This special report, done in interview format, is presented in three parts. It addresses issues of bullying (traditional and cyber) and resulting instances of suicide in young people. Suggestions for intervention are also offered.
If a suicidal youngster is being seen by a counselor, therapist or clinician, what is the focus of treatment?
(Sutton) I can only outline an approach I would take. First of all, it’s critical I keep in the front of my mind the one thing most capable of preventing a youth suicide: the presence of at least one positive, meaningful relationship. It’s a sobering thought, but true, that I might be that one relationship, at least until I can help the youngster re-attach to others.
To this end, the development of a genuine and caring rapport with this child or teen is paramount, as would be my expectation of the youngster that they would not take their life while I am trying to help them. (This might sound a bit egotistical on the surface, but, if a youngster has little or no regard for his/her life, thoughts of the effect of their suicide on others, certainly including family members, could be an excellent, short-term deterrent.)
One of the first questions I would ask of this youngster is one I borrowed from my psychologist friend in Virginia, Dr. Doug Riley: “Do you want to die, or do you just want the pain to go away?” That one question might stop them in their tracks because they’ve always felt that death is the only way for their pain to stop.
Early on, I would want to assess the degree and depth of the youngster’s sense of hopelessness and their level of impulsivity in the face of their distress. It would also be important to address the causes of this youngster’s difficulties and obtain some sort of immediate relief where and when possible. (One example might be a schedule change at school. It’s not a total solution, but it is a start, and it signals to the child or teen our willingness to act on their behalf.)
Although treatment approaches will vary from one youngster to the next, my primary goal would be to help them with the insight and skills for regaining control in his/her life. I would give them “homework” and expect them to comply, especially since their resulting actions, or lack of them, can be therapeutically significant.
(For instance, I told one young man to take a lap around the football field before he walked home after school. My intent was twofold. First of all, some kind of activity almost always helps with depression. Second, a willingness to follow well-intended directions is an investment in one’s own healing.)
At some point, this youngster might be a good candidate for group work, if I can arrange it.
What is the parent’s role in this phenomenon? What can they do to minimize the bullying (traditional or cyberbullying)?
(Jacobs) Parents need to build trust with their children from an early age regarding all things digital. The child needs to understand they can go to their parent anytime something they read or see on the screen upsets them. Once trust is built and ingrained in their psyche, monitoring their cyber life in later years won’t become a major issue.
As the child matures and is allowed greater use of digital devices, parents should monitor all of their accounts closely and regularly. You can’t protect your child if you don’t know what they’re exposed to. Communication about cyberspace should be ongoing while encouraging the child to report any and all cruel messages or anything that makes them feel uncomfortable.
Regarding sexting, the “sext” talk should be done while in middle school and continue throughout high school. This isn’t like the sex talk that many dread and can’t wait to get over. It should be ongoing.
Because kids have access to smart phones and other mobile technologies earlier in life, is cyberbullying a problem among elementary-age children?
(Jacobs) Although not a major problem, elementary schools are addressing the issue by teaching and practicing tolerance and kindness. Books and posters are available to K-5 students and teachers from children’s publishers. I am not aware of any court cases or prosecutions of elementary school students for cyberbullying.
What are the legal options open to youngsters who are severely bullied?
(Jacobs) The victim and his or her parents can and should take action. If the bully is known, the parents may attempt to discuss the situation with him and his parents. The parents should also notify the principal with a request that the school’s bullying policies be adhered to. Schools have addressed cyber-bullying of classmates and teachers through suspension and expulsion in the appropriate case.
Schools are charged with providing a hostile-free learning environment and failure to do so may have legal consequences. Some recent cases have resulted in civil lawsuits brought against the bully, parents, school districts and administrators. Depending on the facts of the case, a variety of legal theories may be pursued including negligence, physical or mental harm, invasion of privacy, defamation of character, and intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Another way to deal with a cyber-bully is to seek an Order of Protection from a court. Sometimes referred to as a restraining order or injunction, a violation of the order may result in contempt and possible jail time. The order can restrict a person from all contact with another person or set limitations on the type of contact, frequency and location. Once in place, a protective order will last a specified period of time but may be renewed if necessary.
Finally, if the acts of the bully constitute a crime under relevant statutes, the police may become involved. Criminal charges including intimidation, threatening, harassment, stalking, or impersonation may be filed against the bully in juvenile or adult court. Penalties for conviction include probation, community service, counseling, jail, or prison.
Do you have any recommendations, legally and socially, regarding action against bullying of all sorts?
(Jacobs) Generally, regarding cyberbullying, don’t respond or engage the bully, make copies of all messages and block further messages.
Then, if the bullying continues, see the legal options discussed above.
(Sutton) I would only add that bullying, like poverty, disease, hunger and other issues that affect people’s lives, is very much a social problem. We all have a responsibility to deal with it, not only for the sake of a bully’s victims, but for the sake of decency in society as a whole. ###
Tom Jacobs spent twenty-three years in family and juvenile court before retiring in 2008. He moderates AsktheJudge.info with his daughter, attorney Natalie Jacobs. AsktheJudge is a free, interactive resource for teenagers, parents and educators about the laws that affect teens and youth justice issues.
A nationally recognized child and adolescent psychologist, author and speaker, Dr. James Sutton is the founder and host of The Changing Behavior Network, a popular internet blog and radio-style podcast dedicated to the positive growth of children, teens and their families.