HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - The recent death of Nigel Shelby, a Huntsville High School freshman, has renewed discussion about critical topics in north Alabama like bullying in schools, and the dangers some young people face for being openly gay.
WAFF spoke with Erica Hochberger, a therapist with the National Children’s Advocacy Center about these difficult subjects.
The first thing we asked - how to identify a problem with your child. Hochberger says it’s rare that a child will be direct and say there’s a bullying going on. So, what should you look for? “If somebody is typically pretty happy and they love going to school and all of the sudden, they don’t. They don’t want to participate, maybe they seem sad or reluctant to engage." Hochberger says many children, especially younger ones, aren’t in touch with their emotions, and instead focus on physical manifestations of their anxiety "A lot of times, it’ll come out as a stomach ache or a headache or ‘I don’t feel good’ or that sort of thing. They don’t always know how to put the feeling words to it.”
The next step is to make sure to provide a safe and judgement free zone to allow your child to be comfortable telling you what’s going on. From there, it gets more tricky to help end the bullying problem. Sometimes, Hochberger says, it can be as simple as just asking the bully to stop and triggering their empathy or shame. But often, it takes more than that. Positive peer pressure can be helpful, meaning if students see bullying happening around them, several of them stepping up together and demanding that the bully stop can be effective. But Hochberger says adults need to set the example to prevent bullying from ever starting in the first place. "As the adults, we have a job to do. We have to set the tone that under no circumstances is it okay to be mean to somebody. We're always respectful, we're always kind."
How can parents be proactive without causing retaliation from bullies or school administrators who won’t recognize the problem? Hochberger says it’s all about giving the victim tools they can use. “Maybe identify some of their peers they can stand close to, so they’re not isolated and targeted.” Hochberger also suggests trying role play, to give your child practice on how to find allies and stand up to tormentors without breaking any school rules or making the situation worse.