Interview John Parsons author of Keeping you Children Safe Online

Liam Butler

Liam has been reviewing books, movies and music for a bit of light relief since his student days.

You say that children that do not have safe homes are more prone to bullying. 

How can we help at risk children who are at risk of bullying others?

There are a number of things we can do.

1) Introduce them to the power of Empathy

Children that grow up in homes that do not express love, compassion and whose guardians lack the ability to self-regulate are more likely to go onto express antisocial behaviours themselves.
This antisocial behaviour is the child’s way of communicating with the world.

I work with children who are victims of these environments, sometimes in the classroom and sometimes in a care and protection home. These workshops focus significantly on empathy as a tool to support others in times of need. I do not focus on antisocial behaviours, I focus on the power we feel when we support others.  This focus could be utilised by social workers.

The workshops also allow these young people to express how they feel about the world in which they live. Often they come to realise that their antisocial behaviour is normal within the context of their life because of what they have endured or been exposed to. That becomes a significant moment for them. Our task in those moments is to acknowledge their circumstances (not judge them) and help them build pathways to normalcy in how they communicate and relate to others in the future. All children want to feel powerful.  My intention in the workshops is to swap out one form of power (dominant aggressive behaviour) for another (empathy and compassion).

2) Empathy on a grand scale

One way to look at how far we have come as a society is to consider how we regard and support those who are less fortunate.  I once worked with a 13-year-old child whom social workers believed had connected to a paedophile online. My task was to help her see the risks to her physical and psychological wellbeing and if possible, to get identity information on the adult to pass onto Police.
Alongside all of this she was not coping well at school and she could not maintain long term healthy relationships with others in her social circle preferring to connect online with others. She had never lived long term with her biological family and when she did it was an abusive situation that presented risks for her safety.

I noted comments made about the girl by stakeholders tasked with her educational requirements. One comment noted that she was failing and other comments described her as unwilling to exist within a structured environment. This language is very telling of how the girl was viewed; she was a failure and unwilling to follow rules. This language leans towards only one outcome, to remove the child from education and place her within an alternative educational environment. I think that society in general has to change how it views success. The word failure is based on how education views success, i.e. that she reaches 18, passes all exams and transitions into adulthood. Anything less and she is failing. However, if you think about success on a daily basis the girl is succeeding. She puts on a uniform and goes to school. I don’t know many adults that could have endured what this child endured and then turned up to work every day. In my opinion she was succeeding.

If you have 30 children in a class and 3 are antisocial presenting bullying dominant behaviours they need to be supported and accepted by the other 27. The 27 that come from loving non-judgemental homes that grow up with love and compassion in their lives are appropriately postured to support, accept and handle the three. A society that learns to live with and accept its vulnerable, even the ones that want to do us harm, and not judge them provides the best opportunity for the vulnerable to change.

As a society, we cannot excuse anti-social behaviour that harms innocent people. People should always be held to account for their choices and the consequences need to be proportioned 
and principled. However, learning to understand why people act in the way they do is important because it changes the language we use to describe them which ultimately helps them change how they feel about themselves and, as you well know, how a person feels about themselves is very important.

I have the pleasure of working with social workers who work with children every day like the girl I described above. You asked me what can social workers do to help them. Most of all, keep doing what you do.

Listen to them, support them; you understand far better than anybody else why they act like 
they do. I meet so many young people that talk about the social worker that cared for them, supported them and listened to them. Just keep doing that.

On a more immediate and practical level consider the following:

1) Find ways to attend workshops, or to work with groups of young people, that highlight the importance of compassion and empathy.

2) If they are living with guardians that are clearly not providing the care and protection they need, don’t hesitate to call Oranga Tamariki. It is important that we bring focus on the adults that fail these children so that they too are given the support to change.

3) If the child needs support within the school system contact the MOE (Ministry of Education) and find out what is available to support them.

Children never forget the people that show them respect, commitment and compassion.

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