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Expert on bullying offers advice for families Thursday in Tampa

Thanks to Facebook, Twitter and cell phones that double as video cameras, there's more undisputed evidence of adolescent bullying than ever before. Disturbing footage of kids being beaten up on school buses and sidewalks and vicious written attacks are routinely posted online or sent via texts. All of it goes viral—distributed to untold numbers of people—in minutes, virtually impossible to fully retract or erase.

In the past two years, two Pasco County students committed suicide and one tried to following apparent bullying. The Zephyrhills teen who survived requires constant medical care.

Judy Freedman became involved in bullying prevention more than two decades ago as a social worker in suburban Chicago elementary schools. She found that students' top concern was being teased. She also learned how easily teasing leads to bullying.

"Kids don't realize the power and impact of their words," said Freedman, a lecturer and bullying prevention specialist. "I spoke at a school once where an 8th grader hanged himself. At the funeral his classmates wrote on his coffin, 'I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt your feelings.' "

Freedman, author of Easing the Teasing—Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying, is in the Tampa Bay area presenting two programs, one Thursday for the public in Tampa, and the other Friday in Wesley Chapel solely for educators. She spoke with the Times earlier this week from her home near Chicago.

Bullying and teasing have been around for a long time. Why all the attention now?

Because it's being exposed. Social media has really helped put the focus on it. Plus, it provides a whole new arena for bullying. Adolescents have an overwhelming need to be accepted, especially at school, but now also on Facebook. So it offers new opportunities to exclude kids and to spread rumors. And with some forms of social media it can be done anonymously. The real danger is that it may start out small in the school yard, but once on social media it becomes global and can have dire consequences. Bullying is now 24-7; home is no longer a safe haven for kids with online and texted social cruelties.

Why is it important to understand the definition of bullying?

If a child has been involved in name calling or an incident of teasing, you don't want to label him a bully. Bullying is a power imbalance. The bully is usually bigger, older, smarter, or stronger socially. It's abusive, threatening, persistent and repeated over time. It usually escalates. It can be physical, it can be verbal, it can be exclusion. It is deliberate and is done with the intention to harm. Conflict is not bullying. Being rude is not bullying.

Tell us about your book.

I'm the accidental author. I developed a program to help elementary school children cope with teasing. That led to a newspaper article which led to a spiral bound guide of everything I had been doing to that point. That got the attention of someone in publishing and the book came out in 2002. It's in its tenth printing and has been translated into Portuguese and Chinese. Teasing and bullying are universal problems.

What's your advice for children?

I teach 10 strategies to children to empower them to handle teasing when an adult isn't around. Rather than lashing out or feeling bad about themselves, if they are being teased about being short for example, agree with the teaser. "You're right. I am the shortest kid in my grade.'' If the teasing persists after the suggested strategies are used, the tenth strategy is to ask an adult for help. They need to report what is going on. It isn't tattling.

Kids who hear or see bullying or hurtful teasing can speak out, offer support to the victim or tell an adult. I've never seen bullying stop without adult or peer bystander intervention.

What should parents do?

If your child talks about it, praise him or her for bringing it up. If you suspect it's going on, talk with teachers, counselors, social workers, principals. Ask whether they've seen a change in your child. Don't stop trying to get help. Teach kids that once they post or text something about someone, you can't take it back. And teach your kids about having empathy for others. Give your children a moral compass, teach them what's right and what's wrong behavior.

If you go

Judy Freedman speaks Thursday, check-in 5 p.m.; program 6-9 p.m. at St. Joseph's Hospital's Medical Arts Building, 3001 W. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd, Tampa. $10, dinner provided. Registration required; call 813-443-3078 or visit www.BayCareEvents.org.

Expert on bullying offers advice for families Thursday in Tampa 05/15/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2013 4:39pm]

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