#ItGetsBetter Isn’t Getting Old: Famous Voices Bolster the Message

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(This article ran on Huffpo in 2011)

“Getting picked on in school sticks with you for life.”

Those were Lady Gaga’s words during a May 23rd appearance on The View, but they could have been mine. They could have been yours. Heartbreakingly, they could be your child’s, which is why, says Jill Zarin of Bravo’s Real Housewives of New York City, it is crucial we communicate with our kids.

“Closed doors aren’t allowed,” says Zarin, who is both a mother and stepmother. She tells me I “must Google Gaga” and just like that — like she does with Kelly, Sonya, Luann, Cindy, Alex and (even) Ramona — she’s giving me advice. Later on, I will research Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (AKA Gaga) at length to discover that through music lyrics and interviews she has opened up about bullying in her past.

“You have to be involved today,” Zarin stresses, “You have to break into your children’s Facebook and Twitter. As long as they’re living in your house — it doesn’t matter what other people say. My heart broke for Gaga. What she said really hit a nerve because I saw myself in her and I saw… it was real.”

Thirteen-year-old Sara Edelman says that the message seems more powerful coming from Gaga because “She’s big and people idolize her. It helps much more to hear from someone that we look up to than the average person, to know that someone that successful has been through it and come out the way that she has.” Gabriella Hagler, 12, agrees that a video with a message about bullying from an internationally renowned pop star holds more sway than one from, say, me.

Dr. Phil, who has covered the topic of bullying on several episodes of his hit TV talk show, tells me “Celebrity voices are necessary but not sufficient. When folks that young people look up to take a strong position that it’s not cool to bully, it has a positive affect. I think it’s terrific, but it’s got to go much further and be part of the curriculum (in schools).” (See sidebar for more on bullying from Dr. Phil).

Michael Blumberg, LCPC, who has recently counseled bullies and bully victims alike in the Chicago suburbs, is not surprised by young Sara Edelman’s words. “Celebrities are idealized and appear to have it all,” he explains, “so when they discuss being bullied we realize the scope and severity of the problem and are able to identify and connect with them.”

Back on The View, Gaga talks about how her lyrics, like those of “Born this way,” aim to liberate fans. “They said I had a big nose, I had buck teeth. I got thrown in the trash can on the corner… I don’t think I realized how deeply it affected me until I started to become more successful.”

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Zarin tells me that like Gaga, she too was bullied during her youth. In fact, in her 2010 book Secrets of a Jewish Mother (co-authored by her mom Gloria Kamen and her sister Lisa Wexler), a chapter is entirely devoted to the subject of bullying.

“I sent a message to Gaga after hearing those words,” she tells me, “I reached out to her and said ‘If you face your bullies today, invite them to your concert. If you face them, then it’s nothing.’”

Zarin still has nightmares from those days, but in recent years, former tormentors have gotten in touch. “They don’t remember bullying me,” she marvels. And that’s a curious thing about bullies, I think (remembering when I met up with my own former bully), often they forget…?

Comedienne and writer Gaby Dunn decided to Google her bully out of curiosity. What she discovered surprised her. “Part of me was honestly hoping to find out she’d died in a horrible turbine accident, but no dice,” she writes on her blog.

“She’s an advocate for children with disabilities. She works with autism foundations. She ran a tennis camp for disadvantaged kids.

I’m having a hard time understanding what I’m feeling.

She was my bully. And now she’s a good person?”

When we speak by phone, Dunn says she wonders if her bully remembers things differently — or if she’s a better person because she remembers how awful she was.

“Bullies may not remember the incidents as clearly, if at all,” says Blumberg, “Because they are not the ones experiencing the trauma of being attacked.”

For the most part, Zarin says, she’s over that trauma. But like Gaga, she will never forget the experiences — experiences that have empowered her with the life skills she has today and have enabled her to deal with the “ganging up” we see on Housewives.

“It’s not ‘bullying,’” she clarifies when I ask about the mean girl antics we see on TV, “People use that term too lightly. We have a choice if we want to be on the show or not and if we need to, we can leave.” Blumberg disagrees however, saying that bullying takes on different forms from childhood to adulthood and that a reality show can mean a source of income that’s not easy to leave.

Zarin feels that parents need to identify exactly how dire the situation is and do whatever is necessary. “First, it is crucial to help your child by teaching them the skills to cope,” she says, “‘Helicopter Parenting,’ where you say ‘you’re the best’ constantly; doesn’t teach children how to handle adversity. What do they do and how do they handle the world when they get older? Part of growing up is learning how to figure this stuff out. And if you, the parent, are having a hard time with that, therapy is an option to consider.”

Her experiences as well as her passion for “It Gets Better,” support of the “No Hate” campaign and GLAAD and the plight of her step-daughter Jennifer Zarin all inspired an anti-bullying luncheon seen on May 19th’s Housewives. At the event, Jennifer, 31, spoke about being bullied due to a large facial birthmark and hemangioma. Her words (“Sometimes I went to bed wishing I wouldn’t wake up”) touched many of the estimated 2.3 million RHONY viewers. After the episode aired, the Anti Defamation League asked Jennifer to be a keynote speaker at some of their upcoming events for A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute, Jennifer tells me she first started discussing bullying and offering support through her Facebook page “The Birthmark Project.” She recently launched a blog as well.

“Public speaking is a big fear for people,” Jennifer admits of the Housewives luncheon, “but when there’s something that’s really important to me, it doesn’t matter. I use that anxiety to make the speech more powerful.”

On her blog she writes that although she has a physical birthmark, she also uses the word ‘birthmark’ as a metaphor. “I’ve learned that what once made us the target of bullies or insecure (or both) also has a lot to teach us about life,” she writes.

