TORONTO – A 12-year-old girl somewhere in Canada is wondering how she can stop the bullying she experiences every day.
She’s on the phone, talking about how she eats lunch alone, while at recess a group of girls relentlessly taunt her and push her around. She used to seek refuge in the washroom, but once they figured out her hiding place, they followed her there, too.
Listening on the other end of the line is counsellor Aren van Delden, sitting at her desk in the downtown Toronto office of Kids Help Phone.
“She was saying, ‘It consumes my life’ and that encapsulates it,” van Delden says.
Kids worry about their friendships falling apart and getting bullied, online and in the classroom. They’re anxious about fitting in on the first day of school and they can’t always talk to their parents because they’re scared they won’t understand.
Just ask van Delden, who is in her thirteenth year with the organization. She and about 100 other colleagues staff Kids Help Phone’s 24/7 line, helping youth ages 5 to 20 through their problems. While van Delden works days most of the time, shifts rotate between mornings, evenings and nights.
The calls are anonymous and confidential – van Delden does not know who has phoned in and can’t track the number the call came from.
She says Amanda Todd may have even been one of the callers. Todd was a 15-year-old girl who committed suicide after posting a YouTube video documenting her torment at the hands of her peers. Her story garnered worldwide attention on cyberbullying.
Youth fears, from bullying to peer pressure
Van Delden is the voice kids turn to when they can’t go to their parents. In recent years, Canadian adolescents have been studied under a microscope, with a plethora of statistics and studies pouring in by researchers. The numbers don’t paint the prettiest picture of youth in Canada, marred with the highest rates of obesity, unemployment and other risks, such as drinking, smoking and contracting STDs.
Even worse, cyberbullying has been thrown into the spotlight as kids go online to chat with friends and share their thoughts.
Van Delden says with online bullying, youth no longer have a safe haven. They go home from school, and the torment continues on their computer screens.
On the ground, she hears firsthand of the thoughts bouncing around in kids’
The most common issues include bullying, self-harm, such as cutting, burning or bruising their bodies, excessive drinking and suicidal thoughts.
Peer pressure still dominates how youth are influenced, van Delden says.
Girls call worried about refusing to have sex with their boyfriends out of fear that they’ll be dumped, others think they’re pregnant.
By the end of the school week, calls pick up with teens scared of turning down alcohol at a party.
Providing advice to combat bullying
In 2011 alone, counsellors answered over 234,000 calls from youth across Canada. Another 15,000 responses were provided online via the organization’s Ask a Counsellor forum, which was introduced in 2002. With Internet use growing, online chats that teens can turn to for real-time discussion were phased in and are held from Thursday to Sunday.
Bullying often gets the most clicks in online forums as readers sift through tips.
Van Delden says she tries to look for the “sliver of hope” when kids are helpless. Perhaps there’s a teacher, or guidance counsellor they can talk to.
In the case of the 12-year-old girl, van Delden suggested writing a letter chronicling what’s happening to her and handing that letter to an adult who might be able to intervene.
She always reminds callers that they can always call back and that they have a support system that will walk them through trying to resolve their ordeals.
A disconnect with parents
When van Delden is asked to describe the generation, she says one word comes to mind: drifting.
“What I really find prevalent coming out of many calls from young people is how much they feel adrift. There is a real sense of disconnect often between the kids we talk to and their parents. That makes them feel hopeless, helpless, lonely and insecure, and that immediately goes into body image problems and unhealthy coping mechanisms,” she says.
What’s more troubling is what van Delden hears when she insists youth turn to their parents, grandparents or guardians to talk about what’s worrying them.
“They’ll say, ‘Oh, I hardly ever see them,’ or ‘I don’t want to add to their stress,’ or ‘I see dad once in a blue moon and if I overburden him I think he won’t want to see me again,’” van Delden says.
Some parents dismiss their child’s troubles. Van Delden can tell because more often than not, conversations are prefaced with, “I don’t know if this is serious enough.”
“We forget that we experienced that when we were that age and we often look down on these issues, which is devastating for kids because for them it’s huge. It’s their lives,” Van Delden says.
She says that on average, she takes about 50 calls a day. Some are short conversations – kids worried about why a classmate gave them dirty looks or callers worried about why a friend skips lunch every day – to others that are serious, relating to thoughts of suicide of self-harm linked to bullying.
One boy was cradling a gun in his lap when he called.
“Of course, the good thing is that he called. I remember that very clearly. I told him I’m so glad he decided to call. I’m not going to tell you what you need to do or what you have to do – that’s not my role. But if you want to continue the conversation, then I would really ask you to put (the gun) away,” she said.
Advice to parents navigating the online realm kids grow up in
Aside from reaching out to and being there for youth, Kids Help Phone completes another impressive feat: the organization runs solely on donations.
In 2012, it raised the $12.5 million budget it needed to deliver services for the year.
But during tough times, some services were cut: Kids Help Phone had a line for parents that was cancelled about five years ago.
Van Delden, who is professionally trained in social services and has worked in family dynamics, distress and abuse situations, says parents and their children are more alike than they realize.
“Parents started their calls with, ‘This is ridiculous, I never thought I’d call. I can deal with this myself,’” she recalls.
Van Delden says there aren’t enough resources available to help parents with raising their children, especially a generation that has grown up with less home-cooked meals, and have traded in toys and playing in the park for smart phones and Twitter.
Van Delden says parents need to get involved in their kids’ lives. Based on the conversations she has with youth, their ultimate concern is opening up about an issue and disappointing their parents.
“Kids cannot bear that. To have (parents) angry with them they can handle, but disappointment cuts way too deep because that makes them question if (parents) still love them,” she says.
Her underlying message is that parents should talk to their kids, walk them through their problems, regardless of how trivial they may seem.
If kids internalize how they’re feeling, they may turn to dangerous coping methods, Van Delden warns. Make sure they feel important and valued to prevent that.