A letter to my children

This post originally started as a request from Parenting magazine.  Mom Congress delegates were asked to write a letter to their children making a pledge to them.  At first I wasn’t sure what I would write.  I want my children to do well in education that has never been a question.  I will take up the torch when need be to make sure that their education is the best it can be.  But, when I sat and thought about what I really want for my children, I thought, what I really want is for them to be the kind of people who will leave their mark in some way and make our world just a little bit better.  When all the adults in our children’s lives ban together to help mold them, they can truly become incredible people.  That is why we must not only have educationally sound schools, but emotionally safe schools as well.

Here is my pledge to my children:

I pledge to be an advocate for you. I will work with the teachers and administrators to make sure that the school is the best it can be, not just for you, but for all children.  I cannot promise that things will change, but I will work hard with those who have the power to make positive changes.  Furthermore, I want to make sure that you are treated as a whole person and not as a test score or a number.  Those who work with you should also work to make sure that you are the best person you can be.

In addition, I will help you make plans to be successful as well as to execute those plans to realize the success.  I do not just want you to have a fine mind, but a compassionate heart.  Success is not measured in dollar signs and test scores, but by the path you choose and the legacy you leave to those who follow you. 

In addition to pledging myself to you, there are a few truths that I hope you take to heart.  Always work your hardest.  Your potential to do great things in your life, community, and world lies in your ability to see things through and complete what you have started.  If you listen to your heart, your mind will create a plan and your body will follow through.

I also want you to remember that the only thing that you are entitled to is respect.  By realizing this, it will enable you to work your hardest for the things you really want in life.  I also expect it to be the one thing that you give to all those with whom you come into contact.

Finally, don’t ever let anyone else define you.  You are special and unique gift to this world and were put here for a specific purpose.  When those voices that tear you down begin to play in your head, make sure that you push them out and listen to those who know you best.  You must define who you are and what you will accomplish.  When people tell you that you can’t do something, they are saying that from the bounds of their own limitations.  You must define who you are and how far you will go.

I am fully dedicated to helping the gem that you are become a polished jewel.

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Parents Confronting Child’s Bully

As I have been reading through articles the last week, I have not been able to stop thinking about one of them.  It was an article relating the story of a parent who got on the bus and started to yell at the child who had been bullying his daughter for quite some time.  I am sure that the child was not the only one on that bus who was shocked!

I will start by saying I think it is a horrible idea to charge onto a bus and berate a child in front of other children.  However, part of me understands why that parent did what he did.  After many ill-fated attempts to have the school intervene and be an advocate for my child and getting no results, I can understand why a parent would resort to this tactic.  I was ready to do anything to get the bullying to stop.  The helplessness and pain is so strong that I was not always thinking the clearest; I just wanted my child to be safe and not have anxiety from the moment he left the house to the moment he got home.

This story makes me sad so for so many reasons.  The first reason being it shows our inability as a culture to deal with bullying.  The parent of the bully and the school are either not aware of what the child is doing, or are having trouble dealing with it.  The parent who walked onto the bus also did not handle things well.  However, it is unclear whether or not the parent did this as a last resort, or did this as a first line of defense for the child.  Either way, I don’t feel it is a good example of what to do to help a child

It takes so much more than just the school or just the family to help deal with a bully.  As with every other aspect of our children’s lives, bullying is another area where a child must be held accountable for appropriate behavior both at school and at home.  The child receiving a consistent message is what will eventually change that child.

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Putting Faces to Stories

As school begins and we wade through a sea of new crayons, pencils, paper, etc., we must also take time to remember to help bolster our children emotionally as well.  Chances are your child will be involved in some kind of incident this year that involves bullying.  We must work to help our children be strong and stand up for themselves as well as those who may not have courage or a voice. 

I wanted the start of this school year to also be a start of a series here on Helping Hands for Hurting Hearts.  I want to tell the stories of the many children who have been through bullying.  I will look at each situation from both the child’s perspective as well as the adults.  In light of working to have a voice, I have talked to my son, who is the reason I started this in the first place, and he is willing to share his memories, thoughts, and feelings.  As you read this, if you think you know anyone who would be willing to do the same, please let me know.  We need to see the faces of these children and hear their stories.  It seems the only time we really see a face with a bullying story is when it is too late and we see those faces on the news.

