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In Expert Interviews

Dr. Laura Van Schaick-Harman on Online Safety

Dr. Laura Van Schaick-Harman has experience working with the following speciality areas: autism, anxiety, depression, parent training, behavior management, social skills training, learning disabilities, school problems, transitioning to college, academic support (test taking strategies, study skills, time management, organization), tutoring (Regents Exams, SAT Prep, High School Courses), ADHD, intellectual disabilities, college advising. She talks to NoBullying.com on All Things Online Safety.

This can also be found on youtube if you prefer:

The interview on Online Safety can also be found here.

Laura: My name is Doctor Laura Van Schaick Harman. I am a psychologist here in United States. I’m licensed in New York. I’m in early career actually. I have opened my private practice last year. So, I have just finished celebrating my one year anniversary in private practice and I worked with children for many years, even since I was a little girl. So, it was very natural career path for me to be interested in working with children as an adult. So, I have been with that working with schools, working in schools, working with districts and preschools and privately and now in my practice with families and I love. It is a great career. I feel very impassioned by it and very happy to be doing the work that I do.

Ciaran: Thank you very much to taking time out to join us today it is very much appreciated. So, do you think bullying today is as big an issue as it was maybe 10 or 20 years ago (in regards to cyber bullying)?

Laura: You know, in thinking about that in 10 or 20 years ago, I myself was in school. I wasn’t a professional. I think it is at least the same if not worse and it looks very different today than it looked 10 or 20 years ago. Ten years ago, I was just graduating high school. In that time frame, when I was in school, I would see fights that spontaneously start. Receiving messages about a planned fight or a planned bullying, which is very upsetting to see when you are in school and then as an adult and having kids report this kind of information to you and now it is taking a totally different turn you know with technologies that we have now, bullying follows people home and people are targeted twenty four hours a day seven a week and they are not always feeling very safe and I think it is a big problem, definitely.

Ciaran: And when you mention technology, and I guess social media and the internet, you think then it is having a bigger effect on people’s life and the fact that it is twenty four seven (i.e Cyber Bullying ) ?

Laura: I think so. I know some children who are not even sure how people got their contact information on Facebook or got their email address or got their phone number. It’s just that we see text messaging as well. So, it might be a group message that is targeting one person in that group but it is done on purpose to hurt somebody’s feelings. Some of that relational aggression we will see. We will see it on all the different kinds of social media and it is very difficult.

Ciaran: And do you think there is a lot of coverage in the media now about bullying and cyber bullying? Do you think that is helping things?

Laura: I do. I do think it is helping things (cyber bullying awareness). There are a lot of resources now online for professionals and for the public that people can access that a lot of the government knowledge now and the presentations. You know, President Obama has become involved.

There is so much information available on the internet, which is actually interesting because that is the very source of the media that the people are using to bully at the same time but there is a lot of help that can be there for families as well. For how to talk to your children if you suspect they are bullying or being bullied or they are the observer and working with schools.

So, I definitely think that that situation has improved but there are a lot of areas, especially in schools, that I think need improvement as well. Bullying doesn’t just stop at school. It happens in the workplace, it can happen in so many different scenarios that is very interesting to me. I don’t have much experience with the “I/O Psych” side of it but I just heard and a lot of research says that bullying is kind of all around.

So, I am hoping that with more awareness and more and more research, like you guys with your website, just like getting the word out there and parents reading and really the best thing that a parent can do is to be informed. So, they know if “If I am facing this issue, what do I do?”

Ciaran: Of course and you mentioned some examples of the group text messaging and I guess on social media. You obviously deal with children and families and schools. Could you give us some examples of [how] bullying does happen? What our children [are] actually doing today? How does bullying happen using technology today (cyber bullying)? And even if the old traditional school yard bullying is still happening?

