What can I do to protect my child from bullying at school? – Part Two

Last time we discussed how you can help your school deal with bullying. Bullying is not only a systems problem, it is a personal problem. This time, I will focus on how you can help your child avoid being the target of bullies.

You can help your child resist bullying. But you cannot guarantee that they will not be targeted by bullies.

Some factors make bullying more likely. These are not an excuse for bullying, as nothing justifies bullying. Victims of bullying tend to:

  • not have close friends in school
  • be passive or submissive

So what is a parent to do?

Parents cannot make friends for their children but they can encourage them to make friends at school. Have other kids over to play. Suggest he or she do things with other kids. If you notice him or her behaving in a way that is likely to discourage friends such as not sharing well or being aggressive, have a private talk with them.

Encourage your child to get involved in a sport or club where he or she will meet others. Bullies pick on kids who are alone, so encourage your child to stay with friends at school.

When children are passive or submissive, they signal to bullies that they will not stand up for themselves if harassed. You can teach passive or submissive children to stand up for themselves. There are several strategies:

  1. Teach your child to tell an adult. Many children are afraid to tell an adult if they are bullied. Keeping bullying secret gives the bully power. Practice with your child who to tell and how to tell about a bully at school. Sometimes it is easier taking a friend when reporting a bully. Emphasize that it is not being a “tattle tale” to tell an adult. It is part of keeping the school safe for everyone.
  2. Teach your child to stand up to bullies when it is safe to do so. It can be as simple as saying something like “Cut it out, Tim” in a calm and firm voice and then walking away.
  3. Have him or her learn self defence skills. Learning Tai Kwon Do, Judo or some other marital art can help boost self esteem and strength. All reputable teachers of these sports emphasize not to use these skills to bully others. If your child uses more than self defence, he or she may be in trouble with the school or even with the law.

Make sure that your child:

  • knows it is not their fault if they are bullied.
  • does not avoid going to school, clubs or sports because of fear of being bullied.
  • does not support bullies. Laughing when a bully ridicules, encouraging gossip about other kids, or abandoning someone being bullied is not OK.
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What can I do to protect my child from bullying at school?

My kids go to a school where there was a lot of publicity about bullying, the police were involved. Although my children were not severely involved last year, there were some problems. I am concerned with what might happen this year. What can I do if there is bullying at school?

Bullying can be very destructive to children. You are wise to do everything you can to protect your children from bullying.

Bullying is both a system problem and an individual problem. Let’s deal with the system problem first. Next time we will tackle what you can teach your child to help them.

You have to have a plan for dealing with the school. It is the authorities’ responsibility to keep your child safe when they are in their care. The same is true at summer camp or other place where your kid is going.

Your job is to hold them to that responsibility.

Before any bullying occurs, encourage your school to adopt a non-bullying program.

If bullying occurs, write out what happened. Make sure you get your child’s story straight.

If the bullying involves violence or serious threats of violence, the police and the principal should be called immediately.

If the bullying is less serious, tell the teacher and principal about the bullying. A face-to-face meeting is best but a phone call or email is OK. Be courteous. Give them details.

Be clear that you expect the school to stop the bullying and keep your child safe. If they seem responsive, give them a few days to act. Contact the teacher or principal in a few days to see how it is going. Tell them of any more bullying.

Keep detailed notes of your meetings and calls. Always ask for confirmation of your contacts.

If the bullying stops, send a thank-you note. Copy it to the superintendent at the school board.

It is hard to know when to move up the next step.

If the bullying continues, send a letter about what is happening. Insist on immediate action to stop the bullying. Send a copy of the letter to the superintendent.

If the problem does not resolve send a letter to the school board and enclose copies of your letters and notes to the school.

There is strength in numbers. Get other parents of bullied children, your school board trustee and the parent teacher association involved.

Keep up the pressure. Every week, write another letter. Don’t give up.

If everything fails, you may have to move your child to another school.

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Is my 5-year-old too young for a conversation about death?

My sister recently passed away from cancer and my 5-year-old son is having trouble understanding what happened. He believes his aunt is “sleeping” and will “feel better soon.” Is there something we should be doing to help him make sense of his aunt passing away? Or is he still too young?

Your son is not too young to have a simple understanding of death. However, death is hard for all of us to fully understand. His understanding is not unusual for his age.

