Friday, February 12, 2016

When You're Called Into the Principal's Office...

My kids have never had a detention. (Okay, wait, I take that back. My son was given a detention for not wearing a belt to school - harmless). I have never been pulled into a meeting to be told anything but positive affirmations about my kids; it's one of the things I pride myself on - my kids are good kids. They may struggle with grades from time to time, and they may have a disagreement with a friend or their parents (totally normal), but they have never been zeroed out for doing anything horribly wrong, until today.

Yesterday, a letter was sent home to the parents of my daughter's middle school about a bullying incident the school was investigating. My middle school child read the letter to me in the car on our way home from ice skating and even had a conversation about what it might be about, who might be involved. We discussed how unacceptable it is to say hurtful things, and she was in complete agreement. Today, I received an email from the school asking my husband and me to come in for a meeting. I knew my daughter was getting bullied by some boys at school, but she told me the boys wrote apology notes, and I assumed (stupid me) that all was better.

Let's back up a little here. My daughter has an Instagram, Snapchat and email account. She just got a phone for Christmas, but she has to pay for the minutes she uses, so it's not a device she uses often. She does, however, have an iPad (supplied by the school), an iTouch and a hand-me-down computer from her brother. I have been quite resistant to her having a phone with complete access to the world without my supervision. I thought I had my bases covered and her protected, but I was so, incredibly, stupidly, and regrettably wrong.

It started with her telling a boy in school that she liked him. This one confession spurred an avalanche she never saw coming. The confession was shared with the other boys, and soon, hateful words were thrown at her. Trying to understand the negative reaction, she asked the boy, on Instagram chat, and more hate and an encouragement to kill herself was thrown at her. I won't disclose what was said, but it escalated, causing my daughter to eventually lash out, making a threat that has now caught the attention of her school. You have to know my daughter to understand why she would say the things she did. She's a kind, loving person who desires to be accepted and is hurt when she's not. She also doesn't understand that kids, at her age, cannot keep secrets nor can they be mature when handling uncomfortable things - especially boys. She's still naive in thinking she can trust everyone. When someone, or worse, multiple people back someone into a dark corner of hateful words, there comes a time when the victim will either allow them to continue hurting or, in her case, lash out to save herself. I don't condone her behavior, but I am trying to understand it as her mother and as someone who hurts so deeply that she was pushed to fight back with such heightened emotion.

My daughter has been bullied multiple times by some seemingly ruthless children at two separate schools. She knows what it's like to be hurt day after day. At her old school, she was bullied for three years by the same girl. Parents even got involved and spoke to the administration yet nothing was ever done. It was just recently that the bully finally got expelled for making threats. It's unfortunate, but I think at some point, those who are bullied get tired of being beaten down, and that's when they either retaliate or contemplate a much more severe outcome for themselves.

With so much education on bullying out there, it's shocking that it still exists so heavily. The consequences of today are much more severe than in the past as a hopeful deterrent of the behavior, yet kids still push each other's buttons with the idea that they will obtain power over the victim. If you google Bullying, there seems to be an infinite amount of information at our fingertips. How to spot it, how to avoid it, how to handle it. Kids are bombarded with antibullying campaigns on a continual basis, perhaps so much so that they are now desensitized to the message. So what do we do to make it soak in? Huh, that is the fifty-million-dollar question, isn't it? It's almost as daunting as finding that miracle drug to cure all cancer. While we don't have the cure, we do have treatments and the earlier it's treated, the better chance to wipe it out.

As parents, we have a responsibility to guide our children through the best and worst times of their adolescence. We don't get to pick and choose what we want to face - we must face it all. At first, when I was confronted with what my daughter had done, I was mortified, sick and deeply sad. My thoughts ran rampant, wondering what went wrong, how could I have prevented it? What does this mean? But then, I took a step back and analyzed everything - the cause and effect from both sides as well as checking my emotions at the door. Once I got a handle on myself, I realized these things:

1. This isn't about me.
2. I can't change what has already happened.
3. I have an opportunity to turn this into a teaching tool.
4. I was lucky to find out about this early - no major damage was done.
5. I will now be more vigilant about my children's use of electronics as well as with their interactions with others.
6. I will do what my girlfriend calls a "heart check" to see how my child is feeling on a regular basis.
7. I will not brush over what appears to be general tween/teen issues or problems. Instead, I will ask questions and wade through the muck of over-exaggerations and secretive language to get to the bottom of an issue.
8. I will commit to continually educating myself about the dangers and pitfalls children can become victims to.
9. How I react will make the difference between a positive or negative outcome.
10. No matter what, I will have my child's back and always have their best interests at heart.

Education starts at home and that is where we need to tackle this issue. Don't think that if your child is attending a private school, he or she will be protected - it happens everywhere. It happens at the playground, in your neighborhood, at church and pretty much anywhere people gather either physically or in the cyber world. Talk to your children and find situations that open the dialogue about tough topics when they feel safe. We are our children's best defense. I know we often tell our children to not let hurtful words affect them, but it's not a realistic solution. The saying "sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me" is a ridiculous notion because, in actuality, words can hurt worse than a physical blow. Words hurt no matter how hard we try to deflect them. Instead, validate their feelings and help your child work through them.

I'm going to leave you with one more bit of advice: Don't be afraid to monitor your children. It's not a sign that you don't trust them, but rather, that you love them.

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