“Life is ten percent what you experience and ninety percent how you respond to it.” ~Dorothy M. Neddermeyer
Sometimes, the hardest thing about being a parent is allowing your child to be him or herself. Children don’t always meet our expectations, but that doesn’t mean they should be forced to alter behavior they can’t help or be bullied into changing. That can be difficult for parents of kids who suffer from anxiety, especially when it comes to school.
School anxiety is a common phenomenon in the United States. According to a recent study, more than one in twenty school-age children and teens have anxiety or depression (“More than 1 in 20 US children and teens have anxiety or depression,” 2018). Unfortunately, working around such a problem when it’s time to go back to school in the fall can be a wrenching and heartbreaking ordeal. The problem is so widespread that schools nationwide have been forced to adapt to the situation. As a new school year approaches, here are a few points to consider in dealing with an anxious child.
One of the worst things you can do is to shame your child for the way she feels (Åslund, C., et. al., 2007). Her nervousness is an honest and real reaction to a situation that frightens her – she can’t help it. Telling a child to get over it and forcing her into school in front of friends and teachers is far more likely to worsen a difficult situation than to solve anything. Instead, be supportive and try normalizing the way she feels. Assure her that she’s not alone, that many kids feel just like she does and that there’s nothing at all wrong with feeling nervous about going back to school. If your child continues to resist, try taking it one step at a time. Make arrangements for you, your child and a counselor to discuss any issues so that he or she feels more at ease.
If you’re concerned about your child’s return to school, start laying the groundwork during the summer (Csóti, 2003). Give yourself plenty of time to gradually get your child used to the idea, and allow him or her to share any fears and thoughts. Talk through them openly but patiently; don’t invalidate any feelings and make it clear you’ll be with your child every step of the way. A couple weeks before the first day of school, begin putting your child to bed as you would when she’s in school, and have her get up earlier in the morning so she grows re-accustomed to the rhythms and realities of the school year.
Talk about homework schedules for the coming year and begin to ease the transition by discussing how screens and handheld devices will be turned off during homework/study time and arrange a dedicated and organized study space, with all the necessary supplies near to hand. If your child’s school has a back-to-school event, be sure to attend with your child so she can meet her teacher, interact with classmates and get used to the feel of being in school again. Getting kids to do homework can be an ordeal. If you have a child who does better listening to music during homework, consider buying headphones. A good pair can be purchased for under $100.
Make it a positive event
Parents often dread the beginning of a new school year because it means overseeing homework, getting kids up early and preparing them for school, then rushing to get to work on time. Avoid airing these thoughts or acting negatively about school in front of your child. Try treating the first day of school as a time for celebrating an exciting new year (Csóti, 2003). Emphasize that your child will be reunited with old friends and can expect to meet new ones.
Talk about field trips and school fairs, sports and activities she enjoys. Plan a healthy, protein-rich breakfast for the first day so she’s energized and physically ready. Consider an after-school treat to celebrate that she made it through the first day and take the time to talk through the experience. What was she feeling? How did she cope with her fears?
Be open to your child’s fears and willing to discuss any concerns she has about going back to school. Sometimes, talking through issues can have a healing effect, so show that you’ll be supportive rather than demanding and let her know you’re a friend and ally.
Åslund, C., Nilsson, K. W., Starrin, B., & Sjöberg, R. L. (2007). Shaming experiences and the association between adolescent depression and psychosocial risk factors. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 16(5), 298-304. doi:10.1007/s00787-006-0564-1
Csóti, M. (2003). School Phobia, Panic Attacks and Anxiety in Children. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
More than 1 in 20 US children and teens have anxiety or depression. (2018, April 29). Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/04/180424184119.htm
As a parent of a child who has suffered dramatically from bullying I knew that he would need help outside of my wheelhouse for him to recover. I loved him and encouraged him and I felt helpless. He had changed dramatically. Our family dynamics changed. Everything was turned upside down. My happy-go-lucky child became morose, introverted and lacked any joy. My husband and I knew he needed to see a therapist.
Therapy can bring up a mixture of feelings for any of us. It can be terrifying for us as parents to admit that something is seriously wrong. We were lucky as we knew of a counselor that we felt would fit the bill for our son’s needs. Indeed she has. Almost two years later after starting therapy our son is recovering. His keen sense of humor is back, he is talkative and finds interest and joy in the world again. This comes from sometimes difficult work with a therapist, a loving home, and an encouraging and supportive new school.
The following are some ideas on how to find and select a therapist from Mary’s Hope Workshops. If you are on the same path as my family has been on and feel that your child would benefit from the help of a trusted counselor, I trust you may glean some valuable ideas from this article.
