Saturday, November 26, 2016

Bullying is Everyone's Business

Last week, we discussed Gaslighting and how it is an entrenched part of school bullying. But, what can we realistically do about it? How do we stop it? The truth of the matter is bullying will be around as long as two human beings exist on the Earth. It will never go away entirely.

Let’s look at some things that we can do, individually and as groups, to stem the growth of bullying:

Live Authentically:  Be the person you want children to grow up to be. We have to live as examples of how people should treat each other. Behave the same way in private as you do in public. No one is perfect, but when effort is applied it can make a world of difference.

Actively Listen:  When a child/tween/teen is telling you they are being bullied, whether you are a parent or a trusted adult, actively listen to what they are saying. Many times, we listen only to respond. We need to turn off our phones, computers, or other distractions and take part in the conversation. We need to allow children the space to express their fears and their feelings.

Make Bullying Your Business:  We’ve all heard that domestic violence is everyone’s business. On the same token, so is bullying. Regardless of whether the victim is your child or just some random kid on the street, make it your business. If you see something, say something. When I say make it your business that does not include giving the bully a beat down. It means be the adult on the scene. When you take action, it allows the victim to internalize that they are not alone and people do care. Even if you only suspect a kid is being bullied, take the initiative to ask them; and then actively listen to what is being said. You could save a life, just by asking.

Put Bite in Your Policy:  How many times have we heard the policy statement, “Zero Tolerance”, only to find that it doesn’t really mean anything? How many kids have experienced bullying, and brought it to the attention of the school only to have the administration poo-poo it away, or claim their hands are tied and they can’t do anything? Or, worse yet, blame the victim? If we’re going to claim Zero Tolerance then it has to mean something. There has to be consequences for bullying that are applied continually and consistently across the board. No exceptions.

We Are Not Their Friends:  When we GenXers became parents, we made a huge mistake. You might think I’m speaking to the “helicopter parent” issue, but no. Our mistake was trying to be our kids’ friends instead of being their parents. We tossed our authority as parents out the window. If you are doing this now, stop it. Your kids have friends. They need you to be Mom or Dad, the people who are in charge. If everyone is behaving like juveniles, we have created nothing more than an environment akin to Lord of the Flies. It’s hard being a parent. Your kids are not always going to like you, but they will always love you.

There are those who kowtow to teaching kids how to be resilient, which although it is important, it is just as important to teach kids not be bullies in the first place. Yes, it is human nature to bully, but at the same time, there’s a fine line between bullying and criminal behavior.

Bullying has one objective: Abusing another to gain a sense of power and control. Today, we have an epidemic of violence and suicide, the direct result of bullying.

Unfortunately, we can’t stop it entirely, but together we can make a difference. We just have to want to.

If you are being bullied in school or online, please, please seek out a trusted adult in your life. Maybe a favorite teacher, or a coach, or a friend’s parent, or your own parents and tell them. Tell someone. Talk to someone. You are not alone in the world, and people do care. You matter in the world and you are loved.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Kids on Fire: How Gaslighting is Fueling Bullying

In 1940, and again in 1944, playwright Patrick Hamilton’s masterpiece Gas Light (1938) was adapted into a whirlwind film, first by British director, Thorold Dickinson (1940), and then in America by MGM (1944). The plot is filled with the psychological abuses propagated against Paul’s wife, Bella; and thus today, we have the psychological term gaslighting which means: the psychological abuse of another which causes them to doubt their own sanity.

Over the next couple of weeks, we’re going to talk about the growing phenomenon of gaslighting in all its nefarious forms. We’re going to start today with a subject that is dear to my heart: bullying in school.

One of the first recorded cases of school violence was in Bethel, Alaska in 1997, where sixteen year old Evan Ramsey entered the school with a loaded Mossberg 500 12 gauge shotgun. But, how did that happen? What led to the tragic day of February 19, 1997?

Evan was a frequent target of bullying. That’s what all the newspapers said, but what did that even mean? Kids can be mean; right? It should have been fine. He should have grown out of it. He should have been able to handle it and move on with his life.

The key phrase is “frequent target of bullying”. Prolonged exposure to abuse leads to toxic stress, and toxic stress leads to fight or flight – otherwise known as violence or suicide.

Gaslighting itself is mostly associated with domestic abuse. However, it applies to any relationship – including friends and schoolmates. It doesn’t happen overnight. It’s something that grows so subtly it’s hard to pinpoint just when it began in any individual situation.

Signs (adapted from the National Domestic Abuse Hotline):

Withholding: The bully pretends not to understand or refuses to listen. For example: Holding the relationship hostage. This is a form of negative peer pressure. The bully baits the victim into believing they are their friend and wants them in their circle, but in reality is attempting to control the victim by forcing them to do things they wouldn’t ordinarily do; except for a deep-seated desire to be included. The bully feeds on the victim’s desire to be cool or included. The bully pretends they don’t understand, or refuses to listen to the victim’s rational thoughts behind not wanting to do the things the bully wants them to.

Countering: The bully questions the victim’s memory of events, even when the victim remembers them accurately. For example: Countering is blaming or scapegoating. When things get hot, the bully is one step ahead of the victim. The bully will twist the words of the victim in an attempt to make the victim (and others) believe it was the victim's fault. In the bully’s telling of the events, the bully becomes the victim.

Blocking/Diverting: The bully changes the subject and/or questions the victim’s thoughts. For example: The victim questions the bully’s story of events, and the bully either changes the subject – nullifying the victim’s point of view, or engages in belittling the victim – most often in front of others. The bully oftentimes in blocking or diverting will tell the victim they are paranoid or imagining things. This is often related to the victim’s questioning of the relationship between the bully and themselves, when the victim realizes that something is wrong.

Trivializing: The bully makes the victim’s needs or feelings seem unimportant. For example: When the victim questions the bully, the bully retaliates with name calling and shaming – again, usually in front of others. When trivializing starts, this is where it becomes dangerous for the victim in respect to toxic stress. They are already questioning what is happening, and second-guessing their thoughts and feelings.

Forgetting/Denial: The bully pretends to have forgotten what actually occurred or denies things like promises made to the victim. For example: The bully promised to hang-out with the victim at a specified place and time, and then pretends to have forgotten, or denies ever making the promise.

In gaslighting, the narratives above are not isolated incidents. They go on every day, sometimes for months or years. The prolonged exposure to them causes the victim to become confused, anxious, isolated and depressed. At the point of no-return, the victim will lose all sense of what is really happening to them.

Contrary to adult victims of gaslighting, kids generally won’t reach out for help until the ambulance shows up – either at the school after an act of violence, or to take them to the hospital after a failed suicide attempt.

As parents, grandparents, teachers and other trusted adults in the world, it is our responsibility to understand what gaslighting is and how it plays a role in school bullying; to recognize the signs and then to do something constructive about it. Our kids are involved in a game of psychological warfare that they have no idea how high the stakes really are – until it’s too late.