Saturday, May 24, 2008

Bullying and the tough bits of growing up

When you stop to spend some time reflecting on your own childhood and those tween years to adulthood, there are not many of us that would say that it wasn't a tough time.

Often times it was tough because we made it that way for ourselves. We were so worried about what peers thought, when we walked into a room of people and someone laughed, well of course they had to be laughing at us! Truth beknown they probably didn't even see us come in, so engrossed in their own conversation.

I think it is harder for my kids than it was for us. The world is a changing place and not all those changes are nice ones. The precious childhood naievete that was there for my generation seems so hard to keep for our kids.

As parents all of us worry about our kids, will they be happy, what if they have no friends, what if someone picks on them? Add a disability into the mix and that fear goes straight to Def-Con4 (well that is what Michael Kyle of My Wife and Kids would describe it as!)

I think we all feel this need to protect our kids from the nastiness of life and that theirs shall be a life of blue skies, icecream and stuff like that. However is protecting our kids always the right thing to do?

Any parent you ask will either have a child who has been bullied or knows someone else whose child has been. Whether we like it or not bullying happens! No that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to stop it but it does mean we need to be aware and we need to support our kids should they find themselves being bullied.

Many parents of children who have been newly diagnosed with a hearing impairment are beside themselves at the prospect of their child being teased or picked on because they have hearing aids or a cochlear implant, or perhaps because their speech might be a little different.

As the parent of an older teen, I have to say that the reality is that bullies don't discriminate in that respect. They pick a target they think they can "beat" and they will find what it is that might upset that child. It could be a hearing loss, it could be red hair, a big nose, glasses, being too short, too tall, too fat, too thin - the list is truly endless.

When A was around 11 years old we had some real issues around bullying. There was a small group of boys making his life hell at school. He of course reported it to the staff who would deal with each incident. Unfortunately though they spent their time putting out spotfires rather than dealing with the culture of bullying itself. They didn't look at why the bullying was happening and proactively looking at ways to stop it, instead they just chastised the guilty each time that it happened. After awhile A gave up reporting it "what's the point, mum? They get told off, get shitty at me and then do it all over again the next time anyway?" How do you thwart that kind of logic from an 11 year old?

The kinds of things that were happening were pretty cruel. One group of boys would call his name and then when he turned around they would start speaking without their voices. Obviously the intent was to make A fear that his cochlear implant processor was not working properly - yeah real nice guys! Sadly for them they picked the smartest kid going around to try that on! "What they don't think I can still hear all the background noise around me and know there is nothing wrong with my processor and it is just them being morons?" Yep 1 - 0 to A!

There was one particular child who was the instigator of much of this behaviour. I have to tell you as a grown woman it took much of my self control not to give this kid a such a serve that it would be years later until his nose hairs decided it might be safe to sneak back out again. My blood boiled at the mere sight of this child.

He tried the group approach and got nowhere, so then he tried again going solo and calling A " a freak"...and then when that didn't work, he started in on A's younger brother, calling him "the freak's brother"....being somewhat younger and less sure of himself, this taunt did hit the mark and caused many problems at home as it created resentment of A by his younger sibling as he was seen as the reason for the teasing.

We all knew that a change of schools was imminent, not just because of the bullying but due to the program pathways of the school as well. So we did what we could during that time.

So what did we do? All that we could at that time. We talked and talked and talked some more. A and I spent many hours engaged in conversation about bullying, why some kids bullied other kids. That yes it is unfair, and yes you want to smash his face in (stand in line because your mother is first!) but why that actually doesn't solve anything in the long run. The more we talked the more we were able to look at the bully in a completely different light.

The bully was from a family of ethnic origin that historically does not deal well with a disability, the kind of place where you might hide family member away rather than have them go to a mainstream school like everyone else. This child's father was domineering, arrogant and opiniated. So no matter what it took his boy had to be number one, he had to be the best at everything and heaven help anyone that suggested perhaps he was not. This boy was small for his age and he struggled with his school work. Fortunately for him his one saving grace was he was good at soccer so at least his old man was off his back for 60 minutes a week!

