Drink bleach and die.

That’s one of the messages that Rebecca Sedgwick received in the month before she committed suicide.

Yes I bullied Rebecca nd she killed herself but IDGA**

That’s the message that the accused ringleader allegedly posted on her Facebook page after the suicide. And that’s the message that led Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd to charge two young teens with felony aggravated stalking on October 15 in the suicide of 12-year-old Rebecca.

It’s hard for any parent to read these statements, and it’s horrifying to imagine what it must have been like for Rebecca’s parents to read the ugly messages that were addressed to and about their daughter. My heart goes out to them for their loss and for the pain and torment of its circumstances.

As a parent of a 12-year-old myself, my alarm over the case led me to do what most parents probably did: I immediately tried to determine whether or not my own daughter was a victim of bullying.

What I didn’t do, at least initially, was try to determine whether or not she was a perpetrator. My good girl? She’s too nice for that. Plus, she knows better.

Not surprisingly, that’s exactly what the parents of the accused perpetrator told ABC News. Her Facebook account must have been hacked, they said. http://abcnews.go.com/US/parents-alleged-rebecca-sedwick-cyberbully-blame-facebook-hack/story?id=20583537

My own resistance, and that of those parents, led me to a more difficult question: why don’t we as parents want to even think about whether or not our own daughters are bullies? And if we don’t want to think about it, then how can we possibly talk with them about choosing a different path?

Cybersociologists danah boyd and Alice Marwick have written about this issue. They argue that the problem is in the label: if you’re a teen and you identify yourself as either bullied or a bully, you’re identifying as either a victim or a perpetrator. In other words, you’re either powerless, or you’re abusive. Teens don’t want to be either of those things. And so the term teens themselves prefer to bullying is “drama.”http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/23/opinion/why-cyberbullying-rhetoric-misses-the-mark.html?_r=0

Similarly, parents may be willing to see their children as victims, but they don’t want to see them as abusive. They can acknowledge that their children may be mean sometimes or they may participate in drama, but parents resist labeling their own children as “bullies.”

Psychologist Susan Eva Porter says that the label “bully” isn’t all that helpful, anyway. http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychological-solution-bullying/201303/the-most-important-book-ever-published-school-bullying

And as bullying expert Rachel Simmons has pointed out, many bullies don’t perceive themselves as bullies, but rather as victims themselves who are trying to exert power and control or who think they’re standing up for themselves. Instead of situations of bullying, Porter prefers to refer to situations of childhood aggression. She points out that all children can be mean and can behave inappropriately. This is how they test out who they are in their relationships with others. In these situations of interaction, she says, it’s helpful to think about young people as trying out different responses.

But some of those responses end up being really hurtful to others. And the problem with cyberspace is that with the absence of social cues, young people don’t recognize the depth of the pain they are causing. When they’re confronted with the fact that they’ve inflicted pain on others, many young people are remorseful, like the boy who admitted to feeling “horrible” after he and his friends posted rape jokes and suicide taunts that they thought were funny but that made a 12-year-old recipient they didn’t know feel threatened. See http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/psychological-solution-bullying/201303/the-most-important-book-ever-published-school-bullying

Young people often have to be guided toward recognizing that they’re causing pain.

The Polk County Sheriff’s office has brought attention to the fact that when young people are involved in repeatedly harassing others, they need to be made mindful of the consequences of their actions.

I’m uneasy about recommending that parents take a similarly punitive approach when they find out that their own children are participating in hurtful actions, however. This can feel to a young person as if they are, once again, being bullied. Our children may interpret this impulse as encouragement to strike back with more “drama.”

This is a serious problem now, because so much media attention has been focused on teens who commit suicide as a result of cyberbullying. In effect, by drawing such attention to the cases of cyberbullying related suicides, the media have inadvertently reinforced the very dark idea that suicide is an option. A young person may feel that if she kills herself, the storm of negative attention that results in the aftermath becomes a very good way to “get back” at those who are causing her such intense pain. And no parent wants that.

And the worry about how negative, aggressive, or hurtful messages can scale is made even more intense now that Facebook has decided to let teens share their messages with an even larger audience.

But I do think that it’s important for parents to participate actively in helping young people to learn to determine for themselves when they are causing pain to others. This means that they need to ask to see and discuss their daughter’s online interactions and encourage their children to think about how those reading their posts might be feeling in response. As parents, we can model empathy by listening to our children and recognizing that they are trying their best. We need to model empathy for them so that we can encourage our daughters and sons to develop empathy for others.

And it also means that parents need to continue to work with social media sites like Facebook to take stronger actions against cyberharrassment. Such work is already underway and we need to support its speedy development so that negative messages are identified for interception as quickly as possible. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2013/03/how-to-stop-bullies/309217/3/

So, how to tell whether or not your daughter is a bully? Well, the answer is that if she’s between the ages of 3 and 23, she has probably been seen as a bully, by at least someone, for at least a brief moment in her life. And the same is true, no doubt, for your son.

If we can start there (and I can already imagine the many voices, including the one inside my own head, saying, “but my daughter (or son) is the exception”), then we can move on to thinking about what to do next to model and encourage our young people to live with and model empathy.

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