–Dru Ahlborg, Executive Director, BRRC
HIRING A PSYCHOTHERAPIST
Selecting a therapist who will be an effective guide as your child learns and integrates new life skills is important. The relationship between a therapist and client is crucial to the successful navigation of the critical and difficult work. Taking time interviewing several therapists will inform you as to the nature of your therapeutic relationship, taking into consideration combined personalities, preferences, experiences, and core beliefs. As a consumer it is your right and responsibility to be informed of your choices and rights. Evaluating prospective therapist credentials, personal style, values, procedures, and fees will help you to make a wise and informed choice.
Talking with several therapists may help you to pursue counseling for your child and with which counselor. Personal feelings of distrust, negativity, or the sense of being told what to do are signs of an improper counselor/client relationships. Simply do not contact or see that therapist again. Explaining to the counselor or a trusted friend reasons for your decision may give you a sense of closure. Feeling as if you have to rationalize your decision is unhealthy. If you or your child is hesitant about a therapist for any reason, you may want to talk with him or her again to clarify some points, or talk about your uncertainty with a trusted friend, or consult with another counselor before deciding. Once your questions are answered satisfactory and you feel comfortable with the information you’ve gathered, it is time to begin the therapeutic process.
When interviewing a prospective therapist, consider the following questions:
My child has experienced profound childhood abuse and trauma, what is your experience working with survivors?
What are your credentials? What do the acronyms mean?
Are you licensed? By whom? If not, what are the circumstances?
Are there particular techniques that you use? What are their advantages and disadvantages?
Will you discuss the treatment plan with me and my child? What happens if we disagree about our goals?
If necessary, will you create a suicide plan if my child has suicidal ideations?
Do you adhere to a professional code of ethics? Which one(s)?
Have you ever had a charge of unethical conduct brought against you? Under what circumstances?
What is your best estimate to treat my child’s particular situation?
Do you have continuing professional training and/or supervision?
Do you have physical contact with clients? Under what circumstance(s)?
Do you think that you might be able to work with my child? If not, who would you recommend?
What are your fees for an initial consultation? For phone consultations? Counseling sessions?
Do you process insurance? If not, ask what their rationale is for that choice?
Consider asking questions that will inform you of their personal values that might coincide or clash with your beliefs. (What is you attitude towards abortion, gays and lesbians, religion and spirituality, non-traditional living arrangements, etc.)
Considerations is evaluating a therapist after initial contact and all sessions:
Notice if you feel comfortable while talking to the therapist. Ask you child if he or she feels comfortable talking with the therapist. It is natural to feel anxious when meeting or speaking with a therapist. Despite this normal anxiety you will want to notice if the counselor helps you feel at ease despite the difficulty of talking about deep issues.
Do they listen without interrupting? Is your child being heard and understood?
What do you and your child’s intuition indicate regarding this person? Do they feel safe or do you feel an underlying judgement or unease?
Look for a therapist who is willing to listen and explore issues rather than offering a quick solution. (Avoid those who say “you should,” or “you must.”)
Do you and your child feel respected and safe?
Are you comfortable with the personality of your child’s therapist?
Is the office space comfortable and safe?
Did the therapist answer your questions directly or evasively?
Did the therapist inspire hope and offer a collaborative treatment plan for your child?
Even after several sessions, you may sense that the relationship is not helpful. A competent and professional therapist will understand and be able to help you find another counselor with whom you may be more suited.
Remember, counselors are human and imperfect, yet there are some who are more effective than others. Trust you instincts as you go through the counseling.
Reciprocal trust, courtesy and respect are characteristic of the therapist/client relationship. Within that relationship the client looks to the therapist for expertise, education, sound judgement, and advocacy. These expectations are achieved by the following clients’s rights and responsibilities:
Client’s Rights include:
Having confidentiality within the limits of the law.
Being respected throughout the counseling process.
Having the freedom to refuse treatment or strategy.
Asking questions at any time.
Receiving complete information regarding he therapist’s technique and theoretical orientation.
Choosing you own lifestyle and having it respected by the counselor.
Having appointments on time, taking into account emergencies.
Information and collaboration about diagnosis.
Consultation/interviewing as many counselors as you choose in order to find a reasonable and helpful therapeutic relationship.
Experiencing a safe and comfortable office location that is free from physical, sexual and emotional abuse.
Agreement to a written contract of goals and treatment plan.
Ability to talk to others about your counseling experience, including other therapists.
Periodic and collaborative evaluation of the counseling process.
Ending therapy at any time.
Ability to disclose or not disclose personal information.
Request written reports regarding therapy with your written authorization. (There may be an additional charge.)
Accessing documentation within the limits of the law.
Honor appointment times by being prompt.
If cancellation or rescheduling is necessary, give the therapist a 24 hour notice.
Treat the therapist and staff with courtesy and consideration,
Treatment is only effective as the client makes it, taking responsibility for completing homework and other assignments.
Self-care including adequate rest, nutrition, physical exercise and collaboration and medical personnel.
Be truthful regarding current situation.
