How can parents help prevent suicides, bullying

| 22 Feb 2012 | 02:10

    Help students recognize that it’s courageous to tell, rather than keep the code of silence, By Beth J. Harpaz NEW YORK — With bullying, teen suicides and harassment of gay teenagers making headlines, parents may be wondering what role they can play in discouraging kids from tormenting others whom they perceive as different. Homosexuality remains a controversial issue in some communities. But nobody wants to see their child victimized. And nobody wants their kid involved in an incident that might lead a peer to hurt himself or herself. So what should parents do or say if a teenager tells them he or she is gay? Should parents ask about a child’s sexual orientation if they’re wondering? How can adults create an environment that promotes tolerance and discourages bullying? And is there anything we can do to prevent teen suicides? Here’s some advice from experts. Heard at home Consider the language, jokes and comments your child may be hearing at home or from others. “One of the reasons kids are afraid to talk to parents is that they’ve heard parents say prejudicial things in the past. It’s amazing the effect offhand comments can make,” said John R. Cepek, national president of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), who describes himself as the “proud dad of a gay son. “ “You can create a culture of prejudice in the family. Kids pick up on that.” “We all need to be vigilant about our language,” agreed Michael LaSala, professor at the Rutgers University School of Social Work, whether it’s outright slurs like “faggot” or phrases like “that’s so gay.” “A lot of people who use those terms casually do not mean to put down gay people, but they need to understand that they are,” he said, comparing them to racist terms “like the N-word.” Parents should also teach kids from a young age not to castigate “a boy who acts in a feminine manner or a girl who acts masculine,” LaSala said. “The message should be that even though people are different, they’re worthy of respect and acceptance.” ‘Don’t feel the need to lie’ If you think your child might be gay, it’s not necessarily wise to confront him or her. On the other hand, LaSala said, “you can create an environment where it’s acceptable” so that kids don’t feel the need to lie. “They need to disclose when they are ready,” said LaSala, who interviewed 65 lesbian and gay youth and their families about the coming-out process for a book that was published in June called, “Coming Out, Coming Home: Helping Families Adjust to a Gay or Lesbian Child.” “Kids may have gotten the message from society, from their peers, that they need to hide it,” he said. “If a parent is too forward and too proactive, they can feel exposed. So it’s tricky.” Parents might also be on the lookout for situations where kids seem to be inviting the question — for example, a teen might make little effort to hide a relationship with someone of the same gender. Speak up It’s not enough to raise kids who aren’t bullies. Kids must be taught to speak up if they’re being victimized or if they know someone else is being victimized. “Sometimes kids think, ‘There’s nothing I can do,”’ said Vanessa Gomez, a counselor who works with teens at Moreno Valley Community Learning Center, about 65 miles east of Los Angeles. But kids can be taught a variety of responses to bullying, said Gomez, president of the California Association of School Counselors, First, of course, “if you see a student making fun of someone else, don’t join in,” she said. Beyond that, she said, options include “confronting and being assertive and saying, ‘That’s not cool, leave him alone!’ or reporting that behavior to a trusted adult. Or going up to the victim and saying, ‘I saw what that guy did over there. Let’s come up with a plan to help so this doesn’t continue.”’ Adults must also help kids change the “code of silence” that labels them snitches if they tell adults what’s going on. “We can help students recognize that it’s courageous to tell,” she said. Gomez’s school district also offers kids the option of anonymously filling out “concerned persons forms” if they’re worried about a peer. Guidance counselors follow up with the child in question by saying, “someone really cares about you,” then assessing what intervention might be needed. Cepek added that sometimes kids who are bullied “don’t think they’re worth the trouble to redress an intolerable situation. Parents need to let them know there are terrible, bigoted people out there who may act in a deplorable manner and that action is not a reflection on the child’s own worth or value.” “It’s hard because no child wants to portray themselves as being a victim of bullying to their family,” said Ann Haas, director of prevention projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “So how can we start sending the message to our children very early that this is an OK topic to bring up? It’s not your fault if you’re bullied.” Be aware that depression is the most common warning sign of suicidal behavior in adolescents, and that “bullying in the context of depression seems to place youth most at risk,” Haas said. Haas also said that suicidal behavior is often preceded by a change in mood or threats of self-harm. “You might notice a change in behavior — a person used to be outgoing, now they’re withdrawn, isolated,” said Gomez. “Maybe a person is making statements that ‘Life would be better off without me.’ You’d be surprised how often students say, ‘I’m going to kill myself.”’ Haas said that while depression is the most common factor leading to teen suicide, specific events may trigger suicidal behavior, “whether it’s something going on with family or at school or a peer’s comments on Facebook. Any number of events can precipitate suicide in someone with an underlying vulnerability.” Reach out If you’re worried about your own teen, Haas says, an easy first step is to call your pediatrician for advice. If you’re worried about someone else’s child, “reach out, parent to parent. Say, ‘I hope that you won’t see this or hear this as meddling, but if it were me, I would want to know this.”’ There’s one bit of good news amid all this: Teen suicide rates in the United States have decreased since the 1970s. And while bullying and harassment related to sexual orientation “certainly have a relationship to suicidal behavior,” Haas cautioned against “writing a social script about gay youths killing themselves or attempting to kill themselves.” She said there are no reliable statistics that prove gay teenagers commit suicide at greater rates than heterosexual teens. Still, a 2007 survey of high school students by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control still found 14 percent of high school students had “seriously considered suicide” in the previous 12 months. That means parents must be vigilant. “We have to be able to send a message, whether you realize that you’re gay, whether you failed a test, whether you’re feeling like you don’t have any friends, don’t make suicide an option,” said Gomez. “You want to say, ‘If you ever feel that way, please come and talk to me.”’ “Let your children know you love them,” said Cepek, “no matter who they are or turn out to be.”

    If you’re worried about your own teen, an easy first step is to call your pediatrician for advice. If you’re worried about someone else’s child, “reach out, parent to parent. Say, ‘I hope that you won’t see this or hear this as meddling, but if it were me, I would want to know this.”’ Ann Haas, director of prevention projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention