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Archive for the ‘Teenage Bullying’ Category

As heightened concerns remain following the school shooting and death of three students with two others wounded in Chardon, OH, many are asking – how do you know if someone is going to do something like this.  As I talked about in my previous blog post, there are no clear-cut answers and there is not one specific thing that would indicate that someone is going to behave in a violent manner, however, there are what we call Risk Factors, that may increase one’s propensity for violence.  I have listed some of these risk factors below.  These are not the only risk factors (for example, certainly females can be violent at well) and anyone with concerns about a child should seek a professional evaluation and support regardless of if they can be characterized by any specific risk factors. These are meant to be used as a tool to help identify those who may be at risk for violence.  It is always better to seek support and a professional opinion even if you are not sure and warning signs should not be minimized or ignored.

  • Male
  • Minority (for overall violence, however, Caucasian for school shootings in particular – see below)
  • Substance use (teens are more likely to lose their inhibitions when using drugs or alcohol)
  • Unhealthy home life (abuse, substance abuse, domestic violence, etc)
  • Having adults / older peers in their lives who role model violence
  • Living in a gang involved area with prevalent threats of violence
  • Little attachment to parents or caregivers
  • Little or no attachment to community and school environment
  • Adult attitudes that support or condone violence
  • Behavioral issues at a young age
  • Too harsh or too lenient discipline
  • Poverty and few economic opportunities
  • Academic failure
  • Untreated Mental Health issues that may increase impulsivity or irrational thinking
  • Access to weapons

Factors that many believe have been common for those individuals who have been accused of school shootings:

  • Male
  • Caucasian
  • From a troubled  home (broken, drugs or alcohol, abuse, domestic violence, etc)
  • Withdrawn (not engaged in their communities or in school social activities, sits alone at meals, does not engage with others in class)
  • Outcast – rejected and/or bullied by peers over time
  • Living in a rural community (thus far, these shootings have not taken place in cities)
  • Having access to a gun (as troubling as thoughts of violent in children are, these violent acts remain a fantasy until a teen has actual access to a gun at which time this fantasy can become an actual event)

If you see these risk factors in a teen you know – you should not ignore them.  Of course having certain risk factors does not mean that a teen will act violently or that something is wrong with them, however, these risk factors could place a teen at increased risk to behave in a violent manner and may indicate that they need support and help so it is always best to further explore what may be going on inside for individuals at risk.

For additional parenting advice go to How To Parent A Teen where you can download a free audio program designed specifically for parents of teenagers.  Click HERE now for your free audio program.

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Following the recent school shooting in Ohio where 3 students were tragically killed and others injured,I thought this was a timely blog post to write.  It is scary for parents (and for everyone for that matter) to think about something this horrific happening at a school which should be a safe place for children.  Following events like this, it is normal for there to be a lot of speculation about why this happened, for people to want to know who the shooter was and what they were like and to want to be able to identify what is wrong with them so that we can measure other children up against them and gain some reassurance that this will not happen in our communities.  There are always differing opinions about why school shooting occur but one thing we know for sure – they have occurred and have continued to occur which brings about a lot of fear in each of us.  I was reading in an article following the incident in Ohio this week that some of the teachers initially thought it might have just been a drill.  We certainly did not have these kinds of drills when I was in school so clearly this is sign that times have changed.

So, back to the frequently asked question – “How Does This Happen”?  Sorry to say that I do not have a clear answer, however, I do know some things having worked directly with many juveniles who have been accused of and convicted of murder and manslaughter.  One thing I know for sure if that there is not a clear profile of a “teen murderer”.  The term “Superpredator” was used often in the 90’s to describe teenagers who killed.  The term painted a picture of a big, scary, evil, heartless individual to describe who society should be scared of, however, this term has faded since then.

Teenagers are complex and have many layers to them so we cannot put them into boxes labeled dangerous and not dangerous I have worked with teenagers who have murdered other individuals and who have admitted to this.  I have spent time with them and talked with them for countless hours in individual and group therapy sessions, played cards with them while they had free time out of their cells and met with their families in an effort to understand them, help them process their actions and for some, help them understand the severe consequences the will face for their actions including what “life without the possibility of parole” means.

