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Tag: Bullying

Your online behaviour says a lot about the person you are

The Waiter Rule was first proposed by newspaper columnist David Barry in the late 1990s.

It preposes that a person’s true character is revealed by how they treat serving staff.

Fast forward to 2017 and I can’t help but wonder what Barry would think about the comments left on both social media and mainstream media platforms, and more to the point about what these reveal about the nature of those who chose to log in, and let rip.

The internet has become so increasingly aggressive and hostile that it is now considered wise to refrain from reading the comments section, to take regular digital detoxes, or to consider leaving particular social media platforms permanently.

Actor Leslie Jones left Twitter in July of last year after receiving a barrage of online racist and sexist hate for daring to star in the remake of the film Ghostbusters.

Feminist author Jessica Valenti followed suit the same month after tweets were sent threatening to rape and kill her five-year-old daughter.

Writer and activist Lindy West deactivated her account recently, declaring Twitter “is unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators”.

Leslie Jones (far left) was subjected to racist abuse for her role in the new Ghostbusters film. That says a lot about the character of the people trolling her. (Pic: Ghostbusters)

It would be tempting to reassure ourselves and think that only a small minority choose to badger, belittle, and bully. Yet research from the US shows that 28 per cent of online users admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at someone they didn’t know.

Some don’t even seem to be embarrassed by this behaviour. A 2016 study on online firestorms concluded that non-anonymous individuals are actually more aggressive compared to those who remain anonymous.

How do the people who throw these word-missiles reconcile their online behaviour with the self-perception many surely hold to be true — that they are decent, reasonable people?

Perhaps they do so by reassuring themselves that although they just sent a message to a journalist they disagree with, threatening to sexually assault her with a rusty knife, earlier they had offered to make their wife a cup of tea.

Although they did just post a cap-locked string of expletives on Facebook telling someone they find annoying why they don’t deserve to live, they had put their hand up to help at the school canteen next week.

The internet can sometimes seem a cesspool of hatred. (Pic: iStock)

Or perhaps they simply choose to ignore the fact that the mark of any person is not how they treat those they like, but rather how they treat those they find challenging and those from whom they have little to gain.

Psychologist Andrew Fuller argues that although even the kindest of us can have bad days and be rude, or unnecessarily hostile, “We have a responsibility to recognise that we are capable of belittlement and rudeness and to remedy it as soon as we feel we may have been out of control.” We need to learn to regulate our emotions, he says. Both in our face-to-face interactions, and in our virtual ones.

The modern-day litmus test of a person’s nature should be how they engage with others in the cyber world. Just as most of us would recoil from a blustering fool who chose to bark demands or attempted to demean the staff at a restaurant, so too will we start to move our seats away from the online haters.

Because whether the trolls would like to acknowledge it or not, their comments reveal far more about them than they ever do about those they are hoping to intimidate or discredit.

 

This post was originally published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, and online at RendezView  20/1/17 

Not being friends with everyone isn’t bullying. It’s life

It’s the deceptively unhelpful piece of advice that every well-intentioned adult has at one point issued to a child: “You should be friends with everybody!”

Admit it — who among us, parent or not, has not acted as unofficial cheerleader when discussing playground friendships with a young child? Fearful that they might fall into the trap of becoming a bully, we urge them to make friends with everyone. As in, EVERYONE, whether they like them or not.

Amid all the positive messages that were shared yesterday as part of the National Day of Action against Bullying and Violence, the edict “You should be friends with everybody!” was the one sentence I dreaded hearing.

Although well intentioned, it ignores the complex dynamics of human relationships.

The truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

It seems we’ve become so hyper-vigilant against bullies that every playground disagreement, or failure to be invited to a party, is now catalogued as evidence of bullying.

To help stem the rising tide of kids who are too quick to cry “Bully!” some schools have taken to posting sign that try to help explain the nuances of our more complicated social interactions: “When someone says or does something unintentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s rude. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they do it once, that’s mean. When someone says or does something intentionally hurtful and they keep doing it,- even when you tell then to stop or show them that you’re upset, that’s bullying.”

And it’s not just the kids who need educating. Parents are becoming increasingly quick to call schools to express concern that their child has been bullied when in reality, their child has experienced one of the many garden variety friendship fall outs that we all face at some point.

“There are kids who find school hell as they are subjected to ongoing campaigns of intolerance,” a colleague told me. “I’d much rather see resources poured into resolving this rot than in dealing with the tide of parents who call before their child has even had an opportunity to flex their own conflict resolution muscles.”

It’s problematic too that the friendship police often target girls. Any reluctance to have another student sit with them is viewed as evidence of mean girl machinations. Any whispered discussion about their classmates sees them labelled as gossip girls.

Given young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

The reality is that there are intricate sets of rules that govern the relationships between all young people (boys and girls) and much of the behaviour we are so quick to demonise is how they solidify friendships and practice social manoeuvring.

After all, don’t we as adults have particular mates that we prefer to spend our free time with? Don’t we also find it cathartic to vent to our inner circle when someone annoys us?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our kids know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but they should be friendly.

It’s OK to not invite someone to your party, but don’t boast about the event in front of them. It’s understandable that you may not want to sit with a student you don’t have much in common with, but you could still smile at them when you see them in the playground. It’s natural that you might want to discuss someone who has hurt you with your mates, but be discreet.

