What would you say if your child came home from school and told you a group of girls had been repeatedly picking on her?
What would you tell your boy if he came downstairs and told you cyber bullies have been harassing him?
What happened when you encountered injustice, cruelty, harassment, or bullying? As a child? As a teen? As an adult? What are you modeling as you help your kids navigate these stormy waters?
At first I couldn’t bear the media or to be part of the outcry over Jamey Rodemeyer’s suicide, the latest tragedy in a seemingly growing tide of such deaths. I wondered how much the internet contributed to Jamey’s death. I worried about the “contagion factor” in teen suicide. Not wanting to add even a single drop to that overfull bucket I felt it would be better to leave the family to mourn their boy in private so I stepped back, bowed my head for them and sheltered my family from the discussion.
Then Candace at SeeMummyJuggle wrote about a recent bullying/suicide incident in Ontario. A conversation broke out in her comment section. As I read the post and then the comment threads it became clear to me that my emotional default to remain quiet is not the answer. Nor is blame:
I wrote: “It is horrifying to speak to our kids about such deeply troubling subjects, but we have to talk and talk and then talk some more about bullying, about the consequences, about what to do if the situation arises. Blame isn't really the point, the point is to create an atmosphere of openness so kids do not have to live in fear or swallow their pain, we have to change attitudes, and if/when that is impossible, we have to try to change behaviours, policies, even laws. Before more children take their own lives.”
Kids are killing themselves and despite public outcry, celebrity campaigns, and new school protocols. Somehow attitudes have not yet shifted enough to make room for our teens when they feel emotionally marginalized or persecuted for their sexual orientation.
Often teenagers don’t speak up. They are caught in a vortex of emotion and despite their new independence and maturity; their decision-making capacities are still developing so we have to make sure to encourage an atmosphere of safety for them. We have to do for bullying and teen suicide what we did for sex: learn to speak openly and without shame. That means not pointing fingers at other parents. That means working together. It means not dismissing kids who may indeed be bullies, but who very likely have issues that underlie the bullying. That means listening carefully and with love to our children, even when they seem distant. Maybe especially when they seem distant. Most importantly, we have to give our kids enough security to open up to us or a trusted adult about the hurt. Only then can there be healing.
Teenagers spend so much time online it can be difficult for parents to know what is happening. Our kids are part of networks far beyond our control. Online can be both the source of the problem, and the place they turn for solutions. Any teen with a webcam can use the screen as a shield and words as weapons. Any kid with a webcam can invite the world into their bedroom.
It is however, too simplistic to see the internet and social media platforms as the problem. A group of teens in Vancouver turned to their computers and created a video response to Jamey’s suicide called PawsUpForeverProject. It is raw and emotional; it is webcams in bedrooms and teens of all kinds with their paws fiercely, tentatively, bravely, emotionally raised against bullying. Kids with webcams like these are shifting attitudes. They are opening portals of hope for each other in the darkness and fear.
Watch the PawsUpForeverProject. Show your kids the links and phone numbers at the end. Read Annie Fox's Broken Kids Are Breaking All Of Us, check out the “It Gets Better” links. Talk to your kids. Really listen to Lady Gaga's message. No matter what you think of her as an artist, she is leading her fans in a revolution of self acceptance and a refusal to be silenced. I bet your kids already know most of this. But do they know they can talk openly with you?
As adults, as parents, as members of a wider community of families, we must set aside our own fears, protectiveness or defensiveness and contribute to creating an environment in which children can speak up instead of feeling so silenced that they shut down, turn inward, or worse, see suicide as the only way out of their pain.
“Rather, research shows the best route is promoting mental wellness, to give young people tools for dealing with stress and emotional challenges, and a sense of where they can go for help. Having that help (a guidance counsellor or school nurse) readily available is also essential. Increasingly, sport and community groups realize that young people in distress don’t necessarily turn to their parents but may confide in a trusted coach, teacher, religious figure or employer."
~ from the Globe and Mail’s four-part action plan in the battle against teen suicide, the fourth installment of their series on Teen Suicide)