budget. Just ask Mrs. B, now in her eighties and a much less imposing figure. But it's still the size of her heart and her simple wisdom that are impressive.

Here's a little of P.S, 22 Chorus to help drive home the point. It makes me smile that the chorus teacher's name is Mr. B.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

If You Were Bullied, Would You Tell?

A huge percentage of kids don't tell an adult when they're being bullied. Fox News' story, "Why Bully Victims Suffer In Silence" prompted me to repost an interview I did several months ago with a very wise teenager. Bottom line, for so many kids, telling an adult doesn't help. In fact, so many times it makes it worse.

If the main piece of advice we give kids is "tell an adult," then we better kick it into gear and start funding training from Pre-K and up.

This is what a very wise high school student told me several months ago:

Rashidat Encarnacion participated in last year's Family Online Safety Conference (FOSI). She was one of a group of Girl Scouts asked to be on a panel moderated by Marsali Hancock, President of iKeepSafe, a well-respected national online safety organization. The panel was a chance to hear about online safety issues from the perspective of teens. I was very impressed with the girls' comments, and in particular, with then 16 year-old Rashidat's sage advice.
Sometimes 'friends' on Facebook are not your friends. Know the difference and don't 'friend' anyone you can't trust.

Believe it or not, as fate (happily) would have it, I ran into Rashidat several months later. I asked her if she could explain why kids don't tell an adult when they've been bullied. This is what she said:

Well, I feel children do not tell their parents because they are afraid of the way their parents will react to the situation. Maybe the parents’ reaction to the situation can cause further bullying of the child. Personally, when I was bullied in school the bullying would cease for a little bit. Then it would become worse than before, because I decided to tell an adult. Not only that but we want to feel independent …so we don't want to tell our parents about what's going on, especially things that are hurting us. In other situations pertaining to bullying, it can seem like a sign of weakness when you tell an adult. I remember fellow classmates calling me a "tattle-tale" and not wanting to hang around me if I told a teacher about someone else or myself being bullied. That is also another reason - the child being bullied does not want to lose their friends. Therefore, they keep quiet and do not tell others when they are bullied.

There are numerous reasons why children do not want to talk with their parents about bullying. When children do approach an adult, the adults should not pressure the children. If the child feels that there is no reason to worry, they feel that their situation is under control. Maybe you should respect your child’s wishes and not make a big deal of the problem.

At the same time, do not take the issue lightly. No matter what, you are the parent and you have the right to intervene in your child’s problem when it is necessary.

Like it or not, these comments are real and represent one of the core issues. Kids should not be left alone in their misery but this will continue to happen until there are many more trained adults that kids can trust. States, such as New Jersey, are slowly waking up to the fact that bullying laws don't work if they don't require high quality training for schools.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

When Siblings Are Bullies: 10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention

Most people with a sibling can relate to sibling rivalry. It's not unusual. In fact, it seems quite natural.

Many experts say that siblings should work things out for themselves. It teaches them how to resolve conflict on their own. That's somewhat valid.

BUT...when does sibling rivalry become bullying?

Scenario 6:

Your kids bicker and sometimes get physical. Most of the time it blows over but it's escalating. It seems like every time they walk in the house, they're at it.

Although there's a two year difference, your younger child really has the upper hand. As she's getting older, she knows how to push her brother's buttons.

You try to give them a little space and handle it on their own but one day your son comes out of school feeling dejected. He was one of the few kids not chosen for the science fair. When he tells you what happened, his sister sort of laughs and says "That's because you're stupid."

Here's where the 10 seconds comes in. When you get in the house, you ask to see your daughter privately. Then you tell her in no uncertain terms that what she said crossed a line. You tell her that you would never let anyone get away with saying that to her and the same goes for her brother. You then tell her to sincerely apologize to her brother...and then figure out some appropriate punishment...and then FOLLOW THROUGH.

