Saturday, January 22, 2011

Hug A Teen; Save A Life

I apologize for publishing this post so late, especially one this serious in nature.  I know my day contained the same twenty-four hours as it did for all of you, but somehow time escaped me.  And not for productive reasons, either.

If it is alright with you, I respectfully request permission to slip back into my former teacher role for the duration of today's post.  Not that teacher's are the only people who could benefit from this information, but because it was an issue so close to my heart during the years spent in my classroom.  So, as you read my thoughts today, please keep in mind I have four years classroom experience (not much, I know) as well as a Bachelor's and Master's Degree in Education.

Back in October, I blogged about bullying.  According to the stats tab, it was my first successful post (excluding giveaways) and continues drawing in readers from different parts of the world.  I'm not going to reiterate what I've already stated.  If you've been with me, you know how I feel about the issue.  If you take a second to click the bullying tabs at the top of this site, you'll gain a better idea of why.

Towards the end of my third year in teaching, I had an opportunity that forever changed my life.  My district invited Mr. John Halligan to speak with our students about Ryan, his youngest child who tragically ended his life at the age of thirteen .  I will never forget sitting through that presentation.

One year after that assembly, Mr. Halligan visited the school district where I currently reside.  Wanting to learn more, I ventured into the cold, rainy night and listened once again.  But this time it was different.  The second presentation I attended was for adults only, and I was able to hear (and read) certain details deemed inappropriate for middle schoolers.  I left that evening with a heavier heart then the year before.

Why do I bring this up?  Earlier this week, I received an e-mail linking a disturbing article and learned two teenagers, in separate incidents, recently committed suicide.  A tear released itself from my left eye and traveled down my cheek as I stared at their pictures - images revealing young individuals filled with promise and potential.  I couldn't take it.

As I investigated the cases further, I discovered a third incident where a 15 year-old shot himself inside a high school bathroom around the same time.  What the heck is going on?????

Please know these cases are still being investigated.  Details are limited and it will be a matter of time before all pieces are put together.  Naturally, the bullying card is being played, and I'm sure it has its place to a certain extent.  But nothing is certain as of now, so I'm not going to speculate.

What I do know is this: Teenagers do not kill themselves because they are happy.  They do not end their life because things are going according to plan, nor do they do it to escape a hard test or get out of a homework assignment.  This behavior is prompted from serious psychological problems, most likely undiagnosed, including unhappiness, depression, and feelings of inadequacy. 

It absolutely must stop.

From my experience, I do not believe teens fully comprehend what it means to commit suicide.  They are not capable of looking beyond the here and now, and because of that, fail to recognize the permanent result of this decision.  I think some view it as taking a long nap; they'll be removed from life for a few days, and when they return, things will be better.  They have not reached an age or maturity level to fully grasp the concept.

Furthermore, it is hard for kids to come clean with their problems.  I hate to say it, but reporitng bullying often makes the situation worse.  Once the school gets involved, the kid will be branded a snitch before the initial conversation is even finished.  Like it or not, that presents an entirely new set of problems.

Few people, if any, would describeteens as rational.  They are known to act on impulse - to live in the moment and not think about consequences.  We've all been there.  So, when a teen decides to end their life, have they thought it over, or are they acting in the heat of a moment?  Many kids blow hot and cold.  I often wonder if they were to take a nap and sleep off the bad mood, would they still feel suicidal after waking up?  Unfortunately, we can't study something that never happened in the first place.

Such situations prompt a lot of finger pointing - at parents, at school systems, at friends and innocent bystanders.  I'm not going to do that.  I think schools need to step it up, but that is an entirely different issue I probably shouldn't get into.  This post is long enough.

I share this information because I'm going to be honest - there is no simple solution to the problem.  The reality is, it is far more complex and incorporates more variables than most realize. 

My heart continues to bleed for the families of these children and the lives that were lost.  A number of people, myself included, have made it a mission to spread awareness.  But, as the death count rises, it becomes clear that approach is not enough.  I feel I should be doing more, but what more can people be doing?

