As I sit here writing my thoughts, I am moved to tears. On August 11, which was just last week and which is also the birthday of my own dear brother, a 13 year-old boy named Danny Fitzpatrick ended his life.
Before I start giving my thoughts and advice I would like to extend kudos and sincere appreciation to his parents who shared his suicide letter despite their unimaginable pain. Despite the fact that they were unable to save their own son, they may, by sharing his very poignant letter, save the lives of other children and teens who are feeling hurt, bullied and frozen out on a daily basis.
Danny described feeling hurt, helpless and getting very little support from teachers and school administrators despite speaking to them. He did, however, describe 1 teacher who tried to help him. Again, kudos to that teacher. Sadly, Danny was singled out by a group of 5 boys who made a sport of throwing balls at him. He had no one to play with. He felt isolated and helpless. His life became so miserable and untenable that he saw no way out other than to end his daily existence permanently. Our hearts break for Danny, his parents and all of the other children who are being bullied as we speak.
Parents are certainly asking themselves what they can do to prevent a similar tragedy in their own families. I have several suggestions but want to make it perfectly clear that Danny’s parents are not to blame for the perfect storm that ended their son’s abbreviated life so prematurely and violently.
1. Ask yourself if your child is a bully. I know that that is a tough one. No one likes to think their child could possibly be a bully, but that sweet child at home may be a bully at school. Talk to your children about how he or she treats others and what your expectations are regarding kind and empathic behavior.
2. Look for changes in your child’s behavior. Observe, observe and observe some more. A child who is miserably unhappy at school will likely be reluctant to go to school and may also develop sleep problems, eating problems or a set of somatic symptoms including stomachaches and perhaps headaches. Grades may deteriorate and your child is likely to become socially isolated.
3. Talk to all of your children about how they feel their siblings are doing. Siblings often have information that is very valuable. Given permission to talk, they are very likely to do so. Siblings generally care about each other despite rivalry and bickering between them.
4. If you sense that your child is being bullied, trust your gut. Talk to your child in a gentle and supportive manner. Do not suggest that they protect themselves in ways that are too difficult for them. This will only make them feel more incompetent. Protect your child by going to the school and insisting on an action plan. Let your child know that you are going to do this. They will secretly be relieved. Check in with the school frequently. Bullying is NOT part of anyone’s educational curriculum. And, insist that the school deal with the bully and the bully’s parents. I have never seen things go well when parents of the bullied approach the parents of the bully. This almost invariably leads to defensive behavior and angry, frustrated feelings. Don’t go there figuratively or literally.
5. Create opportunities for your child to be part of a community outside of the school. I remember feeling popular in Hebrew school when I felt less than popular in the public school that I attended earlier in the day. Perhaps your child will find their tribe at swimming, art classes etc. All kids need a place where they feel accepted and comfortable.”
6. Look at your own parental behavior. Are you a bully? Are you intimidating? If so, you may be raising bullies or frightened kids who become bullied. Change your behavioral style if you must.
7. Never, ever shame your child in any situation. Shame is the worst possible feeling and shamed children may feel that they deserve to be bullied. After all, what is bullying if not a public form of humiliation and shame?
8. If your child seems distressed in any way and won’t talk about it, consider a meeting with a highly recommended therapist who specializes in working with this age group. After all, it is the job of therapists to equip kids with coping skills and to restore their sense of hopefulness. We are trained to do this. No parent is an island.
Good luck, and heartfelt condolences to Danny Fitzpatrick’s family.