Tag Archives: risk

Do I tell? What to do with sensitive information about your child’s friend

Should I tell?

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Among the trickier situations you may come across are those that involve your friends’ kids. You come across your friend’s 12-year-old son smoking cigarettes in a neighbourhood park. Or perhaps you stumble across a compromising picture of another’s daughter online. Maybe you hear about disturbing bullying behaviour going on at school. Or, most complicated of all, your own child comes to you concerned about a friend engaging in high-risk activities, from drinking or illegal drug use to cutting.

What do you do? Reporting on what you’ve heard or seen can feel awkward at best, potentially risky at worst. We all like to think we’d want to know if our kids were doing something illegal or dangerous, but the truth can be way more complicated. Some parents can get very defensive. They may be embarrassed or aggressive. It’s quite common for parents to deny that their baby would ever do something like that, because the implication is that they have somehow failed in their parenting role.

In the very worst cases, calling up another child’s parent to report on what you’ve heard or seen can turn friends/acquaintances into enemies. A highly defensive parent may accuse you or your child of having a hidden agenda, accusing you of being self-righteous, never having liked their child,  or starting untrue rumours for social gain. And if your child came to you with disturbing news in confidence, you risk alienating your own kid and causing social issues for them, in an effort to help a child at risk.

There’s no easy answer in this kind of scenario, but the following guidelines can help you make sense of a difficult situation and determine the best thing to do.

Understand the difference between meddling and worthwhile intervention. This is similar to the distinction we give kids between tattling and telling when they have witnessed bullying going on. Tattling behaviour (or meddling) is all about getting someone into trouble (“She puts on lipstick as soon as her parents aren’t around”); telling (or worthwhile intervention) is about getting someone out of trouble (She’s cutting her arms with a razor blade”). Only those indiscretions which truly involve potential danger need be reported. (Click to tweet this.)

Question your own motivation for getting involved. Is there some element of competition? Some unresolved issue between you and the child’s parents, or between your kids? If you truly feel this child is at risk because of what you know, then you are on more solid ground. Assure the child’s parents that you have no intention of gossiping or judging them, and that in a similar situation you would want someone to tell you your child was in trouble.

Consider how close you are with the child’s parents. There are some smaller indiscretions you may choose to tell a very close friend, because you know their values, worries and concerns for their kids, but which would be inappropriate to tell an acquaintance or a parent you’ve never met.

Never promise your child complete confidence when someone can potentially be hurt.  It’s tempting to tell our children that we will always keep their secrets, but this is dangerous ground. If you believe they know of a potentially dangerous situation (for themselves or others), you and they have a moral obligation to do something about it. They need to know this from the beginning, even if it means they may occasionally be more reluctant to speak to you. The critical factor is how you react: Don’t go behind their backs. Involve them in problem-solving. Determine the most effective and respectful form of intervention. Try and explain the long-term consequences of helping their friend.

Consider whether this issue places an undue burden of responsibility on your own child. A friend who confides to your child about such problems as depression, drug use, or thoughts of suicide is inadvertently overwhelming them with responsibility. These serious problems are too much for a teenager to deal with alone, and if something really terrible happens as a result, they will feel accountable. Kids don’t have the experience, judgement and knowledge to help out someone in real trouble, so know when to go to an adult for help is really important. If your child has come to you with this, it’s likely because they are feeling overwhelmed. They need your help to figure this out. Note that it’s always worth gently questioning your child about their own involvement, since it’s not uncommon to bring forward a problem to test your reaction by saying it’s “for a friend.”

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Start your school year off on the right foot – Parenting workshops on cyberbullying, digital responsibility and risk prevention

1st day of schoolWe sent our baby off to her first day of fifth grade yesterday. Never mind that our baby is over five feet tall, brimming with that distinctive tween mix of confidence and curiosity. She hasn’t let me walk her into class since she started pre-kindergarten at four years old, but she always makes an exception on the first day.

I love that half-hearted squeeze of my hand when she sees her friends, taking off and leaving my holding the bag of carefully labelled school supplies. “Bye Mom!”

She never looks back; I don’t turn around until she’s out of sight. That’s what parenting is all about.

The bittersweet mixture of pride, sadness, relief that accompanies the start of a new school year is tempered for many parents by a concern about new issues, such as Internet safety and responsibility, and old issues with a new twist, such as cyberbullying. These are subjects that come up again and again in the hallways, carpool lines and anywhere that parents gather. Many feel unsure of themselves, as if the rules have changed. They see new pitfalls and dangers that didn’t seem to be there when we were kids.

They are both right and wrong. Digital technologies place new, powerful devices in our kids’ hands that can get them — and others — into more trouble than most of us ever knew at their ages. But the parenting techniques that we can use to keep them safe aren’t vastly different: education, moderation, guidance, supervision, encouragement.

Over the past few years, I’ve given many, many workshops on bullying, cyberbullying and Internet safety and responsibility to groups of parents at schools, community organizations, libraries, churches and synagogues. I work hard to empower parents with practical tips they can use to keep their kids safe and teach them responsibility, but I also make sure to reassure them that they are probably already doing most things right. Parenting is still parenting, and you need to trust your good instincts when you make decisions for your children. Complement that with some specific education and resources for keeping up to date, and you are doing just fine.