Why be so firm? It's important for BOTH kids. This is what bullying prevention expert, founder of Bully Safe USA and author, SuEllen Fried had to say,

Research indicates a strong connection between sibling bullying and peer bullying. More than half of victims of bullying by siblings were involved in bullying behavior at school. The sibling relationship is the most long lasting of all relationships and according to studies, the most violent. Fifty-three out of every 100 children abuse siblings. As our society was in denial about peer bullying for centuries, so are we in denial about the devastation of sibling bullying.

So it's not o.k. to let them truly be mean to each other. It can affect both negatively for a lifetime.

So enough bullying talk. Thought a perfect way to end this post is to make the family smile. You can't bully while you watch this. It has over 3 million hits for a reason:

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

You Don't Deserve That!: 10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention

It would be so great to know the right thing to say ALL the time.
If you're like the rest of us, that's not the case. In fact, sometimes it's a miracle when the right thing comes out. Like the time I asked a 20 something if she'd fallen off a bike, just to realize that she'd had a botox injection.

I meant well. Really.

It's like when kids do open up to us about bullying. It's so hard to know what to say. We want to say something that will help them with the situation but we often start "helping" them by trying to correct their behavior. That's totally justified because if there are ways we can empower our kids so they're not as vulnerable, it's worth a shot.

But maybe the corrections shouldn't be the first reaction. First, we need to tell them, "You don't deserve that! That's awful and I'm mad for you. Now let's have some ice cream (or carrot sticks depending on your parenting style) and let's talk about it." And then instead of talking, we listen.

The words take 10 Seconds. The listening can go on and on and on.

Monday, November 15, 2010

10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention: Gossip

Recently, Madonna was on the Ellen Show and challenged adults to not gossip for a day.

This brings me to Scenario 5 in Tangled Ball's 10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention Series.

You're in the grocery store after school. You have 45 minutes to buy dinner and get the kids home. They're due at piano lessons in an hour and they need to squeeze in their 15 minutes at the keys so you can tell the teacher they "practiced." You're pretty sure the teacher means an hour a night and every week when you leave, you vow that this will be the week when they actually do that.

Thinking on the fly about a menu, you dash up and down the aisles coming up with ideas of something fast and hopefully, nutritious. The cell rings. It's one of your best buddies and there is SO MUCH TO TALK ABOUT.

You hate to admit it but you heard some shocking news about so-and-so and it kind of perked up your day. Especially, since this so-and-so was a snob to you last year during one of the school fundraisers. You don't mind taking her down a peg. You would never consider yourself a BIG gossiper but this is too good.

Snap decision. Although you don't have a lot of time, you're dying for a little gossip fix. You pick up the phone. You're about to launch right into it when you're stopped by the reflection in the glass. No. It's not that you need to fix your hair or your outfit is just wrong. You notice the kids!! Standing right by you and within ear shot.

You take a breath, get your head screwed on straight and tell your friend that you can't talk right now. (5 seconds.) You know full well that the next day you're at work so it will probably be a few days until you're able to tell your story. By then, she will have found out and the thrill will be diminished.

But in the remaining few seconds, look at your kids and know you just taught them a lesson and they don't even know it. Since you're in the ice cream section anyway, reach in and get a treat. This time, it's you who deserves a little reward.

Friday, November 12, 2010

10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention: Turn Off the TV

This is a short -- but definitely not sweet -- post.

Scenario 4:

Just flip through the channels any time of day and you'll realize that it's possible your kids are watching any number of "reality" shows that promote mean-spiritedness. You won't have any trouble finding these shows and you won't have to go too far up the channel lineup to get a wake-up call. (It's hard to admit you're watching TV in the afternoon but tell your friends it's research!)

It takes a little bravery but when your kids are watching shows that are based on people being mean to each other, it's ok to tell them to "turn it off." But first explain that it's not "reality." (Unless they keep watching and then it may become their reality.)

All in all, that takes about 10 seconds.