It is best to use straightforward terms such as death. “Passing away” can be misunderstood. Weave comments into everyday life. When your sister’s name comes up you can reaffirm that she is missed and still loved but that she has died and will not be coming back. If he is curious about other events of death, such as a pet or an animal on the side of the road, you can talk about death in that context.

It is OK to share with your son your own feelings of loss at your sister’s death. Be careful, though, not to overwhelm him with your grief.

Answer his questions honestly at a level that he can understand. For a five year old, learning that the cancer stopped your sister’s body from working might be the level he can understand.

Your family’s religious beliefs will also influence how you talk about your sister’s death.

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How can I help my daughter focus on her goals so she won’t get frustrated or bored?

My daughter is a vibrant and enthusiastic 11-year-old. She loves trying new things, such as drawing classes and soccer. But when the activity becomes too challenging or not challenging enough, her excitement fades and she loses focus. I’m wondering how I can help her focus and reach her goals more effectively. Are there ways I can help her set goals that she will actually stick to?

There are effective methods to help people stick to their goals.  The first strategy has been developed as a management tool but is also useful with kids. Using the acronym SMART, goals should be:

  • specific
  • measurable
  • attainable
  • realistic
  • time limited

Lets compare two goals your daughter might have:

  1. Learn how to draw really well.
  2. Attend at least ten drawing classes this term.

The first goal is not very specific, is difficult to measure, might be attainable and is not time limited. The chances of attaining this goal is slim. If she chose the second goal, she could succeed and gain confidence and improve persistence. She would be less likely to quit if the work was challenging. Only someone who has a lot of natural talent and is very persistent could reach the first goal. Her enthusiasm and vibrancy may cause her to choose poor goals. Chat with your daughter when she is setting goals. Help her set SMART goals. If you want to learn more, there are dozens of sites on the internet about SMART goals.

A second strategy is for you to demonstrate good goal setting. Talk about your own goals. Make sure they are SMART goals. If you want to get more exercise you might share this with her. Ask for your daughter’s help in making your SMART goals. You might say things like:  What do you think?  Should my goal be to get more fit?  Can you help me make a SMART goal? You can also share what you say to yourself when you are having a tough time.  People often say very unsupportive things to themselves. For instance, I have a goal of walking ten thousand steps each day and today has been particularly difficult. I was saying things like: This is impossible.  I should give up, I will never do this every day. What good is just walking? I should be going to the gym and working out. These sorts of thoughts are very unhelpful but can be replaced with more encouraging thoughts with some effort. A good strategy is to reward or reinforce sensible self talk and partial accomplishment of goals. Demonstrating this in your own life and rewarding your daughter for accomplishments is helpful. For example, if she was having a hard time with getting to soccer practice this week but did, you might surprise her and say I know it has been tough for you to go to practice this week but you did it. Lets celebrate and make your favourite dinner on the weekend. Some kids find it helpful to use a chart that shows how much has been accomplished. I keep a record of my steps each day and this encourages me. Punishment or being negative about her not sticking to things probably won’t help much. It will make her feel like a failure.

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How can I stop my son from stealing money from us?

My 14-year-old son is constantly stealing his sister’s money. When we find out, we always talk to him about it. Sometimes it ends up with an apology and his giving the money back but other times he spends the money before we notice it is missing. One of the last times it happened he had an argument with this older sister about it, yet he stole more money afterwards. Please let me know what to do to control this behaviour.

There are 3 steps to help your son:

  1. The consequences of your son stealing money is that some of the time he gets to spend it. He is being rewarded for his theft. If you want to help him stop stealing, every time he steals, he must return the money and pay a penalty. It is important that this occur every time, even if he has spent the money. So, if he steals $6 from his sister, he should have to pay back $9 ($6 to his sister and $3 to the family).
  2. His sister, and everyone in the family, has to take some responsibility. Make it impossible for him to steal money. Why is money being left around for him to steal?
  3. Long discussions or arguments won’t help him. He needs consequences not conversation about what he already knows is wrong. Be tough on stealing but be warm and caring in encouraging his positive behavior when it occurs.
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Are my sons health concerns a sign of more serious mental health issues?

My son is eleven and half years old. Almost six months ago he started to show worries about different parts of his body. One day he thinks something is wrong with his eyes and asks for my assurance that nothing bad will happen to him. The next day he thinks something is wrong with his leg. Fortunately, he feels better each time after I promise him he is healthy and nothing bad will happen to him.

