Bullying: The Importance of Safety Plans


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Recent national headlines have once again shed light upon a persistent ugly issue in our society: bullying. A Florida teen tragically took her own life in response to a barrage of bullying, most of which occurred online. In fact, 2 teens were arrested in connection with the bullying.

While I don’t believe this will stop bullying it does send 3 very strong messages:

  1. That our youth are more vulnerable to verbal cruelty than we have been willing to acknowledge.
  2. That those who bully will not always get away with it.
  3. Discussion of charging the perpetrators will be a wake up call.  Parents, schools and communities need to be aware of the vulnerability of adolescents and to realize the adults’ role of responsibility.

Some of the questions about this immensely painful story from Florida are:

  • Who was aware of what was going on and what response took place?
  • Did anyone intervene, other than the parents?
  • What was the safety plan?

I think any good safety plan has to include more than parents. Community members are involved whether they wish to be or not. This is a community story, not, the story of a family who lived in isolation.

We don’t all perceive bullying in the same way, but if we reframe the issue, the question becomes, What does a child’s safety mean to you? The adolescent brain is not developmentally mature to always regulate what they say and do. They don’t look ahead and predict what may happen, so parents and other adults must monitor cyber activities just as we monitor a 3-year old learning to climb on a jungle gym, a 5-year old crossing the street, drinking and driving, etc. Cybersafety needs to become another parenting norm. 

At Texas Children’s Hospital we use a simple 2-step plan when coaching schools and parents about bullying, I call it Safety and Engagement. While geared towards physical and verbal bullying, it also works for cyberbullying.

  • SAFETY refers to physically removing the child from the danger or removing the danger from the child. We talk to appropriate authorities about putting a safety plan in place. We enlist others to keep the child safe when the situation requires that. With cyberbullying we want to remove the access of the perpetrator to the victim’s life and stop the perpetrator posting.
  • ENGAGEMENT refers to connecting. We strategize how to build psychosocial and emotional safety. Remember bullying is often about isolating the victim and destroying her connection from a peer group. Conversely, we help the child engage with others. Positive social and emotional engagement creates protective factors: emotional protection when you know you are accepted by others, protection by the physical presence of those with you, and emotional resiliency from being in a socially accepting group.

During adolescence our peers act as a mirror reflecting back to us who we are, so make sure your child has some positive experiences reflecting back their successes. Help them to find positive peers, adults and teachers who reflect back  positive messages, “I accept you,” “I like you,” “You’re smart,” “You’re kind,” “You’re helpful,” “You’re funny,” etc.

There is not a magical answer, but these strategies can be tailored to individual needs and have helped many of our patients once the community they are in is made aware of the situation and involves itself.

Signs your child is being bullied include any type of emotional shut down: sadness, depression, socially isolating themselves, avoiding school, the emotional pain may lead to self abuse such as cutting as in the case in Florida. There is a long list but the bottom line is, do you notice your child behaving differently? Try to provide a safe environment for your child to share and not feel embarrassed to report something negative.

Advice for kids who are being bullied: Keep yourself safe, tell as many people as possible. The more people you tell the less the bully can control the situation. Tell your parents, tell the school, tell your church, tell the police if you feel no one is listening, talk to other friends and adults. Ask for help. Remember – by asking for help you are getting help for other people, not just yourself.

Teenagers take back control, block your social media, and if needs be shut down Twitter, Facebook, etc. Cut off the portals that allow someone to reach you. That person does not get to write your life story. You take charge, you draw boundaries, you enlist others and you write your story because the bully wants to cut you out from your peers. Do the opposite and build a support network around yourself. It will likely take the help of adults and other students to do this so you must report what is happening and ask for the help. Asking for help will not only protect you, it will protect others down the road as well.