After girl’s suicide, Utah experts discuss how parents can help children who are being bullied

Experts with the University of Utah Health and Huntsman Mental Health Institute provided tips about how to prevent and respond to bullying.

(Screenshot) Scott Langenecker, of Huntsman Mental Health Institute, speaks during a virtual news conference Tuesday, Nov. 16, 2021, about bullying.

Editor’s note • This article discusses suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

Talk openly with your children. Tell them that you love and support them. And teach them how to be compassionate and respectful of other people.

That’s some of the advice that experts from the University of Utah Health and Huntsman Mental Health Institute gave parents during a virtual panel Tuesday about bullying, and its causes and effects. (A video of the full discussion can be found on the University of Utah Health’s Facebook page.)

The news conference came more than a week after the death of 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, who died by suicide earlier this month. The girl’s mom, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, said her daughter was bullied at school for being Black and autistic. Tichenor-Cox repeatedly contacted Davis School District about the abuse, but she was ignored, she said.

About two weeks before the fifth-grader died, the U.S. Department of Justice on Oct. 21 publicly released a scathing report from a lengthy investigation into Davis School District’s serious mishandling of reports of racism there.

Izzy’s death was not mentioned during the news conference, where experts offered general advice to parents.

Bullying is a terrible problem, and it’s worse for kids than it is for adults. There’s no question about that,” Jose Rodriguez, associate vice president for health equity, diversity, and inclusion at the University of Utah Health, said Tuesday.

“No one should have to go through these things, and certainly shouldn’t have to go through them alone,” said Rachel Lucynski, business operations manager of Community Crisis Services at Huntsman Mental Health Institute. “Our team,” which includes the SafeUT app and crisis line (833-372-3388), “is always here to provide support.”

What can parents do to help a child who is being bullied?

The most important message that a parent can send to their child is that “the bullying is not OK, and they don’t deserve to be bullied,” said Scott Langenecker, clinical neuropsychologist and professor of psychiatry at Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

Then, he said, try to find a way — while keeping your child’s concerns in mind — to “move forward towards some sort of healing and reconciliation process,” he said.

During normal daily activities, such as eating dinner or driving your kids to soccer practice, Langenecker suggested that parents ask their child, “Is there something important that you’d like to share with me, that you haven’t had a chance to tell me?”

Life gets busy, so if your child does tell you they are experiencing bullying, put a reminder in your phone or calendar to make sure you follow up to ensure the problem was resolved, he said.

Langenecker also recommended finding safe spaces where your child feels comfortable, whether that’s piano lessons or a Dungeons & Dragons club.

Establishing good communication with your child early can help them feel comfortable talking with you, Rodriguez said.

Having experienced this with my own children, it was difficult when my oldest son came to tell me that he was being bullied at the bus stop,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez’s first intervention was to go to the bus stop with his son, he said. Next, he spoke with the parents of the child doing the bullying.

“A lot of times kids don’t say anything at all to their parents, and they suffer in silence,” Rodriguez said, so parents need to pay attention.

And “if you see something as a parent — say, your kid’s friend bullying another child — and you have a relationship with that child’s parent who’s doing the bullying,” he said, “that’s where you can make the most difference.”

Rodriguez suggested having a “gentle conversation,” saying, ”Hey, I saw your son or daughter do this to this other child, and it was really painful to watch. And I know that’s tough to bring it up, but maybe you could have a talk with them.”

Langenecker advised parents not to underestimate what others may do when they become aware of a problem.

“Nine times out of 10, the child’s parents will probably do the right thing and help move towards reconciliation,” Langenecker said. “And that’s an important learning opportunity for both children.”

What should parents not do?

Parents may experience shame if their child is bullying, Langenecker said, “and they might feel that it’s important to punish their child.” There is a difference between punishing and disciplining, though, he said.

“There might be a negative consequence of the bullying, so that they take it seriously,” Langenecker said “...But it’s the educational part that comes with it that’s the most crucial.”

We would certainly recommend not encouraging your child to fight back,” Lucynski said. “Violence or bullying on top of bullying is certainly not the solution.

