I s#MeToo #TimesUp #BelieveWomen, we’ve all heard of these all-too familiar hashtags and movements. Why? Because sexual harrassment and sexual assault is all too common and it has taken way too long for this social issue to rear its head with such force. 77% of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 51% have been sexually touched without their permission. The numbers are staggering. We have reckoned with the Bill Cosbys, Harvey Weinsteins, Jeffrey Epsteins and so many other men who have abused their positions of power to subordinate and subjugate women. What happens when the lower profile men manipulate, dominate, groom, abuse or harass women and girls? I want to raise awareness of the devastating implication of our culture of sexism and the social construction of gender. We are breeding norms of behavior that perpetuate age-old stereotypes. It goes like this. In conversation with a friend recently, we were talking about my recent musings of my experiences with a long-standing male friend who demonstrated a subtle form of sexual misconduct (listen to podcast Episode #56 “An amoral game of seduction”). We were debating appropriate vs. inappropriate behavior when she related her 17 year old daughter’s report of her “creepy doorman” who told her “if only I were younger”. The implication was that he, a person of 50 or 60-something years of age, found her attractive. Her mother/my friend told her daughter not to make such a big deal out of it and it’s harmless. My reaction: this is where the problem begins. Our daughters, children, are socialized to be sexy and “cute” and “adorable” at a very young age. They should dance to Beyonce’s lyrics; twerk like Miley; and be preoccupied with their appearance. After all, girls are always admired for their prettiness, while boys are told how active, strong, and athletic they are. In addition to the grooming of girls to be valued for their appearance, they should simply shrug off inappropriate, denigrating, offensive, and violating attention or statements. We should be flattered by the attention or compliments. I understand that there is a broad stroke of cancel culture that we are contending with, where every reaction seems like an over-reaction but we must also acknowledge, support, and value the rustlings of discomfort that as women, we may experience. Sexual abuse does not have to be the end game. So, when my friend tells her daughter to shrug off or laugh off the doorman’s comment, she is sending a loud message; boys will be boys and just go with the flow. What her daughter and so many others need, is validation of their experience; the recognition that there is an injustice being served; and that women have the right to exercise their voice and let these men know that not only does “no mean no” but that it may just be incumbent on us to protect our personal boundaries by confronting even what may seem like the most benign of violations. That last sentence caused me to pause. Am I saying that women are responsible to educate men on social civilities? And that it’s a woman’s fault if she is violated? Absolutely not. But towards an effort to shift the power dynamic between genders, we can start by helping our children and daughter’s understand acceptable vs. unacceptable behavior, advocate for them, model the use of our voice, and create a baseline of zero tolerance.
I share my personal experience with unwanted sexual advances on Episode #56 of WWDMD.
There are many of us in the sandwich generation - balancing responsibilities of caregiving for children and aging parents. It is incredibly challenging and daunting. So many emotions and so much time and energy. Even if there are no children involved, it remains that the caregiving becomes an enormous task. There is so much to contend with - for both the aging parent and the caregiver. I’m going to start with the stress on the caregiver. Whether you are working full-time or not, the emotional aspect of seeing your parent physically and/or emotionally decline - the one who had the answers - who was a guiding force - who supported you into your adult life, is a monumental loss. Accepting that they aren’t who they once were, physically, cognitively or both, often leads to reprimanding them, feelings of anger, frustration, resentment and even depression. Once some physical distance (such as after a visit or time spent in the home) has been created, the guilt sets in. How could I have treated him/her like that? It’s OK. It’s human, and it’s normative, and it’s really really hard. The goal of course is to have more empathy, but the reality of the burden and the loss often overwhelms the ability to be empathic. If there has been a historically conflictual relationship with the aging parent it can be even more stressful and confusing. I know when my mother developed dementia she would often say “you never told me that” when she could not remember something I said. Upon reflection, I would hope to provide more compassion and empathy resulting in a response of “ok”. But most of us respond with “I already told you… remember?” This is of no help as it only makes the parent aware of their deficiency and leaves them feeling less than. But when their cognitive losses are less clear (perhaps that stage where they haven’t been diagnosed yet and you’re not sure what is happening) and there is a history of conflict, it’s easy to get bogged down in trying to figure out whether the behavior is rooted in a cognitive deficit or may just be a repetitive extension of the parent’s typical behavior. For me, my mother would often say something hurtful and then deny she said it, leading me to question my own perception of reality. So for me, this occurrence of “you never told me that” was a trigger. We do the best we can. Both ourselves, and our parents. So here’s the empathy for the parent: can you imagine what it is like to regress to childlike stages? To need assistance for common everyday practices; to not remember what you don’t remember; to not be able to piece together parts of your life; your daily activity; to depend on your children of whom you are supposed to caregive? This is a cruel life transition. It is extremely difficult to reconcile both physically and emotionally, for all involved. Be kind to yourself. And be kind to your parents. They did and are doing the best they can.
