Saturday, March 1, 2014

Is Your School Drowning? Responding Effectively to the Distress Signs of Bullying

Is Your School Drowning?

Responding Effectively to the Distress Signs of Bullying 

Many years ago when I was visiting Santa Barbara with my two sons, we rented kayaks to cruise around in the calm waters of the harbor where the boats are docked. We decided to venture out of the harbor, but as we got out of that protected area I realized the water was not as calm. The rolling swells of the ocean made me nervous so I decided to turn around and head back to the harbor. As I maneuvered my kayak to turn around, it aligned with a swell and rolled my kayak over, dumping me into the water. Now I don’t know about you, but the thought of being in the ocean freaks me out! Flashing through my mind were visions of “sharks” and “jellyfish” and “sea monsters” grabbing me and taking me into the dark abyss”! (I know- too many scary movies in my youth!) So I panicked and grabbed the nearest thing to me which was my sons kayak, trying to climb aboard and nearly pulling him in, until he talked some sense into me: “MOM! Calm down! You’re going to pull me in, too!”

My behavior came from my primitive part of my brain - pure adrenalin rush kicking into survival mode. That’s what happens when people feel unsafe or panicked in the water. They go into panic or distress mode because the brain is communicating “uh-oh- I need help… NOW!” Through pure instinctive reaction the behavior of someone panicking in water is thrashing about and grabbing onto something (branches of a tree on the banks) or someone in an attempt to get out of the water to survive.  In real-life water drownings when people panic, there have been times when they actually took the rescuer down with them. (As a result there are water-safety training techniques on how to help others panicking in the water while keeping yourself safe from being pulled in and going down together.)

I'm not really here to talk about water safety. Instead I would like to about emotional and physical safety and well-being. However, panicking in the water is what I think about when I look at what’s happening in schools, all across the world where children and teens are calling out for help. They are sending distress signals, thrashing about in the “deep dark water” in the form of bullying – hurting people physically and emotionally with words and looks and threats. Their distress signs are too often unheeded by adults and peers and they are “out there” fending for themselves – clawing at something or someone in an attempt to survive. The interesting thing is that the bullying someone does to you usually has nothing to do with you. It has to do with the stories in their life hidden beneath the surface where there is pain and anger and sadness and fear.  Poverty, hunger, financial stress, abuse, illness, depression, hidden disabilities are just some of the huge challenges hidden below the surface. We don’t know one another’s stories, or may only know pieces of the stories, but most of us have sharks and sea monsters hidden in the deep dark waters. We each have unique challenges and we are each, in our own way, clawing our way out and in so-doing we tend to pull others down. Once someone is pulled down, without intervention, they too, begin to panic in the dark waters. Bullying can result in an ocean filled (or school filled) with a high percentage of people being pulled under because of someone else’s story.

The good news is it doesn’t have to be like that. There are things we can do to get out of the dark without pulling others down. We start by recognizing and being aware of what we DON’T want: feeling out of control in the deep dark waters of life; and acting on what we DO want: feeling safe, peaceful, calm, happy. Bullying is a complex problem but rather than worrying about all the things that need “fixing” we can begin by consciously choosing what is within our reach and within our power already: to treat each other with more kindness and compassion: every thought, word, and action, every day, every opportunity. How can we keep safe from being pulled down by others?  By consciously choosing what is within our reach and within our power already: being open to learning, discussing, and practicing the skills or techniques or habits that will keep us emotionally and physically safe. All schools need a social emotional learning curriculum that includes developing emotional intelligence skills (like our Circles of Compassion program).

I recall a story I once read about a man who was passing by an overlook point along some ocean bluffs and decided to pull over and enjoy the view. He got out of his car and when he leaned on the fence he saw a girl down below sitting on the rocks. The ocean waves were crashing onto the rocks and soaking her yet she never moved. Between the crashing of the waves he became aware that she was crying. This seemed concerning to him so he climbed down to her and worked his way over to her cautiously and asked her "Is everything all right?" "It should be...but no, it's not!" she said. Bit by bit she shared her story with him and after a while she said: "You know I've been sitting here for most of the day. No one took the time to check on me. No one said a word to me. I could have been planning to jump in the ocean, and not one person cared… except for you. I was so upset with the world that I wasn’t going to leave until I got a sign that “it’s ok”. She began to cry some more. Not sure what else to say, the man replied from deep within his heart, “It’s ok.”

There may be “sharks and monsters” in those deep dark waters we call life, but there are lots of angel fish and beautiful things too. To the world you may be one person but to one person – you may be the world to offer them hope. What if we took the time to notice the distress signals of those who may be sitting out on the “rocks” or someone who is in distress out in the darkness? What if we chose to respond rather than ignore. A smile. A hello. A listening ear. A hug. Each one of us, can reach out to another and let them know “it’s okay.” Today, and again tomorrow, and the next day. That’s how we light up the world with more compassion! 

Dee DiGioia is a Compassion Coach and founder of Caring and Courageous Kids but it's not just for kids!

The mission of Caring and Courageous Kids is to awaken and inspire the hearts and minds of young children through adults to bring mindfulness and compassion into daily living with the intention to help stop bullying and start contributing to a more peaceful and compassionate culture in our homes, schools, and communities.

Dee provides workshops around the world to help others become Compassion-Fit ~ for children, teens, and adults at home, in school, in the workplace or in communities. A membership site is currently being developed. She has been invited to Portugal to share her Circles of Compassion program. Dee also provides certification training for Autism Movement Therapy. 

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