News headlines are increasingly filled with tragic stories of youth becoming violent because they seemingly are lashing out to their peers as a way of expressing their anger, which I believe is often a result of a significant change in their family.

While bullying is a recent issue in the public eye, it is an unfortunate problem that’s affected many for decades. Whether a child is the bully or being bullied, there is an underlying issue that the kids are suppressing and it is the responsibility of adults to become aware of it. In the case of Phoebe Prince, the 15-year-old student from Massachusetts who took her own life after daily torment, school administrators didn’t take action in controlling the bullying, even though they were aware of what was happening.

Working with school personnel for decades has taught me that they are often not comfortable or equipped to offer support for a grieving child or teen. When a child’s life is shattered, this child needs to gain control somewhere, so it is often manifested in the form of bullying behavior. Often times, and in the case of Phoebe Prince’s bullies, their actions led to violence and shows the need for the emotional support that Rainbows can offer.

Following are suggestions on how to have productive communication with vulnerable, grieving youth, all of which are included in my book, Healing the Hurt, Restoring the Hope:

*Make time to talk. Take initiative to start the conversation rather than wait for the perfect time. There is no perfect time. A great place with little distractions is the car. Keep the volume low and begin with important aspects in the child’s life like friends, sports, school, etc.

*Open the conversation with simple, direct questions. “How are you feeling about this?”

*Listen intently. When you pay attention, it makes it easier to pick up on clues that weren’t as evident earlier. You will be able to understand more of what the child is thinking or wishing.

*Encourage the grief-stricken child to tell you what he/she needs. Let him/her know that it’s OK to say “I need a hug” or “I am really upset. Can we talk?”

*Assure the child that healing takes a long time. Remind them that it is a process, and it is not something that can be done on a schedule.

* Nudge the child when he/she gets stuck. Remind them that they’re doing great.

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Suzy Yehl Marta

Suzy Yehl Marta, a divorced mother of three sons, gave up the security of her three jobs to do something she knew in her heart had to be done for our youth who were grieving a life-changing loss. She established Rainbows, now the world’s largest not-for-profit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss. While growing up, Suzy dreamed of being a good wife and mother. She never considered the possibility of divorce and was devastated when her marriage ended. She was relieved when family and friends told her there was no need to worry about her kids. “They’re resilient. They’ll bounce back,” she was told. But soon Suzy realized her sons were hurting as much as she was. She searched for the type of support that she was receiving as an adult. There was no place accessible for them to talk about what they were feeling. Certainly, there was therapy available, which she tried. At the end of the counseling session, she was advised not to return. The therapist said they were just fine adjusting to their loss. But he never told them how to do it. What Suzy learned later was that they were all grieving the death of their nuclear family. In addition, her sons needed to be with other children their age going through the same experiences so they could understand their feelings. Working with other concerned single parents, Suzy began organizing weekend retreats for children in single-parent and step-family homes. In three years, more than 800 youth benefited from the retreats. After hearing their stories, Suzy was compelled to do more. She began working on a formal curriculum- the foundation of Rainbows. Rainbows has served nearly 2 million youth throughout the U.S. and 16 countries. Now the nation’s largest not-for-profit organization dedicated solely to helping families cope with loss.

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