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Are your words doing damage: how to talk to your teen and help stop cyber bullying

Are your words doing damage: how to talk to your teen and help stop cyber bullying

One stone after another. After another. After another. After another.

Cyber bullying is relentless.

The Dolly’s Dream video made by 15-year-old Charlotte McLaverty has taken our understanding of the impact of cyber bullying out of our heads, away from the data and the figures, and placed it straight into our hearts. We can see and feel what it must be like to be a victim of cyber bullying, one stone after another.

All parents watching that teenage girl in the video as she faced the relentless abuse would have had the same reaction as I did, a deep desire to step in front of her and to take those stones. One stone after another. After another.

And, while the intention of the video is to drive home that relentless nature of being targeted by cyber bullying in our digital age, it also highlights the loneliness.

Cyber bullying thrives because children and young people don’t feel capable of sharing their experience. It happens on the couch while your brother plays video games, at the table with your family, in private spaces at home, on the bus, in the schoolyard with friends. Cyber bullying happens even when the people who can help you are sitting right beside you. The reasons for not sharing may be multiple and varied: a fear of admitting you are being bullied, threats from the cyber bully, culture of trying to just ‘deal with it yourself’, scared someone will take your technology away.

However, the reason for children and teens not disclosing when they are being abused is not as important as making sure we, as parents or carers, are creating the time and space daily for our children to share their lives with us – their vulnerabilities, their successes, their troubles, their goals, their fears and their joys. We want to protect our children from cyber bullying, and the best way to do that is to have them tell us that it is going on.

We need to work as families, and then as a broader community, to create space where we share all of our lives. We pretend that technology does this. We get caught up in a make-believe world of carefully curated Instagram accounts and smiling family Facebook photos and convince ourselves that we are connected and sharing our lives with each other more than ever.

The truth is we aren’t sharing the truth. We don’t find it easy to say to each other “I’m in trouble” or “I’m finding this hard” or “someone is hurting me”. We need to create a culture in our family, with our children, where we can be honest and open about all of the bad, along with all of the good.

The way we will make that easier is by being explicit. This is not about finding careful and gentle ways so as not to upset people, but about being honest and upfront about our desire to support each other – and this is especially true for parents to tell their children.

First, we need to say to our children, “I love you. I am here to help you. Whatever happens, no matter how worried you are about how I will react. You need to tell me if you feel afraid, or scared, or worried, or if someone is hurting you.”

Second, we need to reassure. “I will not be angry. I will help you solve the problem. I will not take away your technology. I will not punish you unfairly. I am here to walk alongside you and support you.”

Finally, we need to actually follow through. We need to do what we say.

There is no value in telling our children we will love and support them unconditionally if they experience us being angry at them for something they have no control over. This means it must be part of all aspects of life – and not just apply to cyber bullying. This type of change is not always easy.

A teenager who believes they will be punished or yelled at, who feels they will disappoint you – or worse that you will take away their phone or try and stop them being on social media, stop them connecting with their friends – is a child who will just keep taking those stones. One after another. After another.

Technology is part of our lives and is often blamed for cyber bullying and all of the awfulness we see online. But it’s not exclusively to blame. We can want to control it. We can want to try and protect our children, shielding them from the realities of the world, from every stone. But, we can’t. We never can. What we can control are our reactions. The way we talk and engage with our children. The way we show them how to respond in appropriate and measured ways – not anger, not fear, not straight punishment without reason or consideration.

At the end of the video, the girl being abused catches one of the stones. What is missing is that an act of defiance against bullying behaviour isn’t one that a child or teen can manage alone. The grabbing of that stone also represents the involvement and connection of parents, teachers, peers and family to support a child.

The best way to prevent cyber bullying is to foster open relationships with our children where we can talk about things and they know we are someone to come to with any issues in their lives.

How can I improve communication with my teen?

  1. Remember, open communication doesn’t mean that your teen will share everything with you – and trust me, you don’t want them to! It won’t look that different. They’ll still mostly give one-word answers and it could feel awkward and like a challenge. You are the parent of a teenager; that doesn’t change.
  2. Try to create moments and opportunities to talk which feel relaxed. In the car, for example, when you pick them up don’t say “Stop texting people and talk to me”. Instead ask, “What is going on on the internet? Talking to anyone interesting?” In this way, you express an interest in their lives and might learn one or two things about the way they use tech with friends.
  3. Create small moments – car rides are great, or walking the dog, or asking them if they want a cup of tea after dinner. In those moments, just say, “If anything is ever a stress or feels wrong, you know you can come to me and I can help solve it?” It will feel awkward and they might look at you weirdly. But, if you do it a few times, it won’t feel like that – and they get an important message. Be explicit.

Finally, if you are in need of support you can reach out to the Dollys Dream Support Line on 0488 881 033, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636, eheadspace or Lifeline on 131 114

By Daniel Donahoo, Senior Advisor, Alannah & Madeline Foundation