How to empower your kids against bullies

Bullies have been around for as long as we can remember, but their prominence in the news is like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Throwing a punch and calling a name has been replaced with a much more sophisticated form of torture, one that is relentless and sometimes drives its victims to suicide.

Bullycide is the new term created to encompass the many children and teens who have committed suicide as a way to escape bullying. The fact that we have coined this term speaks volumes about where we are as a society and how important it is for parents to be aware of this danger. Bullying has changed quite a bit since we were kids, and the results can be devastating.

No longer is bullying confined to isolated spaces and incidents. The days of stealing lunch money or shoving someone into a locker have passed and students can no longer look forward to the end of the school day to escape their tormentors. Home is no longer the sanctuary it used to be, as social media and the Internet infiltrate every aspect of our lives. Now, when a student faces embarrassment, it is broadcast to the world and relived over and over again.

As with other forms of abuse, the victims hesitate to tell anyone what they are facing or feeling. Only 40% of bullying victims tell anyone or seek help, which means as parents, you need to be aware of the signs that something isn’t right with your kids. Below are some pointers for recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with them before they push your kids to hopelessness.

  1.  Do NOT respect your kids’ “privacy” on social media. The very idea of social media being private is absurd. Don’t let your kids guilt you into feeling that an Instagram account is like a diary. The two have nothing in common. A diary is a place where one writes their private feelings, whereas social media, well, is social. Whatever is out there is out there for public consumption, and you, dear parents, are the public. If everyone else can see it, you should be seeing it.
  2. Note changes in your child’s behavior and day-to-day habits. Look particularly for changes in eating (either not eating or bingeing) and sleeping (too much sleeping is a sign of depression, too little is a sign of stress). Are grades suddenly dropping? Does your child seem to lack confidence and have a great deal of self-doubt? Is your child avoiding social situations that she once enjoyed? All of these signs are potential red flags that something or someone is affecting your child negatively. Pay attention and don’t ignore these signs.
  3. Keep the lines of communication open. Ask questions and listen. Inquire about specific friends. Note your child’s change of behavior and discuss it with them. Know and talk to your child’s friends to see if there is something you should know. Be careful to ask with concern but not paranoia. Friends will stay tight-lipped when they fear betraying a friend’s trust, but if you ask with clear concern and love, good friends will share in an effort to help.
  4. Watch for signs that your child could be a bully. These include aggression, getting into trouble at school, hanging around with kids who bully, an excessive focus on self-image, and a high level of competitiveness. If your child is quick to anger and his first reaction involves hurting others in some way, whether physical or emotional, he may be a bully. If he fails to take responsibility for his actions and is always looking to blame others when he is in trouble, you will want to keep a very close eye on his interactions with his peers.
  5. Remember that today’s bullying is oftentimes anonymous. This makes it even worse for the victims, as they have no idea who is going after them on social media and what this person has against them. Psychologically, it’s devastating. The victim begins to question his relationships; he wonders if he can ever trust his friends. Without a clear person or reason behind the bullying, he is left to agonize over the who and why. As parents, you can step in and utilize the resources you have – the school, the police, anti-bullying organizations – to identify online predators and put a stop to their bullying.
  6. Work constantly to help your children develop self-respect and confidence. We’ve all dealt with mean people who set out to hurt us. Whether or not we become a victim, however, is largely up to us. As parents, teach your kids their worth so that when someone else questions it, they know exactly who they are and how unimportant that person’s opinion is. Bullies tend to prey on the vulnerable, so do everything you can to strengthen your kids and let them know that their worth comes from within. When they refuse to allow others to diminish their worth, they will have stopped the bullies in their tracks.
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Helping kids cope with tragedy

I sit here reading yet another story about a tragic school shooting, one where young lives were taken well before their time and other young lives must continue with shadows of the tragedy plaguing them for decades to come. It’s a depressing reality that our kids are in danger, not just from drugs, unprotected sex, and recklessness, but from other kids with guns.