When I talked to my son about the years when he was being bullied, his initial reaction was that he really didn’t want to think about it.  Revisiting those years was tough, but I am proud of him for doing it.  It takes courage to talk about the tough times he has been through.  He was 7 and 8 years old and there aren’t even a lot of memories from then to begin with.  However, some of the memories of what happened are crystal clear. 

When recalling what he remembered about his years as a target, it interested me that he could remember specific incidents with quite a bit of clarity.  When my son would try to defend himself, he remembers that it often made the situation worse.  For example, when the bully would tell my son he was “gay”, my son would respond, “Yes, I am very happy,” in an effort to defuse the comments.  The bully would laugh at him and go to his friends and tell him what an idiot my son was.  My son told me that during these words did define him and he felt like he was weird and believed that he was an idiot.

He remembers some of the physical bullying as well.  During recess, he said he remembers being pushed into other children by the bully and then the bully would try to say that my son was the one tackling the person into which he was just pushed.  One time, my son forgot his snow clothes after a snowy night and the bully pushed him into the snow.

I think the thing that saddens me the most is that he remembers how little people in authority would help him.  He remembers feeling helpless and alone.  There seemed to be no one who would believe him when he would try to get help.  Toward the end of the year, his teacher did sit down with my son and the bully and helped facilitate a conversation between the two.  My son told the bully he wanted to be left alone.  The bully was trying to convince the teacher that they were friends and he treated all of his friends the same way.  This incident is the only time that he feels like someone even tried to intervene.

At home, he remembers being angry a lot.  He said that he remembers fighting with us at homework time.  When I asked him why, he said he didn’t really know why he fought it.  He said that he sees now how he took his anger out on all of us at home and he doesn’t like remembering those times.  When recollecting all of this, he says that he remembers how much he wished that my husband or I could just go to school with him.    

After the decision was made to leave the school and pursue a private education, he felt relief.  He was relieved that he wouldn’t have to be afraid of going to school anymore.  He did have some friends at the school but the anxiety was so strong that it colored his days.  He feels like he would be a more confident person than he is now if someone had stepped in and helped.  Those scars are still with him, but since being away for 3 years he is healing.

I asked him two last questions.  First, I asked what he would say to other kids being bullied.  He said, “Tell kids to stand up and tell authority.  Find someone to help figure out how to stand up for themselves.”  Second, I asked him what he would say if he could talk to a kid who was being a bully, his reply, “Knock it off!”  He also would want them to know that they have no right to pick on someone else for any reason.

As a parent, I feel that I did several things well.  I did keep in contact with the school.  I was not afraid to pick up the phone and call or write e-mails.  I did not like the responses they gave me.  Many times, in an effort to appease me, they wanted to help my son deal with this better.  I think they thought they were helping, but we really needed them to step up and deal with the bully. 

Looking back on it now, I feel that the school was afraid of the bully’s parents.  They were from a wealthy home and did help to bring money into the school.  I think they were worried about straining that relationship.  However, they damaged the spirit of an 8-year-old by making the choice to choose to not rock the boat instead of keeping a young child safe.

A piece of advice that I would give to anyone currently going through a tough time with their child is to document, document, and document.  I wish I had done more recording and writing things down.  I wish I would have put down dates, incidents, and what the school told me.  I think the school would have worked harder to make a change if I showed evidence of a paper trail. 

The thing that I think that my husband and I did well was to have a listening ear.  We spent many nights rubbing his back while he cried and talked about how he was feeling and the many things that were bothering him.  We also did invest in counseling for him and he had a professional by our side as we worked through this low period with him.

At this point, life is easier.  A couple of months into the school year at the new school, our family and friends made many comments about what a different kid he was.  He was more relaxed and was happier and it showed.  This was a tough and lonely time as a parent and I don’t wish it on anyone.  That is why I want to reach out and share with others who may be having trouble as well.  I want our world to see that these are real kids who just want to be accepted and not put down or scorned.

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Adults bullying children

As I think about children and the things they experience as they grow up, I realize it is not only the peers in their lives that can be bullies, it can also be the adults.  The people with which our children come into contact need to be high-caliber people who really desire to interact with children.  Particularly if they are going to be in your children’s lives for a length of time, we must be very discerning.

When our children are put into programs of any length of time, be it sports, theater, music lessons, tutoring session, etc., I feel is it totally appropriate to ask what kind of experience the person in charge has dealing with children that are the same age as your child.  These adults are the ones that are setting the tone for a whole group of children.

In a world where children without an anchor are so easily swayed, the adults need to be strong role models.  They must be people who value our children.  If those adults show any signs of disrespect to any of the children (yours or otherwise) this should be a red flag.  If the adult who is in charge shows disrespect to a child with whom he/she is working, that is a green light for anyone else in the group to also treat that child with disrespect.    Parents must make be clear it is unacceptable for an adult in an authority role to be acting in a manner which degrades or diminishes another child.

I want to be clear that criticism does need to be allowed.  When adults are in a teaching role, they must be able to correct and criticize in an appropriate manner.  A child should feel free to grow and take risks in their effort to grow.  Children need to learn that just because someone is correcting or working to better them, it does not mean the adult does not like them or is trying to make them feel bad.  Mistakes are opportunities to learn and a caring adult will use the opportunity to better a child.

Where does that line get crossed?  When is the adult in charge starting to become a bully?  I feel that when the person in charge uses derogatory language with the child, or starts to openly make off-color comments to a whole group of children, that is when the line has been crossed.   When an unfortunate situation like this arises, it is a time to be a part of a village to keep our children safe.  We need to be proactive and vocal about our expectations in regard to the people who are with our children.  As adults, if we see any of this kind of behavior, whether it is with our child or not, it needs to be reported.  Has anyone ever had an experience with this?  What did you do?  How did it work out?  Please feel free to share your stories!

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From the School Yard to the Conference Room

I keep close eye out for articles on bullying.  In amongst all of the articles about school bullying, I see numerous articles about workplace bullying.  When I see bullying at all levels it makes me want to ask, “Where does this cycle end?”  When do we reach a point when adopt an attitude of general human decency and respect?

I do not believe bullies are vicious and mean from birth.  For some reason, they have learned how to be a bully.  A parent or caregiver never really tells them when they do something that is inappropriate.  Because they have not heard differently, they continue to use that behavior.  Children honestly don’t know what is and is not appropriate.  If a child makes a mistake and says something that is not appropriate or mean, it is a mistake and can be corrected.  We also need to bear in mind that a child who acts in an aggressive way and bullies doesn’t necessarily have bad parents.  However, this is an opportunity that parents need to seize!  It is the perfect time to intervene and teach a child an appropriate response to whatever situation has gone awry.   When not corrected, a child has no idea what they are doing is wrong and will likely continue to repeat the behavior.

How do we stop the cycle?  I believe parents bear the yoke of responsibility to see the cycle broken.  Our children must be our priority.  If we are unsuccessful in reaching them, we need to make sure to seek help.  Once again, it is not a reflection on the parent.  If the family has done what they can and can’t seem to reach the child, get them to a professional who can give you advice and then follow that advice. 

I think the first step to helping our bullying epidemic get better is to admit that all children make mistakes.   Making a mistake doesn’t make them bad children any more than it makes a parent a bad parent.  What is neglectful, is to not take control and correct the child.  To not correct is the start of a very slippery slope that could affect a child for his or her entire life.

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The movie Cyberbully

Last Sunday, the movie Cyberbully aired on ABC Family.  I am glad to see a movie addressing this issue.   Of course, it is Disney related and everything must end on a happy note with a neat little bow.  The movie did some things well.

First, I thought it showed how many people in a position of authority are reluctant to touch bullying and really do something about it.  Those of us who have watched a child go through the trials of bullying know how hurtful and demeaning it really is.  Law makers and administrators feel their hands are bound.  Because it is so tough, they choose to do nothing.  Not because they don’t think it is important, but they simply do not know where to even start.  While I realize it is overwhelming, not starting at all is the same as doing nothing.

I also thought they showed how quickly it can happen.  The main Character, Taylor, was not a target and then all of a sudden she was the target of a vicious attack.  Those who bully, are like a pack of sharks, once they smell blood, the carnage begins.  It is very hard for a teenager, or adult for that matter, to just turn their backs when being attacked.   Taylor wanted to keep looking online and seeing what was being said because she felt a need to defend herself.  I think that is a very real reaction.  Her desire to remain in contact with others socially prevented her from simply disabling her account.  I think these reactions are all very real in the world of cyber bullying.

The raw emotion that comes for someone being bullied is so real and the movie did a great job showing that.  It rocks who these kids are to their very core.  As I stated in my last post, our children’s brains are being changed when they are bullied, and not for the better.  I could also really identify with the emotions of the mother.  The need to fight back can become all-consuming.  They many walls that she ran into are also very real and make fighting harder.

While the ending was a little too neatly tied up, I did appreciate a couple of small things about it.  When all the kids did finally stand up to the girls who were known bullies, they did put in a phrase in there about how the girls doing the bullying were the ones who needed help.  It also was a testament to the power of kids standing as one.  

I had mixed feelings over all.  I realize that a movie often wants to leave us feeling good and this movie did just that.  It left me feeling that the main character was going to be o.k.    In real life, that isn’t always the case.  The fight must continue to bring more attention to this topic.  Once we realize that it is o.k. to hold people, both children and adults, accountable for their actions, we can start to make a real dent in this issue.

This movie is on again tonight at 8 (CST) on ABC Family

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Bullying and Brain Development

It has long been said that physical side effects can accompany bullying.  Many of us have heard about the children who do not want to go to school, who become anorexic or bulimic, who have a myriad of stomach issues due to nerves, all because they are being bullied at school.   Current research is showing specific brain changes evident in those who have been bullied as well. 

One study I found interesting was conducted on mice.  It has been a long-held belief that mice react similarly to humans when put in stressful situations.  If you want to read more about the study, you can find it here.  http://www.livescience.com/13259-bullies-bruise-brains-egos.html.  Basically, scientists found that when mice were subjected to aggressive behavior, they formed more receptors in their brains that allowed it to be flooded with hormones, specifically vasopressin.  This is a hormone released in tense social interactions.  Basically, if a child has more receptors to this hormone, it can make them feel unsafe even if they are in a safe situation.

In Ontario, Canada, a researcher has been following 70 teens who are being bullied.  The brain has already been shown to be different in children of neglect or abuse, and they are suspecting the same is true for children who are bullied.   The brain has already been proven to act differently, now that science has come far enough with MRI’s, scientist can look for structural differences as well.  This study can be found at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/health/2011367945_bullies.html.  They have also found that boys who are bullied have brains that trigger more cortisol into the system which puts their systems into constant overdrive.  Both say that it is possible that the brain can recover some, but it is unlikely to completely reverse.

When I read things like this, it makes me even more resolved to fight bullying.  My child was subject to bullying for 2 years, and likely, his brain has been changed forever because of this situation.  This also is just more evidence that our primary focus needs to be on the bully.  That child needs swift and quick intervention every bit as much as the child who is being bullied.  If intervention is staged early enough and a child can learn how to be socially appropriate.  Therefore, he or she will have a much greater chance at being a successful adult as well.

As parents, we need to keep demanding that schools address the whole issue, not just hand out punishments.  I have seen many different bullying plans and it seems that most of them are lined with a litany of what will happen in terms of punishment.  I have yet to see a plan that outlines what kind of social training will be put into place for the child doing the bullying.  That is something that we must demand as part of a bullying policy.  Check with you school and see if they have a social intervention plan for those who are doing the bullying.

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