Each individual I worked with had a different story.  Each individual I worked with had their own struggles or heart breaking story.  Each individual I worked with was a very different person.  Each individual I worked with had their own set of strengths despite the crime they committed.  Strengths including being very intelligent, amazing writers, poets and artists, outstanding athletes, great comedians, avid readers, great friends and hard workers just to name a few.  I remember sitting in a therapy session with a teenager boy accused of murder and talking about the book The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks which he had recently read.  He talked about crying while reading about the tremendous love the main character had for his wife and he wrote down quotes and phrases from the book which struck him as he was reading.  He wanted to talk about whether life could really be like this and wanted to be connected with someone in the way that the main character was connected with his wife in this book.  In other therapy sessions he talked about feeling like at 13 he had no choice but to join a gang because otherwise he was assaulted and robbed while walking to his house after school because of the neighborhood he lived in and how that resulted in his current situation.  I also worked with a teen who prayed and cried for his victim each night before going to bed and another who shot a gun while he was robbing someone to get money for his mother who was addicted to crack because he wanted her to stop prostituting herself.  He did not have any trustworthy adults he could open up to without fear of being taken away from his mother and did all he could think of doing out of desperation in hopes of keeping his mother safe from the many men who were abusing her and raping her when she put herself out there on the streets.  There are so many complicated stories, however, I share these few to exemplify that things are not so black and white in trying to define who will kill and who won’t or to define who is” good” and who is “bad”.

I read an article on CNN.com today by Dr. Frank Ochberg where he talks about why the US leads the world in school shootings.  He believes that it is not many of the reasons that often are brought up (bullying, mental health issues, drugs, violent role models) and argues that the US is not worse off than other countries in terms of these issues.  What he does see is being different in the US is the access teens have to guns.  This got me thinking about a book I read many years ago which was first published in 1995 by Geoffrey Canada called Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun.  This book talks about how many years ago, when two individual got into an altercation they would fight with their fists, usually one on one.  Then someone may have introduced a stick so in order to keep oneself safe the other person introduced a knife.  Then when someone was not feeling safe because their rival or opponent had a knife, they turned to a gun.   It was about fear of one’s safety and trying to beat out one’s opponent who may have a weapon.  So – in thinking about our times today – a gun is the ultimate weapon and if someone is feeling desperate, threatened or like they will be defeated AND they have access to a gun – they may very well use it.  Remember, teenagers brains are not fully developed and they do not necessarily have the ability to think through or understand the consequences of their behavior.  They cannot imagine life in prison or the finality of death – they can barely think past what they are going to do on the weekends sometimes.

I am not an expert in knowing how kids can access guns but I do know that I have worked with over 100 who had access to them and many of those individuals used them – some on themselves.  I once worked with an individual who was with a group of friends and someone had a gun and they decided to play Russian Roulette “for fun”.  This individual held the gun under his chin and pulled the trigger and shot a bullet through his face.  He was lucky enough to survive but certainly did not think through the potential, real consequences of engaging in such risky behavior.   I am not suggesting that all desperate or troubled teenagers will seek access to a gun and I am not suggesting that some don’t have the ability to think through the real consequences.  What I am saying is that teenagers do not have fully developed brains, they can be impulsive, that there are things that put teens at increased risk and that the reality is that this kind of thing is happening and there is no clear formula to know when it will happen.  If there was, what happened this week in Chardon, Ohio would not have happened.

I have tried to illustrate the complexity of teenagers who have killed and demonstrate that there is not a clear profile for who will act out in such a violent manner and who will not. I want to be clear that I do not believe that kids are all good or all bad but that I also believe that anyone who behaves in a violent manner should be held accountable for their actions with all circumstances being taken into account.  With all of this said, although there is not a clear profile for a “Superpredator” there are certainly risk factors which may predispose someone to act out violently that should not be ignored which I will outline in my next blog post.

My heart goes out to the entire community in Chardon, Ohio as they work to heal from this tragic event.

For more parenting tips, advice and support go to How To Parent A Teen where you can also download our free audio program which reviews in detail 3 strategies for parents of teenagers to help you deal with your teens behavior.

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I can remember being a teenager on a luxurious vacation with my family in the Caribbean and caring about nothing more than what I was missing with my friends due to being away from home.  In the summertime we would go to Nantucket on our boat and I remember being so angry with my parents that they MADE me go on a summer vacation because it meant I might be missing out on something with my friends at home.  What I wouldn’t give now to have those problems!!!

The point is that for most teenagers, nothing is more important than having friends and fitting in.  Especially for teenage girls – often their moods are dictated by what is going on with their friends.  When they are having successful relationships with their friends they are feeling good and are in good moods.  When they are struggling with friendships, feeling “out of the loop” or inadequate – watch out!  They will often present with an intense negative mood regardless of what else is going on in their lives.

As most people are aware, teenage girls can be cruel, jealous and quite vicious at times.  Relational Aggression is a term which refers to the way in which girls can be mean to one another through low-level bullying, gossiping, ignoring and excluding and through verbal attacks.  The result of this relational aggression can be devastating for teenage girls.  Being excluded from the lunch table, the weekend outing, the online chat group, etc. can cause teenage girls to feel worthless, alone and extremely insecure.

Teenage girls often judge their value by where they stand in social groups which can cause significant stress, anxiety and uncertainty.  Once teenage girls are able to form solid, longer lasting friendships, their reaction to this social pressure decreases.  Being in with the most popular group becomes less important as girls get older and as they begin to form solid relationships with a smaller group of friends who they trust and care about as individuals.