When we give permission to our young people to behave authentically, within a framework of mutual respect for others, we are showing them that we don’t just value the feelings of others, but we value their feelings too.

And when they don’t feel forced into faux friendships, well it’s then our young people might just surprise us (and themselves) by realising that kid they initially didn’t like is actually kinda cool.

Screen Shot 2016-04-04 at 12.50.22 PM

This post was first published by the Daily Telegraph newspaper, 19/3/16 and online at RendezView  

Help – my daughter is a “Mean Girl”!

1907450_10152396106688105_6122534123557093794_nIt’s been wonderful to be back at Channel 7 this week on both The Daily Edition (discussing cyber bullying and the pressures placed on schools to address this), and The Morning Show. I had the chance to speak to Larry and Kylie about how parents can best respond if they suspect their daughter may be a “Mean Girl”. This is an interesting, and often overlooked issue as we tend to focus more on supporting victims of bullying, rather than exploring how we can stop “Mean Girls” in their tracks.

Warning signs that a young woman may be a Mean Girl include:

*Controlling and / or aggressive behaviour in social situations
*A lack of compassion for others
*Teasing or taunting others
*Being intolerant of differences.

There are a number of practical approaches discussed in this segment – take a look.

As always, love to hear your thoughts.

Wrote it - but can't read it!

P.S And if you are interested in reading my first book, “The Butterfly Effect – A Positive approach to raising happy, confident teen girls” you may purchase this at our shop: www.enlighteneducation.com/shop. This week I received my own copy of the version that has just been published in mainland China! What a thrill to see my work in Chinese.

 

Cyber Myths – Busted.

The following post is by my friend and colleague Nina Funnell. It originally appeared in the Term 3, 2014 NSW Parents Council Newsletter. Nina is a journalist, author (she co-wrote my latest Loveability with me) and speaker. Find out more about her work here: www.ninafunnell.com

cover image from danah's book, "It's Complicated - the social lives of networked teens."
cover image from danah’s book, “It’s Complicated – the social lives of networked teens.”

To listen to the news it would be easy to assume that young people are simply running wild online. A constant stream of stories about cyberbullying, sexting and dangerous new apps, has left many parents feeling totally bewildered. But research into young people’s actions online paints a somewhat different picture. According to danah boyd, a leading scholar and author in the field, most young people use technology in responsible and pro-social ways. And while there are certainly some challenges associated with online interactions, panicking or despairing about young people does little to equip or empower them to make sound choices. So here are three of the most pervasive myths we need to stop perpetuating about young people and technology: 

MYTH 1: If you’ve made a mistake online, no one will want to hire you.

One of the most common messages told to young people is that any mistake they make online will haunt them forever. Reputations will be permanently ruined: colleges won’t accept them, bosses won’t hire them, future love interests will reject them. While it’s certainly true that it is difficult to control what happens to information once it’s posted online, it’s also true that one of the most dangerous things we can ever tell young people is that there is no hope, no help and no possibility of recovery. For teens who may have already made an error of judgment, this messaging is especially dangerous when combined with ‘cautionary tales’ about other teens who have committed suicide in reaction to an error they have made online.

Instead of catastrophizing young people’s mistakes, teens need help to develop resilience, by putting their setbacks in context and formulating a plan to manage any future fallout. For example, developing strategies of ways to respond if someone raises an embarrassing mistake, or ways to handle an awkward interview question helps a teen move forward and lets them know there is light at the end of the tunnel.

MYTH 2: Once a bully, always a bully

One of the common misconceptions about those who use bullying tactics is that they are intrinsically bad people who can never chose to change their behavior. The reality is that many individuals who use bullying tactics are in pain themselves, and so use bullying as a maladaptive strategy to gain social power, status or control. Research also shows that a considerable number of people who use bullying tactics have also experienced bullying or intimidation. This means that rather than trying to neatly diagnose and categorize the ‘victims’ and ‘villains’ (in order to assign help to one group and punishment to the other), we need to recognize that bullies also need help. This doesn’t excuse aggressive or cruel conduct, but it does recognize that aggressive behavior is always a choice, and that young people can choose differently.

MYTH 3: Bystanders fail to intervene because they lack empathy.

Research shows that witnesses are present in 93% of bullying incidents and that bullying incidents tend to last longer when there is an audience. While schools are increasingly focusing on how to empower bystanders to ethically intervene when they observe bullying, not all young people feel capable of speaking up. Yet rarely is this because young people lack empathy. On the contrary 85% of young people are troubled by bullying they observe. So why don’t they take action?

There are a number of reasons: fear of retaliation, audience inhibition, a fear that they might ‘bomb’ or embarrass themselves if they speak up, a perception that the bully is more liked than they really are, a belief that someone else should act, and a belief that they could risk their own social status if they speak up for someone less popular than them, are all reasons why people often freeze, despite the fact that they actually oppose what is occurring.

Factors which positively correlate with a bystander choosing to take intervening action include: noting a hurtful situation and interpreting it correctly, feeling personally responsible for the safety of others, feeling personally powerful enough to speak up and take action, having effective intervention skills or ‘scripts’ they can easily follow, and feeling that other bystanders will have their back if they do speak up. By focusing on these factors and by reinforcing that most students are actually opposed to bullying we can help young people feel empowered to take action and put a stop to bullying in our schools.

