A few days ago I was talking to my six-year-old niece. She told me how earlier in the day, two of her friends had come by. I said, “Oh, how fun. Did they come over to play?” She replied, “No, they came over to say sorry for pulling my hair.”
Surprised, I asked my niece, “What did you say after they apologized?” She immediately said, “I accept your apology!” I had to laugh at how cute she was. Then I asked where she learned such a mature response. She told me it was something they learned at school, so I asked her to give me an example of how it’s taught.
She said, “Well, if one student is mean to another student our teacher will bring us together and ask them to apologize. The apology isn’t complete until the other person says, ‘I accept your apology.’” Then, in the most matter-of-fact way, and in her cute six-year-old voice, she said, “I don’t know why we don’t do that at home. Home is just the same as school.”
I had to take pause with what she said, because it’s true. What I’ve learned teaching social-emotional learning for the past five years is how important it is for parents to reinforce at home the concepts that our students learn in class.
Most children of marginalized groups, including LGBTQ youth, have received some form of shameful message about their identity. Especially if their identity isn’t spoken about or affirmed by an adult when they are young. The more we engage in open and honest conversations with children at home, the more we can proactively prevent bullying and shame — including some of their most harmful effects, including addiction, suicide, and depression.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2019 that shows the suicide rate in the United States among 15-24 year olds has increased to its highest point since 2000, with a recent increase especially in males 15-19 years old. And earlier this month, US News and World Report released a study published in JAMA Pediatrics showing while depression rates for heterosexual teens have dropped since 1999, the rate for LGB teens hasn’t dropped. In fact, depression rates for LGB teens have remained the same (transgender youth weren’t included in the study).
According to the study, each year between 1999 and 2017, roughly 33,500 teens were surveyed on their struggles with sustained bouts of depressed moods, such as sadness and hopelessness. Among the teens who identified as straight, about three in ten reported being depressed for two weeks in a row or more in 1999. By 2017, the number dropped five percentage points.
For sexual minority teens, the numbers were far worse. In 1999, approximately 51% of LGB teens reported being depressed. And nearly 20 years later, the figure hasn’t changed. Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University says that while images of LGB people have become more positive over the past 20 years, “there is an enormous gap between need and reality when it comes to social services for LGBT youth.”
Caitlin talks about the importance of getting families and more social services involved to support youth. She says, “Kids are coming out earlier and parents are much more aware of sexual orientation and gender identification than ever. That’s great. But that means we now have to step up and fill a huge and continuously growing need for more and more child development and family support to help these kids.”
This week, one of the youth I work with told me how badly he was bullied during high school. I was shocked because he’s such an outgoing and gregarious young man. When I expressed my disbelief, he said, “Why is that so surprising? I’m a little gay boy.” Even though he’s 22 and comes from a completely different generation as me, it’s still the rule, not an exception: LGBTQ youth get bullied. Also, his language and referring to himself as “a little gay boy” was almost as if he subconsciously blames the reason for getting bullied on himself.
As parents and caregivers, we must continue to reinforce at home that, no matter what, a child is never the cause of getting bullied. Nothing about an individual needs to change in order to prevent bullying. That’s like saying a person who dresses a certain way is responsible for being harassed. The bully and the reasons for which they choose to bully is what needs to change. Until we create a new narrative and shift the focus, shame will continue to be the subconscious self-talk for youth who are bullied. And some parents will continue to prefer their children not be LGBTQ for fear of how the world will treat them.
Recently, I asked a group of parents what they wanted to see addressed more often in schools. One of the mothers I spoke with said, “I’d like to learn what to do if my child is the bully.”
Most parents want to think of their child as the defender or bystander in a bullying scenario. But sometimes, our child can be the bully. When we create space for authentic communication, we can proactively address that possibility.
To help, here is an easy five-step process for all ages:
Step 1 – Acknowledge behavior, language, and conversations.
Step 2 – Be aware of groups, friends, and social dynamics.
Step 3 – Be willing to uncover, address, and challenge negative messages.
Step 4 – Address and take action by calling out, speaking up, and naming what’s said.
Step 5 – Apologize and accept (I borrowed this step from my niece).
Where possible, it’s important for children to learn when they’ve made a mistake. It’s also important to help children learn how to forgive themselves, as well as others. Forgiveness is never something they do for another person. It’s for their own benefit and helps to dissolve subconscious shame.
Ultimately, having systems in place at home, in schools, and on playgrounds will help us to not only empower youth, but prevent LGBTQ bullying. It also prevents the negative effects of shame from continuing to cause harm in the lives of young people, today and tomorrow.