Most of my work is about change. Making change. Taking risks. Meeting challenges. Confronting fears. Dealing with transitions, relationships, loss. Folks often feel stuck and want to feel better; more at ease; attain a sense of satisfaction. But here’s the rub: you cannot become what you want to be if you are too attached to what you have been. Making change takes hard work. I wish it was easy as Nike’s slogan “just do it”. We all wish we could just “do it” but our fears and insecurities often intrude. And whatever point we are in life – if it’s not satisfying or happy – it is familiar. Familiarity is very comforting even if it’s uncomfortable. It’s about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable- and making the uncomfortable more comfortable. Making change takes risk. It’s scary and requires vulnerability. That’s a major tradeoff to what might come. “Might” is the operative word because there are no guarantees of outcome. We can stay with the familiar and know what we know. Or, we can take risks. Whether the risk leads to satisfaction/happiness or not, you will gain wisdom; the ability to learn from it. It may even get you closer to what you want. And, if it doesn’t turn out as you hoped, you can always try something new again. There is a way out because we create our own stuckness.
What does it mean to be authentic, and do we have the same expectations of others that we have of ourselves? To me, authenticity means being genuine - at times, transparent. Some folks think it’s also about always being true to ourselves. So, as a clinician that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m going to “tell it like it is” with my clients. However, that doesn’t mean I’m not being genuine. It just means that I’m choosing my words carefully. Sometimes, my knowledge of something - or an interpretation, and understanding - is not ripe to be shared. Sometimes, my thoughts may not be beneficial to my client; I’ve had to learn to refrain from saying anything that just comes to mind. That’s part of the art of being a therapist. As I always say, who exactly is it serving to share what I’m thinking? Well, what if we put that philosophy into action in our personal lives. Why does that feel so much harder to do? Imagine refraining from sharing your true feelings with your partner, your friend, your aquaintance all the time. Isn’t there “a time and a place” where your words will be better received? Is there “a time” to keep some thoughts to yourself? Consider this: do you really want folks to be transparent with you? That means not only the positive feedback but the negative. It means uncensored feelings and responses. Being authentic is a catch-all. Yes, be true to yourself, but not at the cost of someone else.
Can you also imagine being freer/authentic with your positive feelings? Being able to offer compliments as you see them. Being able to offer genuine support and validation. Being able to align yourself with someone’s pain rather than refute it? Caring authentically.
I think being authentic is about being as genuine as we can - pure-hearted. Well-meaninged. Kind. Honest. Adhering to the fundamental values of humanity. To. The. Best. of. Our. Ability.
If you want to hear more on this subject, check out podcast episode #35 Being Your Authentic Self
How do you feel about differences? I mean, really feel? I know we are prone to say that we welcome any and all - but do you really feel that? Believe that? I want to challenge you - to consider the biases you hold. Without judgment. But it’s a reality. We all have them. And I’m not exempt. So, as with many things, the first piece of the process is self-reflection. And then acceptance. It doesn’t make us bad people. It’s just a tradition, a part of our culture, that has been embedded in us from day one: to “other”. This is about treating someone or a group of people who are different in some way as though they are “less than”. Othering is based on how we perceive and treat those who are viewed as being part of the in-group versus those who are seen as being part of the out-group. We may not be aware that these are based on our unconscious assumptions but our American culture continuously reinforces the idea that difference is not ok. We should conform: look alike, dress alike, think alike, have the same abilities, etc.
Think about your ability to accept those who look different than you (skin tone, style of dress); think differently than you (religion, politics); have different skills than you (work, education). Now that you may agree that you do have these thoughts (again, we all do), what do you want to do about it? How will you begin to address this? Do you feel ready? Do you feel a responsibility to work on this? People are judging you as well. Don’t we all want acceptance? But I would like us to go beyond acceptance - though that’s a first grand step! The place I envision is being able to embrace difference: wanting to learn more about it. Asking is ok! Be curious. Welcome discussions. Welcome others asking you about your difference and feel pride rather than defensive. Don’t shy away from relationships with folks who look different than you; move towards them. Take risks. Put yourself in new situations. Talk to folks you ordinarily wouldn’t. Open your world.
If you want to learn more on the topic of diversity, check out podcast episodes #36 & #41.
Resilience is about the capacity for people to overcome adversity. Sibling abuse is a traumatic event – or series of events – in one’s life. Although there are long-term repercussions of abusive victimization, particularly at the hands of a sibling, there is evidence to suggest that survivors have the ability to mitigate the negative effects of adversity.