It’s also a sad reality that kids are moved through our school systems with obvious social and mental issues and that these same kids have access to guns. They see other school shootings and envision them as glorified, thereby feeding their need for notoriety. The cycle continues, and our children are the victims.

Perhaps the saddest reality of all is that the teenage years have just become a whole lot harder. While uncomfortable parent-teen conversations have been around since Mike from the Brady Bunch had to explain the birds and the bees, how in the world do we talk to our children about the violence that has permeated what was once a safe place?

  1. We can begin by getting ourselves straight first. If we approach our children with fear and anxiety, we will build fear and anxiety within them. Talk to your spouse and your friends about the madness, vent your fears and frustrations, then pull it together for your kids. They will take their cue from you. They will be fearful of those things for which you have instilled fear. So present a calm demeanor that will leave the lines of communication open so you can…
  2. Just listen. You may prompt your children by asking if their friends or teachers are talking about the shootings, and then let them share their perceptions. Based on their tone, their level of anxiety, and their perspective, you can then determine how to respond. If your teens seem especially agitated, help them to put their fear into perspective. In reality,  the odds of a school shooting are still small and school still remains a safe haven for the vast majority of students in America. Help your kids see that while these events comprise the headlines for every news media outlet out there, statistically speaking, they are not something to fear on a daily basis.
  3. In listening to your kids, you’ll probably notice that most put themselves in the position of the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. They imagine what they would do in a similar position. Would they bravely stand up and put their life on the line for their peers? Would they run? Would they hide? Would they try to wrestle the gun from the shooter? It is natural for kids to imagine themselves in the situation and sometimes take on the persona of the hero. So ask them: What do you think you would do? Listen carefully to their response. Then talk them through their options, the smart and best ways to respond in emergency situations. Use these tragedies as an opportunity to educate and plan.

It’s hard to find something positive in such a horrible tragedy as a school shooting.  Perhaps one constructive outcome to come out of these nightmares is that they force us to self-reflect, as a nation, as a public school system, and as parents. Are we doing enough to keep our kids safe? What can we do to end these tragedies?

 

Young love is indeed real

It is the month of romance and love and many will celebrate with fancy dinners, roses, and chocolates. If you’re like me, you’ll treat Valentines Day like any other day except that you’ll make a point of staying home to avoid the mad restaurant rush, the pink and red balloons, and the inflated prices on everything. It’s not that I’ve lost that lovin feeling; it’s just that after 30 years of marriage, being told when to be romantic just doesn’t work for me anymore.

If you have teenagers, however, especially teenagers who have a boyfriend or girlfriend, Valentines Day is anything but old hat. Teens look toward this day with either dread or hopes reaching fantasy level, depending on their relationship status. Valentines Day, when you’re a teenager in love, is a statement to the world and validation so many of them need that someone has chosen to love them, that they are the lucky ones.

Therefore, as parents, you shouldn’t minimize or tease them about their relationships. Nor should you tell them they are incapable of being truly in love, no matter how much you believe that, and no matter how many personal experiences you can share. Have you ever noticed your reaction when someone forewarns you based on their experience? Your initial reaction, if you’re like most humans, is to think to yourself, Well, that was their experience. Mine is different. We always think we’re the exception, rather than the rule.

Teenagers, especially, without the benefit of fully developed frontal lobes that allow them to see the whole picture or fully understand the consequences of their actions, generally dive in, head first. Impulsivity and recklessness are hallmarks of the teenage world. The same applies to romance. In their minds, your story is not their story. You can’t possibly understand the level of their connection with their boyfriend/girlfriend. They are in love. It’s real.

They know it’s real because they feel the extreme emotions that come with love. They feel hurt, they feel joy, they feel that wonderful sense of togetherness. Their hormones are on fire, clouding their judgment. They are experiencing – in real life – everything they have seen on the movie screen or read about in books. They are giddy with love.

