Bright Idea: Empowering Youth Who've Been Bullied

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Two teens having a serious discussion while sitting on a park bench.

As evening call center supervisor at the National Runaway Switchboard, Diana Delia talks, emails or online chats with hundreds of teens and parents each year. She hears it all: Parents who don’t know where to turn to find a child who has run away, abused youth with nowhere to go. And in the past year or so, she says, NRS has increasingly been contacted by boys and girls who face constant bullying and mockery at school.

“It’s just too much, someone constantly on your back like that,” Delia says. “It’s about their looks or their weight – it always seems to add up to their looks.”

NRS takes a “non-directive” approach to working with youth who are in crisis. Staff and volunteers coax callers toward their own solutions, rather than telling them what to do. Call center personnel also work to empower youth and understand the trauma they may have experienced.

“It’s tough, because I can’t tell them just turn around and walk away,” Delia says. “I can’t tell them this will get better.”

Instead, Delia is supportive and tries to get youth to see that things can get better. Here are five things Delia says youth workers, parents, teachers and other concerned adults can do when a young person is being bullied.

1. Listen, and don’t minimize what they're going through. “It’s really important to pay attention to them because it’s really scary that kids are handling this in an extreme and final way,” Delia says, referring to recent highly publicized teen suicides that have been linked to school and online bullying.

2. Make them feel good that they are reaching out. “It’s probably hard for a lot of kids to reach out about getting made fun of,” Delia says. Tell them you’re glad they talked to you, and that you know it must have been a big step to do that. Remind them that the bullying is not their fault.

3. Encourage youth to think beyond the present. Delia might say, “What do they make fun of you for? Do you think that’s important? Next year when you graduate, will that be better or different?” The idea is to help them see how they can overcome the hard times they’re going through.

4. Get them to focus on things they enjoy. Ask what they like to do. If they like basketball, for example, encourage them to go out and play and meet people who might support, rather than harass, them.

“Make sure they have some self-esteem booster somewhere in their life,” Delia says.

5. Make sure youth know how to get help. Talk about strategies for staying safe and help the youth make a plan--and a backup plan--for dealing with the situation. 

To reach the National Runaway Switchboard, dial 1-800-RUNAWAY.

With National Bullying Prevention Month winding to a close, we’ll soon be turning our attention to National Runaway Prevention Month, which is spearheaded by NRS every November. Stay tuned for more about what NRS, the Family and Youth Services Bureau and others are doing to keep young people safe and off the streets.

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