So, readers, what are your thoughts?  How do we come together as a society to tackle this escalating problem?  How do we create a culture where kids feel safe and loved?  How do we teach about empathy and spread the message of kindness? How do we teach troubled teens to choose LIFE?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

By the way, I apologize for any incoherent thoughts or mechanical issues in this post.  You see what time it was posted; it's been a looooong day!


  1. Hi, I'm new here. Pleased to 'meet' you.

    Your passion on this topic is very evident. I wish I had answers. You're right, of course, it is a complicated issue with many variables and no easy, clear cut answers/fixes. Awareness and compassion is a good starting point.

    Thank you for sharing.

    Have a wonderful weekend,

  2. You're right, Paul. I can't think of any simple answers. I think this may be an issue that only has generational solutions, with passionate people not letting the issue die or be forgotten.

    Lola's right - you're obviously one of those people. I think you'll have plenty of opportunities to have a voice in shaping the dialog. You already have the message. I'm a huge fan of empathy. If we could find a way to inject that, we'd be well on the way.

    Other than that, I think it's the old eating an elephant dilemma, and that can only be tackled one bite at a time. Every person, parent or child, or interested observer, that get's that message will be a carrier of an empathy virus.

    That'll be a start.

  3. What a poignant post today. I absolutely despise bullying. I was on both ends in school and they both stink.

    I agree with the other posters. Research shows that if and that is a big IF empathy can be taught that is a key factor in reducing bullying.

    I don't have an answer and I doubt in my life time there will be one, and that is sad. I do my best to teach my children the value of other's feelings while seeing other parents teach their children the value of me me me.

    Cathy @ Country Cathy

  4. Thanks for writing this great post. I completely agree with you on this topic - bullying has gotten out of hand. I'm not sure if anyone knows how to solve it, but the first step is certainly to draw attention to this horrid social issue that has risen dramatically over the last few years. It wasn't always like this and it doesn't have to be like this in the future. Personally, I think social networking is what has caused this increase in recent years. I think bullying, ultimately, is an act of cowardice and insecurity. Now that people don't even have to bully face to face and can do it from behind the safety of a computer screen, it has become too easy. We all come in different size, shapes, colors, and have different ideas - that really is what gives us our humanity and it should be celebrated, not tormented.

  5. This is certainly tragic, but it almost seems like the school shootings--once stories get exposure and newsed around, there grows a rash of similar incidents. Not sure what the answer is.

    I wish there was a way to cut down on the social networking risks w/o isolating teens or cutting off their social life entirely.

    It does show the powerful effect of words. May we as writers use our words wisely.

  6. The closer together our world grows, the more isolated we all feel - and this really hits hardest for teens.
    Parents need to be more involved in their kids' lives. Family members need to be more involved with one another. We've gotten away from traditional family values and become too busy withour lives.
    Honestly? We've grown too distant from God.

  7. Lola - Thanks so much for stopping in. It's a pleasure to meet you, also.

    Michael - Thanks for your thoughts; "the empathy virus" is a great way to put it. I know you are a huge fan of that concept. As always, I appreciate your input.

    Cathy - I agree, unfortunately. This is one of those complex issues that will take decades to resolve. Progress is key. It sounds like you are doing your part, and for that, we are all thankful. Your children will be shaped by the values you are teaching them.

    Alex - You raise an EXCELLENT point about social networking; it has MOST DEFINITELY contributed at accelerating the problem. Kids have become far too comfortable sharing cruel thoughts while hiding behind a computer screen. And why wouldn't they? It's hard to feel remorse when you can't look someone in the eye. And with the Internet, bullies can spread their work much faster to large numbers. Sad.

    Carol - Words are powerful. I never bought into that "sticks and stones" bit. Yes, it was designed with good intentions, but words do hurt. We must all remember that, and teach kids the same.

