The recent shootings in a school in Ohio may or may not have been about bullying or teens feeling alienated and left out socially. But the tragedy of young lives ended too soon is a reminder that parenting today has challenges that have not been faced before, at least not in the same ways that today's parents face them.
The serious consequences of bullying and social isolation scare most parents. Cyber bullying and emotional bullying cause significant emotional distress to youth. How can you protect your children?
Frequent recommendations are to provide information to children about bullying, teach what to say and do if they are bullied, and encourage them to tell you about any bullying that occurs. But giving information doesn't mean that your child can or will follow through. How can you best insure that your child will listen to you and not the threats from bullies or be involved in bullying others?
There are two basic steps to be considered. The first is what to do now that can make a difference and the second is what to do over the longer term. Some problems require long-term solutions. For both, validating your child's thoughts and feelings is important to developing the qualities that help prevent bullying behavior as well as the ability to minimize the effects of being bullied. These characteristics include feeling accepted and secure about their identity, managing their feelings in adaptive ways, and having strong, empathic attachments with others. Parents can help their children develop these characteristics through validation.
Validation is the recognition and acceptance that your child has feelings and thoughts that are true and real to him regardless of whether they make sense to anyone else. Validation doesn't mean you agree, support or will go along with--only that you accept his thoughts as true and real to him.
Suggestions for What to Do Now
Learn from your child about his friends and the bullies at his school. When you talk with your child about difficult situations, of course you have the intention of keeping him safe and letting him know you will protect him. Start by listening in an interested way, with a gentle, laid back manner.
Your initial goal is to understand his point of view. This is known as location validation. You start with where your child is. Ask him questions about who his friends are, whom he spends time with and who likes him and who doesn't. Ask him if there are bullies in his class or school. Be careful of assuming you already know.
Give Your Child Acceptance: You may believe that of course you do this. But part of a parent's job is to guide, correct, teach, and help children grow into the best adults they can be. If your child expresses a view of his social experience that you think is incorrect, or that he could change by behaving differently, you may be tempted to give feedback immediately. With the best of intentions you want to help him improve. But this derails the purpose of your talk and may shut down communication. For this conversation, just listen.
What your child needs to be open with you is acceptance of the way he sees his world. For example, if your child tells you that he doesn't have many friends, then validate his view and check out what you have heard. Remember, validation doesn't mean you agree. An example of validating his view would be "So you feel left out, and believe there's only one other boy who likes you." Once you understand your child's view, you have a foundation to talk about what to do.
No matter how much you understand your child, you can't know what his daily world is like. No one can unless they are the same age and live the same life. Even then, interpretation of events colors perceptions and his interpretation is likely to be different than yours. The more he sees that you understand what his life is like, and that you don't judge him, the more accepted he will feel.
Come up with a plan together. Be careful you don't offer your child a plan that makes perfect sense from the viewpoint of an adult but seems overwhelming or simply not doable to your child. If your child's view of what will work is different from yours, he may stop seeing you as a source of support. Or maybe he will think you are right, but judge himself as inadequate because he knows he can't do what you are suggesting. For example, telling a timid child to just say no and tell his teacher may be something he couldn't imagine doing.
Parents want to protect their children and may say, "Don't listen to that bully. He doesn't know what he's talking about. You are a great kid and you have plenty of friends." Some children are able to ignore taunts and intimidation, but others aren't.
Problem solve with your child to come up with a plan that he thinks he can do. Then look at all the things that could go wrong with the plan and think of ways to manage those. Consider practicing. Let him know that sometimes plans don't work and that's normal, you'll just come up with a different solution. Validation by normalizing helps your child not blame himself.
Review the plan every month or so. Children aren't good predictors of what they can do in a situation, so practice the actions that are part of the plan.
You may want to tell your child that you will handle any bullying problems that he experiences. Certainly there are situations that require adult intervention. But even if you intervene, giving your child tools to cope with difficult situations helps him develop a sense of competency and strength. It is also important just in case he doesn't let you know that he is being bullied. Bullying is often so dangerous because children don't tell adults.
Suggestions for the Long Term
All children want to belong and have friends. Bullying seems to occur when youth feel alienated and aren't able to feel connected to others in positive ways. When parents practice validation on a regular basis, they help children build the needed relationship skills to experience social support and acceptance. Validation will strengthen the support and acceptance that children feel from their parents. Children will be more likely to discuss difficult situations with their parents when have that acceptance.
Validation also enables your child to cope effectively with bullying and develop characteristics that decrease the chances your child will bully or be a target of bullying. Validation increases emotional resiliency and builds empathy, self-acceptance/positive self-esteem, and coping skills for managing emotions.
Bullying is often about power and building self-worth through putting someone else down. When a child has self-acceptance, he doesn't need to engage in bullying behavior or isn't as affected when someone attempts intimidate him. Having empathy is also key in not bullying others.
The victim of bullying may feel angry and have thoughts of revenge. Managing these thoughts and feelings effectively means they aren't acted on.
It's normal to have thoughts of revenge when someone has hurt you. In general, people believe they will feel better when they get revenge, but this usually turns out to not be true. The problem is that thoughts of revenge seem to be associated with the pleasure center of the brain. Thoughts of revenge plus lack of empathy can be a dangerous situation, particularly when emotions are intense and emotional control is weak.
Validating thoughts of revenge may be very difficult to do when you want to scream "How can you even think such thoughts?" but it's necessary to help your child cope with his internal experience. When thoughts and feelings are openly discussed then solutions can be found and hopefully tragedies prevented.
Validation is easy to understand but more difficult to practice. The results make it well worth the effort.
cc photo credit: Parker Michael Knight