Results of a national survey show that American teens have experienced an onslaught of abusive and hateful behavior since the beginning of the 2016 presidential election.
The survey, conducted by the Human Rights Campaign, interviewed more than 50,000 American teens between the ages of 13 and 18. It showed that almost half of youth revealed feeling nervous most or all of the time during the last thirty days and 70 percent of respondents have witnessed hate speech, harassment, or bullying since the onset of the election.
Of those who reported witnessing bullying or harassment, 70 percent witnessed incidents motivated by race or ethnicity, 63 percent witnessed incidents motivated by sexual orientation, 59 percent witnessed events motivated by immigrant status, and 55 percent witnessed events motivated by gender. More than a quarter of LGBTQ youth reported being bullied or harassed since the campaign began, compared to 14 percent of non-LGBTQ youth.
Bullying comes with significant long-term consequences. A recent study published in the Journal of Educational Psychology that tracked children for more than a decade found that chronic bullying is closely linked to lower academic achievement, a dislike of school, and low self-confidence in students.
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There is some good news in all of this. Research does show that strong parental support can help protect adolescents from bullying. We all know that kids need unconditional love and support, but in the current social climate kids face, they need even more. They also need a safe place to vent their feelings and talk about what they’re seeing and hearing in school and out in the community. If you think Facebook politics leaves you feel drained every day, imagine how your kids are feeling confronting these difficult (and sometimes hateful) topics face-to-face with their peers.
So here are some things parents can do:
Open the dialogue.
Older kids aren’t generally known for coming home from school and spilling their feelings and thoughts about the day. More often than not, they need time to decompress first. That doesn’t, however, mean they want you to completely leave them alone. As one teen told me, “I don’t want my mom to ask me a hundred questions, I just want her to say, ‘tell me about it’ or even just ask if I’m okay'.”
Parenting with empathy means taking the time to understand what your kid is up against. Even if your child isn’t being bullied or harassed, she might see it in the hallways or in the lunchroom. Older kids don’t always answer the first (or second or third) question you ask. Sometimes you have to share an observation—mention something you’ve seen in the news to convey that you know what’s happening and you can talk about it without overreacting.
Make the time to talk and resist the urge to fix. Sometimes the most important thing you can do is sit back and listen.
Kids need to know where to go and who will help if they see or experience bullying or harassment.
Talk about safe spaces.
Most schools have some sort of bullying protocol, even if your child feels it isn’t being followed. Familiarize yourself with the protocol and talk to your child about it. Does anyone actually follow it? Is there a way to make anonymous reports? What happens when bullying is reported?
Help your child identify a safe space at school where he can get help or get away from the bullying. It might be the front office or it might be a school counselor’s office. Kids need to know where to go and who will help if they see or experience bullying or harassment.
Kids tell me that it’s very difficult to take the steps adults tell them to take. “Ignore the bully” is advice that feels impossible when the bully follows you around and has tons of friends in on the bullying, or when the bullying comes in the form of rumors and gossip. “Make a joke” is another piece of advice kids tell me fails. It’s really hard to make a joke when you’re completely overwhelmed with negative emotions.
Encourage your kids to be “upstanders.” They don’t have to make a joke or fight back if they see someone bullying someone else—they simply need to approach the victim and say, “Want to hang out with us?” or something similar. Upstanders have the opportunity to help a peer in need just be standing near that peer in silent opposition to the bully.
If your child is the one being bullied, encourage him to scan the room for the friendly face and approach that person. If he can’t get out of the path of the bully, he needs to signal a peer for help and avoid engaging with the bully.
Establish a touchstone.
Every kid needs a touchstone at school. It can be a favorite teacher or someone else on the staff that knows and understands your child. Make sure your child knows that he can get support from that touchstone when in need, and stay in touch with that person to help bridge communication.
Many older kids tell me they hide bullying reports from their parents because they’re afraid that parent involvement will somehow make it worse. Providing a safe space to talk, listening without judgment, and helping your child discuss ways to confront and cope with bullying and harassment at school will encourage your child to take the necessary steps without feeling threatened or embarrassed.
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