Honor fee and payment arrangements with timely payment.
Notify therapist of change of telephone numbers and address.
Respect the limitations (legal, professional, and ethical) of the therapist.
Understand and appreciate counselor’s legal responsibilities.
So why did we choose to start a charity to help bullied children and their families? Given time, can’t these children recover? Isn’t bullying a rite of passage, a “boys will be boys” or “mean girls” phenomenon? Can’t children just get over being picked-on? Can’t they come back with snappy statements to a bully’s name calling or simply punch that bully back squarely in the nose? Can’t children who are assaulted simply walk away for their tormentors? Parents who have children that have been bullied, (and statistics say that is the majority of parents), know that these questions can be ludicrous and hurtful. It’s not that easy. If it was, the problem of bullying would be extinguished.
First and foremost, bullying is never an acceptable behavior. Dan Olweus, a pioneer in the area of bullying defines it as this: “A person is being bullied when he/she is exposed, repeatedly and over time to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons. Negative action is when a person intentionally inflicts injury or discomfort upon another person through physical contact, through words or in other ways. Bullying is both overt and covert behaviors. Bullying is a pattern of behavior that is repeated over time against the same person(s) with a noted power differential.” Barbara Coloroso, a noted bullying expert and author also adds that one act can constitute bullying.
Furthermore, Dan Olweus provides us with a list of examples of bullying behaviors:
Saying hurtful and unpleasant things
Making fun of others
Using mean and hurtful nicknames
Completely overlooking someone
Deliberately excluding someone from a group of friends
Hitting, kicking, pulling hair, pushing or shutting a person inside, slamming a child into a locker, taking or breaking someone’s possesions
Spreading false rumors
Sending mean notes
Trying to get other students to dislike another person
So, to answer my first question; why did we choose to start a charity to help bullied children and their families? We want to help children and families who feel so lost, hurt and dismayed by the bullying that has happened to their family. We want to make an impact on the problem of bullying. We want to be crusaders and to stand with those who have been harmed. We want to let others know they are not alone and that things can and will get better.
My son, and our entire family have been subject to the majority of the listed bullying behaviors Dan Olweus identifies. I can attest that walking through and living with the aftermath of bullying has been the most challenging feat of my adult life. Wrestling with anger, disillusionment and fear became common bedfellows. It took time and a great amount of perseverance to once again see joy in everyday life and know that we as a family would grow stronger. We desire to share our experience and hope with you as you walk your arduous path. Hand in hand, we can heal and make a difference.
Dru E Ahlborg, Executive Director, Bullying Recovery Resource Center
We are a family of four living the city life in the heart of Denver. My husband and I have always been in agreement that education for our children is a priority. We decided early on that a smaller house and a modest lifestyle were fine as long as our children were getting a good education where they were well cared for. We chose a private school for our son when he was three that felt like a perfect fit.
Within the first few months of our son’s schooling I was volunteering for everything I could. I worked in the classroom, did work outside around campus and helped on any committee that would have me. I lugged our 6 month old daughter in her car seat as I cheerfully did my volunteer work on campus. Our son was doing well. He made friends. My husband joined the Board of Directors and I volunteered to be on the Parent’s Association and even agreed to chair their school auction. When our daughter turned of school age, she attended our little gem of a school as well. Our children thrived for many years at this school.
Things changed when my son entered the middle school. My son is small for his age and struggles with a learning difference. At the end of his first year I was inadvertently informed of an event where my son was physically bullied. My husband and I discussed this incident with the school administration and we mistakenly believed they were addressing the incident. This event happened less than a month before the school year ended.
Our son’s next school year started with conversations with the teachers and school administrators asking that our son and his classmates be closely monitored. When the second semester started after the holiday break things were changing. Our son was being bullied, not by one, but by several middle school students. The bullying consisted of verbal, emotional, physical and relational bullying. He was targeted and bullied on a daily basis. As a result, our son started doing poorly at school. He did not tell his father and I of the bullying for five to six weeks later because he was afraid and ashamed.
We spoke with his teachers and the administration of the school on multiple occasions. We received very little support for our son and we painstakingly pulled him from the school to finish his year at home.
This is not a unique story. We have since talked with many parents who have had similar incidents happen to a child of theirs. Bullying happens everywhere. It happens in small private schools, large public schools, religious schools, schools that have a stellar reputation and everything in between. Since going through our experience with bullying my husband and I have learned that bullying is not to be negotiated with or solved with a peace conference. It needs to be acknowledged abruptly and stopped effectively and in a timely manner. Consequences need to exist and be administered. Acknowledgement appears to be a major hurdle for many schools. By not accepting that bullying happens, it cannot be addressed and stopped effectively. It leaves the door open for the next child who is bullied to continue suffering from those torments as the school attempts to negotiate matters rather than stop the bullying. This mindset can lead to tragic results.