    Alex - Traditional family values is most definitely a factor. Gone are the days where many families eat dinner together every night, interact frequently, and are involved in each other's lives. I met a number of parents during my teaching career who were afraid of their children. They didn't know how to handle them and would ask teachers for advice. That was a very telling situation.

  8. Bullying is a topic which is pervasive and like the nine-headed Lernaean Hydra, where as soon as you cut out one type of bullying another grows in its place. It is difficult for me to fathom, because I have never understood being mean for the sake of it.

    But because bullying is so prevalent and comes in so many forms, I have found it sneaks into ever novel I've written so far. Because this is the world the pre-teens and teens have to deal with... bullies are in their daily lives in one way or another. A very sad commentary on the state of events.

    I don't know the answer on how we deal with the overall problem. Keep trying, keep loving, and ensure that kids know they have value and NOBODY has the right to tell them otherwise. But for me, I will keep on writing and including bullies, and maybe, through reading pre-teens/teens will learn that bullying is not acceptable, there are consequences, and they do have worth regardless of what others may say.

  9. Hi Paul. I agree with the others. It's a tragic situation and I have no quick answers. I do think, too, though that parents and other family members need to really listen to each other, and care about each other. Thank you for posting your thoughts and insights on this. You're truly a caring guy!

  10. As a kid, things can get pretty ugly. I certainly hope that the relationship our family has is strong enough to bring our children to us, if something horrible went through their minds. Suicide is something we have spoken with our kids on. One of the good things about books and movies, when shared, is that you can bring up issues that normally would be hard to put into context. It is imperative to speak with our kids a lot. There is a lack of religion with many people as well, which can make the meanings of life seem rather... pointless to some. The way that the internet will permanently scar people, branding them for one wrong choice or statement, can really take an effect on a kid. They hear about how much things are permanent with videos and such these days. I'm sure there is much more pressure with the use of social networks.

    When we were kids, we didn't get our butts stomped AND put on Youtube.

  11. LK - "I have never understood being mean for the sake of it." If only more people were in the same boat. I find myself constantly surrounded my mean behaviors. Just last night, I watched a middle-aged woman curse out a young Barista over too much foam in her latte. Was it necessary to address the issue in that manner? And yes, I agree that literature is a FANTASTIC venue for kids to learn about bullying. In fact, I wish more schools would make some of these novels mandatory. Let's be honest, classical literature is not going to teach the life lessons today's kids are currently facing. Times have changed.

    Becky - Thanks for your kind words, and thanks for stopping in. Caring and compassion is a great step in the right direction. We need more of this. I think a few too many adults have been modeling negative behaviors. I know I'm taking a risk in saying so, but politicians, in my opinion, are sending the wrong message. Look how they belittle each other; twist words around and strive to attack the opposing candidate. I call that bullying. Tell me who YOU are and what YOU'RE about. Leave the opposite side out.

    Draven - You raise a number of good points. For one, I agree that religion is lacking (Alex mentioned this also). And although I respect we all have our own beliefs, and we each have the right to choose our own path in this regard, I think there are too many people who disregard the meaning of life altogether. I find that sad. For me, faith has gotten me through some difficult times. If faith isn't someone's thing, I wish for them an equivalent alternative instead of an empty compartment. And youtube - excellent point! Not only are kids humiliated in front of small groups, but now they find their situations broadcasted to the world. You can never take back something posted on the net. Even if you delete it, you don't know who was exposed to (and possibly copied or saved) the material themselves.

  12. Paul ~ You bring up an excellent point about politicians. Not only do they engage in the behavior we tell kids is unacceptable, we belie that by showing the person who slings the best mud usually wins. And we underscore this not only with politicians, but with media as well. And I'm not talking about the comedy shows which portray being mean to others is okay if you're in the cool group. I'm talking about what we present on a daily basis in the form of news and entertainment.