About two months ago he told me he had bad thoughts – by this he means that his mind is talking to him (he is not hearing voices). Then he told me that his mind was telling him there is something wrong with his body and he is going to be blind, and so on. He also says that his mind is telling him bad things will happen to his family, for example his mind told him that I was going to have a car crash.

I have recently noticed that he is talking back to his mind by saying “NO” or “STOP” and his face shows extreme suffering. It is necessary to mention that his personal and social interaction has not been affected by these thoughts. He is doing very well at school; it is only him that suffers from the situation. And I have also noticed that these thoughts are worse when he is sad or bored.

Please let me know if these symptoms could be an early presentation of more serious mental issues and how I can help him. He now has these thoughts around ten times a day and sometimes worse at night.

It is likely that your son has health anxiety. Given his social abilities and lack of other symptoms, it is possible, but not likely, that this is the first symptom of a more serious mental health problem.

Health anxiety is excessive, unrealistic worrying about some aspect of health. It affects about 3-10% of the population and can be quite debilitating.

The fact that your son is talking to you about this problem is very positive.

Your son’s arguing with his thoughts is actually a very good way of dealing with his health anxieties. He has begun to get control of these thoughts. You may be able to help him argue even more effectively about these worries.

He should also try to reduce anything he is avoiding because of his health anxiety.

An excellent self help book on this topic, written by a world expert on the area, is It’s Not All in Your Head: How Worrying About Your Health Could be Making You Sick – and What You Can Do About It by G.J.G. Asmundson & S. Taylor

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How can I help my daughter who has started throwing up before and during dance competitions?

My daughter has been competing in dance for the last two years without any problem, but she has recently started to throw up before and during competition.  However, she still goes through with it and competes.  It is becoming very stressful and I am even considering pulling her out of dance. She loves it, though, and begs me to let her go.  We keep on encouraging her and forcing positive thinking. What else can you suggest?

If your daughter is older than about ten years old, she can learn both physical and mental relaxation to help her lessen the stress of competition.

The easiest physical relaxation strategy is deep slow breathing, sometimes called the relaxation response. She should:

  • sit in a comfortable chair and gently close her eyes (no TV, could have relaxing music on).
  • breathe in through her nose and fill her lungs
  • breathe out through her mouth

She should breathe in relaxation and breathe out tension. Do this for ten minutes. If she gets dizzy she should slow down her breathing. Practicing this twice a day and then just before competition.

The easiest mental relaxation may be similar to your helping her with positive thoughts. The key is for her to identify negative thoughts and replace them with more realistic thoughts. I like to use the ADAPT method. This approach is hard to do until the child has meta cognition or the ability to think about thinking. This happens about age ten or 11 years.

A – Acknowledge the feeling of stress or being uncomfortable.
D – Describe the thought or image that is causing the stress. It might be something like “I have to win the competition” or “I will do terribly and everyone will laugh at me” or it might be an image of her falling down.
A – Assess how helpful or sensible this thought is. This is when your daughter has to learn how to argue with herself. She can say things like “My thoughts are too extreme” or “It’s not as bad as that” or “If I fall, I will get up.”
P – Present alternatives. It is best to replace the negative thoughts with sensible, positive thoughts. Saying “I will be a bit worried but I can manage” is much better than “I will do it perfectly.”
T – Think praise. She can say “That was a good try.”

She will have to practice this many times, with you helping her, before she tries it in a real situation. Try and make it fun. When you run into situations practice these yourself so that she can see you doing it.

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How do I deal with my eight-year-old son who has been masturbating at school?

I have recently been having trouble with my eight-year-old son who was caught masturbating by his dad in our living room while he and his brother (age four) were watching a movie. My husband talked to him about it and about doing it around his brother, or anyone else, and how that is something that should never be done around anyone else.

Recently, I received a call from his school that he was doing it in class and was devastated. I cried at work, wondering why he would do this in a public place around classmates. My husband and I sat down with him to talk about it. There was a little fussing and threatening but not punishment. I thought that was that.

But then, a couple of days later, the school called to say he was doing it again. I am going to stand firm and punish him this evening for a week, but I’m just scared that there is an underlying problem. Please help.

There are two possible issues here. What was he watching on the TV? Have they asked him why he is masturbating in class? What about infection or inflammation? If cleanliness is an issue he could be itching and masturbating.

There is a possibility that this behavior is related to sexual abuse.  Talk to him quietly and in a non threatening way about whether anyone has touched his penis or tried to touch him.  If there is evidence of sexual abuse, contact the police.