An important factor regarding an individual’s resilience is the availability of emotional support, particularly during childhood and early adulthood. Although most survivors of sibling abuse receive limited emotional support from their families while growing up and develop little social capital outside of the home during childhood, others develop resources that provide them with support and hope. Those children who are able to cultivate supportive relationships outside of their homes with peers, mentors, extended family members, or parents of friends, are able to experience a sense of safety and self-value absent in their home environment.
Some survivors find relief, hope, and a sense of worth through relationships with extended family members. Adults who show interest in a victim’s life experiences are reparative. Comfort is found in experiencing genuine love and interest and part of a family in a way that was not available in survivors’ own home.
Ideally, a child should feel that he or she is a member of a cohesive family that is able to provide support in the face of life’s challenges. Victims of sibling abuse lack not only support in the home, they also generally are not involved in meaningful experiences outside of the home that help them develop a sense of competence, mastery, and importance. Children raised in abusive home environments are generally not involved in activities that promote self-confidence, and this promotes a sense of isolation. However, those who do engage in extra-familial outlets report that the social and creative activities support resilience. These outlets – art, music, sports - not only provide emotional release but also help survivors establish a sense of community and receive much needed attention.
Resilience should be achievable at any point in life. Survivors of sibling abuse do not escape pain or long-lasting problems because of their experiences. Yet, many exposed to high risk because of sibling abuse are able to attain competence, build community, and achieve success and generativity in adulthood.
The most important single survival factor for resiliency in abused children is the presence of at least one person who provided unconditional positive regard. For survivors of sibling abuse, this person proved to be their therapist. When parents take victims of sibling abuse to therapy during childhood, victims interpret the problem lying within them. However, when the choice is made as an independent adult to seek therapy, survivors experience the therapist as the only nonjudgmental and accepting adult who validated the sibling abuse. Therapists promote resilience by helping survivors develop the capacity to make decisions, engage in other relationships, and detach emotionally from the abusive sibling. Although therapy could constitute a protective factor, the choice survivors make to capitalize on this resource is a manifestation of their resiliency.
Children who are abusive during childhood may remain abusive throughout the adult sibling relationship. Some survivors choose to cut ties with their siblings or parents in an effort to achieve self-protection. This decision is complex, because these adults sacrifice their connection to their families in order to avoid the abusive sibling. Cutting off can include creating geographic distance from one’s family of origin, rarely visiting with family, or staying in physical contact with family but avoiding emotionally close relationships. Devastated by the loss, survivors still identify cutting off as promoting a sense of safety and an aspect of moving forward. While emotional distance from trauma and the traumatizing participants allows for reparation, recovery also requires a mourning process: mourning of an “ideal” sibling relationship; mourning the quality of relationships with caregivers -- mourning for what could have been; mourning for what should have been. There is hope for overcoming traumatic experiences such as sibling abuse. Supportive relationships and building one’s ego do contribute to resilience. In order to find, seek, or accept supportive relationships, it often begins with a relationship to a therapist. Therapy can be quite curative, and begins with feeling entitled to unconditional positive regard.
LISTEN TO A SURVIVOR'S STORY on WHAT WOULD DR. MEYERS DO podcast.
What are some reasons a child may become a bully?
There are numerous and perhaps well-known reasons why a child may become a bully: they are easily frustrated and have a short temper; they do not respond well to authority; they view violence positively; they feel insecure and bully to compensate for their insecurities. However, studies have also found that bullying occurs from children who have high self-esteem and are often popular. Therefore, it is important to recognize that there may not be a generic answer across the board. Each child needs to be recognized as an individual. A child's unique circumstances can contribute to the act of bullying. It is important to consider the home environment as one factor in which the bullying behavior may be learned, and potentially controlled. Although peers are a major influence in the developing child's manner of interaction, the family environment plays a critical role in creating a culture of acceptable and unacceptable behavior. Parental modeling of aggressive behavior and the choice of disciplinary measures may influence the child to act-out '" or displace '" his/her aggression on peer substitutes with whom he/she may reign. Similarly, the sibling relationship is paramount in serving as a model for peer interaction. Sibling relationships help to cultivate a preferred manner of relating and distinct style of communication. While sibling rivalry can foster competition, cooperation and negotiation, sibling abuse elicits problems in interpersonal relationships . When sibling abuse occurs and it is not addressed in the home, the child who is the abuser may continue to enforce his/her 'status'/role amongst peers.