For more posts on cyber world you may be interested in these posts:

Cyber self-harming – also by Nina Funnell: “Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had ‘falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school’…what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 1 – What is working?  – “When we hear disturbing news reports about children who have been tormented to the point of desperation by cyber-bullies, or groomed and exploited by online predators, it is tempting to want to simply shut the technology off! Yet whilst it is important to be alert and aware of the dangers, it is also important to take a balanced approach and recognise the huge opportunities that technology has opened up for us all.”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 2 – Bully busting – “What can be done?”

Beyond Cyber Hysteria Part 3 – Dealing with more difficult truths – ” What messages will this generation receive about desirability if their emerging sexuality is largely shaped by p*rn?”

“That skirt is sending out the wrong message” and 5 other things we should never say to girls ( Part 1).

I often find myself frustrated by much of the dialogue that surrounds teen girls as it can in fact be very damaging. Sadly, those that use these assumptions and stereotypes are often those who may well have girls’ best interests at heart, but are possibly unaware as to how harmful the messages they are delivering really are.

I asked a number of leading feminists and educators to set the record straight for us and ensure that when we aim to support girls, we don’t  inadvertently matters worse for them. Over the next few weeks I shall share their responses.

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Image taken from Jezebel –

1. Skirt length = a measure of morality

The policing of the way teen girls wear their school uniform really concerns me. Whilst uniform guidelines are fine and part of life for both genders, framing these in terms of morality is not. So many teen girls tell me they have been told things like: “You’re a good girl, but that skirt length sends off the wrong message” , or “You’re distracting the boys…”. This is the slippery slope that excuses the harassment of girls based on their clothing choice and ultimately may lead them to feel shame about their bodies ( an idea I have explored before here).  Author, columnist and academic  Dr Karen Brooks agrees:

I think what bothers me most about this whole uniform and clothing issue is that somehow, female clothing has become a visual barometer that measures a woman/girl’s morality and ethics and somehow also controls men’s. That’s why claims that if a man or boy is distracted/loses control/rapes/abuses/harrasses etc. then it’s the girl/woman’s fault carry weight in society. We still somehow believe that a woman’s dress indicates her morality and invites or rejects (male) attention. Well, if that’s the case, why is that women and girls who wear hijabs or dress in non-revelaing clothing are still raped/attract unwanted attention/harrassed and are also held accountable for male behaviour when it is transgressive and/or violent?

Teachers surely know it’s not the short skirt that warrants changing, but antediluvian attitudes that let males off the hook.

It’s the Damned Whores and God’s Police model all over again, yet what girl’s are being told is that what they wear is a way of modifying, “policing” male behaviour and their own sexuality as well. There is a false notion circulating that women can control men and keep ourselves “safe” by our clothing choices. What utter nonsense.

Clothing is not the issue. Society is. Yes, we need to take responsibility for our behaviours, regardless of sex. As long as we allow men and boys to shift blame for their choices, for their harassment or worse of women, nothing will be resolved. Clothes do not maketh the woman, but actions maketh the man (and woman)!

Feminist web site jezebel recently published a thought provoking piece, “Is Your Dress Code Sexist? A Guide.” This paragraph particularly resonated with me:

Look: I understand the desire a school might have to encourage students to dress respectfully and semi-professionally; out-of-the-ordinary or extreme clothing is distracting on a purely asexual level. Could you study next to a guy in a clown suit? Or a woman wearing an enormous Pharrell hat that plays music? I couldn’t. The key is to make it clear that both men and women need to adhere to any rules put in place, and that the rules are to ensure student focus is on the instructor rather than on other students.

And the reality is that no matter how careful an organization is to make sure they don’t sound …sexist…, women have more at stake in adhering to dress codes than men do, because women’s fashion dictates that women must wear less in order to be fashionable. Girls get so many sets of conflicting instructions that they’ll be punished by either their peers or their school no matter what they do. Wear revealing clothing, or you’re a dork, says the media to women. Don’t wear revealing clothing, or you’re a slut, say institutions to women. Talk about distracting.

When I asked her for her input, journalist Tracey Spicer said she thinks it is also important for us to honestly reflect on how we dressed as young women too:

What I really hate are the casually sexist comments about how young women are dressed for a night on the town. All this ‘They look like hookers!’ and ‘They’re asking for it’ stuff. For goodness sake, I used to dress in revealing outfits at that age, as I was discovering my sexuality. That doesn’t mean I’m asking to be sexually assaulted.

2. Mean Girls

Social commentator and writer Jane Caro wishes we would question the rhetoric around girls as “mean girls” :

The idea that girls are bitchy and nasty to one another, whereas boys are simple creatures who fix things with a good thump (?).

We expect women to tend relationships, to do the emotional care taking, girls know this but when they are young, they’re just learning about relationships and they do them badly. Instead of congratulating them for taking on this difficult and complex task (understanding how people relate to one another), we jump all over them & stereotype them as mean girls. This drives me nuts! I also hate the moral panic around ‘bullying’, which often ends up with us bullying the supposed bullies. We need to be much clearer about what bullying is and what it isn’t, and that most kids are both victims & perpetrators at various times. As are we all.

