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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. 

Ruth Cross, a Downers Grove-based SEL skills training coach and bullying prevention workshop facilitator who serves clients in Kane and DuPage counties through Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), says it’s critical that these skills be taught to victims, bystanders and the bullies themselves. 

“I applaud any mom or dad who recognizes that their child is a bully, because our natural tendency is to deny that and cast blame elsewhere,” Young says.  “That’s a healthy first step. 

“It’s also important to note that roles tend to be very fluid,” Young says. “Sometimes there are cases where a bully is a bully and a victim is a victim. But often someone who is victimized goes on to bully other kids, and the roles get reversed.” 

For that reason, Young hesitates to label a person as a bully but prefers to say ‘You’re exhibiting bullying behavior’ – since behavior is a lot easier to change than who we are.

 “You can’t control the other child’s behavior or what the school is doing in response to it,” she says. “What you can have control over is what your child takes away from the situation.”

Helpful resources

Tools for Families: 10 Things to do At Home


This resource helps parents understand how to strengthen social emotional skills. 

Preventing Cyberbullying


The U.S. Government website stopbullying.gov includes information on cyberbullying.

Being Cyberbullied?


The Cyberbullying Research Institute offers tips for parents and teens.

Bullying Prevention


Dr. Michelle Borba discusses bullying prevention and her book, “Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing.” 

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