With recent anti-Semitic incidents happening in Arlington, Newton and beyond, how do we talk to our kids (Jewish or not) about how to react, protect themselves and speak up? I talked to Dr. Anthony Rao, a nationally recognized child psychologist in Newton and the author of “The Way of Boys: Promoting the Social and Emotional Development of Young Boys,” to get advice for kids in elementary, middle and high school.
Big, jarring incidents like graffiti swastikas in bathrooms can be more complex to grapple with than day-to-day bullying. “It’s like a plane crash. It’s rare and awful,” he says. It’s not as simple as telling a kid to knock it off on the playground.
Of course, children from all backgrounds deal with a sense of alienation or other-ness from time to time. It’s part of growing up. Here’s how to preemptively prepare your kids for these issues.
Put identity issues into terms kids can understand. Draw on a familiar scenario, like when a friend might tease. “Find an issue that’s familiar, and you can create a beautiful opportunity to teach empathy skills,” Rao says.
Position the child as a learner: “Say, ‘Remember a time you felt really bad or when someone hurt you for no reason? Why do you think people act bad?’ Let them put their thinking apparatus to work. Don’t simply say something’s right or wrong.”
According to Rao, kids grasp the concept of “scapegoating” very early on: If I hurt you, I can feel better about myself.
“This is a common but primitive human thing, and you can talk about it very early. Put it into phrasing they understand” and let them navigate their own answers to decipher a bully’s motivations.
Kids at this age tend to “bend themselves like Gumby, wanting to fit in,” Rao says. At this age, it’s crucial to surround kids with role models who make them feel proud of their identity.
“Having kids in minority situations be around others who share their life situation and family constellation is one way to help them not feel alone, but it’s equally important for them to see such people treating others with respect and acceptance. That’s key,” he says. This is an incredibly vulnerable age, where kids might be liable to throw out their ethics to blend in, no matter what their background. Most adolescents feel a bit alien from time to time.
If you sense that your child does feel isolated or different, make sure to give him or her a confidence-boosting outlet outside of school, like martial arts, theater or sports.
“Shore up their strength and power, unrelated to social stuff,” Rao advises. “This is a way for them to gain a sense of mastery at times when they might feel low.”
Parents also need to make a cognitive switch from micro-managing an elementary-schooler who needs to be told good from bad. Now’s the time to downshift: Older kids get it, and parents should show their kids that they have faith in them. For example, if you sense that your child is hanging around with a bullying crowd, put things in the third person to avoid blame.
“Say, ‘I know you’re smart, so what’s it like when you’re with your friends and they say this or that to someone?’” Kids are more likely to talk out an issue if it’s not about them. Let them do the mental work to arrive at their own conclusions. Otherwise, we risk robbing our kids of doing the work to figure out how to get stronger and more resilient,” he says.
On the other hand, many older teenagers loathe the idea of following the herd. Now’s your chance to help your child become an independent agent who’s capable of leading and speaking up for his or her values. Play this up at home. Talk about leadership as the definition of true power; point to examples of people who lead, either in the media or whom you know in your own life, Rao advises.
“Say, ‘Wow, look how hard it is for there to be one person out there who disagrees with what everyone else is saying. That person is a leader. That is powerful.’”
By pointing out examples of strength and bravery, we can inspire our teenagers while letting them lead the way.