To talk with children about violence, parents, educators, and other adults need to listen first. Children and adolescents have many thoughts to share from their own experiences. In interviewing over 1,000 children ages 5 to 18, I have found their thoughts and questions on this topic are often profound. They know what bullying is; they know what violence is. Many have experienced it directly, others are bystanders. In all instances, there is a powerful impact. Young people are acutely aware and sensitive to their environment. This is part of a basic survivalinstinct developed in infancy.
Bullying, or other forms of violence, initiates a strong physiological response. This is true whether someone participates directly, is a bystander, or observes via the media. When afraid or feeling threatened, the Hypothalamus-Pituitary- Adrenal axis of the brain is activated. Prolonged reactions of this part of the brain result in children who are hypervigilant and can lead to anxiety, depression, gastrointestinal problems, and other issues that may be lifelong. When adults see these reactions in children and adolescents, they are witnessing the aftermath of exposure to helplessness in the face of violence.
Consequently, it becomes critical for adults to discern the most effective means to talk with children about bullying and other forms of violence that they have seen or heard about. Children and adolescents are barraged with upsetting images from various media outlets to which they have access and they are inundated directly via bullying in their schools, their neighborhoods, and sometimes in their own homes. For example, bullying by one sibling to another is often overlooked by parents who may think this kind of behavior is merely sibling rivalry and who are unaware of the effects that children may carry to school, to their communities, and to their adult relationships.
Creating a Dialogue
What is important in talking with young people about bullying and violence? We want to create an open and non-judgmental dialogue to which children can return repeatedly with a sense of trust. To do this it is important to establish a safe space free of distractions. It is difficult for children, just as it is for adults, to concentrate on serious subjects when there are all kinds of diversions to pull on their attention. When young people seem to be upset about bullying and violence at school, it is important to ask open-ended questions such as: “Tell me about the bullying at your school” and “What have you seen?” Then ask more specific questions such as: “How does bullying make you feel?” Children may participate as victim, bully, or bystander, or be caught up in all three. Children are relieved to have a trusted adult to confide in about their experiences. Even when adults don’t believe bullying is much of an issue at school or in their neighborhood, they are often surprised at what they hear. Adults should be as authentic as possible without giving more information than a child can handle well.
We have all witnessed numerous occurrences of large-scale community or world-wide violence through the media. These examples are played over and over again until they are emblazoned on our consciousness. As adults we have some mechanisms to defend ourselves psychologically from the anxiety that these images engender. We even have the ability to curtail a conversation in which we no longer want to participate. Children do not have these kinds of sophisticated protections. When concerned about what a child may be taking in or how a child is processing instances of large-scale violence, again, it is imperative to talk in a space as free of distractions as possible. Asking questions such as: “What have heard about (fill in the event)?” and “What would you like to know?” are good starting points. This allows the child to talk about what is pertinent to him or her without the intrusion, first, of an adult interpretation or explanation. This is important because adults frequently over-explain and give too much information for the child’s needs. A child’s age and developmental level need to be taken into consideration in any conversation on serious topics.
Little children, typically, want only a little information and want to know that the adults around them will keep them safe. Using words that are at their level of comprehension is essential. Otherwise, they go away confused and not sure about asking again.
Older children, especially teenagers, are able to and ready to engage in a more substantive conversation about why events occur and what can be done. I have seen numerous examples of the creativity of adolescents making a difference on critical problems in their communities.
However we need to remember that teenagers too are eager to feel a sense of security as they go about their daily activities. Although it can appear that they are too self-involved to notice much, underneath the exterior they present they are often anxious and feeling vulnerable to bullying at school and violence in the greater world communities. Assurances for teens of safety, as best as can be offered, are also a necessity. With children and with adolescents, conversations containing specifics on “what to do when” in a bullying situation or in a situation of school or community violence are key aspects of good protective parenting. All caring adults need to be ready to have these kinds of conversations. Many children are not fortunate enough to have parents or caretakers who can or will.
Tolerance v. Inclusion
The many recent events of violence in the news create an opportunity to talk with children about differences and the fact that difference is what makes a country great. We know clearly from the research on bullying that being different in any way is a major precipitant for bullying. Adults and children fear difference because they fear unpredictable behavior from others. It is not enough to teach children about tolerance with regard to race, ethnicity, social class, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Tolerance is often a by-word for “you stay over there and I’ll stay over here.”
Instead we need to talk with children about celebrating and integrating difference into our lives. This is what makes strong citizens and a strong country. Some schools have incorporated social-emotional learning programs into their curricula. These programs teach children to recognize what they are feeling and why. They teach children about respect and empathy for others. Developing empathy is a potent tool against bigotry, hatred, and violence.
These are critical skills for 21 st century children who will be citizens of the world.
Dr. Ellen Walser deLara is an associate professor on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Syracuse University. She is also a practicing family therapist with over 30 years’ experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in both school and clinical settings.
Her area of research expertise addresses child maltreatment, school and community violence, and bullying from systemic and developmental perspectives. She has interviewed over 1,200 hundreds children about their bullying experiences and over 800 adults.
Dr. deLara’s most recent books are: Bullying Scars: The impact on adult life and relationships (Oxford University Press), And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence (Simon and Schuster/ The Free Press) and School-based Intervention Programs (Houghton-Mifflin). She has conducted numerous workshops across the country for groups of educators, therapists, parents, and community members.
Her research has been featured on national and international media including: NBC, “The Today Show;” CNN, NBC, “The Dr. Phil Show”; “The Washington Post,” National Public Radio and Canadian Public Radio. Honored for teaching excellence, she is the recipient of several awards including the National Presidential Merrill Scholars Award at Cornell University and the Meredith Teaching Recognition Award at Syracuse University.
Dr. deLara obtained her undergraduate degree from Cornell University in Human Development and Family Studies, her MSW from Syracuse University, her PhD from Cornell University as well as a post-doc from Cornell University focused on child maltreatment.