My 16-year-old niece is one of those kids who has never really fit in at school, doesn't have many friends, feels judged because of her weight, and generally just tries to get through the day at school. She doesn't say she is being bullied, but I think that is basically what happens to her. She just says she hates school. I think she is getting more depressed and withdrawn. Her mom (my sister) and I are not sure what to do? Do you have any suggestions?
Let me first say that being a parent (or family member) of a teen who is struggling, and possibly being bullied, can be very stressful, scary and confusing. So let's look at the most serious thing you are telling me first, which is the depression and withdrawal, and then work from there.
As counsellors, we always look at the signs and symptoms to help us assess the level of concern about depression, and although you haven't said it explicitly, possible suicide. Have you noticed a significant increase or decrease in her sleep patterns? Have her eating patterns changed? Has she gained or lost any significant weight recently? Is there a change in behaviour with any alcohol or drug use?
Does it seem like she is sad and or lonely (feelings are good and can be soothed) or having more of a black hole, dark or empty emotional experience (no feelings and hard to soothe)? Is she not going to school, or removing herself socially from friends and family? Is she cutting or engaging in other self-harming behaviours (binge-eating or not eating at all)?
If any of these symptoms are present - or are increasing - I would suggest talking to your family doctor or calling a counsellor (our agency, Family Services of the North Shore, is here to help of course) to get her and your family the immediate support you need.
Now let's talk about the possible bullying and how to help her manage her experience at school. The first important thing to remember is that this is not her fault, even if we also believe that there are some things she can do to protect herself.
The real problem is that we have youths who are coping with what is going on inside of them by using bullying behaviours. This is not different from what we can sometimes do as adults. When we are at our most insecure, that is when we do things to other people that are really not that great. In counselling terminology, we call this projecting our feelings onto other people as a way to cope with what is going on inside of us. I say this because bullying does not get created in schools, it just gets expressed there - just as it gets expressed in the workplace, while we are driving, etc.
If we understand bullying as one person's way to manage his or her own insecurities (this may of course be unconscious as I don't know many students or adults who would self-identify as a bully) then an effective way to avoid being this person's target is to be a less vulnerable target.
We are less vulnerable when we have good self-esteem, one or two support people (friends to meet in the hall after class), knowledge that a bully is actually weak inside, and some tools to take with us into school for the moment when the bullying occurs even when subtle (for example, how to stand tall, make eye contact and feel powerful in our body).
So easier said than done right? Here are some places to get more resources. Check out Anita Roberts' Powerful Alternatives to Violence book available at Safeteen.ca. She will help your niece and her mother discover that they both have a "Power Girl" inside to help them in the hard moments.
You might also want to check out Family Services of the North Shore's Facebook page. We are posting quotes from other teens as part of Pink Shirt Day and there is a great video on there that was done by an inspirational group of girls showing the power of friendship and connection in stopping the effects of bullying.
If you "like" the page, you will get all our updates and inspirational messages from youth volunteers and counsellors.
You might also want to check out our Love our Bodies Love Ourselves Provincial Eating Disorders Awareness Week Facebook page, which is intended to help youth increase their self-esteem as it relates to body image.
We are also here for counselling and support to parents and youth if you want some additional specialized help.
As Anita Roberts says, "Teaching children to operate from a place of inner wisdom can be the best prevention strategy of all."
I could not agree more.
Julia Staub-French is the executive director of Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write onthecouch@ familyservices.bc.ca or call 604988-5281.