    When Baseball television ratings were flagging, suddenly there were fisticuffs on the field left and right and they were all televised ad nauseum, many times with the sportscasters barely able to get the words out because they were laughing. Instead of showing examples of sportsmanship or skill on the field, more time was given to the brawl in question. Message delivered? If you don't like what someone else has done, beat the crap out of them.

    When Zinedine Zidane headbutted Marco Materazzi in the World Cup, his final game as a player, the media went nuts - many defending Zidane's actions - which both players admit was the result of an insult hurled by Materazzi. Zidane is iconic and through all the years of play noted for his calm. Which caused the media to report it in the nature of if it caused Zidane to snap, then Materazzi must have said something horrible. Horrible or not, what it taught us is that if you are revered enough, then it's okay to headbutt someone because they insulted you. To my knowledge, Zidane refused to apologize for losing control.

    In addition to sports figures there are the well publicized fights (both physical & verbal) between singers/musicians. And who hasn't seen Jack Nicholson take a golf club to a car, or Alec Baldwin attack someone? The list could go on & on.

    These are the people kids look up to and the media shouts their failings to the world. And kids mimic their icons.

    In older media times, failings like these were hushed up, because they were unseemly. Until the media awoke to the fact: sleeze sells. And we continue to buy it.

  13. LK - I greatly appreciate your great response and the excellent points you raised. The media and celebrity role models are most certainly a contributing factor because, as you said, they are not nice to each other! Ever. I grew up watching shows like Family Matters and Full House on TGIF - shows that taught values and important lessons regarding the world we live in. The kids today grow up watching Jersey Shore, an endless parade of fighting, violence, and abuse. Ongoing drama and issues relating to others. To them, this is normal. That's why it's a "reality" show, right? Remember when MTV played music?

    And sportsmanship is most definitely a lacking character trait in our society. The course I used to teach focused a great deal on chivalry and whether or not that concept still existed. The kids did a persuasive writing assignment, and every year, 99% said no. I love that people are passionate about issues facing our world. I love that I live in a country where I have the right to vote. But I can't stand people who can't demonstrate sportsmanlike conduct when their side doesn't win. I never sahred my political views with my students, and I don't really allude to them on here. BUT, what I have always beleived is, when did it become okay to be disrespectful just because you don't agree with someone? This applies to parents, teachers, bosses, politicians, police officers, judges, etc. Kids observe behaviors first; then they emulate them.

  14. I wish I had answers too, but I'm going to try hard to be around for my kids when they want to talk. Feeling alone is a big part of the victimization.
    Great, thoughtful post.

  15. I agree with you, Paul... there are no easy solutions to this. Bullying has been around since the dawn of time and I fear it always will be. It is becoming more talked about, tho, and I think that;s a refreshing start so that kids know they don't have to put up with it.
    I started my own non-profit anti bullying campaign called FLOAT (for love of all teens) and the message is to encourage teen self-esteem so kids know it's ok to be different and they dont have to put up with bullying. The FLOAT mission also encourages teens to stick up for each other and look out for their peers to help stop bullying. If you come to my blog there's a picture of a blue balloon... just click on it for the Facebook page and the website is conjoined. Check it out.. I'd love to have more peeps on board with this and looking for willing souls to take active part in spreading this message.
    My kids will be teens in the next 6-7 years and I really hope things have become better by then. I worry for them, as well as the many teens out there who feel so alone.
    If you have any interest in the FLOAT project and volunteering time and /or whatever suggestions you may have, please email me.

  16. by showing them there is love and support in us.
    Lovely post, Paul, I say that as a professor myself! Reaching out to teenagers by nurturing and inflaming their talents is something that gives them strength and a reason to fight and live even if they don't have anyone else's support.
    While I worked in a High School, I paid special attention to quiet kids because they always seemed neglected and being neglected and lonely is what usually leads to loss, suicide, problems ... I always tried to give them a kind word, a special support, always wrote a few words of encouragement in their papers ....


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