Tips for parents in preventing your child from becoming a bully
1. Be an involved and aware parent. Know your child.
2. Communicate. The ability of parents to communicate with their child is key. Communication needs to be established early in the parent-child relationship. Always ask how your child is doing in school and not only in the realm of academics. Get to know their friends and the quality of these friendships.
3. Help your child develop empathy. Children who bully tend to be less empathic. Help to develop your child's emotional intelligence through modeling, communication, and sensitivity.
4. Discipline with judgment, not emotions. Studies have found that parents of bullies tend to have an authoritarian parenting style . When a child is in need of discipline, parents should match the punishment with the crime. In other words, make sure that a child is not overly penalized. Through an overly harsh and punitive approach a child learns through modeling that bullying is an acceptable manner of relating and communicating.
5. Limit-set. Parents of bullies may be overly permissive. It is important to create structure, create boundaries, and let your child know your limits.
6. It takes a village. Get involved in your child's school. Parents can work with the administrators of their childrens’ school to enhance the social and emotional functioning of children in the school climate. Schools must not allow bullying to occur. They have a moral responsibility (and in some states a legal responsibility) to effectively respond to, and prevent its occurrence."
What can a parent do if their child is already acting like a bully?
1. It may be unrealistic to expect that a parent will have a strong effect on a child with whom there has not been open communication. Therefore, ensure that as a parent, you have set a precedent of communication.
2. Don't overlook bullying as a typical experience, or as normal. Although it may be tempting to absolve a child through rationalizing their behavior, it is important that both the child '" and the parent '" take responsibility. On the other hand, blaming a child '" or yourself '" will not serve anyone.
3. Monitor your child's facebook site and internet use. Cyberbullying is on the rise. Know your child's activity.
4. Be curious. Be self-reflective. What might have led your child to act out in this way? What is the behavior representing? In other words, can you start to identify what the bullying may be communicating? If so, talk to your child about that.
5. Know that there are long-term implications for children who bully. Seek psychotherapy: getting help early will prevent future problems. A psychotherapist can help your child manage his/her behavior and help you learn how to communicate with your child." Remember that hurt people hurt people.
There is much debate about the value of social media. Cyberbullying has become an epidemic. There certainly is not a dearth of mean-spirited posts to people’s pictures and opinions. Social media lends itself to a forum for bullying as well as social isolation. Facebook, Instagram, snapchat… look how much fun everyone is having – why isn’t my life like that? We measure our value in comparison to others. My theory has always been that the more one spends time online, or the more friends one has on Facebook, the fewer they may have in “real” life. For a child, this is something to consider. Is your child spending more time on social media than with people? When with friends, is your child spending time on social media while together? Are they taking numerous selfies and posting? What are the messages being communicated? What are their values? What is their idea of quality time? How is friendship conceptualized?
Models of bullying behavior are prevalent through not only social media, but television/reality shows, movies, and video games. Pay attention; monitor. Abuse amongst peers has become our form of entertainment. As such, it makes bullying normative. On the other hand, social media allows individuals to connect with like-minded others; to find solace in those who have shared experiences. There are a multitude of videos posted on YouTube in an attempt to give those experiencing bullying a voice; the voice often suppressed by the experience of being bullied; and the lack of voice that often permits bullying to recur. One video which went viral eight years is that of Alye Pollack. She was a pioneer in bringing bullying awareness to social media, with almost one million views. At the time, Alye was an eighth grader whose video had background music playing while she held placards explaining “Words do Hurt” to capture her experience of bullying and perhaps without audible words, metaphorically capture the silence of so many victims of bullying. She pronounced that she spent more time in guidance than her classes, and had thoughts of self-harm. She pleaded with the public to think before speaking…”it could save lives”. She made a second video one year later and conveyed that she is in a much better place, as she has built community. She stated “it doesn’t matter how many friends you have, only that they are good and supportive and accepting”. We can learn a lot from Alye: Find your voice; build community; surround yourself with well-meaning people; quality over quantity. And of course, accept yourself. I know, easier said than done.