Our son suffered greatly as a result of the relentless bullying that happened to him. He has questioned everything. He struggles with trusting educators and adults who care for children. He has been diagnosed with depression, PTSD and anxiety. He has worked with therapists in an attempt to move on and grow stronger as a result of what he endured.
Both of our children are attending a new school. Our son has worked diligently to learn to trust again. His grades are high, and he is once again participating in life. Our daughter, who witnessed some of the bullying and the struggles of her brother is also healing. Our whole family who is traumatized by the bullying is on the road to recovery.
Tom and I decided to start The Bullying Recovery Resource Center after becoming self-educated experts on bullying and talking to other parents about the bullying that has happened to their children. Our goal is to offer support and help to families that have suffered from bullying. I can tell you that our family of four has changed dramatically from the bullying that happened to our son. The phone calls, texts and emails we received from friends, family and strangers enabled us to move our mission forward and start healing.
There is much work to be done. The culture in some schools needs to change. Bullying happens and it occurs far too often due to the mindset that it will go away or can be dealt with as a conflict. Our hope is to help those afflicted with the tortures of bullying to begin the healing process and possibly in turn help others.
Dru Ahlborg, Executive Director, The Bullying Recovery Resource Center
If you ask Allyson Conrad, she’ll tell you it started in English class a few months ago.
The Fairfield senior picked a very relevant topic when her teacher asked the class to write an answer to the question, “What needs to change?”
But really, the idea was born six years ago, when an angry then-sixth-grader marched herself down to the principal’s office to demand that something be done about her little sister being bullied.
“It always stuck with me,” Conrad said. “A mad sixth-grader went to the principal and nothing happened. There were no harsh consequences.”
What happened to her sister and countless other friends weighed heavily on her when she started crafting her answer. Her teacher was impressed with what she wrote and talked to her about it. That was the spark Conrad needed to form It Starts With Us.
“I was determined to make a change,” she said.
Conrad gathered two friends, Dylan Kaufman and Cheyenne Emmons, and the three circulated a petition to see if the student body wanted to see an anti-bullying campaign. They collected 258 signatures.
They recruited other seniors to join their movement, and started promoting their cause on social media. They also got students to agree to and sign a pledge.
Their next move was to put up notes on a wall in school under the title “Take what you need.” The notes were uplifting, such as “You are strong,” “You can you will” “I believe in me.” The idea was for students to take the cards or give them to someone else.
The response was overwhelming.
“It was very surprising, but it made me happy,” Conrad said of seeing those notes disappear so quickly.
When the art teacher heard what the group was doing, she offered up her unused bulletin board. The students decorated the board in the theme of the movie “Up” and it read, “Let’s lift each other up by giving someone a compliment.” Students took notes from envelopes on that board and passed the compliments out to each other.
Before Christmas break, the bulletin board was switched over to a holiday theme, “Light up someone’s day,” and the group asked the student body to tweet compliments to decorate the Christmas tree.
In addition to spreading kindness, Conrad said they want to see real change in the consequences for bullying. The group has met with administrators about changing the language of the student handbook.
In a presentation to the school board Dec. 14, Conrad outlined some suggested changes to the handbook, which included involving parents sooner, allowing for some personal reflection for both the bully and the victim, and having offenders who are involved in extra-curricular activities also miss practices or games.
“Anyone who is in extra-curriculars is the face of the school and should be held to a higher standard,” Conrad said.
Principal Amy Bertram met with It Starts With Us and worked through some of their suggestions and helped them to realize what was possible and what wasn’t. The goal is to have any changes to the student handbook ready for school board approval in March.
Superintendent Steve Thalheimer told the board members at that same meeting that he would be coming to them in January with a plan to address the overall social and emotional climate at each of the buildings, and said working with It Starts With Us would be part of his focus.
“There are so many students who are having difficulty navigating the world of social media and who seem lost amidst the swirl of hectic lives around us that they don’t know how to communicate, empathize and cope,” Thalheimer said. “Three years ago I used the ‘Our Community, Our Schools’ tagline for the construction projects and taking care of physical spaces around the district; now I need us as a school community to focus on the social and mental health of our students and do a better job of webbing up under students to nurture their success.”
Neither Conrad nor Bertram want to see this effort end when these seniors graduate in May. Bertram has asked them to tag some underclassmen to be leaders as well to carry the torch.
“I hope this can be a program that all schools can take part in,” Conrad said. “I just want it to grow to where everyone is spreading kindness and not bullying each other.”
Bertram said the school has tried to do more to prevent and raise awareness of bullying in recent years. Having students join the battle is a game-changer.
“I’ve never seen a group of students be so intentional, so reflective,” Bertram said. “They understand it does have to come from the students. Student leaders have to model and set expectations for other students. For them to understand and go about it in a proper and reasearched way — I am so proud of them.”