We know the old adage “What does not kill us makes us stronger” and as she turns 31, Jennifer is incredibly thankful to be alive. She says that past experiences have taught her “the importance of making meaningful contributions in the world, taking risks and rising to healthy challenges.”

As a parent, I feel we have to crack down on this problem in our schools, help raise awareness among fellow parents, among teachers and administrators, and anyone who can intervene in some way.

Melanie Notkin, Founder of SavvyAuntie.com and author of Savvy Auntie: The Ultimate Guide for Cool Aunts, Great-Aunts, Godmothers and All Women Who Love Kids, confirms that one need not be a parent to intervene.

“Sometimes, a kid will turn to his aunt or uncle when bullied if the child feels a parent may ‘over-react,’” she says. “They want a well-meaning adult to listen, but they may not want the issue to have immediate repercussions on their already teetering social profile at school. An aunt or uncle can be a strong alternative — every child would do best knowing there are many caring grown-ups to turn to.”

We can learn from schools that have been training and using “anti-bullying mentors” to provide support to those who need, and, according to the UK-basedDriffield School, “promote good citizenship and inclusion across the whole school.”

In the U.S., there’s Urbana Middle School in Frederick County, Maryland, to look up to, which has a nationally recognized anti-bullying program requiring adults in the school to intervene when bullying occurs. Students there are reminded during monthly class meetings about the effects of bullying and taught how to put a stop to mean behavior.

Some leaders have grumbled that implementing anti-bullying programs in schools is complicated, time consuming and costly (see this article on anti-bullying programs and federal budget woes ) but for goodness sake, let’s put our heads together and figure it out!

Despite criticisms that I’ve heard, there’s nothing wrong with famous folks – from celebrities to “Bravolebrities” — using their star power for anti-bullying awareness. While Jill Zarin’s luncheon elicited many a wry comment from critical bloggers, it also caught their attention. Notably, it caught the attention of the ADL.

We keep hearing that it gets better, but we have a long way to go and there is definitely strength in numbers. So when it comes to famous people voicing the message, the more, the merrier.

Dr. Phil on Bullying and Anti-Bullying Awareness

He’s roused millions to “Get Real!” and has tackled the topic on his hit TV talk show — Dr. Phil took time to chat with me about bullying and answer some questions:

Jill Zarin suggests that a parent break into their kid’s Twitter and Facebook accounts regularly to monitor and be on the lookout for signs of bullying.

In your expert opinion, how invasive should a parent be and what they should they do to keep an eye out for bullying?

There are different ways for a parent to be actively involved. Parents have to educate themselves about the warning signs (check out Dr. Phil’s warning signs of bullying).

They need to know for both sides: what the signs are that their child is being bullied or if their child is a bully.

Kids don’t often come home and tell their parents they’re being bullied because they’re ashamed. They may show signs of withdrawal. They may want to avoid going to school beyond the normal “I don’t want to go to school” and exhibit a chronic pattern. If you see bruises, scratches or that some of their possessions have been damaged or missing, those are all warning signs. They may also start to show signs of depression, crying, aggression, mood changes and lifestyle changes if they’re being bullied.

In terms of whether your child is a bully, watch to see if there’s a really strong clique. Are they gossiping about someone or making fun of them? Are they excluding some child in some way? Telling jokes about or laughing at a particular child? Exploiting some other child in some way?

Before invading their privacy, determine whether or not the warning signs are there. Then you need to follow your instincts — A child’s trust is earned. As far as social networking sites (like Twitter and Facebook), those are fertile ground for bullying. Your kid is going to have more knowledge than you do about the Internet, but not the insight on how to deal with it.

When a child/teen first complains of being bullied in school, what are the key first steps a parent/adult should take?

The first thing a parent needs to do is make sure they don’t fall victim to “Hey, kids are kids, let them be kids.” That’s not true. When a child is bullied it’s one of the loneliest times in his or her life. The most important thing for parent to do is sit with the child and talk with them and find out what’s going on. If the child says “Oh Mom, don’t say anything. That will just make it worse,” know it’s not true. The child should know that telling is not tattling — Let your child know that telling someone in a position to help the facts that they need to know to help is the right thing to do. In terms of how the child handles bullies on his or her own, it’s a case by case scenario. The biggest mistake parents make is telling kids “You just need to confront the bully.” Bullies specifically choose kids that can’t do that. You can advise them to stay with a friend, not be alone, to not place themselves in situations where they’re sure to get bullied (like hanging out in a spot where the bully typically hangs out). The next thing is to get the school involved. Teachers and administrators don’t get into education for the money. They get into it because they care what they’re doing. They don’t want your child to be victimized. They’re on your side. Ask for their help and alert the teachers involved. Ask for the adults in the school to watch and intervene and become your eyes and ears.

What can schools across the country due to prevent and tackle the bullying problem

I am very passionate about this issue and I need to emphasize this: We need to amend the secondary and elementary education act to include funding and language that specifically refers to bullying and online bullying. Until we put our money where our mouth is, this problem isn’t going to get better. We have to do this across the board and it is absolutely doable. This is something that needs to be funded and we need to make sure all the schools are not only required, but actively engaged in anti-bullying efforts.

Lady Gaga has recently discussed being bullied as has Anne Hathaway, Eva Mendes, Tim Gunn and other celebrities. How important are famous voices with regard to anti-bullying awareness

They are necessary but not sufficient. When folks that young people look up to take a strong position that it’s not cool to bully it has a positive affect. I think it’s terrific but it’s got to go further than that and that’s what I mean about having it as part of the curriculum in schools.


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