It is the first point Jane raises that was explored at the Festival Of Dangerous Ideas session entitled All Women Hate Each Other. I was privileged to speak at this alongside the truly awesome Germaine Greer, Tara Moss and Eva Cox. You may watch this session here: http://play.sydneyoperahouse.com/index.php/media/1654-All-Women-Hate-Each-Other.html

Melissa Carson, the Co-ordinator of Innovative Learning at boys’ school Oakhill College also believes the boys-as-less-complex creatures myth is dismissive of the complex nature of mate-ship and equally as damaging to boys: “I’ve worked closely with young men for over ten years and I can tell you they do stew on their friendship fall-outs. They report feelings of sadness, anger and frustration over their friendships and often don’t know how to resolve things. They are every bit as complicated as young women and in need of just as much support.”

3. One mistake and you’re out!

The “one mistake and you’re doomed” approach to educating young people drives me insane. I often hear this in the context of cyber training; messages like:  “If you ever post something on Facebook that’s not ideal, you’ll never be employed and will be socially shamed. And you will never be able to make that go away.” Implication? You may as well give up now if you’ve done something silly as you can’t ever make that right. Sadly, it is messages like this that lead young people to despair and to want to hide their errors for fear of being judged. Incidentally, I often wonder just who will be employed in the future if this was in fact true as I can’t imagine there will be anyone who hasn’t at least done one thing on-line that wasn’t smart at some stage in their youth. Again, Dr Karen Brooks agreed:

As for the cyber mistake. Oh puhleez! Yes, we need to educate young people that what they post could be potentially damaging and may impact in the future, but when and if they do post something inappropriate, we should also rally to ensure they understand that they can overcome this. In fact, understanding you can move beyond the inappropriate photo or posting can not only build resilience, but instil valuable lessons in how to cope with negative feedback, distressing reactions, how to negotiate an emotional and psychological minefield, but also how important it is to own what you’ve done/posted. Take responsibility and learn from it and move on (nothing to see here!). If it hits you in the face in later years, then take responsibility again, but also contextualise it and demonstrate how much you grew from that moment and what lessons you took away from the (bad and silly) experience to become the person you are now.

Yes, we catastrophize to ours and the kids’ detriment. So much for resilience, we’re teaching them to fall apart at the first mistake and to cry “my life is over!”. Ridiculous!

Author, speaker and advocate Nina Funnell concurred:

The most dangerous thing we can ever say to a young person is that there is no way forward, no light at the end of the tunnel, no possibility of recovery. And yet this is exactly the message they hear when we tell them that once you post something online, it is there forever, the damage is permanent and will never lighten. If a young person has made a mistake, catastrophising the situation will only lead to catastrophic outcomes and already we have seen one case in America where a teen took her life following a school seminar which reinforced the notion that she could never get a job or a university degree since she had already made an online mistake. Instead of this doom and gloom approach, we need to help teens develop resilience, the strength to overcome setbacks, and the insight to be able to put their mistakes into context.

More things we need to stop saying to girls NOW next week. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. What messages do you think we deliver to young women that are harmful? 

Cyber Self-harming

This week I am sharing a guest post by my colleague and friend Nina Funnell which first appeared in The Age. In this Nina attempts to make sense of alarming new findings which suggest teens (girls in particular) are engaging in digital self-harm.

 

In recent weeks, media outlets around the world have reported on the tragic case of Hannah Smith, a 14-year-old girl from Leicestershire, England, who committed suicide, after receiving cruel and harassing messages – including to “drink bleach” and “die” – on the social media site Ask.fm.

Critics of the site have urged parents to keep their children off it, saying that the anonymous question/ answer format leads to harassment, stalking and bullying.

Now the case has taken another tragic turn. In an inquiry into the matter, Ask.fm has uncovered that 98 per cent of the abusive messages sent to Hannah came from the same IP address as her own computer. Only four of the abusive comments came from other IP addresses.

While there are still a lot of unknowns in this case, it has now been reported that the abuse sent to Hannah appears to have come from Hannah herself. Following this latest development, many people online have expressed their utter bewilderment: what could drive a teenager to attack herself and then put it on display? Why would anyone self-sabotage in this way? And are other teenagers doing this?

Last year, researchers at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Centre found that up to ten per cent of first year university students had “falsely posted a cruel remark against themselves, or cyberbullied themselves, during high school”.

And this is not the first time that online ‘self-harassment’ or ‘self-cyberbullying’ has been identified and written about. In 2010, danah boyd, a leading social media researcher wrote about an emerging trend she had discovered on Formspring, where teens were ‘anonymously’ posting vicious questions to themselves, before publicly answering them.

Similarly, in 2008 I conducted research into the pro-anorexia community – a community set up by individuals with eating disorders. I discovered that it was not uncommon for members on these forums to write letters of worship to their disease referred to as ‘Ana’ or ‘Mia’ (anorexia or bulimia). The same member would then write a reply to themselves as though they were the personified disease. These second letters ‘from’ Ana or Mia would inevitably be full of abuse, insults and vicious put downs.

So what motivates this phenomenon and why have we heard so little about it?

According to boyd, online self-harassment like that observed on Formspring or Ask.fm, may represent a cry for help, a grab for attention, an opportunity to demonstrate toughness and resilience, or a way of phishing for compliments from friends who jump in to defend against the abuse. Boyd also describes the behavior as a form of ‘digital self-harming’, stressing that teens who are in pain do not always lash out at others: very often they lash out at themselves. And occasionally they invite an audience to watch on.

For the ‘digital self-harmer’ the presence of an audience appears to serve other purposes too. Anonymously calling oneself a “loser” online allows them to test out other people’s attitudes: do other people see me this way too? Is my perception of myself shared universally?