So imagine what it does to them, and to their feelings about you, when you dismiss all of this by telling them they can’t possibly be in love. They don’t know what love is, you tell them. They’re too young to love. Imagine how condescending that must sound to them. And imagine how likely they’ll be to talk to you about matters of love again.

It is extremely important to your parent-child relationship that you acknowledge your teen’s feelings and understand they are very real. You don’t have to encourage teen love, but when your child finds it, or thinks he finds it, you should listen. Try to be happy he’s happy. Ask questions such as What do you like about her? What do you enjoy doing together? What makes her different from other girls?

Then sit back and listen to what your child tells you not only about this person he’s drawn to, but about himself, what he’s looking for, and what makes him happy. Don’t judge and don’t ask a hundred questions about the girlfriend’s family, grades, and interests. And whatever you do, don’t smirk and tell him he is too young to be in a relationship or to love someone. It’s too late for that by the time you find out about it. He’s already in it and he won’t willingly leave it.

It’s true that if parents attempt to break up a young couple, they usually succeed in driving the couple closer together. It’s the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. So instead, stay informed by keeping your relationship with your kids solid and the lines of communication open. Be respectful of your kids’ feelings and decisions, and they will come to you on their own for advice and counsel.

And remember, “real” is relative. Love is as real as it gets in the teenage mind, so be patient, understanding, and supportive as your teens navigate the rocky road of romance.

For more advice about parenting teens, check out Teenagers 101.

 

Teaching kids to be proactive

We’re all familiar with the concept of proactive versus reactive responses.  A proactive approach anticipates and seeks to avoid potential problems or obstacles. A reactive approach waits for problems to arise and then deals with them as they occur. As it turns out, both can be beneficial, but while knowledge should be gained from mistakes and difficult processes, stress can be reduced by avoiding them in the first place.

This is where teens and children really need the help of adults. Children are already at a disadvantage with an undeveloped frontal lobe that hinders their ability to see long-term, to think about the consequences of their actions, or to plan ahead. That’s why we often shake our heads and ask, “What were they thinking?” when it comes to this age group. They weren’t. They haven’t learned to be proactive, to consider that what they are doing now matters to their future.

Enter mom and dad. You have a lifetime of experience and you’ve oftentimes wished you would have thought things through before making a big decision or taking an action you later regretted. You want your kids to benefit from your experience, especially since being proactive crosses many domains, including school work, goal setting, and preparedness for activities, sports, and other extra-curriculars. It’s important that they get it now, or they may face much unnecessary hardship down the road.

So how can you prepare your kids to be prepared? Think about this:

  • Kids need to have goals. What’s the point? What are they working toward? Why are they participating? Do grades matter? Unbelievably, we fail to talk to kids about these big questions. We put them in activities, send them off to school, and encourage them to join clubs, but never tell them how they’re going to benefit themselves or others through their participation. Kids needs to know how today’s behaviors affect their future. If they don’t, they will go into everything with a short-sighted attitude and therefore, a lack of internal motivation. They will question working hard on something, and making sacrifices for it, if they don’t see the value.
  • Kids need to know that every action has a consequence. Science teaches us that for every action, there is a reaction. Every decision or indecision, both good and bad, leads to an outcome. Kids struggle with understanding this concept, even as they age and go on to college. Witness some of the behavior of young twenty-somethings and there’s no doubt that they still haven’t grasped the concept of consequences. But the sooner you talk to your kids about this, the better chance you have of getting through. Discuss how a decision about homework, or quitting a team, or running for office will have long-term implications. Have your kids walk through various scenarios and really think through each decision they make.
  • Kids need to realize that staying ahead of the game is easier than playing catch up. Every person alive has let a job or responsibility slip and then scrambled at the last minute to try to minimize the damage. And every person alive has dealt with the repercussions of procrastination. Teaching your kids to work ahead and to plan their schedules will positively impact every area of their lives. As I tell my students, “If you control your schedule, it won’t control you.”
  • Kids need to experience how good it feels to be proactive. Once kids begin to plan, work toward goals, and think through decisions, they will see a noticeable change in their lives. They will experience less stress and their confidence will grow as they gain control of their responsibilities. Research shows that kids crave structure, rules, and boundaries. Recording homework in a school agenda, breaking large assignments down and working on them each night, and keeping a personal calendar of upcoming events are all ways kids create structure in their lives. Positive results breed internal motivation, so the more proactive kids are, the more motivated they become to take control of and responsibility for their decisions.