We are often told “Who cares what others think!” Can we really live by this ideal? Changing our cognitions - also referred to as our thought processes – requires self-tending and self-talk. It requires an active process of changing the familiar negative “voices” we know speak to ourselves and making them unfamiliar. Consider your inner voice. The bully has made your inner voice very unpleasant. The power we give to our peers in the midst of our identity development is powerful! All we want is to fit in; to be well-liked; to be respected by others. Those who have been bullied have a negative, demeaning, and unpleasant if not downright rude inner voice! Our thoughts often revolve around what we now tell ourselves; but what was based on those early observations made by our utmost important and molding peers. We no longer have to let them have that power! What we think, assume, or believe about ourselves are often based on misperceptions, misconceptions and now our own irrational thinking. The first step is to identify the irrational beliefs causing the uncomfortable feelings. Then you dispute those beliefs, and finally replace them with more rational beliefs. For example, if Lisa thinks she is dumb because that is the messaging she received from bullying, she could ask herself what evidence does she have that she is dumb, other than the perpetrator’s perception of her? Has she succeeded academically? Does she have solid values? Is she able to sustain conversations with others? Is she knowledgeable about a particular subject? The idea is, that one person’s perception does not an identity make. This does require practice, as it is not a natural thought process to UNDO our prior beliefs and challenge our self-confidence. Just as the parent or teacher should not deny the impact of an experience – it does hurt! – Neither should we. But now, the focus is on taking back the power over ourselves.
It’s not too late to heal. As an adult, to actually listen to what others say. HEAR the statements of appreciation. HEAR the compliments. SEE the way people look at you. On the one hand, we are told not to give others such power over us; that we have to build our confidence through believing in ourselves. This is not an easy task, particularly for the developing adolescent who is fraught with building an identity and to whom peer approval is everything. As mentioned earlier, we are often conditioned to dismiss the positive accolades: to undo compliments. Perhaps rather than striving NOT to care what others think; we should take in that which is affirming and learn to assess the critique given the source, and the basis for such feedback. Is it worthy of self-reflection? Should it be dismissible? Take in what is liked about you; your strengths; views and perceptions that contradict those victimizing perceptions from youth.
We do have the power to shift our perceptions of ourselves – and it may take external validation. It may be challenging to integrate your sense of self with how others positively perceive and receive you, but work on it. We are a society that judges each other based on immediate (often physical) impressions.
This takes time, and it takes making yourself vulnerable: vulnerable to new situations; vulnerable to experiences that have potential to raise insecurities. Vulnerability is an uncomfortable feeling. And we expend a lot of energy protecting ourselves from it. When we feel vulnerable, we also tend to judge others to mask our own shame. We may point out people’s flaws, or shame others (“look what she/he’s doing; “look how ridiculous he/she looks”). Interestingly, vulnerability is the last thing we want others to see in us, but the first thing we look for in others. If we accept that there is no way to control the perception others have of us, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying, perhaps we can put that energy into the idea that “I am enough!” We are much more complex than first impressions. Give others the same openness with which you wish to be received. As an adult, model for our youth; as a former victim of bullying, remember that every individual who judges is masking his/her own insecurity: you won’t see my vulnerability if I shame you – and likewise, if I shame myself first there is hope that you won’t have to.
Now that we have some “theoretical” understanding around the dynamics of bullying and how to cultivate character in a child, we can now turn to concrete practices that parents, teachers, administrators, etc. can utilize towards an effort in preventing and addressing bullying:
1. Don’t overlook bullying as a typical experience, or as normal. Although it may be tempting to absolve a child through rationalizing their behavior, it is important that both the child – and the parent – take responsibility. On the other hand, blaming a child – or yourself – will not serve anyone.
2. Communicate. The ability of parents to communicate with their child is key. Communication needs to be established early in the parent-child relationship. Always ask how your child is doing in school – and not only in the realm of academics. Get to know their friends and the quality of these friendships. It may be unrealistic to expect that a parent will have a strong effect on a child with whom there has not been open communication. Therefore, insure that as a parent, you have set a precedent of communication.
3. Help your child develop empathy. Children who bully tend to be less empathic. Help to develop your child’s emotional intelligence through modeling, communication, and sensitivity.
4. Discipline with judgment, not emotions. Studies have found that parents of bullies tend to have an authoritarian parenting style. When a child is in need of discipline, parents should match the punishment with the crime. In other words, make sure that a child is not overly penalized. Through an overly harsh and punitive approach a child learns through modeling that bullying is an acceptable manner of relating – and communicating.
5. Limit-set. Parents of bullies may be overly permissive. It is important to create structure, create boundaries, and let your child know your limits.
6. Monitor your child’s Facebook site and internet use. Cyberbullying is on the rise. Know your child’s activity.
7. Build community: Create an atmosphere people want to be in. Build your social capital.
8. It takes a village. Get involved in your child’s school. Parents can work with the administrators of their children's school to enhance the social and emotional functioning of children in the school climate. Schools must not allow bullying to occur. They have a moral responsibility (and in some states a legal responsibility) to effectively respond to, and prevent its occurrence.
-Inform yourself: Bullying thrives in schools where faculty and staff do not address bullying, where there is no policy against bullying, and where there is little supervision of students – especially during lunch, bathroom breaks, and recess. What is your child’s social life like at school? What goes on during time spent outside of the classroom? Ask! Social interactions are as, if not more, important than academic experiences.