Secondly, by inflicting harm on themselves before an audience, it makes their pain visible and therefore more ‘real’. Finally, by giving others the impression that they are ‘under attack’, the afflicted individual is able communicate to others exactly what they are feeling: overwhelmed and under siege. And they can achieve this without ever having to risk saying the words: “I’m in pain, I need your help”.

What this means is that while the abusive comments might be manufactured the feelings they speak to are very much real.

Looking back at my own high school years, it is clear that aspects of this behavior are nothing new. Teens have always had a propensity to document their negative self-talk and self-loathing in one form or another, often in journals, angst ridden poetry and other forms of art. Sometimes teens keep these things deeply private out of secrecy and shame. At other times, they deliberately share and show these things to friends, as if to say “see my pain. See me.”

For all of us, pain is not simply something we feel, it is something we ‘perform’, often with the purpose of eliciting certain responses from others. For teenagers especially, these performances can become avenues through which they bond, ask for empathy or sympathy, and experience a sense of connectedness – something which most teenagers crave desperately. While this strategy might serve a need, it is also deeply dysfunctional.

Today this impulse is moving online. In recent months I have had two conversations with different mothers after they discovered that their children’s friends were self-harming, then posting photographs of their injuries online for their peers to comment on. Perhaps most disturbing of all was that one of the children shrugged it off as “nothing new”.

Experts are right to worry that by normalising or even glamorising self-harming behaviors, such overt displays might produce a contagion effect. This is why it’s considered dangerous to even mention the issue in schools.

Despite this, it’s important that researchers continue to look at why young people are externalising their self-hatred in this way and what can be done to help them. Moreover we must remember that sometimes the cruelest things a teen will ever hear are the comments they say to themselves.

For related posts read: Girls in crises – self harm and what you can do about it.

Rage and despair – positive, helpful ways to support girls in crises 

Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards
Nina and I at the Australian Human Rights Awards

Nina is a sexual ethics writer, author and women’s rights advocate. She was awarded the Australian Human Rights Commission Community (Individual) Award in 2010. Nina and I also recently co-wrote a book for young women on navigating dating and relationships; this will be published by Harper Collins in February, 2014.

Rage and despair: Positive, helpful ways to support girls in crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

All of us at Enlighten have been heartbroken to see a number of media reports recently of teens taking their own lives. Cath Manning, one of Enlighten’s Victoria workshop presenters, is concerned about the high rates of depression and suicide in her area. Interviewed along with Steve Biddulph this week by her local media, Cath made this great point:

I think we sometimes forget that teen girls are going through the same things we went through when we were growing up, however, today there is even more pressure on them due to the relentless media images and messages they are bombarded with, and the added complications with social media. Of course, social media is here to stay, and there really are great benefits that come with that, but young girls just need to be given the tools to engage with the medium in a positive, helpful way.

Positive — that’s the key. There are positive things we can all do to help our kids cope. We can listen and look for the signs that all may not be well in their world, and we can offer our support. Due to the recent media coverage of teen suicides, a lot of parents and teachers have been asking my advice, so this seems a good time to share an excerpt from my book for parents, The Butterfly Effect, on how to identify and help teen girls in crisis. For the teen girls in your life, I have also written a version of the book specifically for them, The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo. Both are available for purchase here.

Rage and Despair: Suicide

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can lead to suicidal feelings either directly or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make teens try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. A teenage girl, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when girls may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask her the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. ‘Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,’ says child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr Brent Waters.

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

What you can do

Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like ‘I want to kill myself’ or ‘I’m going to kill myself’, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 in Australia or 111 in New Zealand or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available 24 hours a day:

Australia

  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
  • Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22

New Zealand

  • Lifeline: 0800 543 354

Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent ‘Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs’ on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:

  • Listen and encourage her to talk
  • Tell her you care
  • Acknowledge her feelings
  • Reassure her
  • Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
  • Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
  • Try not to interrupt her
  • Try not to judge her
  • Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

Suicide warning signs

  • Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
  • Giving away her prized possessions
  • Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
  • Violent or rebellious behaviour
  • Running away from home
  • Substance abuse
  • Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
  • A sudden, marked personality change
  • Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
  • A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
  • A change in eating and sleeping patterns
  • A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
  •  Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
  • Rejection of praise or rewards
  • Verbal hints such as ‘I won’t be a problem for you much longer’ or ‘Nothing matters anyway’
  • Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

 
(Heart image by Seyed Mostafa Zamani, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Towards safer schools: How teachers and families can work together

In light of figures showing that there were almost 70 serious incidents in state schools in the NSW Hunter Central Coast region in the last half of 2011 – some of them violent, such as students fighting and fashioning their own weapons – a lot of parents are asking what schools can do to create safer environments. The Newcastle Herald asked me to submit an Opinion piece on this topic; I thought I’d share my thoughts with you here too.

I visit hundreds of schools every year, and I have seen some highly successful strategies. Strong peer-support programs, where older children buddy up with younger ones and look out for them, are effective. Schools can celebrate difference by hosting multicultural days, gender-awareness programs and anti-homophobia initiatives. Police youth liaison officers are happy to come to schools to discuss bullying and violence, and this can be empowering and healing.