Of course, the best way to teach kids to become proactive is to demonstrate it in your own life. Teach by example and show your kids that foreseeing obstacles and planning ahead is always better than dealing with the aftermath of a failure that could have been avoided.

For one-on-one help with your teens, check out Teenager Success 101. For more tips like these, read Teenagers 101

Organization makes all the difference

Do you ever feel that your children are messy, can’t seem to find what they’re looking for, or are in a perpetual state of confusion? Is their study time inefficient and frustrating? Do they stay up late to finish their homework only to have trouble locating it the next day in class? And do you find yourself constantly reminding them it’s homework time and wondering how they’ll ever make it on their own?

Disorganization is the root of all these problems, and the good news is that it can be reversed. With the right tools and resources, kids can learn to organize their supplies, prioritize, study smart, and turn chaos into control. As I tell my teenage clients, your calendar can control you or you can control your calendar.

As adults, we’ve likely suffered at the hands of disorganization, and we know that kids need to overcome this problem in order to be successful. The bonus of improving organization is that it has a wonderful ripple effect. Grades will improve, stress will be lifted, and everyone will breathe a sigh of relief as kids gain more responsibility and better control of their schedules.

Here are five tips to help kids start the school year in an organized fashion:

TIP #1: Color code your life. Color is an easy-to-see indicator of what to do next. Just as we have traffic lights that tell us green means go and red means stop, color coding each subject in school is a simple way to alert kids as to what folder or notebook to grab. For example, your child might assign the color red to English. The book cover, notebook, folder – whatever is used for English – is red. Now when your child is selecting what he needs to complete his homework, he can easily recognize the correct folder or book. He can spot it in his backpack, locker, and even his messy bedroom, saving time and frustration.

TIP #2:  Always keep important papers in the same place. That red folder for English? The pocket on the left should be for important teacher handouts, instructions for assignments, and any other information provided by the teacher. The right side should be for homework or anything that is the student’s responsibility. Now when the English teacher says it’s time to turn in homework, Johnny knows to go into the right side of his red folder to do just that.

TIP #3:  Maintain an organized backpack. Students tend to use their backpacks like we use that one junk drawer in the kitchen – as a catch all for everything and anything. That’s why it’s crucial that they perform regular clean-outs. If they are following Tips 2 and 3, this should be quick and painless. It’s a chance to make sure they’re putting everything where it belongs and not acquiring junk that takes up space and keeps them from finding what they need.

TIP #4:  Have a designated homework space and time. Children should choose a space with few distractions, somewhere they can concentrate for short blocks of time and won’t be tempted to fall asleep or play video games. In addition, they should choose a time that coincides with their biological needs and busy schedules. Some love to get started immediately after school; others need some downtime to decompress. Regardless of their designated homework time, they all need brain breaks. After studying for no longer than an hour, they should perform a physical activity or switch gears to one requiring a different side of the brain, from the logical to the creative, for example. After 15 minutes or so, they will return to their homework with greater focus and a stronger ability to get the most out of their study time. It’s studying smarter, not longer.

TIP #5:  Write everything down. Pen on paper, it turns out, significantly increases kids’ understanding and memory. Conversely, using a cell phone to take a picture of notes on a board does kids no benefit at all. Research shows that even typing notes is not as beneficial as writing them, since students tend to simply type away as the teacher talks, without converting the message into shorthand and really thinking about what is being said. For these reasons, insist that your kids take notes the old-fashioned way and study them the old fashioned way as well – by making flash cards (yes, writing the information again!) and quizzing themselves on their notes.

