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How Teachers and Parent Volunteers Can Help Curb Depression, Aggression and Violence at School

The key is to identify potential problem kids and help them before their feelings of anger and depression become too great for them to know how to handle. Look for:

Aggressive behavior such as bullying (pushing, shoving, fighting), insults, rudeness, frequently interrupting: This person has either not been taught boundaries or rules of social behavior and frequently doesn't understand why others respond angrily or is not sensitive to the feelings of others. Set strong limits, boundaries, or rules and apply consequences firmly if violated. Require politeness from this individual and he/she will feel relief in learning how to get close to others.

Non-communicative, "too quiet" behavior and avoidance: this young person has learned that attempts to communicate are ignored and has retreated into a sullen silence, in fear that any further attempts will be ignored or misunderstood. They may avoid eye contact. Draw this person out by active listening-- responding in a caring fashion to everything said and done.

Kids who are alone in a crowd: They stand on the fringes watching but don't know how to mingle, or have no friends with whom to mix. Look for body language that suggests anger, frustration, or loneliness. If this person has been alone too long depression or aggression can result. Look for a way to include this person in a group so he/she can make friends.

Kids who dress in an unusual fashion: Outlandish hairstyles and clothing styles are common among teens so don't necessarily include that. It's just as common for teens to try to look as average as possible in order to fit in, so a lot of young people will wear what's "in." Look for someone who dresses differently than all the other kids, someone who has possibly given up on "fitting in." Sometimes a young person with a high IQ and leadership qualities will dress differently to demonstrate uniqueness, and this is not a problem. It's a problem when the young person is emulating someone famous who is not a good role model, or copying an unusual style of dress that they identify as powerful. This young person has given up on being understood or appreciated and may have a very high IQ but low understanding of his own emotions and low self-esteem. If this style of dress or attitude is combined with any of the three behavior types mentioned above this person is potentially at risk of violent behavior or more subtle, harmful behaviors such as drug-dealing, theft, date-rape, etc. This young person will likely need intensive therapy from a licensed professional trained to counsel adolescents. Sometimes all it takes is for an 'outcast' to have one friend or one adult who cares and will listen to them. Other times all it takes is for someone to validate their feelings. Contrary to what many people believe, it is suppression of feelings that causes people to go crazy, not expression of them. If a child can be helped to express his anger and pain, they will dissipate, not multiply.

Know that anger is always a result of pain, and pain is simply the heart telling the mind that it needs to be comforted. Kids don't just learn facts at school, they learn to trust. One of the most important things they will learn is trusting others with the way they feel. Always reward expression of feelings (even negative ones) with appropriate, respectful, comments such as:

    'I can relate to that'
    'that makes sense to me'
    'that sounds like an important feeling to you'
    'it sounds like that's been bothering you'
    'that must have really hurt your feelings'
    'so you were really insulted'
    'so you felt violated'

In truth, there are no feelings that are wrong, only actions that are wrong. Feelings are inherent, but actions are decisions. Recognizing negative feelings helps children to avoid wrong actions. Recognizing positive feelings helps children to feel good about themselves and others.

Look for kids who always seem to be alone or have no one to talk to. Try to include this child or young adult in group discussions in a positive way. This person may have a self-image problem that can be helped simply by being made to feel included.

Look for kids who dress abnormally or who try to get attention in unusual or subtle ways. These kids generally are getting the least quality attention from their parents and may have been made to feel unloved, unneeded, and unvalued at home. They will carry these same feelings to school with them and treat others the way they have been treated. Look for anything positive that this person may have done, no matter how tiny, and compliment them on it. Just being noticed can change things for a youth with problems in his/her life.

Create an errand for an 'outcast' person to complete, such as delivering something to the office or posting a notice on the wall or door and praise the child upon completion. Such a simple event can help the person change his/her attitude for that day.

If you treat kids respectfully (even when they don't deserve it), they will usually respect you and will learn to treat others with respect. When a person has an outburst or completes a wrong action, such as an act of aggression, they will have emotional feelings that they may not be able to identify. Not recognizing one's own feelings can cause a person to feel confused and depressed. Adults can help the errant party to identify his/her feelings by discussing them in a sympathetic way, such as:

Adult: "What were you feeling when you swore at Jason and knocked down his backpack?"

Youth: "I was mad because he called me '@#$%,' and he did the same thing yesterday."

Adult: "So it really hurt your feelings?"

Youth: "Well, duh!"

Adult: (Stay calm and don't respond to sarcasm or negativity, but try different words) "I can see that you really felt insulted."

Youth: "Yeah, and he always does that, and not just to me!"

Adult: "So you feel that he needs to change his behavior?"

Youth: "Yeah! Big time!"

Adult: "So you would feel better if we talked to him about his behavior and not just to you about your behavior?"

Youth: "You got it!"

Adult: "That can be done. Now let's talk about your behavior. Was there a better way you could have handled yourself when Jason began acting inappropriately?"

Youth: "Well, maybe."

Adult: "Like, could you have ignored him and then come and told me and let me deal with it?"

Youth: "Yeah, but then everyone says you ratted and they shun you."

Adult: "What if you were to just walk away?"

Youth: "Then they call you chicken@#$ and they know you're an easy target."

Adult: "If a person calls you a chicken@#$ does that mean you are one?"

Youth: "I guess not."

Adult: "How do you think you could handle this if it happens again."

Youth: "Maybe if I just give him a know...a dissy look...and walk away and laugh a little, like he isn't bothering me."

Adult: "Right, because they do it just to bother you, so you win when you refuse to be bothered by it."

Youth: "I guess so."

In this example, the adult has garnered the trust of the youth by validating his/her feelings before providing suggestions on correcting the errant behavior. It takes two to make a fight. It is important to talk with all the parties involved and not put the blame on just one person. Frequently, a person may be guilty of repeated aggression and bullying that incites others to react in self-defense. Then it becomes necessary to focus on the bully and why he thinks it's okay to abuse others. This youth may need private counseling as well as counseling at school. Though your resources may be limited remember that any time spent with this youth now may help prevent future acts of aggression that would affect the whole school.

For more suggestions on adult/child communication see these books: "P.E.T. In Action" and "Parent Effectiveness Training: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children" both by Dr. Thomas Gordon (Parent Effectiveness Training).

A child doesn't care how much you know, until he knows how much you care.

Copyright Adrienne Potter. Reprinted with permission.

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