There is a disturbing trend of children just watching, or videoing, serious incidents in the school ground – yet when bystanders speak out, bullies often back down. So schools need to do everything they can to support bystanders and encourage them to say enough is enough.

Most important of all, children need a whole-school culture that makes it clear that violence, discrimination and bullying will not be tolerated. Ever. A student is more likely to hurt someone at school if he or she feels that racists and bullies are not disciplined, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research.

The buck does not stop at the principal’s desk, though. The same research also showed that families are just as important as teachers in preventing violence at school. Children who are in the midst of family troubles or aren’t getting enough supervision at home may be more prone to violence. The type of supervision is also crucial, for children whose parents discipline them with harsh punishments are more likely to attack someone at school.

Children cannot be what they cannot see. This means that if we want our kids to resolve conflict without physical intimidation and threats, we need to do the same. All of us, parents and teachers, cannot merely point the finger at violent students: we need to own the environments that foster aggression.

For young people, conflict tends to erupt into violence if they haven’t learned positive ways to solve problems with others. Yet conflict resolution is something parents seldom explicitly teach kids. Of course, it is the standard we set – the choices we make when dealing with conflict in our own lives – that will always be the primary way our children learn. But we can also be proactive.

I’m not suggesting that parents lecture kids on the right and wrong ways to deal with conflict. But I am suggesting that we have an ongoing, open conversation with our kids about the feelings that arise when we are in conflict, and the strategies we can use to move forward without violence or intimidation.

Try sharing these 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution with the young people in your life. They are very effective for the girls I work with and apply equally to boys (and adults!).

The 10 Steps to Conflict Resolution

1. Plan ahead. Think about what you want to say to the person who’s upset you, so you don’t say something you’ll regret.

2. Don’t put on a show. An audience will only escalate things. A one-on-one conversation is preferable.

3. Home in on how you feel. Use ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me’ – rather than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’

4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If you’re even partly at fault, defuse the situation with a simple ‘I was wrong, I’m sorry.’

5. Be specific. Clearly articulate only what upset you on this occasion. Do not dig up old wounds.

6. Offer time. Offer the other person time to think, so that they don’t speak or act impulsively.

7. Be calm. Learn some simple breathing and visualisation activities to help you stay chilled.

8. Assert yourself. Speak firmly and clearly, and be assertive rather than aggressive.

9. Expect to be heard. You deserve the other person’s attention, but if you’ve picked a bad time to talk, offer another time.

10. End on a positive. If your relationship ends over this conflict, it doesn’t mean you must automatically treat the other person as your enemy. You might not be friends, but you can still be friendly.

You can find a more detailed version of these steps in my books, The Butterfly Effect (for parents) and The Girl with the Butterfly Tattoo (for teen girls). (With thanks to Courtney Macavint and Andrea Vander Plimyn’s respect rules.)

 

Helping Teen Girls in Crisis

Trigger warning: This blog post contains references to suicide. If you or anyone you know has suicidal thoughts or behaviour, seek help immediately. These help lines are open 24 hours a day:
Australia
Lifeline: 13 11 14
Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
New Zealand
Lifeline: 0800 543 354

The tragedy of teenage girl Daani Sanders taking her own life this week weighs heavily on my heart. As a mother with teenage daughters, I have been giving them lots of extra cuddles and kisses. Some media are reporting that bullying on Facebook may have played a role. Certainly since her death, cyberbullies have attacked memorial pages set up on Facebook by her friends. I received comments that I felt were not healing for other teens on my YouTube page featuring an interview I gave with Kerrianne about this topic and made the decision this morning to disable comments:

The hateful comments that have appeared on Facebook are a timely reminder that we all need to keep a close eye on what our teenagers are doing and seeing online. It is especially important that we support our daughters and sons right now, as thousands of Facebook users, including many teens, are joining and viewing the memorial pages. The pages contain a mix of comments – some are healing; some are well-meaning but potentially damaging to vulnerable teens because they inadvertently glorify suicide; and some are intentionally malicious and destructive. Our kids need our help and support in navigating what they might see and read on those memorial pages.

Teens, especially girls, are immersed in the world of social networking from the moment they wake up till the moment they go to bed. These connections are vitally important to them, so the last thing I would want any parent to do is try to ban their daughter from social networking sites – instead, I think it’s important that we educate ourselves and get involved.

For guidance in speaking publicly about this topic, and in helping teens navigate what they see and read about it on social-networking sites and in the media, I have turned to the guidelines for journalists on the reporting of suicide. These guidelines were established by Mindframe, which is affiliated with the Federal Government’s National Media Initiative.

Mindframe cautions that there is “a strong association between news media presentations of suicide and increases in actual suicidal behaviour”, with greater coverage leading to an increase in suicides. This does not mean that we should stop talking to our kids about this topic, though. In fact, there is a decrease in suicidal behaviour when it is portrayed as “a tragic waste and an avoidable loss” and when stories about suicide focus on “the devastating effects on others”.

Many of the commenters on the Facebook memorial pages are conjecturing about the method used. It is important as parents and teachers that we reframe the conversation, because “not reporting method or location” is another way of decreasing the risk of others engaging in suicidal behaviour. Focusing on those who have overcome suicidal thinking is another way to decrease the risk.

