It was an epiphany that turned into a theme for me at the annual conference of the International Bullying Prevention Association this week. It was a theme by the third day, when I heard keynote speaker Carlotta Walls-Laprier say, “I knew who I was.” She, one of the Little Rock Nine (the African American students who made history in 1957 as the first to attend then-all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.), was responding to an audience member who asked how she dealt with the racism and kept from “hating the haters.” She gave credit to her parents for raising her to know that “I couldn’t hate another person.”
“I knew who I was.” That powerful statement was very similar to the insight – more like floodlight – that came from hearing Emily Lindin, director of the new documentary Unslut, respond to almost the same question from the audience at the film’s screening on the first night of IBPA. Lindin, a survivor of sexual bullying in high school, started The Unslut Project to create a support community for targets of sexual shaming and raise awareness of its impacts.
Now in the final stages of a PhD program and speaking at school screenings around the country, having been featured on ABC with Katie Couric, CNN with Brooke Baldwin, NPR, Al Jazeera America, and many other news outlets, Lindin told the audience member that what got her through that time was learning how to define herself rather than let other people’s opinions define her. She elaborated on this in an email to me:
Healing from ‘slut’ shaming
At the time, I didn’t know how to think about the steps I was taking to overcome sexual bullying. I’m not even sure I understood that was what I was doing – I was just trying to cope however I could. But what worked for me was identifying what I liked to do, what I was already somewhat good at doing, and throwing my energy into getting better at it. For me, it was singing. In that way, I was able to redefine myself rather than letting my peers define me, as I had been doing throughout middle school. Instead of ‘the school slut,’ I became a singer, someone who was pretty good at musical theater, an academic, and – most importantly – a KIND person. I practiced kindness. Over the course of about a year, I redefined myself according to what I wanted to be. And eventually, other people caught on and stopped defining me as a ‘slut,’ as well.
And this is crucial: She continued, “But even if they hadn’t, it wouldn’t have mattered that much, because I had redefined myself in my own mind. I had stopped internalizing and depending upon their opinion of me.”
How we can help
That, parents and educators, is true safety and well-being in all contexts, digital and physical, right? We can help our children grow resilience and emotional health by helping them…
- see that they are the definers and refiners of themselves and their lives
- find that growing their self-knowledge, interests and abilities increases their strength and resilience
- know that other people can judge but never define them
- understand that they have a choice – they can choose not to internalize others’ opinions of them
- be patient with this self-defining process, knowing that – though it can take time – they can’t fail, they can only learn
- realize that, though it’s not easy, this work is meaningful as well as protective
- know that they’re not alone; in telling them this, we’re there for them.
It doesn’t have to be a parent who plays the supporting role, here. Anyone a child or young person trusts can help just by acknowledging the importance of this identity work – helping them be aware of its value and their value. What emerges is the moral compass or inner guidance system that both safeguards our kids and helps them navigate future social challenges and exercise the kind of leadership that guides and supports others. We can encourage them and have their backs as they do that important work.
There are two other priceless “tools” for dealing with bullying and cyberbullying I’ve picked up on over my years of covering it: really being heard (by a trusted peer or adult), according to young survey respondents of the Youth Voice Project, and being helped to get one’s dignity back, as explained by author, educator and parent Rosalind Wiseman. Both help kids heal. But underlying and supporting all of that – whether they’re facing sexual bullying, racial discrimination, homophobia or any other form of social cruelty – is the work of consciously defining who they are for themselves.
- Two years ago, I wrote about one way families support children’s identity development: by developing a “strong family narrative,” as described by author and parent Bruce Feiler. We can help our children know themselves better by knowing “they belong to something bigger than themselves,” Feiler wrote.
- The focus of this year’s IBPA conference was empathy. That, Monday’s keynote speaker, University of California, Berkeley, Prof. Dacher Keltner, said we are all evolved to feel and express.
- SEL gives structure and support to kids’ identity work – see “All kids deserve the safety & other benefits of social-emotional learning”
- “For our kids & ourselves: Presence in a digital age”