-Meet with school leaders; ask about the school’s approach to bullying and civility
-Expect and demand adequate school action
-Consider changing schools – as a last resort
9. Know that there are long-term implications for children who bully. Seek psychotherapy: getting help early will prevent future problems. A psychotherapist can help your child manage his/her behavior and help you learn how to communicate with, and soothe, your child.
Bullying should be considered an act of violence; an assault on our soul. Be an upstander, not a bystander. Measures can and should be taken to protect our children, and our community from such emotional devastation. Whether you are a child, teenager, adult, parent, teacher, administrator – a human citizen - we can all pool our efforts to create safe spaces, one person at a time; one home at a time; one school at a time.
So many of us are “worriers”. And if you’re not a worrier, I’m sure you have worried about various situations, circumstances, or people. There is often cause for worry - and it may be important to be worried because that can motivate action to problem-solve. However, there are also those who can be consumed by worry, or even create their own worry. I find that when there are risks involved, and usually risk to your own ego, we expend a lot of energy worrying and fearing the outcome of our risk-taking. We feel vulnerable. For example, I do a lot of public speaking which I have learned is the #1 fear in America. So we can take some comfort in knowing we are not alone in this fear! Over the years with a lot of practice and nerves still in play, I became less and less worried about the anticipation of what “could” happen. First, I had to confront my insecurity and lack of confidence but this is something I had to tolerate while I was in the midst of numerous presentations. I knew my reaction or anticipatory anxiety was largely due to feeling inadequate, but I also knew that this was going to take time to work out. And I didn’t have time, because the pressures to present - either self-created or through work expectations - didn’t allow for time. I had to sit with my own discomfort - and it was a lot of discomfort. I did realize that after a few times, it got easier to stand in front of an audience. But what hadn’t yet been addressed was the tremendous amount of time I put into preparation. I believed that the more I prepared, the more I would have a grasp of the material and the more that would increase my confidence. And that was certainly true. What it didn’t help with, was the fears around how the audience would receive me. Many of my clients and students report similar feelings. After much observation, of myself, and many other folks, I realize that a lot of worry is “wasted”. On the one hand, it can propel you into embracing risks and feeling the success of working hard to combat a feeling and gaining recognition. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t have to take over one’s emotional energy to the point of inducing one’s OWN anxiety. Think about something that brings you much worry. Perhaps something consistent (as opposed to a real life situation that warrants such).
Are you a glass half-full person? Are you half-empty? Recognize your general outlook and consider your thought patterns. Are you someone who catastrophizes? Or is your worry about your self-esteem?
There are several different types of negative thought patterns:
In my previous post about bullying, I wanted to acknowledge the developmental impact of bullying and set the stage for how to protect children. While it often feels like we cannot control our child’s environment beyond the home, there are certain ways we can position children from potentially experiencing bullying, bullying, or mitigate the intensity of its ramification.
Parental modeling of acceptable or unacceptable behavior is rooted in a child’s natural inclination to learn from observation. In fact, Albert Bandura, a social cognitive theorist, posited that children learn from others by observation, imitation, and modeling. We may all be familiar with the idiom “Do as I say, not as I do”. In other words, listen to my words, but don't follow my actions. Childhood acts and behavior often stem from parental modeling – they are astute at picking up on cues given within the home that shape mimicking behavior. It is important to “Do as I do”, and with that social signal it is imperative that children’s positive behavior is rewarded and reinforced and negative behavior is arrested. It is confusing when a child is disciplined for behavior that is unacceptable yet they have witnessed the same acts of others, especially those delving out the punishment. Additionally, observing aggressive behavior within the home, and the choice of disciplinary measures may influence the child to act-out – or displace – his/her aggression on peer substitutes with whom he/she may reign.
Modeling is also relevant to self-regulation and impulse control. Children and adolescents tend to lack filters as well as the ability to delay gratification. They say and do what they want, when they want. Learning to sit with feelings, and to know the appropriate time and place to communicate or discharge them is an art form many of us may not master even into adulthood, if that. The ability to manage strong emotions and impulse control comes with the ability to self-soothe. How do we learn to self-soothe? It begins with having the experience of being soothed. And, it goes back to the process of internalization. When we have warm memories and experiences, we “take these in”/internalize them, make them our own, and then can subsequently externalize them when needed. For instance, a friend with three young children under the age of five, exclaimed exasperation at having taken them to the zoo. Overtired and overwhelmed, she posed the question” Will they even remember this day?” I told her that they may not have the literal memory of seeing elephants, tigers, and bears (oh my!), but they were integrating the warm memory, and by having that day, she was fueling them with good feelings.