Mindframe notes that “we need to find ways of increasing community discussion of suicide and suicide prevention”, which is my aim. Just one teen suicide is too many, so below I am sharing with you an excerpt from my book The Butterfly Effect on the warning signs and what to do if you notice them. For resources on cyberbullying and helping girls stay safe online, you might find these past blog posts helpful: Cyber Bully Busting
Making Friends With Facebook

And for strategies to deal with bullying generally: Bullying, It’s Time to Focus On solutions

Girls in Crisis

Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com
Posters available at www.enlighteneducation.com

What many people who try to take their lives share is a sense of being trapped in a stressful or painful situation, a situation that they are powerless to change. Having depression or a mental illness raises a person’s risk of suicide. Stressful life events or ongoing stressful situations may fuel feelings of desperation or depression that can lead to suicide attempts. Examples of these stresses include the death of a loved one, divorce or a relationship breakup, a child custody dispute, settling in to a blended family, financial trouble, or a serious illness or accident. Any kind of abuse – physical, verbal or sexual – increases the risk, and that applies not only to teens but their mothers and fathers as well, even if that abuse took place many years ago but is unresolved. Substance abuse by any member of a family affects the other members of the family and can either directly lead to suicidal feelings or indirectly, through the loss of income and social networks or trouble with the law.

Looking at teens in particular, bullying needs to be taken seriously as it has been known to make children try to take their own life. Also, teens are right in the middle of forming their own individual identities and a major component of that is their sexuality. For a teenager who is questioning their sexual preference or gender, the pressure to be like everyone else, the taunting they receive because they clearly are not, or their own guilt and confusion can become unbearable. A relationship breakup can be a trigger for suicide in some teens. As adults, we have the ability to look at the bigger picture and know that in years to come, a teenage breakup will not seem anywhere near as important as it does at the time. Your teenage daughter, on the other hand, may not yet have the maturity to see beyond the immediate pain. If she seems unduly distressed about a breakup, pay attention. Another trigger for teen suicide is the recent suicide of someone close to them, or the anniversary of a suicide or death of someone close to them, so these are times when your daughter may need extra support.

Suicide is hard to talk about. It is almost taboo, simply too painful to touch on. But silence can be deadly. Often the parents of a teen girl at risk of suicide do not ask their daughter the tough question of whether she is planning to take her own life. In part they may be in a state of denial, which is only human – after all, no parent wants to imagine that their daughter feels suicidal. They may also have a fear that seems to be ingrained in our culture: that if they mention suicide to their depressed or distressed daughter, they will be putting the idea in her head. But experts in adolescent mental health agree that it is more than okay to speak directly to your daughter about suicide. “Parents are often worried that by asking they may make matters worse. Well, I have never known a child to suicide because someone asked whether they were thinking about it,” says Dr Brent Waters. “They should ask; the issues won’t just go away.”

Another unhelpful myth about suicide is that a teen who talks about suicide is simply seeking attention and won’t actually take her life. In fact, four out of five young people who commit suicide tell someone of their intentions beforehand. Besides, I have never understood the point of making a distinction between attention seeking, a cry for help or a genuine intention to commit suicide. Even if a teen is not actually going to go through with a plan to take her life, if she is distressed enough to cry out for help, her voice needs to be heard and she needs our support.

Suicide warning signs
• Loss of interest in activities she used to enjoy
• Giving away her prized possessions
• Thoroughly cleaning her room and throwing out important things
• Violent or rebellious behaviour
• Running away from home
• Substance abuse
• Taking no interest in her clothes or appearance
• A sudden, marked personality change
• Withdrawal from friends, family and her usual activities
• A seeming increase in her accident proneness, or signs of self-harm
• A change in eating and sleeping patterns
• A drop in school performance, due to decreased concentration and feelings of boredom
• Frequent complaints about stomach aches, headaches, tiredness and other symptoms that may be linked to emotional upsets
• Rejection of praise or rewards
• Verbal hints such as “I won’t be a problem for you much longer” or “Nothing matters anyway”
• Suddenly becoming cheerful after a period of being down, which may indicate she has made a resolution to take her life

What you can do
Reading the list of suicide warning signs is enough to chill anyone, but there is much you can do to help someone who is suicidal. Number one: if anyone – child, adolescent or adult – says something like “I want to kill myself” or “I’m going to kill myself”, seek help straightaway. Remove anything they might be tempted to use to kill themselves with and stay with them. Dial 000 if you need to, or a crisis line. The following phone counselling services are available throughout Australia 24 hours a day:
• Lifeline: 13 11 14
• Kids Help Line: 1800 55 1800
• Salvation Army 24-hour Care Line: 1300 36 36 22
In New Zealand, phone:
• Lifeline: 0800 543 354
Another valuable thing you can do to help someone you fear is having suicidal thoughts is to listen. These pointers are adapted from the Victorian Government’s excellent “Youth suicide prevention – the warning signs” on www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au:
• Listen and encourage her to talk
• Tell her you care
• Acknowledge her feelings
• Reassure her
• Gently point out the consequences of her suicide, for her and the people she leaves behind
• Stay calm; try not to panic or get angry
• Try not to interrupt her
• Try not to judge her
• Don’t overwhelm her with too much advice or stories about your own experiences

My thoughts are with Daani Sander’s family and friends. My thoughts are with all of us who have lost loved ones through suicide. May we all, somehow, find peace. xxx

Postscript 25/7:  I was interviewed by Miranda Devine for her column entitled “A Network of Nastiness” late last week. It offers further commentary on cyber bullying and the perils of the always on on-line world.