As a parent, this can be a very difficult stage to witness.  It can be heartbreaking to witness the sadness of your teenage daughter if she is feeling like she does not fit in or if she is on the receiving end of bullying or exclusion.  What can be helpful is to know that this is a stage that will usually pass as girls reach their 20’s and into their mid 20’s (sometimes earlier).  Parents should not interfere in these friendships  (unless there are true safety concerns) since this will likely create further problems for their teenager or result in their teenager resenting them.

A few helpful suggestions for parents who have teenagers experiencing difficulties due to social pressures are:

  • Be there to listen to them when they are ready to talk about what is going on with their peers or to talk about how they are feeling.
  • You can gently offer suggestions but being too directive or telling them what they should do could result in their shutting down from you.
  • Don’t try to minimize what they are reporting or feeling.  Don’t say, “things aren’t that bad”,  “people DO like you”, etc.  If they are telling you it is really bad then that is what it feels like for them so you should validate how they are feeling about the situation.
  • You may want to offer them an opportunity to have different exposure to social situations.  This may give them an opportunity to have some success with a different peer group while they are trying to sort out the difficulties they are experiencing.  For example, if you daughter is having trouble with peers at school you may want to explore finding her other, out of school activities where she can meet a new peer group.  A dance class, sports league, YMCA, music classes and art classes are all great places for teens to become involved in group activities with their peers.

As I stated above, witnessing your teenager experiencing difficulties with peers can be very painful to watch.  Even with the most connected and loving family, a teenage girl will experience significant distress if she is not feeling connected to a group of friends.  The good news is that this phase will inevitably pass and generally girls are able to form solid, trustworthy social networks as they move into adulthood.

For more information related to Parent Teenagers, go to www.HowToParentATeen.com where you can access our audio program designed specifically for parents of teenagers.

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As was mentioned in the previous How To Parent A Teen blog post, bullying is a serious and widespread problem for teenagers today and can take on many forms.  Bullying can involve physical acts of violence, verbal threats and attacks, isolating or excluding someone and can be done in person or increasingly via cyber space, aka cyber-bullying.   All forms can be damaging and can have lasting effects.  The danger with cyber-bullying is that it can be difficult for adults to see unless they are looking at the teenager’s electronic devices and also that it allows those who bully to put their negative comments, rumors, or gossip out there for so many more people to see.
Warning signs:
Below are some potential warning signs that your teenager may be being bullied – while seeing these warning signs does not necessarily mean your teenager is being bullied, if you are seeing them you should investigate further.
  • Unexplained bruising, cuts or scratches, ripped clothing
  • Physical complaints – stomach aches, head aches, being tired all the time
  • Trying to avoid school or other social activities – making up a lot of excuses to try to get out of things
  • Sudden change in mood or behavior – this could be that they become more withdrawn or that they are presenting with increased sadness or even anger or aggression
  • Missing items they cannot account for when you question them
  • Increased nervousness or anxiety – particularly when going to school or other social situations
  • Signs of declining self-esteem (not taking care of themselves, making negative comments about themselves)
What to do as a parent:
1.  If your child comes to you and expresses concern about bullying:
Thank them for coming to you, reinforce that they did the right thing by telling you and validate their experience.  Be open, calm and really listen to them.  You want to be a good role model for them as you work to figure out how to address the problem so it is important that even though you may be really angry and may be feeling really protective of your teen that you stay calm and appropriate while discussing this situation with them.
 2.  If your teen does not tell you but you are noticing some of the warning signs above:
Talk to your teen about this.  In a gentle, supportive, non-judgmental way, share with them your concerns.  Let them know that you have seen some things that concern you and that you are worried about and that you want to make sure that they are OK, that they are safe and that they are happy.  Your teen may feel a great sense of relief that you have opened the door and may share what is happening with you if you take this type of approach.  Of course, they may continue to deny anything is wrong because they feel ashamed, depressed or scared.  Even if they deny any bullying, you should let them know you do have concerns, that you want to support them and you should go with your gut.  Try to get a sense of what is going on int their day.  Who are they around, what are their favorite classes, who do they like and dislike at school?  This may give you some additional insight.  You know your teen – if your gut is telling you something harmful is happening to your child, you are better to be overly cautious and explore this further rather than ignoring it.
3.  Talk to the school (or other adults responsible for supervising your teenager):
Even if your teen asks you not to, if the bullying is happening at school, you need to get the school involved.  Bullying is on the radar for school administrators and there is a lot of pressure on them to address any concerns of bullying swiftly and effectively.  Many school systems have required training for all staff on this issue so sharing your concerns and getting the support of the school is important in helping to make sure your child is able to receive an education in a place that feels safe for them.  You should also talk to any coaches, parents of friends, or other adult leaders who are involved in your teen’s life who may be able to offer insight and additional supervision to get the bullying to stop.  Make sure you are keeping the lines of communication open and that you are following up with these other adults so that you are all working collaboratively in the best interest of your teenager ongoing.
4.  Support the development of positive self-esteem in your teenager: 
When teenagers are bullied, it can do a real number on their self-esteem.   They may be internalizing the negative messages others are telling them, they may feel worthless, weak or shameful, they may feel like they don’t matter or that others will never respect them.  Even once the bullying has stopped, you want to make sure that your teenager has opportunities in their life to build upon their strengths, receive praise for their strengths and have positive social interactions.  This may involve getting them involved in a sport or a club, getting them involved in a cooking class or a church group or just making sure that you are supporting opportunities for them to have positive social interactions and that they are spending time with other teens and/or adults who support and praise them ongoing.
5.  Educate your teenager about bullying:  
As adults, we know that the bullying behavior is typically more about the person doing the bullying than about the person being bullied and that the individual doing the bullying is probably trying to cover up or hide their own insecurities.  It is helpful to talk to your teenager a little bit about this keeping in mind and let them know that any bullying is more about a bully trying to control them or to control a situation than it is about them as a person.   Just remember that even if they hear this intellectually, they may still have a hard time internalizing this and the bullying may continue to be just as painful for them.
6.  Supervise their internet / phone use:
It is absolutely reasonable and appropriate that you, as the parent, have access to what your teenager is doing online.  I am guessing that you are paying for the phone and computer anyway, right?  Even if you are not, it is absolutely reasonable that you want to be able to periodically check your teenager’s electronic devices.  You should have access to all their passwords and know what sites they are using.  What is most helpful is if you set  clear expectations with them upfront about what you will be monitoring and if you have not done that yet, that you do it now and tell them that this is what they should expect moving forward.  Let them know that you will be monitoring what they are doing, what sites they are going on and who they are texting and to what level you will be monitoring this.  This is not to say that teens are not savvy and cannot delete text messages or emails but it is a good starting point to help you be more aware of what is going on in their lives and to make sure that they are safe (not only physically but emotionally as well).
7.  Never encourage physical retaliation:
You never want to encourage your teenager to use violence as a means of solving a problem.  That is not a life lesson you want them to learn.  Instead, help coaching them on other things they can do (walk away, continue to talk to you or other adults, avoid certain situations, try to remain around safe friends, and ways that they can use their words to address the bully in a non confrontational way) will be more helpful to them and serve them well into adulthood.
Teenage bullying can be scary and upsetting so you should not hesitate to get support for yourself and your teenager as is needed.  For further parenting tips and advice, go to How To Parent A Teen.

