The American Journal of Public Health reports suicides have surpassed car crashes as the nation’s leading cause of injury-related deaths. Even our own community has been hit hard by suicide with the untimely deaths of three young Oak Ridge students this year alone.
The too common stories of troubled American teens at large are getting bolder and more desperate too. Just last week a ninth grader from Utah shot and killed himself in front of classmates and a girl from New York recently jumped into an oncoming train while her horrified friends stood by.
Despite anti-bullying assemblies and measures, bullying seems to only be getting worse. One El Dorado Hills father angrily told me this week that bullies have picked up new vocabulary from all of these news stories. His son has been asked, “Why don’t you just kill yourself?” many times. It wasn’t until he was recently hospitalized for having such extreme anxiety he couldn’t breathe that the boy broke down and finally told his parents everything.
Bullying is a bigger beast than it used to be, with technology serving as one of its chief steroids. Today someone’s personal humiliation can be made public within seconds, with just the press of a button.
However, expecting to stop bullying behavior is missing a larger point. Aggressive or taunting behavior has always existed, and it always will. Even when kids grow up they will see grown-up bullies at their own kids’ sporting events, at the work place and more. There will always be angry people looking to spew their frustrations on others.
What we need to do is equip kids with tools to combat bullying instead of thinking we can eradicate it. This needs to be done at home.
I now talk about bullying with my older kids (8 and 10) on a regular basis.
I reinforce a lesson I used to do as a teacher with my high school freshmen years ago, when they were “low men on the totem pole.” They came to the new school fed with the rumors to be on high alert because they could be “canned” at any time — dumped into a garbage can by an older student.
Kids think concretely; it’s hard for them to understand the abstract, powerful motivations and feelings behind bullying and being targeted. We did an exercise where one kid held a ball (the ball signified his pent-up anger, frustration, irritation, you name it) and he threw the ball to someone else (those are his bullying words or behavior spreading so that someone else “holds the ball”). We talked about how to get rid of the ball without holding it or passing it to a new person. My older son really got into it, opening up more than I thought he would. “What if a kid throws a real ball at you and then acts like it was an accident?” he asked. I was stumped at first with this one, imagining yet again how complex some social interactions are for kids.
It’s hard to expect a child to sit holding the ball of anger, not to expect him or her to pass it off to someone else. Even if kids do cling to the ball, it eats them up inside and that’s where we see them wanting to hurt themselves. A lose, lose situation.
No, all bullies are not horrible people from terrible families, but all kids need to understand in concrete terms what happens when we give our pent-up frustrations to others. And any child has the tendency to add to bullying. There are the bullies, but there are also the many, many kids who stand by and do nothing.
We can’t expect teachers to know everything that’s going on at school or to have the time to perform the ball exercises mentioned above. As parents, we need to talk with our kids, and talk with them often.
Julie is the mother of four young children and a resident of El Dorado Hills. She is also the founder of Kid Focused, a site devoted to current children’s issues.