So there is the bully, under the hammer from his father for just about everything in his life, but especially being short and not doing well at school.......contrasted with A, who has always been tall for his age and who is academically gifted. Despite dealing with the pressures of listening in class with a hearing loss, A was top of his class for all his academic subjects. No wonder this bully saw red...he had perfect hearing and he couldn't come close! The jealousy he felt turned to rage that was vented at A in the form of bullying.

Whilst we were both still pretty mad at him for treating A the way he did, we get a chance to empathise with this boy, and have a think about how tough his life was trying to live up to his father's demands when he really didn't have what it took to do that.

Some years later when A and were deep in conversation (yep I'm one lucky mum this young man & I engage in conversation quite regularly still on the deep and meaningfuls of life and he is just shy of 16!) During our conversation we must have been discussing bullying or teasing or something. He went back to talking about what it was like when he was being teased and picked on. And then he shared something so profound I will never ever forget it...he said that the reason he made it through that time was because every day he had a safe haven to come home to. He said he knew he only had to deal with it while he was at school, once he got home he knew he was coming home to a house full of people who valued him for who he was and who loved him no matter what. That was the safe haven that gave him a break from the crap, the time to unwind and build up his inner strength to go another round the next day.

So whilst on the one hand it was really like someone took a knife and stabbed me in the heart and spun it around a few times, on the other hand it showed me just what resilience to the shitty stuff in life this experience had taught him. He had found strategies to get through the tough stuff and strong sense of self belief that with the support of those that loved him, he could get through anything! Pretty powerful stuff for a teenager to share.

Pretty powerful stuff for all of us as parents - keep those communication lines open, no matter what small drip of conversational response you might get. Make sure your kids know you love them warts and all. Hug them, kiss them (if you are allowed to : - ) or a simple ruffle of their hair on the way through - that subtle contact lets them know that you love them. Where you can, show an interest in their music (I know brace yourself and into the breech for some of you but you can do it!), their friends, whatever it is they choose to share with you. Don't judge them too harshly: you were young once too you know, did you always do what you were told?

Fast forward to his new school, loves it, heaps of friends never home, always out socialising somewhere. Last year a new student to the school joined A's class. In one particular class the teacher heard a group of boys telling another to "shut up". She thought it was teenage boys being teenage boys and told them to settle. At which point one of A's friends jumped up to report that this other student had called A "deaf boy" or words to that effect, which coincidentally A didn't even hear but his friends did. They were outraged and that is why they were telling this other kid to shut up. So for every bad thing that happens, here is the good that comes of it. A didn't need to say a word, his friends were the one to take this student to task for insulting their friend! His friends had understood that such treatment was wrong and should not go unchallenged.

So whilst it pains us terribly to see our kids going through the tougher stuff of life that ultimately we can't control, it is part of the journey of passage. Kids need to know that sometimes life just plain sucks and you can't change it, you just have get through that stage the best way you can and then move on to bigger and better things. Their life is not defined by the things that happen to them, but rather how they handle the things that happen to them.

As parents never underestimate the power of your love. They might not always show it, or wear their hearts on their sleeves, but in their hearts they know they are loved. They know that when they need them, their parents will be there for them, and that is the most powerful of gifts you can give your child.


Jodi Cutler Del Dottore said...

Hi were right! Tears streaming, profound words, wise advice that I shall follow...hopefully in A's footsteps. Love, Jodi

Kath Lockett said...

Aw, my eyes are filled with tears now... What a wonderful thing for A to say and to realise; that his home (and everything in it) was his haven. That's the best you can do for your children I reckon!

PJP said...

Love this post!!! I brace myself everyday that is this going to be the day that someone points out to Ben he has something "different" going on??!! But I feel ready to handle it (I think)... Thank goodness Ben has a ridiculous amount of self confidence!!!