After Tyler Clementi, How Can We Help Kids Stop Bullying and Suicides of their LGBT Peers?
| May 25, 2012
The Dharun Ravi sentencing has been the source of great debate both on and offline. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in post-traumatic stress and as a progressive South Asian, I felt shocked and deeply saddened by the seemingly light punishment. As a parent, I struggled to find the lessons that I could teach my kids. I hope Tyler Clementi did not live (and die) in vain. Here are some lessons we can learn from this tragedy.
- Bullying can be a traumatic event. From a psychological standpoint, traumatic events include things like car accidents, fires, natural disasters, sexual assault, domestic violence, combat, and other types of sudden, unexpected experiences. Sadly, events that are closely tied to the formation of post-traumatic stress symptoms are often the ones that contain interpersonal betrayal. For example, things like combat and sexual assault are not only violent, they are personal. They are things that people do to you, and not just horrible things that have happened. Violent crimes can be very difficult to heal from because victims feel (often rightly) that they are the intended target. Natural disasters are equal opportunity, whereas, combat and sexual assault are not. Similarly, bullying is not equal opportunity. The victim often feels humiliated, ashamed, and ostracized. Most importantly, he or she feels targeted, which can make healing even more challenging.
- An absence of active prejudice is not the same as acceptance. When adults make the argument “we never say negative things about [insert minority group here] in our home” as a testament to their “tolerance,” I become doubtful. Acceptance includes actively letting your kids know that all people are created equal, and that differences in race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, profession, disability status, looks and size all make the world a better, more interesting place. As parents, if we truly believe in equality, we have to talk to our kids about our values. And just when we think we’ve exhausted the topic with them, we have to talk about it some more.
- People do not become suicidal in a vacuum. When people are experiencing difficult life circumstances, we can help them heal or we can re-traumatize them, making their psychological and physical symptoms worse. Lately, it has become popular to emphasize the internal psychology of bullied teens who commit suicide. “Surely, they must be depressed? Or substance abusers? Maybe they have an underlying mental illness?” These are easy answers to a complicated problem. In fact, various types of traumatic events, including childhood bullying may underlie many suicide attempts. When people are going through periods of difficulty, they do not heal alone. We should teach our kids to stand up for those who are in need—to be compassionate and empathic. After all, when you are on the edge of a steep cliff, you want someone to reach out a hand to you—not kick you off the edge. Our kids needs to know that jokes are funny when everyone involved laughs. Jokes are not funny when people feel humiliated, demeaned and victimized. Each of our children needs to take this responsibility seriously. Every one of these children is someone’s kid—and so was Tyler Clementi.