Laura: Yes. Some recent examples I have with even in the school, not using technology( in relation to cyber bullying) , just kids bossing other kids around, telling them “No, you can’t buy that food “”No, you can’t eat that snack now ” “No! That is not the way you play this game” and trying to cheat and trying to put other people down “You don’t know how to play this game”. Just some things that can very hurtful especially if somebody is feeling a little sensitive and their own best friends sometimes that will say that, not necessarily enemies. It is friends which makes it very difficult for some kids to kind of being assertive with [them] because they are their friends and they don’t want… they are afraid that they are going to lose the friendship if they try to address the bullying. So, they sometimes keep it very quiet and they are not comfortable telling an adult about it or just addressing it with their friend. They just kind of take it.

Now with electronics…sometimes you will see group text messages (cyber bullying) go out which is inviting certain people somewhere and with oops! Accidently sent to somebody who is not really invited. Or there is a birthday party that’s going on and they are not supposed to be actually. So, it is a mistake but possibly done on purpose and Facebook. I don’t know personally but I have seen Facebook bullying and threats going out on posts even to like entire schools and here in The United States we had the tragedy, I am not sure if you are familiar with an elementary school in Newtown, another state in Connecticut where there were many lives lost [because] there was a shooting. After that we have seen some more Facebook posts about…that could be read into a little more but that really makes kids feel not safe at school which is sometimes bullies just joking, possibly not joking, but it is so hard to tell and that is something that is a general post where anybody that sees that on Facebook feels scared and then doesn’t want to go to school.

Online Safety

Ciaran: Wow and we are talking about some examples of bullying. Do you have any knowledge of severe consequences and cases of bullying? You mentioned the one two states away, obviously that is related to bullying. Have you seen other cases as well?

Laura: I am in early career. So, I haven’t personally seen that very severe cases but you know we have had several suicide cases in The United States that were related to bullying. We are seeing an up rise in youth who are communicating that they are gay or bisexual or lesbian or transgender or questioning youth. So, I haven’t again seen that personally in my practice but I have heard of cases were we can see an increase in suicide or depression problems that come up. It can really affect kids.

I have seen that on the level that it is just hurtful and hard to solve a problem which makes it stressful and when that happens with some of the kids that I have seen, it is hard for them to function during their school day because they are so consumed and worried about what is going on with them with bullies or even their friends who are acting as bullies.

Ciaran: You bring the next topic of is it likely to be long term effects on people who are bullied?

Laura: I think so. I think the potential is definitely there. I don’t think it means that every single person that has been bullied in some way, shape or form will grow up to have long-term problems and I think they vary. The severity of the long term problems will vary for anybody. That’s why it is really important to seek professional help if needed and for families to communicate safety and love for their children and educate them about being assertive, about problem solving, about healthy friendships, about healthy relationships because some we see kids that fall victim, they might fall victim to a romantic relationship where they could be bullied or there could be domestic violence situations and that just could head up a path that is very dangerous and unhealthy but there are some kids who…since everybody has been a victim of bullying in some way shape or form, but most people have had some sort of experience of being made fun of or had a problem with the peer. So, there is plenty of well-adjusted people. They just learn to effectively cope with it put that situation to where it belongs to a box in its place to be able to look at it from the outside in a healthy way. So, but I think the potential for long term problems is definitely there.

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Ciaran: And do you think parents and teachers are skilled and they are dealing with the victims and the bullies in the right way?

Laura: Yes and no. I think they could do better, I really do. Reason being is, kids will say that “I told my teacher and they don’t do anything”. I, myself, had experiences when I was younger, very young in elementary school, where I would’ve considered myself a victim of bullying and even though I communicated it my teacher, my teacher didn’t believe me and that was just really disheartening because you think “You are the grown up and I am telling you the truth that I am being bothered by something. Something is happening to me and you are telling me you don’t believe me because you are choosing to believe the other people in the class”. I think what a big problem that is contributed to by that is teachers not visibly seen what happens. So, it becomes a he said/she said kind of thing and I think bullying happens a lot where there is less supervision such as the school bus or the playground.