American Academy of Pediatrics recently came out with new guidelines on media use and children. Really worth the more than 10 seconds (but only a minute or two) to read.

Depending on how old your kids are, Common Sense Media, is a great resource. Good to go to before telling your kids they can turn the TV back on.

(And do you want to hear something funny? When I just went to publish this post, the google ad to the right was about "What's on TV today!" I actually find that hysterical.)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention: Where Does the Computer Go?

Ten seconds. Yes. Ten seconds can make a huge difference in bullying, including cyber bullying, prevention.

Today's tip and Scenario 3:

Your child has had an old computer handed down to them and it's in their room. Now that your oldest is in middle school and the computer is on the fritz, you decide you'd better replace it. It's science project time. Seriously, it would be easier to lay on a bed of nails than to do a science project without a good working home computer. It's enough to throw a parent into full blown panic. So it's off to the store.

When you come home, box in hand, you're thinking, "Where do I put it down?" You have a moment of hesitation before just carting it up to your child's room and plunking it down where it's now deceased predecessor once sat.

You stop and think -- and five seconds later-- you connect. With your elbow, you knock off the pile of bills, papers sent home from school waiting to be signed, part of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich you made for breakfast and you place the computer in it's new home. Right smack in the middle of the kitchen where everyone can see it.

Your middle schooler is still in shock. What?? This is horrible. Unfair. Dorky. Lame. Unthinkable.

It takes 10 seconds to do the right thing but admittedly it will take hours to ignore the pleas from an unhappy child. But in the end, it will save you hours of sleep because now you can see what your child is saying to others and what they're saying to them. You can intervene if necessary and help before it gets out of hand.

And the side benefit? As you were shoving the papers out of the way, you noticed that the class trip permission slip has to be in tomorrow. Phew. Dodged a bullet again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention, The Series: Scenario 2

Really? It only takes 10 seconds to make a difference in bullying prevention? Yep.

Everyone can do something? Yes, again.

Here is today's tip:

Scenario 2

You're in the car taking your child to school. You're praying you don't have to get out of the car because it's been a really hectic "day" and it's only 7:35 a.m. So hectic that you're wearing your pajama bottoms with a sweater so that if people just see you from the head up, they'll assume you're totally dressed. You may get away with it because you threw on some lipstick while you were in the driveway.

You pull up to the building where other little munchkins are already waiting outside for the bell to ring. You notice that there's one child from your kid's class that still looks a little out of place and awkward.

You have the presence of mind to say to your own child,
"Be nice to the new kid today."
(That only took about 4 seconds but wait for another 3 seconds to hear an answer. And in the remaining 3 seconds you say,
"I'm proud of you."

What just happened in 10 seconds? Building a foundation of empathy, empowerment, kindness, tolerance that will be passed along by example. That's what an upstander does.

Now how do you get back in the house without your neighbor seeing you? Luckily you have your lipstick on so they won't even notice that you're not wearing real pants.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

10 Seconds in Bullying Prevention

Today starts a series on what can be done to stop bullying incidences in just 10 seconds.

It's like an infomercial...
In Just 10 seconds YOU can help stop mean behavior that leaves a long tail of pain. In just 10 seconds...and if you call now (whoops, forgot that this is NOT actually an infomercial).

First 10 Second Tip:

Scenario 1:

You overhear three tween girls do what many tween girls do so well. Talk about other girls. It almost seems like a sport and it doesn't matter if the girls are basically nice or not. They usually are nice. You happen to be one of the tween's parent. It's awkward because you don't want to embarrass your child and you hate to admit it but you're just a little bit relieved that she is not the one being discussed. She has friends.

But is it good for your daughter to continue doing this or is it a really important teachable moment? I'm fairly certain that girl relationship experts Rachel Simmons and Rosalind Wiseman would say... step up. It's just as important for the girls who are gossiping as much as it is for the girl being verbally dismembered. Girls need to learn how to be loyal. Those qualities strenghthen them through life, including careers.

