I had to double check what I read recently - that a fifth grader, a 10-year-old girl, killed herself. Things had gotten so bad in Ashlynn Connor's mind that she had just asked her mom to homeschool her the day before she was found hanging by a scarf in her closet.
So many things about this story are disturbing. First of all, Ashlynn's young age. Kids are thrust into difficult situations younger and younger and we're seeing it reflected in horrific new stories. Why is this?
As a mother of a 9-year-old 4th grader, I was taken aback that 10-year-old Ashlynn already had access to email and texts. Apparently she was called "fat, ugly and a slut" (a word whose meaning she didn't even understand) via text and email messages, reminding me yet again of the instant access age we live in, when someone's personal humiliation can be public within seconds, with just the press of a button.
It is hard to compare my own youth with what kids are going through today. Yes, bullying is a bigger beast than it used to be, with technology serving as one of its chief steroids, but I still think pointing to stopping bullying behavior is missing a larger point. Bullying has always existed, and always will. We need to equip kids with the tools to combat it, instead of thinking we will eradicate it.
There will always be bullies - even when kids grow up they will see them at their own kids' sporting events, at the work place, and more. I was at a grocery store in a different part of my state last week, and a woman careened around my cart like she was going to hit me, making a crashing sound that stunned me.
There will always be angry people out there, looking to spew their frustrations out on other people. I told my son about Ashlynn's story. My first instinct was to shield him from it, but then I figured if a girl one year older than him experienced so much with bullying, he must have more experiences with it than I know.
I taught him a lesson I did with my high school freshmen years ago, when they were "low men on the totem pole," and they came to the new school fed with the rumors to always be on alert because they could be "canned" at any time - dumped into a garbage can by an older student.
Kids think concretely - it's hard for them to understand the abstract, powerful motivations and feelings behind bullying and being targeted. We did an exercise where one kid held a ball (the ball signified his pent up anger, frustration, irritation, you name it) and he threw the ball to someone else (this is his bullying words or behavior spreading so someone else "holds the ball"). We talked about how to get rid of that ball. My son really got into it, opening up to me more than I thought he would. "What if a kid throws a real ball at you and then acts like it was an accident?" he asked. I was even stumped with this one, imagining yet again how complex some social interactions are for kids.
It's hard to expect a kid to sit holding the ball of anger, not to expect him or her to pass it off to someone else. Even if they do cling to the ball, it eats kids up inside, like poor Ashlynn. I didn't have a ball handy when I talked with my son, but we sat at the kitchen table and I used one of the grapes he was eating instead. He got the picture when I said, "This grape is anger, frustration, sadness." And then I passed it to him.
All children have the tendency to add to bullying. I am sure not all of Ashlynn's bullies are horrible people from terrible families, but kids need to understand in concrete terms what happens when we give our pent up frustrations to others. We are, after all, human.
Julie Samrick is a stay-at-home mom to 4 young children and the founder of Kid Focused, a site for children and family issues today. Subscribe to the free Kid Focused newsletter, delivered weekly to your inbox. Permission granted for use on DrLaura.com