 I have seen some schools where there are a couple of teachers outside but they are taking in one corner and there is a kid sitting by himself on the other side of the playground. He is upset about something but nobody goes over to approach him or to find out what is happening because they are socializing. So, when schools…I love when I see schools with grownups spread out and interacting with the kids in the playground.

When they educate the bus drivers to recognize when bullying might be happening which is very difficult because it sometimes happen at the back of the bus and the bus driver’s main job is to drive the children safely so they can get home and to school safely. So, there is not a lot of training in our area at least of bus drivers. I think if there is another adult on the bus that was just there for the other safety of the kids, their mental health and their emotional well-being, I think we would see a better improvement in the schools but a lot of schools have been putting together programs here in the states, which is really nice, like bullying prevention program. Sometimes a lot of speakers come, sometimes they put together what we call “In-services” or “Trainings for Teachers”. That I think is what the schools are doing right. They are educating professionals, they are educating parents. In my work with the schools and many other schools will implement behavioural management programs. We use positive behavioural intervention support a lot, which is really something that looks for and promotes the healthy interactions with kids and following classroom rules effectively, proactively, positively and they’re set up. Sometimes, it’s a whole school district wide program. So, when it is implemented right, it can do great things and really model that character development for kids and really model the behaviour that the school districts want to see and what is healthy relationships for kids, not the unhealthy ones.

Ciaran: The schools are getting a lot of support and help in some districts which is just great to hear and as parents, we don’t come with a manual or kids don’t come with a manual. So, its trial by failure, learn by experience. Do you think parents…there is enough help for parents as well to understand and do they, sometimes parents, think it is up to the school to educate and make our children be good citizens? Because, I guess half the time, the child is with the parents during the evening and the night and in the weekends and summers. So, they have a massive influence as well on a child’s behaviour.

Laura: Absolutely. Parents are like probably the most important influence on their child. The school is very important, friends are very important depending on the developmental stage of the child and adolescents. Friends have a huge influence on your kids but younger and older parents have more of an influence. So, I think parents can be better informed. Some parents don’t have access to the internet as freely as others or aren’t as educated as other parents or many parents don’t know the rights they have as parents here even with special education which those that population of kids seems to be targeted a little bit more often for bullying. So, I do believe that there are some parents that do think that it is the school’s main responsibility over them to let their children…to teach them how to be people and to develop their character.

So, I think we have seen these shifts back and forth in education where we are seeing some character development focus then academic focus then character development focus. So, now we are putting in a whole bunch of like a mixture of things. Based on research, it is a lot and can be very overwhelming at times. There is just not enough hours in the day that the teacher has each child, because you know our classroom size is range but figure you are looking sometimes between 20 and 35 kids on average, probably in close to the 30 mark and they are there for 6 hours a day. So, to really make a huge difference, and the schools can, but for every single child to have that connection is difficult. It is definitely hard work for the school and the teacher.

Parents can and should work very hard at home to develop those characters, those values, those beliefs that they…and encouraging in growth and maturation in their kids and putting all that together, the school working together with the parents who really help for positive adjustment as they grow and create some resilience when they are experiencing bullying or witnessing bullying or just in a problem where they just they have a fight with a friend and how to handle this. I think that the parents and the schools really need to work together, not fighting but really work together.

Ciaran: Of course and everyone together should have the desire to overcome that, we hope. What should the school or parent look out for in a child who might be getting bullied?

Laura: Well, there are some obvious signs like they come home with ripped clothing or marks on their body. That, you definitely want to ask what had happened right away. Sometimes we recommend looking for changes in behaviour. That might not indicate bullying necessarily but it might indicate that something is wrong. Something is going on and you might want some further exploration.

So, all of a sudden you see kids exhibiting school refusal and maybe they had liked the school before and now they start of by getting sick at home or not wanting to go to school or say “I want to stay at home. I am not feeling so well”, “I’d rather do this today” and parents get a little “Oh! There must be…That’s odd! You like to go to school. Why all of a sudden you don’t want to go to school?”