In ten seconds, you can step in, look them in the eye and say,
"Girls, I don't know if you realize it but that's mean and I don't think you girls are actually mean. So, how was school today?"
(In other words, make your point and get out.)

They might not show it but they will hear your message. And maybe you're the only one brave enough to say it. When your daughter is older, more mature and has her own tween, quite possibly she will be stepping up to a group of three tweens and saying,
"Girls, I don't think you realize it but..."

Life is funny. It sometimes only takes 10 seconds to make a lifetime impression that gets paid forward. And who doesn't have 10 seconds to spare an unsuspecting target as well as help young fairly clueless girls become mature adults?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Creative Ways to Get Kids to Stop, Think and Connect

That's what I'm talking about. Getting creative.

Don't you just love the the backup singers and dancers?

Just like Stop, Block and Tell, it's easy to remember and important to teach.

Share this with your kids and have a dance, a laugh, and a smile. Because you just did something really good. The more we know, the better we do. That goes for kids, too.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

PTA/PTO Groups Are Key in Bullying Prevention

October...and Bullying Prevention Awareness Month...are over but since 31 days wasn't enough to share what certain organizations/foundations and businesses are doing to untangle one string at a time, Tangled Ball is spilling over to November to highlight some important work.

One of the biggest challenges in untangling the whole bullying mess is engaging more parents. It seems like there's an endless number of factors that make bullying difficult to control but the one thing that most experts agree on is that more adults need to step up.

Parents are key for a few reasons. One is that parents should be responsible for teaching kids to treat others well BEFORE they go to school, including correcting them when they don't and praising them when they do.

Once kids are school age, involvement needs to kick into gear. This is a huge issue for schools these days. How do we get more parents interested in participating in their kids' education, including school climate? Especially, since there are more single parent homes or homes with both parents working.

Kids just do better when adults, particularly their parents, care. You may not have thought that PTAs and PTOs were that important but after studying this problem for a while, it's clear that these organizations are key to a school's success and to the quality of our children's experience.

PTO Today is a company that recognizes that today's schools need good tools, resources and creative problem solving to adapt to the challenge of involving parents. Brilliant! School parent groups have to keep up with the times. Intrigued by their Web site, blog and company mission, I asked Tim Sullivan, Founder and President, the following questions:

What is the goal of PTO or PTAs?

The specifics of this answer vary by school, but in general terms every PTO or PTA or HSA that I work with has the simple goal to bring parents together to make their school a great place for their kids. What that means at any given school really depends on the school. At some schools, resources are so low that the PTO spends a ton of time advocating for better budgets and/or trying to provide those resources themselves. In other schools the PTO or PTA focuses almost exclusively on building parent involvement and community through family events and enrichment activities. For most PTOs, meeting that goal of making the school a great place for the kids involves a combination that starts with building parent involvement and also includes enrichment efforts (activities that supplement the academic offerings) and – of course -- fundraising.

With so many two parent or single parent workers per household, is parent involvement a thing of the past ?

Definitely not. Is parent involvement different? Definitely. But gone or less essential? No way! The best parent groups adapt to the needs of their parents and change their own habits (email becoming much more essential than the standard old 7PM PTO meeting) and create opportunities for engagement that fit parent schedules and needs. I love events that serve parents (provide dinner!) or understand parent schedules (a donuts with dad event before school and before work). And I really love PTOs that find tons of different types of ways for parents to connect that do not require a month-long or year-long commitment. PTO Today’s “2 Hour Power” program is all about that. http://www.ptotoday.com/2hourpower/ Go to most schools today, and you’ll find powerful, successful examples of parents connecting with their schools. It’s popular to say that parent involvement is a thing of the past, but the facts just don’t bear that out.

So don't just consider getting involved. Make it a must...and even better yet, get your school excited about doing things a little differently. School climate will improve. Guarenteed.