Pink Shirt Day and what parents can do

The 17 May was Pink Shirt Day. It started in Canada way back in ‘07, when a boy showed up to school in a pink shirt and was bullied for his shirt colour of choice. Two of his friends decided that enough was enough, and their whole school decided to wear a pink shirt on a designated day. From there, it made its way around the world and today, we’re doing it in New Zealand. Pink Shirt Day is about all people feeling safe, accepted, and valued in all areas of their lives.

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Why do we need Pink Shirt Day? Statistically, New Zealand is one of the worst countries worldwide for bullying. Nearly one in ten kids in Aotearoa has been afraid that someone at school would hurt them in the last year. Bullying happens in our schools and in our communities. What does it look like? How can parents change things and support their kids?

What bullying can look like

Bullying can look like a whole lot of things. Bullying the ‘old fashioned way’ still takes place. Kids will often get a push in the hallway, or a, “You’re dumb!”. It still looks like the group of kids that all sit in the same spot every day, and then ‘forget’ to tell one that they’ve moved at lunchtime.

Technology has given us new ways to do old things, including bullying. Bullying doesn’t just happen at school, but now it follows young people home. It can happen on the bus, when they’re sitting watching Netflix,  or when they’re minding their own business scrolling through Instagram. Maybe they’ve being tagged in a mean meme or a GIF. It can look like nasty messages via text, messenger, or even a snapchat that disappears after five seconds. Young people can be excluded from group chats, ‘trolled’ in comments, or their social media fails can be screenshotted and shared around. I know – it’s exhausting.

That’s why I’m so grateful for the Harmful Communications Act 2015. Basically, it was legislated that cyber bullying was illegal. This means that police can actually respond to bullying, beyond sending a text that reads “Stop emoji, handcuffs emoji, pepper spray emoji.” With screenshot evidence, police can take action.

So police can take action, but what should parents do?

Creating a safe space to talk

It’s heartbreaking to watch your child hurt. But before you can do anything about that hurt, your young person has to communicate with you. You’ve got to know what’s going on before you can help.

If you think something might be up, but young Kayla isn’t chatty about it, ask her, “What was the highlight of your day? What was the lowlight?” to get some insight into what’s going on. If little Noah doesn’t like to look you in the eye, take him out for an activity and talk. Shoulder to shoulder instead of face to face can make kids feel a lot more comfortable. Make time to be together and talk about how things are going.

“Hey, are you getting bullied at school?” isn’t the best thing to say while you search frantically for the car keys and your child stares into their bowl of cereal. Create a safe and intentional space for them to be able to share.

Practical steps to take

When your child tells you that they’re being bullied, there are couple of steps you can take practically to support them. Firstly, let them know that they shouldn’t reply – replies just add fuel to the fire. Often the best reaction is no reaction. Secondly, let them know that they should always screenshot any cyber bullying. The thing about cyber bullying is that it’s totally traceable if young people are willing to trace it, and that allows for further steps to be taken.

If it’s happening within a school context, take the information that you have to your young person’s teacher. If there are serious threats involved, you can contact the police. Once you’ve gone to see your young person’s teacher, or talked to them about what’s going on, see if you can connect them to their school counsellor. Encourage your child to take a friend along, so that they’ve got support. Talking always helps.

Above all else, affirm your young person. Let them know that you have their back no matter what the circumstance. That you’re standing with them and that’s where you’ll stay. Tell them how much they’re worth, your words have the power to change the track that’s on repeat in their head. Believe in them and love them through it.

Tell them your story

Most of us kind of remember what it was like to feel awkward and uncertain about who we were and what we were supposed to be doing when we were twelve. Tell your kids that. If you were bullied, be honest with them about that. Let them know that life isn’t always rosy, but that they will get through it, because you did. You did, and they can too.

Let your young person that you’re not perfect (although pretty close) and that you feel bad sometimes and you’ve made mistakes. Be aware that they will probably look at you like you don’t get what it’s like to grow up in this technological world – and that’s true. You could say something like, “Hey, I I know I don’t know what it’s like to grow up with technology because I’m ancient, but I do get you. I know you, and I love you, and I’ve always got your back no matter what.”

Being empathetic will help your child to develop empathy for others. And that means they’re a whole lot less likely to become bullies themselves. If you do start to worry about your child being a bully, do all that you can to develop that empathy that exists in all of us. Ask questions like, “What if you were being bullied?” or, “How would you feel if someone shared a screenshot of your message?”

Hurt people hurt people

At Attitude, we explain to students that bullies are usually bullying because they’re in pain that they’re struggling to process. This can helps kids to understand that they aren’t being bullied because they’re bad or wrong. It’s actually about what’s going on within the bully and their world. No one is born a bully, and it’s important that kids know that.

What we know is that it’s ok to struggle, but it’s not ok to struggle alone. Encouraging kids to come together in kindness is so important, so put your pink shirt on today and lead by example.

You can grab a pink shirt from Cotton On, with proceeds going to the Mental Health Foundation.