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Youth-Family-Dispatch

Bullying in perspective

The older I get, and the more years I spend helping kids and teens struggling in the school system, the more enlightened I have become about many aspects of student life. 

In particular, the widespread and deep damage that can be caused by bullying at school is more important than I ever realized as a teacher, or even a student. The school bully is hardly a new feature of the playgrounds or hallways, but what we are discovering is the extent to which this can cause difficulties in life. There are a few misconceptions about the nature of bullying long accepted as true. Whether in person or online, mistreatment by others is something all parents and teachers need to know about.

A study I found earlier this week provides some new information (new to me, at least). It is one of many studies that clearly points toward victimization by one's peers at school as being a strong predictor of social and emotional difficulties in adulthood. In essence, this finding pours cold water on the old idea that being harassed by the school bully is a sort of rite of passage that is expected and even healthy. 

Did anyone tell you, back in the day, that getting picked on and pushed around by someone at school ‘toughens you up’? That it somehow prepares you for the real world? It certainly was not uncommon thinking at one time, but it turns out the opposite is true. Being bullied can do serious damage to one's emotional health later on in life, not just in the present. We are wise to be aware, through conversation and openness, of what is happening in our kids' school experiences.

Take a moment to think about this. If someone faces harassment while in school, especially if it is not stopped, it is possible that the emotional problems that can follow may last for decades. The behaviour pattern was created when that person was young, and that pattern, along with beliefs that can go with it (e.g. ‘they won't want to be my friend’, or ‘there must be something wrong with me’) can stubbornly remain in place. Nobody wants to see this occur, and yet it can easily happen if the harmful events taking place are not recognized.

What can you, as a parent, teacher, or caregiver, do to minimize the chance of emotional difficulties? There are many answers to this question, but for now, let me suggest two measures, often overlooked, that can break the cycle of victimization by others. 

First, have regular agenda-free conversations with your kids regardless of what stage of schooling they are at. Make a point of asking how school is going, and get beyond the simple answers of ‘ok, I guess’ or similar. Listen for stories of ‘mean kids in class’, or ‘the guy in chemistry class won't leave me alone’. Before we can deal with emotional trauma, we need to have a sense that something unhealthy is actually occurring for a child or teen.

Second, be in communication with your child's teacher, even if that just means attending parent-teacher interviews. Try a practice that is overlooked in our society, focus not only on asking the teacher about academics, but also about your child's social connections and relationships with peers. Do they appear to have friends in class, and does the teacher notice anything unusual or troubling? Brief conversations with coaches and leaders outside school can be revealing as well. If your daughter plays on a soccer team, what is the coach noticing about her ability to bond well with her teammates? Most coaches will have already noticed any potential problems.

An understanding about the nature of lifelong emotional health can help you put the child or teen's experience of life in a different light. An awareness of when a child might be getting targeted by a peer, and keeping tabs on that child's progress in creating and developing healthy social connections, can help him or her to do better in school and have a more pleasant disposition at home. We can give children and teens a better chance at a future not burdened by overwhelming emotional difficulty and trauma. This can be a gift that lasts a lifetime.

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna who helps many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Continue to read Andrew's bi-weekly column at clarowellness.ca



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I don't want to go to school!

It is completely normal for any child (or teen, for that matter) to be nervous about returning to school, as I went into detail about in my last column. If you have a son or daughter who is less than enthusiastic about starting school again, rest assured this is very unlikely to be any kind of statement about you doing a poor job of keeping them engaged over the summer, or that you have presided over a downward slide into a life of despising academics for your child. Hopefully, if anything you and your family have all created a few lasting memories over the past two months, and a lack of joy about that first school day is actually a reflection of healthy, enjoyable times that you helped to facilitate!

However, we also need to be realistic. There ARE times where that reluctance to start school is in fact related to a trauma that has occurred there, and one that you may or may not even be aware of. An interesting element of this comes from the ability many children have in hiding and burying bad memories very effectively, usually hoping they will simply go away. In addition, many children also do not wish to "trouble" very busy parents, or disappoint happy ones, fearing a loss too often of mom or dad "being proud of me". Parental approval can be exceptionally powerful for young people, regardless of how close or distant the relationship between parent and child may be.