Taking the Blues out of Puberty, Part 3: For Schools

In the last of our three-part series on supporting girls through puberty, Enlighten Education’s sexuality education expert Rachel Hansen this week looks at what schools can do to help. But first, I have some exciting news about a new sexuality education initiative from Enlighten Education.

good talks title2Schools frequently request sexuality education programs from us, and we have listened to you! We are delighted to announce that from 2012 our talented presenters will also be offering the Good Talks sexuality education programs developed by our New Zealand program manager, Rachel Hansen.

Good Talks provides holistic sexuality education programs for girls and boys that focus on empowering them to cherish their individuality and build positive relationships based on respect, equality and healthy choices. Programs are tailored to each individual school’s needs, with an emphasis on ensuring that the material is age appropriate. Topics covered can include puberty, anatomy, conception, pregnancy, contraception and an examination of the way sexuality is represented in the media and popular culture. For more information or to book a half-day Good Talks seminar at your school, email us at enquiries@enlighteneducation.com.

And now, over to Rachel . . .

 

Last week I offered some tips to support parents in talking to their girls about puberty and getting their first period, because now more than ever, parents need to have the knowledge and confidence to be able to discuss sexuality with their children. The work of parents also needs to be backed up by quality holistic sexuality education within all our schools.

If, like many parents, you assume that your child is already getting basic sexuality education at school, think again. Despite the fact that more than half of Australian teenagers are sexually active by the time they are 16, there is no mandatory, comprehensive Australia-wide sex-education policy. In New Zealand, sexuality education is a key area of learning in the National Curriculum, which means that it must be taught at primary- and secondary-school levels. Yet a 2007 enquiry by the New Zealand Education Review Office concluded: “The majority of school sexuality education programmes are not meeting students’ learning needs.” In both countries, there are some schools that offer fantastic programs, but there is no guarantee that your child will be one of the lucky ones.

Many parents say to me, “Oh, but my child has no interest/no idea/no awareness about anything to do with sexuality.” This may be true, but their classmates do, and their classmates are talking. If a child isn’t getting information from her family or her school, she will turn to her friends or the internet. I don’t have to persuade you that googling “vagina” is probably not going to throw up much useful advice for a 10-year-old. So I urge schools across Australia and New Zealand to do everything they can to meet the physical and emotional needs of students as they reach puberty.

Make it age appropriate.
As I discussed in an earlier post, puberty is starting earlier for girls, and it is important that they understand what is happening to them before they get their first period. This means that schools need to rethink the age at which they teach students about puberty. In New Zealand for at least the past 40 years, students have been taught about puberty usually in years 7 and 8. As it is not uncommon for girls to start menstruating at age 9 or 10 now, I encourage schools to teach it in years 5 and 6.

Don’t exclude the boys!
Ensure that the boys in your school are equally well informed about female puberty as the girls, and vice versa. The boys need to be in on the period talks, and the girls need to understand erections and breaking voices. If girls and boys understand what the other is experiencing and why the changes happen, bullying is likely to be greatly reduced.

When we had the puberty talk at school, the boys and the girls were separated. I never knew what the boys learnt, but afterwards they were fascinated with our ‘pad packs’ that we’d been given, and they stole them and teased us, demanding to know what we had been told. We were all really embarrassed and didn’t know what to say to the boys. I thought that it would be really naughty if we told them – because obviously our teacher didn’t want them knowing. Because they weren’t taught about it, it made it seem like periods were taboo and secret from boys. — Kelly

School was tough. The boys used to grope us to see if we were wearing a pad, then announce to the entire corridor that we had our periods. Or they’d go into your locker looking for pads to steal and stick all over the corridor. — Sophie

Stock your library with books and pamphlets on puberty.
Age-appropriate books and take-away pamphlets are fantastic for students to access in their own time and when they need answers. Primary schools can be reluctant to put sexuality and puberty books in the library for fear that parents of younger students will complain. One solution that I have seen in some schools is to have a special part of the library dedicated to the older students. These students like it because it’s their special place, and it’s somewhere they can go for answers if they don’t feel comfortable asking their teachers or parents.

Make sure girls know where to go for help and advice.
Girls need to know who to go to for support at school if they have concerns or questions about puberty or sexuality. Make sure that girls also know where a supply of pads are kept in case they are caught out. Many schools have these at the administration office, which is always staffed during the day. It is worth having a brief discussion with staff at the start of the year about what to do when a girl gets her period and needs support, as some staff will be unaware of the stress that periods cause some girls.

I got my period for the first time in my first week of high school. I was mortified because I didn’t have a pad. My friend went and asked the lady at the front desk and she gave me one – thank goodness! I am not sure what I would have done otherwise. — Laura

There was always the fear of getting caught at the far end of school from my locker, needing to change pads and having, in the time a teacher thought was acceptable for a loo stop, to run from one end of the school to another to get supplies. — Sophie

Also be sure that girls can dispose of used pads and tampons appropriately. As the average age at which girls get their first period decreases, primary schools now need to make sure there are sanitary bins in the girls’ toilets.

Rachel Hansen headshotRachel Hansen is the progam manager for Enlighten Education in New Zealand and is an experienced educator who has a first-class honours degree in Psychology and a Masters degree in Criminology from Cambridge University (UK). Rachel is the founder of Good Talks, an organisation that offers sexuality education to schools and parents.

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