Following just one of these tips will make a difference. Following all five can change kids’ lives. The earlier they get organized, the faster they can start enjoying school and making the most of their time at home.

For more tips like these, check out Teenagers 101, the back-to-school book for parents. To work with Dr. D or her team one-on-one via Skype, contact her through Teenager Success 101

The back to school social network

In the next month, you will be bombarded with all things “back to school.” Aside from the sales flyers and ads, you will be counseled on how to prepare your kids for the first day and how to help them get back to an academic mindset. But what is often ignored – and, ironically, WAY more important to your children – is the social aspect of returning to school.

Your kids will tell you that the beginning of a new school year is a social crapshoot. Or, as Forrest Gump’s mom would say, “You never know what you’re gonna get.” Some friends haven’t seen one another in two months and are worried about reconnecting. Some fade away over the summer, while new, unexpected friendships have blossomed. Some former enemies have become friends, and vice versa. And some are in limbo, neither party knowing where they stand with the other.

It’s amazing that all this change can happen over a short summer break, but it does. When it comes to kids, especially teenagers, relationships evolve and devolve at warp speed. I can guarantee you that your kids are more worried about where they stand with their peers than just about anything else. I promise you they’ve spent more time thinking about whether their friend group is still intact than they have about their summer reading assignment. So let’s tackle what you can do, as parents, to help your kids transition smoothly into the back-to-school social network.

FIRST, do not be shy about jumping into this conversation with your children. They’re already thinking about it, so you’re not introducing a problem that hadn’t occurred to them. Start by asking, “So what do you think your friend group will look like this year?” Then sit back and listen. Try not to interrupt. Let them talk through where everyone stands with one another and pay attention to their reaction to the changes.

SECOND, if they are having problems with a friend, share your own experiences and insights to help them work through an appropriate response. For instance, regardless of what other people might have said and done, always encourage your children to take the social and ethical high road. Everyone should have a bottom line, and they should refuse to lower themselves to actions they’ll regret later. For some, it is refusing to say a bad word about another person. For others, it’s avoiding confrontation and choosing to let friendships die slowly. Some prefer to get everything out in the open, but their bottom line is that they will avoid hurtful statements and focus on how they feel. The thing is, your kids are still figuring out who they are and what their bottom line is. As parents, you know them better than anyone, so you can advise them on ways to handle various scenarios. One caveat: Be sure to help them with responses that suit THEIR personalities and comfort levels, not your own.

THIRD, do not, under any circumstances, involve yourself in your kids’ squabbles or friendships. Your job is to guide your child behind the scenes, not intervene on their behalf. Your kids will gain and lose friends on a consistent basis (just as we do as adults), and they must learn how to do both gracefully. Responding appropriately to relationship changes is a life skill, and the sooner they learn it, the better off they’ll be. They won’t learn these lessons if you “save” them from heartache or frustration. They must experience these emotions to grow and mature as adults who know how to be good friends.

FOURTH, on the other hand, do not tolerate any behavior that makes your child the victim of bullying, verbal, or physical abuse. It is far too common nowadays to see children resort to self-hurting and even suicide when they can no longer bear the barrage of attacks from bullies. If you sense your child is facing this trauma, you must involve the other parents, school officials, and even the police to intervene and provide support and safety for your child. If you notice your child withdrawing, becoming anxious, or exhibiting a major change of personality, you need to get to the bottom of it. Even if you feel your child is overreacting or being too sensitive, that doesn’t change the way he or she feels. Be sensitive and seek counseling if you are in any doubt about your child’s emotional well-being.

Remember that if your kids are happy in their social life, it frees them up to concentrate on academics and goal-setting. Social acceptance is a basic need you can help them meet by providing support and guidance from your own experiences.