I can remember a young elementary school student I worked with many moons ago, whom I will call Ava; a bright, happy girl on one level, and yet anxious at school in ways nobody had been able to get to the root of. It was near the beginning of the year, and she would breathlessly be reduced to tears when asked by her mother to explain why she commonly reported that her school day was "okay", but never exciting or great. As the process unfolded, she eventually recounted how she had a friend in her class the previous year who wanted to keep Ava's company to herself, and discouraged any effort to accept offers to play from other friends at recess. As a result, Ava felt trapped between wishing to play with the other girls and not lose their friendship, while not wishing to disappoint her more solitary friend - an impossible situation, especially to expect a very young child to deal with independently. She could not put the memory behind her, even more than two months after the previous school year had ended!

The example of Ava is a notable reminder of the fact that children and teens will very often carry their most recent and/or powerful memory of school into each new day with them. Hopefully that will be a good memory or positive experience, but for some young people, a trauma that has occurred at school can remain in place for years at a time. However, a reluctance to head over to school for those first few days can indicate something larger going on, particular if you sense a malaise that is not easily explained by a natural discomfort over this annual September transition.

Your "spidey senses" as a parent will be important at this time of year, especially over the first two weeks or so of school. You are likely already aware of what your child's normal moods and disposition are, and what kinds of events can impact their mood in a predictable manner. It is this indispensable knowledge and awareness that will help you to understand when something is up, and signal you that a trauma is waiting to be uncovered and resolved. If you are concerned you may be missing something, a quick email or two minute conversation with your child's teacher can really help identify if in fact something is occurring that may be preventing the classroom from being the healthy, safe, fulfilling place it is intended to be. If a problem appears to begin revealing itself, thoughtfully and efficiently working through it is essential. However, if neither you nor anybody on the team has any observations of concern, allow yourself to ease into to knowledge that all may be well. Kids are very resilient, and giving them space to grow their sense of independence, while always being ready to support them when needed along the way, is a powerful combination.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



Back-to-school anxiety

We are only a few short days from school starting up again, and those long, hot days of summer 2015 becoming a memory, rather than a present reality. I am sure we can all remember as children how much we wished summer could have just kept right on going into September and beyond, with the sun staying up long into the evening and bedtimes remaining later! My own children are no exception, and see no reason we shouldn't continue to visit the beach and entertain relatives on an almost daily basis. Nonetheless, as this transition begins to take place, a very common challenge is the feeling of anxiety and the trauma of returning to school and its routines for kids. They can quickly turn the transition from a natural, healthy one into a terrifying experience that impacts the family as a whole.

Very often, the most intense part of back-to-school anxiety comes from the anticipation of that first day, and a child or teen will usually have ample opportunity over that last week of summer to worry about a large number of unknowns. These can include:

  • What if my teacher is mean?
  • Who is going to sit next to me in class?
  • What if other kids won't play with me?
  • Is the work going to be too difficult? Then what?
  • What if I get bullied?

These are only a few of the potential worries I regularly help kids work through at this time of year, but they can represent a large part of the thought process kids and teens may experience before school begins. When these worries go unchecked, and particularly when planned summer activities tend to have wrapped up and much more unstructured time is present, anxiety and even panic attacks can unfortunately result. If a young person has previously had a challenging school experience, the anticipation of trauma will be amplified significantly.

Over my time both as a teacher as well as through seeing many children dealing with school anxiety in my own practice, I have become aware of three different specific strategies that seem to really help a young person anxious and afraid of returning to school, regardless of the reasons.

1.  A week before school resumes, help them get back into healthy and predictable routines in time for the school year. This means going back to an earlier bedtime (easier now that the days are getting shorter!), bringing structure back to mealtimes that may have naturally disappeared over the summer, and getting up earlier too. Having time to allow the mind and body to adjust to school mode ahead of time, rather than attempting to change all the routines back on day one of school, can make a huge difference.

2.  Being aware, as parents and guardians, of our own moods and body language in the days leading up to and including that first day. If we feel unprepared and cranky, it is almost a guarantee that our kids will not only notice, but take on some of that same stress and intensity themselves. Therefore self-care for the adults is critically important too! Ensure you have made all the necessary clothing and lunch preparations the previous day, and left a bit of time to breathe and relax on that evening before school begins as well. A parent having time for quiet reflection and connection, followed by a good sleep, is actually a huge plus for potentially anxious students.

