Jennie Withers on Stopping Teen Harassment

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A Teacher and an Author at heart, Jennie Withers has written several books on children and parenting. She is the author of Hey, Back Off! Tips for Stopping Teen Harassment, published by New Horizon Press Books. She Talks to Ciaran Connolly about Stopping Teen Harassment. 

Jennie Withers: My name is Jennie Withers and I’m a co-author of ‘Hey Back off: Tips for Stopping Teen Harassments

The other author of the book is Phyllis Hendrickson  and she is a veteran high school counsellor. I, myself, taught secondary education for 16 years. The book kind of came out of our experiences, what we were seeing happening with kids in our schools and I had actually been teaching a unit on jobs and getting and keeping your job and it was amazing to me how much kids did not know about harassment. So, I started talking about it in the context of working and when I started teaching this, it seemed like at that time harassment was escalating. Cyber bullying was just gaining a lot of momentum and things like that. So, I partnered with a high school counsellor, she also happens to be my mum, and we put together the book.

Ciaran Connolly: Very good, brilliant and you talk about harassment and educating children about this. Why you found it important that children understand about harassment?

JW: It is extremely important because, like I said, one of the things that we discovered was that there is a lot of things coming out and we were telling kids “Don’t bully. Don’t be a bully. Stop harassing”. They really didn’t know what any of those things meant and so one of the things that we did in the book that we felt was very important was that we defined it, you know. What is harassment, what is considered harassment, what behaviours are considered harassment and then we broke it down into the five types of harassment that there is. There’s bullying, sexual harassment, cyber bullying, stalking and hazing.

CC: Excellent, and that was one of my questions, was there a difference between harassment and bullying but you mentioned five types of different harassment, would you mind explaining the difference between each of them?

JW: Yes, harassment is just a blanket term and so it covers all of those behaviours that people do to each other to make someone else feel unsafe, insecure, you know, trying to harm them physically or psychologically and so underneath that you have bullying which is kind of encompasses all kinds of obnoxious behaviours. It is the most general of the five and it is why we say bullying and harassment are interchangeable a lot. Then you have sexual harassment and it is just harassment that is sexual in nature. Cyber bullying is harassment that takes place digitally in cyber space. Stalking is when the victim cannot get away from the harasser. They are put under surveillance in some way and then hazing is a quid pro quo kind of harassment, you know, this for that. This is how groups may maintain a pecking order.

Stopping Teen Harassment

CC: Wow, excellent and do you think these behaviours are more common today than they were ten years ago or fifteen years ago or it is the status quo it is something that hasn’t changed?

JW: A little bit of both. I think it is actually worse because, within the last fifteen years, we’ve introduced a whole new type of harassment and unfortunately cyber bullying weighs into bullying in an incredible way because it is an easy form of harassment; it is a coward’s form of harassment. They can do it, it is all online, they don’t have to see how it affects the victim and they don’t experience consequences right away. So, we have that but the other thing that I talk about when asked this question is we are also as a society we have never really addressed harassment in the past and the one thing that we know about harassment is that it escalates if nothing is done about it and so what we have done is in the past. It was just a part of growing up or it will make you tougher to deal with this, you know, just ignore them and they will go away. You know, “sticks and stones” kind of things that we all got as a kid when we are not addressing that. when we are not addressing harassment it escalates and so now we are dealing with a huge problem.

CC: And do you think that, I guess, the media we all now get our news from online and newspapers and even 24/7 news, do you think the media has raised awareness of even the likes of cyber bullying and it is ignoring the other types of harassment? but maybe it has raised awareness of cyber bullying and more people are aware of it and are fearful of it and maybe trying to work against stopping it?

JW: Yes, I think the media has raised a lot of awareness. One thing that worries me, however, is that you are not hearing as much about it in the media but I don’t think it is going away and the media is very powerful in that way. So, I’m always happy to talk to media or to get it back in the forefront because it seems like the media will be all over bullying and cyber bullying or whatever it is for a while and then it will kind of go away until the next kid does something incredibly horrible. There is a suicide, something like that.

CC: Of course and I guess also we talk about media and we talk about social media and how the media actually I guess respects stars hounding and harassing stars, you talking about stalking as one of the harassments and I think there are  loads of examples were stars have photographers following them 24/7, I’m sure it doesn’t happen to me at the moment but I’m sure there are a lot people suffer greatly from this and the law don’t seem to be able to protect them and it seems to be socially acceptable, in sports we see players misbehaving maybe surrounding a referee and giving him abuse and again that’s  portrayed as being OK and part of sportsmanship and part of the game so maybe there are a lot of things that are in our society at the moment which aren’t a good reflection of behavior towards our young people and if our children are getting these messages and seen this everyday  how as a parent can we try and explain to our children what is bullying and why it is wrong and why we should be not involved in bullying.

JW: As a parent, it is very important to educate yourself, know what bullying is, know what laws are out there, know where your supports are, know your school policy. Every school should have a very detailed policy against harassment and then I think the most important thing that you can do as a parent is be assertive yourself. You know, what your kids see you do, what they hear you say is incredibly important. If you are one of those people who is (are) screaming obscenities at a referee or, you know, stalking a celebrity online, what are you teaching to your children?

CC: Yes so lead by example as well as, and you talked about school policies, the school environment I guess has changed a lot, there are a lot of demands on teachers with grades and performances and now bullying and protection and duty of care there is… is there more and more pressure on schools and our parents and communities even if society holding their fair share of the burden in educating young people today?

JW: Yes and I think their fair share of the burden is exactly correct. As a teacher, I felt like a lot of times that parents expected us to take care of the problem, you know, this is a school problem or this is a law enforcement problem and no one entity can do it on their own. Parents and teens have to step up and take responsibility. They have to develop those assertive behaviours. Schools are excellent supports. Private counselling. I’m a big advocate of getting victims and bullies alike into private counselling,You know, law enforcement, churches, community organizations, those are all great support systems but can’t except anyone of them to solve the problem for you or solve it for the kid.

CC: Excellent, and if you have a child that is being bullied what’s the best advice to give them, it is all about encouraging them to speak up and talk to adults I guess, am I right in that assumption?

JW: Right, you know assertive behaviours. So, you know, talk to your kid about who isn’t getting bullied. What is it about them that makes them bully-proof. Have that conversation, you know, what is it about somebody else that they are not getting bullied. Well and then you usually guide your child to understand that you know they are not a target and they are not a target because they are assertive. They stand up for themselves. They know how to create win-win situations.

CC: And you talk about I guess been assertive in your book, is that one of the things you prescribed as very important to make sure to everyone the children to be assertive actually have the confidence to discuss these problems and I guess that communication again it is also very important for relationships at home and even with the teachers that students are able to communicate with adults around them and explain what is happening.

JW: Absolutely. When you talk to harassment victims, they start to believe that the harassment is their fault. They start to believe that there is no support out there for them. They are passive personalities which means they let other people make decisions for them. They don’t stand up for themselves. They don’t believe that their thoughts and feelings count and so our book is all about, you know, really looking at why are you a victim and how do you change that, you know, we know that bullies don’t stop unless they experience consequences and so if you can focus on the victims and change that personality and give them some self-worth and get them to start standing up for themselves and it’s, you know, it’s not going to happen at once. It’s hard work but it will be very worth it because if you have a child who is being bullied when they are young and you don’t develop these personality characteristics in them and don’t help them become an assertive personality, they are going to become somebody who is a doormat for their entire lives and we know those adults.

CC: Of course, and that’s what I was going to ask you, may be you have seen young people growing up through the system and through education and local community, is there a long term impacts on the actual victim, the person who been bullied is that visible to see in later years ?

JW: Absolutely. If no changes are made, if they did not develop an assertive personality, they will always be like losers and they are the ones that we hear of who are in abusive marriages. Well, their relationships are abusive. They are those people who are people pleasers who do everything for other people and never do anything for themselves and so absolutely. Abuse is a cycle and abuse is a cycle at all ages.

CC: Very interesting, and if a child has been bullied and actually listening or watching this video now what advice would you give them or what would you tell them the next step should be?

