How Parents Can Support Pink Shirt Day

Take a stand against bullying and support children in building up confidence and resilience
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Melissa Askew/Unsplash.com

I was the target of almost constant bullying from the ages of six to 12, so it’s a queasy yet crucial topic for me to discuss; it is one I have been sitting for a while. As we approach Pink Shirt Day, an anti-bullying awareness day in Canada on Feb 24, I’m interested in discussing tools that help support children in building up the confidence and resilience to avoid walking into the emotional landmines that I did. 

Here’s how bullying went for me:  I guilelessly entered a new public school in Grade 1 after my parents split and settled into new and separate neighbourhoods. I was still the baby of the family at that point—spoiled and beloved by my mother.  

"I was prodigiously awkward with buckteeth, large glasses and a snorty laugh. As one might predict, I was swiftly socially crucified."

In my new class, out of 30 children, there were two other girls. The sexist ideas at the time were such that I felt I shouldn’t play with boys. The two girls were bonded from kindergarten and by their shared experience, in my eyes, of being cool and pretty. I was prodigiously awkward with buckteeth, large glasses (decades before hipster was even a thing) and a snorty laugh. As one might predict, I was swiftly socially crucified. 

For years the pattern was:  
1.    Make friends briefly with cool girls.  
2.    Do something inadvertently to mortally offend them, and those sins could range from allegedly copying a hairstyle to merely being perceived as unattractive. 
3.    Suffer in longing exile for the length of my sentence. 
4.    Win them over again briefly.
5.    Rinse and repeat. 

I did not get a leg up until years later. At that point, I discovered comedy and became willing to do anything for a laugh which bought me a reserve of social currency. And then, blessed high school! 

I still swoon when I think of suddenly having a big pool of kids from all over the city to meet. I quickly found my beautiful group of freaks and geeks, began
misspending my youth in pretentious cafes, meeting fascinating older friends, and happily shed my younger years like an old skin. 

Long-term effects of childhood bullying

Of course, this is life, not a fairy tale, so outcomes are never simple. The marks from those years have not entirely faded. I have spent a good deal of my adulthood chipping away at anxiety, depression, OCD and significant trust issues. I am well-supported and productive these days, but there is no question that these mental health struggles still affect me every day. I’m sure bullying Bullying wasn’t the only reason for these challenges but I’m pretty confident it played a role. 

And now, the good takeaway. What really turned my life around was meeting my tribe after years of social contortionism. It was an unimaginable relief. Finally, people appreciated what I had to offer. Finally, I found some measure of kindness.

"I have spent a good deal of my adulthood chipping away at anxiety, depression, OCD and significant trust issues."

Children are born knowing the obvious truth about themselves. They are here. They are good. They are whole. Once language is acquired, the words that they hear are what shape their self-image. For better--but too often for worse--the messages they are sent over and over become their gospel.  

Empowering Children With Yoga

Heyam dukham anagatam
“The suffering that is to come can be avoided.”
Yoga Sutras, Chapter 2, verse 16

Our culture has improved when it comes to not tolerating bullying, at least educating children to identify and deal with bullying behaviour. My children’s public school, for instance, teaches the kids the WITS program.

The children recite the steps until they are memorized. There was nothing even remotely so enlightened 30 years ago when I was in school. Yet, It’s also clear that when you add the internet and stir, there are infinitely more ways to bully, with unthinkably sad consequences. So, we need all hands-on-deck. 

The yoga tradition, an essential part of my toolbox, empowers us to be proactive. Adversity needs to be met with courage or healing, but we are not passive about the future.  What can we share with children to improve their resilience in the face of words that hurt? Here are some ideas from our tribe at The Yoga Buggy, a non-profit that brings yoga to kids and families in the Lower Mainland.  

1. Giving and Taking

One of my faves is a kids’ version of the Tibetan meditation tonglen. In traditional meditation, you visualize yourself breathing in other’s struggles and breathing back to them your blessings. 

It sounds like what you’re doing is giving away the good stuff you need and taking in the scary stuff, but that very act, it turns out, makes us stronger and improves our resilience. The traditional version might work for older kids, but might be a bit much for younger or more sensitive ones. For them, thank you to the excellent Jeff Warren for providing this kid-friendly version called Heart Breathing

2. “I Am” 

This one is from Bryony Ollier, Yoga teacher and Social Media Curator at The Yoga Buggy. In the “I Am” exercise, children cut out shapes from small squares of coloured paper. On each piece, write a word or picture.  Stick onto a piece of yarn, so it looks like the tail of an old-fashioned kite and hang it in the child’s room, classroom, or anywhere else you like. You can also make paper strips, write your affirmation on it, and then link them all together in a chain of good vibes for everyone!

Bryony says, “This activity is a beautiful way to reflect on making friends with the self, and it’s there to return to when you need to be reminded. I am- you add the rest!”

Yoga Buggy teacher and Resource Librarian Anoo Mammen loves this idea and suggests that you can integrate the idea of positive affirmations with Take 5 Breathing. In this exercise you stretch your hand out like a star on a piece of paper and trace your fingers, going up and down each of your five fingers while breathing consciously. Breathe in, go up the finger; breathe out, go down the other side. You finish tracing the hand, decorate it and cut it out, getting a calling exercise and a work of art in one!   Afterwards, write one quality you like about yourself (I am funny, I help my kid brother, etc.) on the tracing. 

Anoo says, “It was their take-home craft that they could use anytime they needed a boost of energy or their spirits.”

3. The Dog Question

Buddhist monk Ajahn Chah said, “If someone calls you a dog, look behind and see if you have a tail. If you don't have a tail, then there is no problem.” This is important to teach children!

If someone hurts you, rather than focusing on the hurt, pause, take a breath, and ask yourself, “Is that true?” Then listen.  

Most of the time, a more rational voice within will tell the truth.  The thing about most kids is that they haven’t internalized the insults deeply yet, and that voice of sanity that knows they don’t “have a tail” is not yet that far away. Of course, if a child has taken those voices inside to the point where their mind insists they do, then they might urgently need help from a professional to recalibrate their internal sense of who they are. 

Support From Parents on Pink Shirt Day

Finally, I would like to offer this thought to those of us with children in our lives. Support them to make sure they have many opportunities to meet their “tribe”-the group that loves and understands them, just as they are. Empower them to try new things as much as possible. You never know where you are going to find your people. Oh, and perhaps this goes without saying, but be sure to be part of your children’s “tribe” yourself.

As much as you can, love and accept your child just as they are.  

In honour of this Pink Shirt Day, I would love to hear your stories. Were you bullied? Did you bully? If yes to either, what have you learned? What advice would you give to the children in your life?

You may also enjoy: The Emotional Impact of Starting KindergartenSupporting Gender Non-Conforming Children, and The Foundations For Men's Mental Health Begin In Childhood.