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Helping children navigate the muddy waters of adolescent angst

The phone rings mid-day and it’s your son or daughter’s school. It’s not the nurse or the teacher. It’s the principal calling. And she’s calling because of bullying.

Whether your child is the target, or the wrong-doer, it’s a call no parent wants to receive, and never an easy subject to handle.

“Part of the problem now is that any mean behavior (such as mere teasing and trading insults) can get mistaken as bullying,” says Mary Ellen Young, a bully consultant, co-founder of Helping Girls Navigate Adolescence and former member of the District 58 Downers Grove Grade School board. “We have muddied the waters by labeling everything as bullying and reacting to even minor offenses in big ways.”

Legally, Illinois defines bullying any severe or pervasive physical or verbal act or conduct, including communications made in writing or electronically, directed toward a student that has or can be reasonably predicted to make a student fear bodily harm; detrimentally affect the student’s physical or mental health; or  interfere with academic performance or ability to participate or benefit from school services and activities.

In other words, the misbehavior involves using power to impose control over another person. 

But bullying is a complex social problem, and experts note that if schools could simply wave a wand and get it to go away, they would do just that.

“The path to success is to keep building social and emotional learning skills and fostering a positive environment,” says Darlene Ruscitti, regional superintendent of DuPage County schools. 

Such skills address what it means to be tolerant of diversity, the best approach to problem solving and achieving conflict resolution, adds Ruscitti, who co-chaired an anti-bullying task force that led to creation in 2011 of a resource manual, “Best Practices in Bullying Prevention and Intervention.”

“In the past, schools would say to parents, ‘Here’s what educators need you to do for us. Please help us.’ We have now flipped that role and ask, ‘What can we as educators do to help you?’” Ruscitti says. “We’re discovering that parents are hungry to learn how to be better parents.”

Young says when a parent learns that her child is humiliated, rejected or hurt in any way, it’s natural for a protective “Mama Bear” response to come into play. Before charging off to the school demanding that the bullying stop, she recommends taking a step back and reflecting on what the child is going to learn from the experience and creating a safe haven for the kids at home. She recommends providing activities outside the school where the child can feel confident and accepted by friends. 

To read the full story, pick up the latest issue of Suburban Life Magazine.