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December 9, 2011

Mean Stinks : An Interview with Rachel Simmons

Bullying is becoming more and more common among adolescents, thanks to the Internet and accessibility to smart phones. Unfortunately, many kids that are bullied are not emotionally ready to identify themselves as victims, and young people who bully others rarely see themselves as perpetrators.

In fact, research found in a recent study that 9 out of 10 teens have witnessed bullying on social networks. And a recent Washington Post article featuring Amanda Lenhart, a co-author of the study, said that “for teens, these are exciting and rewarding spaces. But the majority have seen a darker side.”

For parents, the struggle is providing children with advice and the tools they need to combat this behavior. Many parents want to help their kids recognize the hurt that is taking place and use techniques to overcome it, but unfortunately many don’t know where to start.

Rachel Simmons, NYT’s best-selling author of Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, has partnered with Secret Deodorant, a brand that stands strongly against all things that stink, to develop tips for parents to share with their teens on identifying and combating bullying online.
Secret’s “Mean Stinks” campaign and Facebook community was created to address the growing need for young women to gain strength, support and access to resources to take a stand against bullying.  It also encourages those who have done something mean in the past to change their actions in interactive ways – such as submitting an apology or sharing a compliment.

I recently had the pleasure to conduct an email interview with Rachel. She was kind enough to address some of  the questions I had in regards to cyberbullying. I hope that you will find these as useful as I did.

1. If you have learned that your child or a loved one is being bullied, what should be your first step in addressing the issue? Who should you contact? Should you speak to the parents of the other child, the teachers or the principal at school (if they are attending the same school)?
The first step should be to empathize with the targeted child. In my research, kids tell me that what they want most from adults is not a solution -- most realize those are pretty hard to achieve, especially when they get older - but empathy. Kids want you to take seriously how painful this is, give them a hug, and let them know how sorry you are. The next thing I suggest is asking the target what she wants to do next. Encourage her to give you a few possible strategies she might employ in this situation. This achieves two important goals: first, the target sees that she has options and that life isn't totally out of her control. Second, if you're a parent, you get to work with your child on developing crucial skills to deal with stress.
Document everything. Don't place calls out of emotion, but have a plan instead, along with notes to prepare you. Call the school, but don't start with the superintendent or principal. Begin with the classroom teacher so she doesn't feel that you've "gone over her head" to a higher up; remember, you want her on your side, not against you, and how you talk with the school is just as important as what you say. Be very, very careful about speaking with the other parents. Parents are, understandably, inclined to take personally criticisms towards their kids, and to defend their behavior. Proceed with caution, and use your other available channels first.

2. What advice would you give to a child who is being bullied?

First, I would empathize with her and really try to recognize her pain. I would applaud her courage in going to school as she has, and in finding the strength to do her homework and function despite what she has endured. I would also make sure she understood that she was not alone -- that this is something that happens to so many kids and I'd probably try to give her a book or show her a film, like the movie "Odd Girl Out”, or direct her to the Mean Stinks Facebook page, a supportive community created by Secret Deodorant (https://www.facebook.com/meanstinks) It is a great tool to help stand up to bullying, and emphasize that what she is going through is not her fault, and not in this alone.

3. If you feel that the teachers/principal/other parents are not dealing with problem effectively, what would you recommend as the next steps?
If you've done everything you can within the school, and there is a school board or superintendent, it's best to take the problem further up the ladder. But if you can't do that, consider switching schools if you are able to. I have found that when kids switch, they are often just fine in the new environment. The only exceptions are kids who tend to be targeted in multiple environments -- if they are consistently controversial socially, they will likely continue to be wherever they go. But if your child is being hurt in a way you've never seen, and has generally been functional in schools, you will likely find that a new school environment leaves the bullying behind.