JW: With victims, they need to start small. We talk about in the book. We talk about setting goals and just small things. So, depending on how severe the bullying is, start with something small that is challenging but yet that you feel like you can accomplish. For example, I have had students in my classroom who were so very passive and I pulled one girl aside and we agreed she was just going to look assertive for a couple of weeks and what that means is she was going to make eye contact when she talked to somebody. She was going to stand up straight. She was going to speak in a normal tone of voice instead of the small whisper, whiney kind of voice and so she came back to me in a week and she was like I can’t believe how much difference that made just looking like somebody who would stand up for myself. So, it is a process, you know, with another kid it may take a while to work up to actually standing up to the bully but that’s where your support system comes in. That’s where you need to go to a teacher, where you need to go to a counsellor and say “Look. This is what’s happening. This is who is doing it” and let them help you until you get to a place where you can stand up for yourself.

CC: Very good, some good advice and we are talking about schools, every school should have a policy in place what kind of schools do…. I’m sure in the US but there are some countries may be they don’t have such an advanced system of protection and policies in place. What kind of school or school leader need to do to ensure that the environment is safe and trying limit harassment or bullying in the school?

JW: First of all, they need to have a definite definition of what harassment is and I would suggest doing all types of, you know, those big five so that you have a basis, you know, for educating parents and students. This is what harassment is. Then, you need to have a set of consequences for those bullies. So, if you harass, this is what is going to happen to you the first time, this is what is going to happen to you the second time and it should eventually lead to expulsion. Like I said, bullies don’t stop unless they experience negative consequences but you should also have, and this is something that in United States that we struggle with, is, you know we are very good at focusing on the bullies, we are very good at punishing them, we are not so good at helping the victims. So, your policy should also include how we are going to help these victims, how we are going to help them become more assertive so that they can stand up for themselves.

CC: Brilliant, you are talking like every time I have talked to someone we actually are talking about the systems are focused on the bullies but very rarely talk about the victims, and assertiveness I have to agree is definitely one of the big things that springs to my mind if children are more assertive and having the confidence but actually the right type of confidence not cocky or we would say cheeky but actually being assertive is definitely the way for sure and definitely better young adults in the future, so when in a cycle should a student or a child or even a parent get worried that the harassment or bullying is too much that is actually becoming a problem? So of course we used to everyone will say that children will tease each other and there will be little playing and over and back to fro between students and children that happens. When is the line crossed and when should parents or even children be concerned and step in to take actions to make sure the things are stopped immediately?

JW: There is(are) three things. When the bullying becomes severe, in other words when your child feels physically or psychologically threatened. When it becomes persistent, in other words your child has tried to stop it and the bullying is not stopping. When it becomes pervasive and pervasive can mean one of two things; either the number of bullies is increasing so your child now has three bullies instead of just one or when the bully is finding more victims so the same bully not only has your child as a victim but has your neighbor’s child as a victim as well. So, those three things and obviously I don’t know Irish law but in United States, those are the three things that our law uses well. So, is it severe, persistent and pervasive?

CC: Wow excellent, and I guess since you mentioned laws, there is a law…. The state federal law and court step in often in cases of bullying or is it normally dealt between adults if it’s outside the school or if it in school it is normally solved before it gets to a serious consequence like the court?

JW: In United States we have a school resource officers here in the schools and so they are brought in fairly early on bullying and a lot of times just their presence the bully is just like “oh… ok I’m not gonna do that anymore because it is against the law” and that’s another thing that kids really have a hard time understanding is that this is against the law but they have a very difficult time understanding that it is not up to the bully to decide what is harassment and what isn’t , it’s up to the victim and so most of the time really if you pull a kid in especially if you pull a kid with the law enforcement officer and you say “hey what you are doing is bullying” and he will try to give you … no I was just kidding or they took it wrong  or whatever. If you explain to them you know what it is not up to you to make that decision, it is up to your victim and your victim didn’t like it.

CC: Very good I’m sure, so brilliant, excellent, thank you very much for taking time out and talking to us about what you have covered in your book and some insights into how can we help young children be more assertive so it was very good. If anyone wants to find out more especially about your book, is there somewhere we can tell them to go as a website?

JW: www.heybackoff.com

Ciaran Connolly: Excellent, so people can go and find your book there?

Jennie Withers: Yes

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