The process of soothing starts in infancy. Donald Winnicott, a pediatrician and psychoanalyst termed the “holding environment”. He was referring to the role of therapist with a client, but it is based on the idea of the mother-child relationship and the facilitation of the child’s transition to autonomous functioning. Wilfred Bion, another psychoanalyst developed a theory of containment. This is based on the idea that the infant’s upsetting, painful, or intolerable feelings are projected onto its mother. The mother provides a “holding environment” for these feelings, and rather than reacting to them, serves as a container, returning to the child the feeling of adaptation so that now the child can reintegrate the soothed feeling as an emotion of its own.
So, if a parent is able to soothe a child when in distress, the child learns how to utilize these coping skills and in essence, manage their own strong feelings. Consider the person you know who blows up at the slightest infraction. Now consider the person you know who is able to remain relatively calm and collected in tense situations. It is likely that the latter person had a soothing home environment. With this idea we can begin to consider bullying prevention. When the tools and experiences are provided for a child to thrive and self-regulate, it is likely they will not have a need to project their discomfort and unhappiness onto others, which is often the precursor to bullying. As well, a victim of bullying is likely to be less traumatized when they have a strong home holding environment.
We have a greater chance of providing soothing to children when we have had the experience of being soothed, and have been able to then self-soothe. This does not mean one cannot learn to soothe and self-soothe. Many parents, and individuals in general are not metaphorically “fed”, making it challenging to feed children. What is the answer? Cultivate support. It is reasonable to assume that without support we are prone to feel drained and overwhelmed. Build social capital: we all need help. It’s not a sign of weakness to ask, despite some cultural propagations.
Children thrive in an atmosphere of warmth, acceptance and support. This doesn’t mean that they should never be disciplined. It means that they know where they can go for comfort. When your child is in distress, listening is more important than advice giving. There is a reason that hallmark doesn’t make empathy cards: empathy is felt, it is an experience. Sympathy is feeling badly for someone. To empathize, you must truly understand another’s experience, or attempt to. We are all familiar with those, who when sitting with someone’s pain, want to make it go away; to relate a familiar experience or to silver-line the feeling, for example “at least you’re not homeless” or “things will be better soon”. We may even be inclined to tell someone how to overcome the experience, and this may, in the right context, serve as useful. However, conveying empathy not only makes a child feel metaphorically emotionally “held” or contained, but also allows him/her to develop empathy for others.
We are often so busy thinking about what we want to say next when others speak, that we don’t truly HEAR. Most beginning therapists, for example, want to “fix” their clients; to have something concrete to offer so that the client can walk out feeling better. And that can be helpful, if not at times, necessary. But the power in healing is also through sitting with someone in their vulnerability. The truth is, most folks feel better having been listened to; most people are quite hungry for that; and a lot of people are not able to tolerate strong, and painful feelings in others. We are kind, and we don’t like to see others in distress, especially loved ones. It’s not easy! We want to soothe, to problem-solve. But the value of listening cannot be undermined. Listening itself is reparative. Humanity is conveyed through listening. Warmth, support, and acceptance are conveyed through listening. And, there is a cathartic aspect of being given the room to be heard.
Empathy should be taught at home and in school. It is not something that is a literal teaching point. It is about conveying empathy through interaction: the interaction I discussed above, or interaction in the classroom. Rather than only making a child apologize for their actions or behavior, when a child offends another child, consider asking the offensive child how he/she thinks the offended child may feel by what is said; how would the offensive child feel if someone said the same thing to him/her? With these reflective questions, the child is likely to develop the ability to put him/herself in another’s emotional place.
Part of empathy includes taking in someone else’s perception. Why are so many youth missing school, self-harming, or even committing suicide due to bullying? It is a response to a traumatic situation that overwhelms the ego before the child has developed the ability to self-soothe, regulate emotions, and learn effective coping skills. They must feel that there is no escape from their pain and the pain is too unbearable to manage. It does not mean as parents you have failed your child. Although it is natural to want to get to the truth about incidents of bullying and what incites such torment, it is also incumbent upon us to tend to the victim’s perception of their experience, certainly when it comes to a school environment and creating a safe space. This is another way of “holding”; and providing empathy. If a child feels mistreated, it is likely they are being mistreated. It is imperative to caution that allowing a child a voice is not the only pathway to prevention. Schools must cultivate and enforce a climate of civility.