Instead, teach children skills for how to manage their emotions, she said, while also telling them that “you love them, you believe in them and you want to be there to support them.”

“It’s OK to practice being assertive and saying, ‘I don’t like when you talk to me that way,’ or ‘Please leave me alone,’” Lucynski said.

Having communication with your child’s school administrators may also be helpful, Lucynski said.

What can parents do if they don’t receive help from their child’s school?

Langenecker advised bringing in the SafeUT app, so that there is feedback and an accounting system to help move things forward. Tips submitted to SafeUT are passed on to school administrators, “who then conduct an investigation and report back out outcomes and disposition,” he said.

Langenecker said parents can also call Utah’s crisis line to ask for support from one of the many mobile crisis teams across the state. The PTA, school board and media are other resources, he said. A parent might consider taking their child out of school for a short period, Langenecker said, adding, “I appreciate that this may not be feasible and is unfair to ask the victim and family to adjust.”

Families may also consider pausing social media for a child if that is where bullying is occurring, he said.

(Steve Griffin | The Salt Lake Tribune) The SafeUT crisis text and tip line is a statewide service that provides real-time crisis intervention to youth through texting and a confidential tip program right from your smartphone. Tuesday December 27, 2016.

What signs should parents look for that their child is being bullied?

“It comes across in very subtle ways,” Langenecker said. If they have trouble falling asleep at night, or trouble waking up in the morning, “that may be because they’re worrying about bullying.”

Another sign, he said, could be if there are certain activities or situations where a child gives “vague reasons for not wanting to go,” such as “I’m tired. I don’t feel like it.”

Not all autistic children communicate with speech, so Anne Kirby, an assistant professor in the department of occupational and recreational therapies at the University of Utah Health, suggested parents also look for nonverbal behaviors from your child that may indicate that something is going on.

Who typically gets bullied, and why?

Langenecker said there are many possible motivations for bullying. But abuse motivated by racism or anti-LGBTQ sentiments, for example, can be especially destructive, because the bullying targets a child’s identity and can become internalized.

“It’s not just an external force acting upon you,” he said. “Some of your own thoughts and self-talk can incorporate some of the bullying language and activities.”

Rodriguez said there’s sometimes a tendency to say, “‘Oh, well, bullying can happen to anybody.’ And that’s 100% true. But if you’re from a racialized background, it is very difficult to distinguish bullying from outright race-fueled bullying.”

Lucynski didn’t have exact data, but she said anecdotally, the clinicians who work at SafeUT have seen increased rates of reported discrimination, “and that it is a serious challenge that doesn’t just affect youth in high school. It’s something that’s being seen in elementary schools and middle schools ... and higher education institutions.”

In Utah, Kirby noted that people on the autism spectrum are about one and a half times at greater risk of suicide than people who are not on the spectrum. Autistic women and girls in the state in particular are at increased risk compared to women and girls who are not autistic, she said.

How can I use the SafeUT app?

SafeUT is Utah’s statewide crisis chat and tip app, which can be downloaded for free on the Google Play Store or the Apple Store. It is available 24/7, 365 days a year, and is staffed by a team of master’s level licensed independent mental health counselors.

Students can message back and forth in real time with counselors. They can call the crisis line and talk with someone. Or, students can use the tip feature to confidentially report concerns, “typically about someone else that they’re worried about, or about potential acts of violence, school threats or bullying that they’re seeing,” according to Lucynski.

SafeUT is also available to parents, Lucynski said.

Bullying typically makes up about 9% to 11% of the tips being submitted through the app, Lucynski said, and in 2020, bullying was the second-highest tip coming in.

During the first three months of the 2019 school year (August, September and October), SafeUT received 387 bullying tips. During that same time period in 2020, there were 144.

“There was a decrease across the board in our tips being submitted,” as students generally weren’t using the app while learning virtually, Lucynski said.

This school year, with students at school in-person again, SafeUT received 209 bullying tips during those first few months of learning, she said.

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman is chairman of the board of the nonprofit Salt Lake Tribune. The Huntsman Foundation is a major benefactor of the University of Utah’s Huntsman Mental Health Institute.

The Salt Lake Tribune