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Bullied Child's Death Reminds Us We Are Failing Our Kids

“He loved cats and being outdoors where he liked to fish. He had a passion for building things and was very proud of the clubhouse he built in his backyard.”

Believe it or not, this quote comes from the obituary for 9-year-old Jackson Grubb of Soak Creek, W.Va. Jackson, affectionately known as “Action Jackson” by his family, hung himself in his bedroom last week. One of his sisters found him when she entered his room to show him a frog she caught for him.

Family members said that Jackson was bullied, both at his elementary school and around his trailer park. Though he was known to tackle bullying with a quick comeback (and sometimes even a punch), he started to turn inward.

This happens all too often when kids are bullied. No matter how many witty comebacks you store in your back pocket, it’s difficult to avoid internalizing negative emotions and building negative belief systems (e.g. “I’m powerless to make this stop”) when it comes to bullying.

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Kids are often told to do exactly what Jackson did: Respond with a clever comeback and move on. Sadly, this doesn’t always work.

For years, schools across the country have implemented anti-bullying programs to address this pervasive problem. Through student education about what bullying looks like and how to stand up to a bully or get help, schools hope to decrease bullying among students. Many even boast “zero tolerance” policies.

Unfortunately, research shows that these programs alone rarely make a dent in the problem. To address a problem this big, schools need to consider systemic change and more than one approach.

Sure, it's important to help kids understand the many faces of bullying. But we can’t stop there. Kids need tools to cope with bullying in the moment, but schools also need to work on preventive measures. Here are three ways:

1. Teach empathy.

Many kids are empathy-deficient these days. We live in a competitive culture where kids are pitted against one another almost from the beginning. Comparisons are made, highlight reels are emphasized and kids learn that to get attention they have to be the best—even if that means stepping on a few others along the way.

It’s time to change the way we define success for young children. Scoring the most goals in the soccer game will only get you so far, after all. Kids need to learn to value things like compassion, empathy and understanding. They need to see that these traits make a difference in this world.

The truth is that we are failing our kids.

“The potential for altruism exists and can be nurtured in our children,” says Michele Borba, author of "Unselfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in our All-About-Me World."

“If we want empathetic children," she writes, "we must help them define themselves as people who care and value others, and we must instill those beliefs during childhood.”

2. Teach social skills

I can’t tell you how many kids end up in my office because they’ve been bullied or they are the bullies. In both cases, they often lack the sophisticated social skills necessary to deal with complicated peer relationships.

More often than not, the “bullies” in my office struggle with much larger issues than the insults they throw at others on the schoolyard. Here’s the thing: So do the “victims.” Kids need help developing their social skills. They need to learn how to communicate clearly and assertively. They need to understand how their choices and behaviors impact others. They need to learn to relate in a positive way. They need social skills development every single day.

3. Teach emotional regulation

Kids are under a ton of pressure today, and most of them don’t know what to do with the big feelings that emerge when stress kicks in. They lash out at others, because it feels good in the moment. When one child is hurting, they hurt another to release their emotions for a minute. They hurt others because they are hurting.

We have to teach kids how to understand and cope with negative emotions. While it might be tempting to try to protect kids from emotional harm, the truth is that they will experience negative emotions along the way. It’s part of growing up. To sweep bad feelings under the rug is to set kids up for further emotional struggles. If we want to help them live happy lives, we have to teach them how to deal with the hard stuff. And we have to teach them beginning in preschool.

While it might be tempting to try to protect kids from emotional harm, the truth is that they will experience negative emotions along the way. It’s part of growing up.

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When stories like Jackson Grubb’s make the news, we hear a collective gasp on social media. People everywhere wonder how it could possibly be so bad? How could a 9-year-old turn to suicide? The truth is that we are failing our kids.

We aren’t doing enough to tackle an issue that hurts our children every single day. It’s not enough to join the public mourning and pray for Jackson’s family. We all owe it to the children of the world to do something tangible to address this problem.

Talk to your school administrators or PTA. Research programs on empathy and emotional regulation, and do what you can to bring those programs to your school. And, most importantly, teach empathy and compassion at home. You can make a difference by raising empathic and compassionate kids.

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