Some kids will just tell you. They will say that they had a problem with a friend but they might not tell you all of the story. It just might be upsetting, more crying, depressing behaviour. There will be more sleeping, lots of nightmares, like any of those things that where the child acts a little differently or behaviours that you normally see get worse. Then, there may be a clue that there is something going on. How to find out if it is bullying is difficult because that relies on the child telling you or observing it or the teacher saying “I observed this” and letting you know.

Not impossible though. Sometimes kids develop some trust with somebody, like there have been kids who have reported to me, their psychologist, without reporting to their parents first about bullying because they knew that I was there to help with that. That was my job. It’s to help them develop coping skills and to be assertive and to understand bullying. So, then I will work with the child together, let their mom and dad know and then we will work out a plan. Sometimes I’ll call the school to work out a plan together.

So, I think parents really they know their kids better than anybody and they will listen to their gut and say “You know, I feel there is something that is just not right” and you look for some of those other signs; crying, sleeping, nightmares, not wanting to go to school, school refusal, anxiety, ripped clothing, marks on their body. Somewhere we were talking about problems with peers and they might want to look into it further.

Ciaran: And my last question to you today, you deal with children of all ages. So, do younger children have different problems and were they bullying differently than adolescents? And…is it different bullying? Different styles or maybe do young children brush it off and adolescents, because it is the age of their life and they are trying to establish their identity, it can be tougher for teens?

Laura: It’s interesting because I worked with a lot of pre-schoolers. We will see kids like if they’re pushed, they will push right back. We will see a lot of “That’s my toy” and then like run somebody over. We’ll see that a lot in early childhood. So, whereas we don’t see that quickly acted out, I will say, when kids get a little bit older because they come to the ability that they can plan a little bit more whereas younger children they are not planning that many steps in advance. So, it is a little bit more impulsive when you see that.

I have seen kids in kindergarten-1st grade, very young, some of that relational aggression amongst girls coming up as “You are going to be our friend anymore”, “You are not allowed to play with her anymore” and that, I think, there has been a change or shift overtime where we’re seeing that start a little bit younger because that defines more of the adolescents whereas, you know, you just bully out so you create a wall where there is a whole bunch of people who won’t be friends with somebody. We see that more in girls than in boys and the boys feast in more like the fights and where they might be bigger and have more strength than you do in the early childhood.

In early childhood, you are able to separate it, the teacher is able to go in there and to separate it faster and it is not necessarily a continued back and forth fight. It might be “He pushed me. I pushed him and then it was over”. Once they are a little bit older, you might see a full on back and forth very aggressive fight where security needs to get involved and the teachers need to get involved and people can get really hurt. I had seen in my own high school kids getting sent to the hospital because of these kinds of fights. Now, we see, I am just going to back to your earlier question, but I am just remembering that people will put video of bullying happening and post it online, which is a huge – not really just a bad thing – very upsetting and now what could have been confined to however was there to witness it and whoever they told, is now all over the world and people are actually trying to get reinforced and people will reinforce you “Wow! Go beat him up. Do that. Really hurt him” and they comments about this and they post it online to get to be reinforced which is a problem of technology. So, in the early childhood they are not posting stuff online. So, I think once they get a little bit older…the older they get, they might have more social media influence but I have seen as young as elementary school even on Instagram. There is just so much that goes on. It’s wild. It is really interesting!

Ciaran: Again, thank you for giving us an insight into what is happening (on bullying and cyber bullying )and the good practice and the bad things that are happening I guess you have seen. Obviously, you work with children, schools, districts and of course families. So, if anyone wanted to talk to you or to find more about what you do, what is the best way for them to contact you?

Laura: So, I will give you some contact information for me. The easiest and fastest way is probably to visit my website because that will have my most up-to-date information on there. Would you like it now?

Ciaran: Yes, please.

Laura: It’s http://www.meaningfulpsychservices.com/. My phone number is area code in The United States (631)-484-9679 and my email address is drlauaravsh@meaningfulpsychservices.com. You can find me on Facebook, twitter, Pinterest, lots of places online very easy accessible.

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