4. Would you deal with cyberbullying differently from bullying in the "real world"? How and why?
If you are being cyberbullied, internet safety experts advise you to do three things: Stop. Block. Report. First, stop: do not try to respond to the cyberbully or negotiate in any way. This is almost never successful. Second, block the user from contacting you (if you need help doing this,  just do a search for "block user on [name of social media]." Third, report the user. Most websites have methods for reporting unsafe behavior. 
5. As a parent, what can I do to make sure that my child comes to me when she/he is being bullied? Are there things I can do as a parent to protect my child?
If you want your child to be comfortable coming to you when she is bullied, it's important that you pay real attention to her feelings and needs when she is in distress. In other words, if your reaction is to immediately freak out and want to call the school or another parent, without giving your child a chance to say what she needs or wants, it's unlikely that she feels 100% comfortable letting you know what's going on in her life. What you think is the best way to solve a problem may not be what she wants. Remember that she's the one who has to walk the halls for 7 hours a day, not you. That doesn't mean there aren't times when you override her wishes -- you are the parent, after all -- but your default approach should consider what she needs and feels alongside your own impulse to react and fix. If you constantly forsake her wishes, she will eventually shut down. The long term goal is for her to stay connected to you, so if that means occasionally giving in to what she wants, against your own wishes, that's a decision well made. 
6. What advice can you give to the parents of the child who is acting out/ doing the bullying?

This is an extraordinary opportunity as parents to educate your child about character and ethical behavior. First, think about your values as a family and why kindness and respect are important to you and your partner. Consider the historical roots of those values -- how have they shaped your identities and choices as individuals and families? Of course, discipline is key here: parents need to set limits on the behavior, define it as in appropriate, foster empathy for the target, and set consequences for the child who engages in these behaviors -- and then, parents need to stick with those limits and consequences. Do not hesitate to have your child apologize to the other child, in writing or in person. Make sure YOU apologize to the parents, too, on behalf of your child -- that's the classiest thing you can do. Beyond that, however, talk to your child about why all of this matters to you, and why you expect your child to embrace and uphold these values as a member of your family. Those are the conversations kids remember.
7. If you found yourself to be the parent of the bully, how would you reconnect with your child, resolve the issues, and make sure that your child does not harm other kids in the future?
Remember that your child is human. She, like all of us, makes mistakes! In a way, you're very lucky to have the chance to observe them and correct them, unlike some parents who may never discover their child is behaving aggressively. 

Rachel Simmons
Rachel Simmons is a New York Times bestselling author and has received critical acclaim for her books, Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, and The Curse of the Good Girl: Raising Authentic Girls with Courage and Confidence.  She is also the co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute, a national non-profit organization that teaches girls skills for emotional intelligence, assertive self-expression and healthy relationships. As an educator and coach, Rachel works internationally to develop strategies to address bullying and empower girls.
Rachel is taking her passion for empowering girls to feel confident, motivated and fearless and applying it to a unique partnership with the Secret brand, through the new Mean Stinks campaign to help end the mean streak of aggression.  Mean Stinks provides a comfortable and supportive environment, via an online forum, to get or give advice and support on the daily challenges of building authentic relationships.  Rachel and Secret have created an experience that encourages fearlessness and provides tools for teens to face the difficulties of drama and bullying. 
Rachel attended Vassar College and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where she studied female aggression.  She writes an advice blog for girls at TeenVogue.com, has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, is a frequent contributor to The Today Show and appears regularly in national media.
Rachel lives in western Massachusetts with her West Highland Terrier, Rosie, who is currently taking private workshops with Rachel to learn how to stop bullying other dogs.


Rebecca said...

I am so tired of our children being bullied. This is got to stop. I cry when I see another child committing suicide due to being bullied. I just can't wrap my head around the need for kids to torture other kids like that.

Ladytink_534 said...

I was bullied in elementary school so once I was in high school I never let that kind of thing go on around me. We had our own niche of misfits in school that welcomed everyone and we became popular because of it. We all took care of each other and for the most of us we had a positive high school experience.

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