It is also important to cultivate empathy for diverse individuals, whether at home or at school. Being open to your child’s friends in all of their variations is critical to embracing differences. The more you have diversity in your life, the better able you are to also model this attribute. Just like it’s hard to cultivate empathy in another if we are not empathic, it is hard to expect certain behavior to be learned without parallel modeling. We grow from exposing ourselves to new experiences and to people who look different than us. We are living in a culture where we are drawn to sameness. Often time differences breeds discomfort if not contempt. And, this may be in fact the basis of bullying.
As a culture, we tend to underestimate the impact of sibling relationships. Rather, we focus on parent-child interactions and its potential influence. Siblings are paramount in serving as a model for peer interaction. Sibling relationships help to cultivate a preferred manner of relating and distinct style of communication. Sibling rivalry is healthy: it can foster competition, cooperation and negotiation. Sometimes one child is at an advantage; sometimes the other is at an advantage; there is generally no intent to harm. Whereas sibling abuse involves insistent, consistent messages of inferiority through emotional denigration and/or physical assault; it involves the intent to cause harm and an unequal opportunity for advantage. Sibling abuse damages self-esteem and elicits problems in interpersonal relationships.
Although conflict is inherent in any close relationship, how conflict is resolved in sibling relationships can foster or hinder peer interactions and influence socialization. Because social and familial norms may encourage expressions of aggression among siblings, it can result in its normalization and lead parents to view aggression as “good training” for their child to learn to handle themselves. When sibling abuse occurs and it is not addressed in the home, the child who is the abuser may continue to enforce his/her “status”/role amongst peers. For the victim, an emotionally denigrating or physically violent experience elicits vulnerability to one’s well-being. An individual with low self-esteem has the potential to lack assertiveness, social skills, and the ability to resolve interpersonal conflict, resulting in a susceptibility to further victimization .
Sperling and Berman found that adolescents who felt they had a secure relationship with their siblings exhibited higher self-esteem and emotional well-being; they were less depressed and had less social anxiety than those who perceived a lack of support from parents.
The sibling abuse experience including the absence of modeling effective communication and provision of parental soothing seriously affects victims’ ability to regulate their own affect and manage strong emotions of others. Additionally, being the target of intense anger from an object of love in this case a sibling leads victims to fear intense feelings and interpret these emotions as inevitably leading to rejection and abandonment. The emotional rejection from siblings contributes to a fundamental perception that they are incapable of being accepted and loved, and puts one at risk for further alienation from peers.
Although the family climate can make a child susceptible to bullying perpetration or victimhood, peer bullying may also increase the likelihood of sibling on sibling aggression. Most parents are upset to learn that sibling abuse occurs under their roof; they may be unable to manage the behavior; or they may feel helpless to address it. They may even be unaware of it as it occurs during unsupervised times. It is important to recognize multiple variables within a family that can unintentionally create hostile sibling relations and result in the perpetrator carrying out this behavior into the school setting, and the victim being either an easy target of bullying at school, or displacing their upset from a sibling onto a peer.
As parents, it is imperative to recognize potential family conditions that may elicit hostile sibling relations. And teachers may also have a proclivity to relate to some students differently than others – it’s the human condition. Please be mindful of the following:1. Children as caregivers
Sometimes parents are overwhelmed and need help with tasks. That is ok! However, children should not serve as a substitute spouse or parent. Children, especially from single-parent homes, tend to be burdened with the caregiving of younger siblings. This breeds resentment and the child is apt to displace his/her anger onto a sibling or peer. Additionally, the child caregiver feels entitled to utilize a sense of authority that they are not prepared for. Does this happen in the classroom as well? Is there one or a few children that are often the “helpers”? Does this vary and alternate around the class? Are messages being sent of competence and incompetence?
In families where there is a single parent, or the parents are not unified in parenting customs, the parent feels alienated. This can create an emotional reliance on a(n) older child to support the parenting role. As with a child who is a caregiver, the implicit role ordained sends a message that the child has the right to discipline, and that the parent will support however that child deems necessary. It can also appear as a special friendship or bond between one child and the parent whereby the isolated child feels ostracized and the abuse imparted by a sibling is supported by a parent, thus creating a “double whammy”.
Granted, each child cannot be treated the same all the time. However, it is important for caregivers and teachers to recognize the strengths of each child. When a child feels another is favored, sibling – and peer - aggression can emerge.
4. Parental/Teacher Modeling & External Stressors
Parents who are overwhelmed are not able to provide emotional support to their children. Build social capital. We tend to have shorter fuses when we are stressed leading some parents to have difficulty tolerating a range or intensity of emotion in their children. This can create a negative atmosphere of criticism and judgment, and a lack appropriate modeling of stress reduction. Do teachers bring their stress into the classroom? Are you able to modulate your own emotions and contain them until the end of the school day? How might external stress impact the ability to provide emotional support to others?