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As any parent of a teenager is aware of, teenage bullying has been a very important topic over the last several years and one that has been in the forefront of the news, political conversations and school administration agendas.   Is the concept of kids making fun of one another a new one?  Of course not – teasing, school yard bullies and kids making fun of one another has always been present.  However, what has changed, I believe is twofold.

First is society’s improved understanding of the serious and potentially long-term consequences of bullying.  From front page media headlines to talk shows, we have been able to hear first hand how damaging bullying can be to a child’s self-esteem.  We have heard grown women talk about how they still feel shame and cry when thinking about the mean things that were said and done to them.  We have heard stories of teenagers trying to avoid attending school, going into deep depressions or in extreme cases becoming suicidal as a means of avoiding being further bullied.  As a society, we are much more in tune with how problematic bullying behavior is and so there are many more people talking about it (which is a good thing because with awareness comes solutions).

Second is Social Networking.  Prior to cell phones, Twitter, Facebook, MySpace and text messaging, when teens were being bullied at school, they were able to at least go home and get some relief.  Unless the school bully was willing to call their victim’s home, the bullying stopped after school was out.  Now…teens do not get any relief..the bullying follows them into their home, which is supposed to be their safe space.  I spoke with a parent just this week who talked about how she and her daughter were out running errands and ran into the girls who were bullying her daughter at school, but the girls did not say anything at that time.  What happened instead was that these girls began tweeting negative things about this woman’s daughter for hours after this encounter causing so much sadness and pain for this woman’s daughter.  It is easier to say hurtful and hateful things through social media than having to look someone in the eye and say them.  And while it is easy to say to a teenager that if this is happening to them, they should just stay off Facebook, Twitter, etc., the reality is that this also means cutting off something that is really important these days in the life of a teenager.

So – we know the problem is out there, we know it has serious potential consequences – as a parent what do you do?  Stay tuned for my next blog post which will have both warning signs of bullying and tips for you, as the parent, about what to do if you believe your teenager is being bullied.

For additional parenting support and resources, check out How To Parent A Teen.

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