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Seven-Year-Old Tries to Hang Himself
Q: My seven-year-old is being made fun of because he wears a long braid as part of our Native American heritage. I've gone to the principal, who suggested that my boy cut his hair. My son should not have to cut his hair, because this would strip away our culture. Last week, he was teased so much that he fought back and got in trouble. The next day I found him trying to hang himself. He said that he didn't want to live because the kids call him names. He goes to a counselor to help him deal with his problems. I don't know how to make things better.
A: Your seven-year-old's attempt to hang himself shows you how deeply he is being hurt by other kids' teasing and excluding him. It's hard for a boy at this stage of development to use cultural pride to defend himself against a constant barrage of hurtful comments. He might even have some unspoken anger toward you for "making" him wear his hair in a way that makes him get teased. That doesn't mean he has self-hatred -- it means that he doesn't want to be teased unmercifully any more. Anger is the only response that he can muster, besides sadness. His anger turned inward, into despair, on the day he attempted to hang himself. He needs sensitive professional counseling from an experienced therapist. I would recommend that your son's treatment also involve his family, which is his strongest source of love, understanding, and support.
I don't know how integrated your son's school is and how much he is made to feel like an outsider because he is Native American. The principal's suggestion to cut off your son's braid reveals an astonishing lack of sensitivity and leadership on his part. Perhaps there are Native American advocacy groups that could meet with this school's administration to discuss the need for diversity education within the school system, for both students and teachers. All schools are required by federal law to provide a safe, harassment-free learning environment for all students. It would appear that your son's school is not providing him with what he is entitled to by federal law.
Beyond the school harassment laws that need to be enforced and the diversity training and education that should be incorporated in the schools, we still face the prejudices of the children who are hurtful to your son. Unfortunately, children, as well as adults, will often mock those who are different from themselves. Prejudice in kids is borne out of ignorance and fear. Kids need to be taught how to hate, but they can tease merely by being swept up in what their peers are doing.
Please try to get help and support from any of this school's teachers, other minority group parents, members of the school board, and Native American political and educational organizations. Someone in a position of political power and persuasion should be moved by the thought of a little boy attempting to take his own life because of being teased about his braid.
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Carleton Kendrick has been in private practice as a family therapist and has worked as a consultant for more than 20 years. He has conducted parenting seminars on topics ranging from how to discipline toddlers to how to stay connected with teenagers. Kendrick has appeared as an expert on national broadcast media such as CBS, Fox Television Network, Cable News Network, CNBC, PBS, and National Public Radio. In addition, he's been quoted in the New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Boston Globe, USA Today, Reader's Digest, BusinessWeek, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Day, and many other publications.