Want to know more about my workshops for parents, communities, teachers and school staff? Email me at alissa@risk-within-reason.com and I’ll be happy to outline the different workshops on bullying prevention, digital responsibility and risk prevention.

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What can we learn from Amanda Todd’s tragic bullying-related suicide?

Amanda Todd's call for helpI’m not sure what is harder to take – the heart-wrenching video 15-year-old Amanda Todd posted about her years of bullying, or the many hateful comments that have been posted online since her suicide.

It’s enough to make you want to give up on kids today. To lock away your own children’s laptops, iPads and smartphones. To feel despair about human nature.

But we can’t do that. We can’t stick our heads in the sand. We do all kids a disservice by letting a few bad seeds taint a whole generation. And we can’t properly prepare our kids for a wired world by (ineffectively) banning their access to the Internet. To truly help our children, and to honour Amanda Todd’s memory in the wake of this tragedy, we need to stay focused on some very important points. As a parenting and risk-prevention expert, I’d like to offer some related thoughts to parents, educators and caring people haunted by this (and other) bullying-related deaths.

Most kids don’t bully; most kids aren’t bullied. When tragic bullying-related suicides occur, the media coverage can fan the flames of moral panic. (Click here to tweet this). We clearly need to take this issue very, very seriously, but we also need to remain level-headed.  Hysterical, fear-motivated responses include passing thoughtless and ineffective “zero-tolerance” anti-bullying policies at schools or banning the use of social media at school instead of teaching good digital citizenship.

A 2011 Pew Internet study found that 69% of teens report their peers are mostly kind to one another online. It is true that 15% report being harassed or bullied themselves online, but we need to remember that ” 7 in 10 kids are mostly experiencing kindness, not rudeness and certainly not bullying or harassment” (from bullying expert Larry Magid’s Huffington Post piece).

This does not in any way mean we don’t need to treat true bullying with the utmost care, support and seriousness. Just that we can’t let these tragedies come to define all childhood or teen interaction.

Not all rudeness or cruelty is bullying. This isn’t just about semantics. When governments and schools are grappling with anti-bullying policies and protocols, we need to understand the difference because it can have serious implications for how it is handled. Bullying is generally distinguished from other kinds of aggression (verbal or non-verbal, direct or indirect) by several elements, including intentionally hurtful actions, its repetitive or on-going nature, the general lack of remorse by the bully(or bullies), blaming of the victim (“why can’t she take a joke?” “she’s a slut so she deserved it,” “he takes everything so seriously,” etc.) and an underlying struggle for social power.

A kid who hits another in a schoolyard confrontation may not be a bully. A one-off mean comment on a Facebook page may not be bullying. Those are hurtful, anti-social behaviours that need to be dealt with, of course, but they are not necessarily bullying.

Kids who are bullied may not advocate for themselves or tell anyone. Amanda Todd’s story is terribly insightful. She didn’t report on the bullies. She ran away and hid in a ditch so teachers coming to her aid wouldn’t find her. She didn’t press charges for her assault. I don’t blame her for any of this — who would want to label oneself a victim? The implied powerlessness and humiliation of accepting one’s victimhood can be more additional trauma than many bullied kids are willing to accept.

We need to understand this in order to identify and better help those kids (especially older children and teens) who understand the social implications of being labelled a bullying victim. Many don’t want to disappoint their parents. And the horrible truth is that sometimes adults who get involve unwittingly make things worse for their kids by seeking immediate consequences or public retribution for the aggressors.

So what do they need? First of all, they need validation from trusted adults. Simple, non-judgemental and compassionate acceptance of the stories they have to tell. Look at all the kids and teens who had to go online with their note cards to tell their stories because they felt unable to voice it in person to the adults who loved them. Then they need emotional and practical support. Having mom or dad angrily march into the principal’s office seeking revenge on the bullies is likely not at the top of their list.

We must make the teaching of good digital citizenship a priority in our schools. Technology is not the enemy. It offers amazing, creative and productive possibilities to our children, and using it well will be necessary in their lives.

But it also offers up many pitfalls. Amanda Todd talks about a critical error she made in flashing her breasts on a webcam when she was 12 years old, and how this image was used to blackmail and torment her for years. Schools and parents must teach their children about the hyper-public and infinitely replicable nature of the Internet. Webcams, Skyping and Facetiming should be allowed only in common rooms. We need to review our teen’s Facebook accounts with them (not just friend them and hope for the best).

Bullying is almost never the sole reason for suicide. It may be a catalyst or the last straw, but on its own it won’t put most kids at risk for killing themselves. Almost all bullying-related suicides have other serious elements in play — depression, addiction, mental health issues, etc. Again, bullying may play a key precipitating role. And this is not in any way about blaming the victim. These kids and teens need caring, capable support and counselling. They deserve to live free of cruelty and harassment. They need trusted adults to help them figure out what they can’t manage on their own.

Why is it important to understand that bullying alone doesn’t cause suicides? Because, as much as we need to support all kids who need help, we also need to remain level-headed. Panicked parents of kids who have been targeted by bullies may not be their kids’ best advocates when they see only the worst-case scenarios.

My heart goes out to Amanda Todd’s family and friends. She didn’t deserve the years of pain she endured. Her mother has called for her daughter’s death to be a wake-up call for more effective, proactive legislation in British Columbia. Let us all honour her memory with more effective education, awareness and understanding about the nature of bullying.

 

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