Check out Teenagers 101 for more tips for a successful year.

 

Talking politics with your kids

It’s inescapable. Every TV channel, Facebook post, and Tweet seems to have a political bent these days and it’s obvious – and widely reported, only to fuel the fire – that we as a nation are more divisive and angry than we have been in ages. There was a time when we would have killed to have our kids more invested in current events – heck, to even know what was going on in our own country. That time has past. Now, they have no choice but to know the news. It follows them everywhere, and like us, they’re sucked in to the 24/7 coverage that sensationalizes, criticizes, and mobilizes.

The Trump campaign and presidency is seen as a massive relief by some, an abomination by others. For once, no one is ambivalent about our new president, including the notoriously ambivalent teens. Social media and constant coverage has impacted them just as it has us, and parents have a responsibility to parent in this situation just as they do in every other. It’s a sticky wicket, but so is discussing sex, body image, drug use, and so many other issues that affect young people today. So let’s focus on the positives and how you can transform this contentious time in American history into a life-changing learning experience.

  1. Use this time to teach your kids about media bias. I recently spoke to a reporter from Fox News who revealed without any hesitation that bias rules in every single media outlet, including her own. She said it as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, yet people still refuse to believe it. Every media outlet has an agenda and no one is immune. Their bottom line is viewership and every news organization knows their audience and regularly slants the truth to appeal to them. Teach your kids to recognize the bias.
  2. But take it one step further: Just because a news outlet is biased, doesn’t mean it doesn’t contribute valuable information. Don’t totally discount the news, but take everything with a grain of salt. Understand who news organizations are working to appeal to and recognize that they “adjust” their news accordingly. They may only report one side, choose only the facts that support one viewpoint, or flat out report a story before it’s been verified. If you can teach your kids that every conversation, whether it’s personal or through a TV channel broadcasting to millions, has an agenda of some sort, you will help create critical thinkers who don’t readily believe everything they hear.
  3. Caution your kids against believing what they see on social media. I can’t tell you how many memes and “news” stories I’ve seen shared that were complete fabrications. People see them, agree with them, and share them all in a matter of seconds. That’s not responsible or beneficial to everyone and only muddies very dark waters. The Internet is filled with inaccuracies and downright lies, and the sooner your kids learn that, the sooner they’ll grow into thinking adults. Teach them to consult multiple sources and to fact check news before believing it.
  4. This is a unique time to teach your kids about respect. You may despise our current president, but he is in fact, OUR president. We teach kids to respect police officers, teachers, and other authority figures because they hold an office or position that is worthy of respect. It’s trite but true that you don’t have to respect the man in power, but you do have to respect the office. Of course, you can engage in discourse wherein you respectfully disagree, but name-calling and bashing is not something you want to teach your children, even if you feel 100% justified. The same goes for the other half of the population or political spectrum with which you disagree. Engage in respectful conversations and try to understand each other. Appreciate that not everyone believes in the same things you do. Model this behavior to your children.
  5. Teach your kids there comes a time to move on. Wallowing feels good for a while, but then it just becomes ugly. What’s done is done. As Americans we have a right to peacefully protest, to write or call our government officials, and to have our own opinion about how our president is doing. But to be close-minded as to his potential, see everything he does as negative, and give him no chance to prove himself is downright wrong. Would you want someone doing that to your child? Do you want your child to grow up believing that people can’t change, have no redeeming qualities, or should not be given a chance?  Show your children what it looks like to extend grace and to have faith, even in the most difficult times.

Take every opportunity to teach your kids about life and to help them become the kind of people who will make the world a better place. Help them to be thinkers, to be aware of media motives, to have a healthy level of respect for others, and to persevere in the face of adversity. You may think nothing good will come of our current political situation, but if every parent used it to teach those things, the world really would be a better place.

Need help with your parenting? Check out Teenagers 101. Need help getting your kids on the right path? Check out Teenager Success 101.