The other possibility is that he is bored and masturbating for pleasure or attention. Masturbating in public is very rude and should be treated as any other serious rudeness. Discussion is fine but not enough.  He needs to know that there will be significant consequences if he is rude in school or at home. Short punishment is better than long punishment. But the punishment should be significant.

Finally, it is important to insure he is getting attention for other things he is doing that are positive.  Make sure you are spending quality time with him.  Notice his good behavior.

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Witnessing a traumatic event has resulted in OCD behaviours in my son.

I read one of your letters/emails from a woman whose nephew washes his hands a lot. My son does this as well. It started after he and my husband were in a fatal car crash. My husband, my son and his brother miraculously survived, but the lady who crossed the centre line and hit them head on died at the scene, and unfortunately my son witnessed it.

Now my son washes his hands hundreds of times a day and asks me to wash all of his binders and so on every day. Sometimes he won’t even let me hug him because he thinks my hands are dirty, even after I have just washed them.

He was in therapy for a year, but nothing seems to help. He has been on Lexapro, as well, and tells me it doesn’t help. I have tried to get him in-patient therapy so we can try to get this under control, but no one will help us because he is not a harm to himself or others. Is there anything you would recommend? We are desperate.

He clearly has a significant problem and must be upset by this. You tried some therapy and some medications but there was no good effect.

Don’t give up. Inpatient care is only one strategy and not one I would recommend for any but the most serious problems.

Try to figure out why therapy didn’t work. Perhaps a different therapist would work better with your son. Moreover, there are different drugs that may be helpful. A combination approach using both medication and therapy may well be best.

Try outpatient treatment again.  Try to find someone who is particularly experienced in Obsessive Compulsive Disorders. Your family doctor or pediatrician can help you find the right person.

There are several excellent websites on anxiety disorders especially the Anxiety Disorders Association of Canada, the American Depression and Anxiety Association and several excellent books (including one written by someone with the same name as me, but not related to me):

  • Free From OCD: A Workbook for Teens With Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, by T.A. Sisemore. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger, 2010.
  • Stop Obsessing!: How to Overcome Your Obsessions and Compulsions (Revised Edition), by Edna Foa and Reid Wilson. New York: Bantam Books, 2001.
  • What to Do When Your Brain Gets Stuck: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD, by Dawn Huebner. Magination Press, 2007.
  • The OCD Answer Book, by Patrick McGrath. Sourcebooks, 2007.
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My daughter is soiling herself at school but not at home.

I am going through a very critical issue with my four-year-old daughter at school. When she wore diapers, she started taking them off from the age of two. Since she started school this year, she has been soiling in her pants.

When I ask her about it, she says that she was playing and she does not want to miss out on time with her friends by going to the washroom. I have talked to her several times about going to the washroom in time, but there has been no improvement. I know that she does not have a constipation issue or any other problem. At home, she is fine and goes to the toilet normally.

I have tried a lot of things with her, for example telling her that she will be praised if she poops in the toilet at school, but nothing is working. What do you suggest? Is she doing this because of an issue at school or with her teacher? I would really appreciate any advice you could give me.

Your daughter is probably accurately telling you why she is pooping in her pants. She is having fun and doesn’t want to leave her friends. Unless you have other indications of problems at school, I would just take her at her word.

There are a couple of things you can do.

Talk to her teacher about it. Try and figure out with her teacher how your daughter can be prompted to visit the toilet at school on a regular basis. Scheduling going to the toilet at natural breaks in the day or every two hours would be a good start. When a scheduled toilet visit is to occur, she should be discretely told she is to go to the toilet. If she is asked if she wishes to go, she will likely say she doesn’t need to. She should be expected to go for more than a few seconds.  If the teacher can also praise her for going to the toilet when she returns, this will help. If she is clean for two or three days, the level of prompts can be less.

At home, you can do two things:

  1. Keep a “Clean at School” chart. Every day she is clean, she can get a sticker with a big fuss about how pleased you are with her being clean.  If she improves her current level of soiling, make sure you acknowledge her improvement with something special, e.g., more reading with you or a trip to the park or her favorite meal.
  2. Have her clean up her panties when she comes home soiled. She should wash her panties by hand before they go into the washing. Don’t make it too easy. This natural consequence should not be accompanied by shaming or criticism. It is just that she is old enough to clean up after herself.

It would be best if all of these methods are used at the same time. Good luck.

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