3.  Initiate conversations about how your child is feeling about school coming up, including both positive and negative things. Choose a quieter, more relaxed part of the day, such as just before bedtime, and most of all, BE PRESENT in that conversation! That means listening carefully to their answers, asking follow-up questions, and ensuring the phone is not even acknowledged for a few minutes. Feeling heard, and having a chance talk through some of the fears and anxiety without interruption will often have massive benefits for the anxious young person.

The return to school does not have to become a painful, stress-filled time for the family. It is in fact a change just as normal and predictable as the beginning of autumn itself, which will soon be upon us. Taking a few intentional steps at this critical time of the year can make possible a healthier return to class, including making new and important social connections at school, and better focus on class work. Start to plan now how to support your child over this last week of summer, and seek assistance as needed.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood/



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Making your teen disappear

There is a question to which everyone has an answer, whether they realize it or not. Here is the question: who are the people in your life with whom you feel safest?

If we know that safety is actually a feeling of comfort, then we can ask the question a different way: who in your life do you feel most comfortable with?

Our answer will reveal much about who we spend our time with, and the actions we choose in order to continue feeling comfortable with these people, whoever they may be. After all, why would anyone want to spend valuable time and energy investing in any relationships that do not provide some degree of comfort and belonging?

The healthiest answer of course is found in having a wide variety of people we feel comfortable spending time with. That does not mean one should try and have 50 “best friends”, but that whether at home, work or school, there is likely one or more people who make us comfortable simply by being in their presence. It is also important to acknowledge that no matter how friendly we are, or how much skill we have at meeting others, we will always encounter people we click with, and people we simply don’t. I once heard an acquaintance describe his pool of friends as being “a thousand miles wide, but an inch deep”. Certainly, there can be a danger in over-valuing the approval of others, and being afraid to seek out those few who will accept us unconditionally, and support us in simply being ourselves.

As a counselor for youth, young adults and parents, it is truly fascinating for me to observe and understand the choices different people are making in getting their needs for belonging and comfort met. To use a prime example, I have met with countless teens and young adults over time who spend almost every possible waking hour with friends, and who use the home as a place to sleep, get fed, but little else. Does this sound familiar? For some, the strength of connection with friends is strong and important enough that the line between friends and family becomes blurred; the friends become a sort of family on their own, and spending any large amount of time away from them becomes exceedingly difficult.

As you may have guessed, this state of affairs becomes problematic when there is not a healthy degree of connection with one’s true family, whether that is parents, guardians, or whoever is the primary caregiver as defined by law. So how is it that teens and young adults can come to regard the family home as more of a convenience, and the family itself as more distant and much less significant than friends? The answer, I believe, lies in who we choose to form secure attachments with at a young age, and the lasting legacy that is often created as a result. Children and teens will look to develop healthy, happy connections with those they often cross paths with, especially at home and school. When there is a perceived lack of warmth, presence or love on the part of the parent figures at home, that young person is far more likely to seek that healthy connection elsewhere.

British psychiatrist John Bowlby studied the behavior of children at length, and he concluded that when emotional and physical closeness are in short supply from the parent figures, and when the young person perceives he/she is not going to be supported in times of difficulty, secure attachments with them are much less likely to form. This opens the door to feelings of “emotional starvation”, and a number of problems such as extreme anger, inability to trust others, and of course, distancing oneself from the family.

This is not to say that an unhappy teen can simply blame unhappiness on parents who are not caring enough. Without question, a young person’s perception of not being cared about, particularly in the heat of the moment, may not be based entirely upon reality. However, it is always healthy as parents to take a step back and reflect upon the degree of happy, healthy connection is currently being experienced in the family. The answer may be one we are satisfied with, or it may also reveal opportunities for us to create a renewed environment of trust, presence, and support with our children. When we choose to make our best efforts in connecting in genuine, caring ways with them, it can be surprising how young people will often respond in kind.

 

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner. Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life. Find more about him and his practice:

Website: http://clarowellness.ca/

Twitter: http://twitter.com/AndrewPortwood



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About the Author

Andrew Portwood is a certified Masters-level counselor in Kelowna with a heart for supporting and helping children, youth and young adults. He has also helped many parents to grasp a better understanding of why their children are choosing the behaviours they have, and how to move forward in a supportive, healthy manner.

Creating authentic connection and clarity is essential in all he does, both as a counselor and in his life.

Find more about him and his practice:
Website: clarowellness.ca
Twitter: @AndrewPortwood

Contact him at The Core Centre of Health (250) 862-2673.



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The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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