The Children Are Watching and Listening

Lisa Ozalis-Graham is Founder of Empower Kids, LLC,  Children’s Author of the books “The Adventures of Finley and Cisco” and “Randle Finds His Light” (in production), Moderator of the Podcast series “Tell Me”, Vice-President and Co-Owner of Tumbling Dice Entertainment, Inc. She also is a Poet, Writer, Singer / Songwriter, and Lyricist.  She refers to herself as a Heartist, one who lives life with passion and creates art in a variety of formats to reach out and connect with people to lift the human spirit. She has three children, Haley, Liam, and Ryan, and resides with her husband, Kevin, in Southampton, NJ.  She loves music, cooking, and traveling with her family.


In speaking with her, it was easy to see that educating communities about the crises that are caused by a severe lack of kindness and compassion, is one of the things she was born to do. An articulate advocate, she has changed (and perhaps saved) countless lives with her words. Imagine a world in which caring overshadowed competition and children felt treasured. I would venture a guess that suicide rates would decrease, and school grades would elevate, that substance abuse and high-risk behaviors would plummet.


Her website Empower Kids LLC  offers information on ways to, as she describes it, “Create a positive school culture’.   In addition, Lisa hosts a podcast called Tell Me on which she interviews changemakers.


What do you think is behind the epidemic of bullying?  


I believe many variables contribute to where we are today. I can only speak from what I’ve seen and heard based on my research and shared experiences with elementary schools over the last two and a half years.


An epidemic is defined as a widespread occurrence of an infectious disease in a community at a particular time.  Do I think bullying leads to significant mental health issues for those on the receiving end?  You bet and it has been proven.


No doubt there has been an increase in the number of bullying cases reported across the country.  On the flip side, many would argue that the term itself is being widely overused. It is a fine line, but the line is there and it’s not going away any time soon until we start having more open and honest conversations about the causes and ramifications of what it can do and is doing to our young children. It is a fact that suicide rates of children who are bullied are rising at an alarming rate with the decrease in age even more startling.  Not only are children at a younger age (as young as 5) having ideation, sadly, many are going through with it.  And that should break your heart.  It does mine.


Why is this happening? 


While technology can be a wonderful and necessary tool for advancement and learning, I do believe that the exponential increase in screen time and ease of access for children to electronic devices at a younger and younger age, without supervision over content, is a major contributing factor.  There is a rise in the number of children who have unsupervised access to the internet.  They lack the maturity to understand, process and manage their behavior based on the content they are seeing. It is becoming more and more dangerous.


I liken it to this.  As a parent, would you place your 8-year-old child behind the wheel of a highly advanced technological piece of equipment, such as a Lambo, hand them the keys, and say, “Go ahead and take a ride! I’m going to cook dinner now.”  And then be totally alarmed and shocked when they crash and burn? And I’ve got news for you.  This car doesn’t run out of gas as long as you keep fueling the tank for them.  Alarmed?  You should be.


Ultimately, I think that the root of the bullying behavior, whether in a classroom of young children or in the workplace, is based upon a power struggle that exists between two entities to gain another link up the ladder of social status. I see many on social media platforms listing themselves as “Public Figures” pouncing on victims to gain recognition and power from another’s misfortune.  So sad.


It’s been said that “hurt people hurt people” and researcher Brene Brown has found that people who inflict pain on another are feeling deep pain themselves.  It is easier to pass the pain on to someone else, rather than have to deal with the issues themselves. It’s about control or lack of a feeling of control.  If I can’t take control of the emotions I am experiencing deep within that are causing immense hurt and trauma, at least I can try to tag someone else and hope it sticks… then maybe I can be released from it.  But it doesn’t work that way.


That is why in assemblies I always ask the children, “When people are unkind to you, does that make them a bad person?”  Almost always, they say “No Miss Lisa.”  And I follow-up with “That’s right because we all have a story and we can’t tell what that story is just by looking at each other.”


Fred Rogers also said, ”The most essential things in life are invisible to the eye.” How wise this special compassion ambassador was.


Sadly, children who are hurting many times don’t understand the emotions they are feeling and why they are even experiencing them.  They feel as if something must be wrong with them, so they don’t tell anyone for fear of bringing shame upon themselves, their parents, or their families.


Another Fred Rogers quote that speaks to this issue, “If it’s mentionable, it’s manageable.”  He adds that watching our children’s play carefully can unlock an incredible amount of information as to what fears and concerns they may be experiencing at any given time.  It is important to allow them to act out their fears either through drawing, coloring, writing a story, play-acting or even pounding clay.  If they can address their fears through play, it will teach them how to approach their fears in real-life situations.


What can we as adults do to change that dynamic and break the cycle? 


We need to be mindful of what our responsibility is as a parent and role model for our children.  We need to remember that even if they don’t say anything about your behavior, they are watching…like a hawk.  They are sorting in their minds what they like and what they don’t like.  Who they want to be and who they don’t.  Yes, even at five years old and even younger.  How often are you on your phone?  Do you gossip?  If you engage in social media, how well do you respond to personal posts about yourself?  Do you ignore them or engage in the cesspool of humanity with a war of words if you see something you don’t like by retaliating hate with hate, name-calling, or yelling and screaming?  Do you derive your worthiness from what others say about you?


Brene’ Brown sums up connection beautifully for people of any age: People have an undeniable need for connection.  Our brain is hard-wired for it.  We all need to feel we are worthy of being loved, giving love, and of belonging.  When those three elements are present, we feel connected.  Even if the connection is just to one or two Power of One people in our lives who validate who we are and make us believe that the world is a better place just because we are in it and it wouldn’t be the same if we were not.


Think I’m oversimplifying things?  Ask the child who received a text message in a group chat last night that says, “We hate you, and if you weren’t here tomorrow, no one would care or miss you.”  One friend at that moment can change and even save a life.


Is it on the rise or is it falling due to education on the topic? 


Talking about bullying and the dangers of what can happen when it goes ignored does not cause it.  Pretending the problem doesn’t exist and hoping it goes away on its own will cost more lives.  While the topic has received more attention, there still exists the need for more education and more conversations on all levels.  The power of words and the impact they have on one another needs to be taken more seriously and we need to find ways to make better efforts to take away the fear and stigma of those suffering from mental health or social-emotional issues.  We need to participate in more preventive measures and not just be responsive when a tragedy occurs.

Your delightful book The Adventures of Finley and Cisco speaks in a language kids can understand. What makes the story so relatable?


As simple as the characters are, they are extraordinarily complex.  It takes place in Lake Superior, where all fish (students) think they are better than other fish from anywhere else.  Finley was modeled after my good friend April Holmes, a gold medalist Para-Olympian is from Lake Erie and has special needs due to a fishing accident. Instead of a “prosthetic” pin which children would have a hard time understanding, we gave him a “safety-pin” which holds his dorsal fin in place.  Camie is from the ocean and can change colors to match her surroundings.  She disappears when others are picking on her and feels invisible when her friends don’t include her in their games.  Cisco is the hero…the one we all wish our children would emulate…the upstander.  He immediately accepts Camie and Finley (both from other schools and outsiders) as his best friends and doesn’t view their differences as anything that is wrong with them.  Rather, their uniqueness gives them special powers or purpose, which is the point I am trying to drive home.

How about the Random Acts of Kindness Initiative?


The PIN (Power In Numbers) A FIN (Friend In Need) TO WIN RAK Initiative is something that I hope teachers, counselors, and administrators, along with parents, can take and make their own as a positive behavioral modification tool.  When I explain to children that being unkind to someone puts a hurt line on their heart, we add an immensely powerful visual to their behavior.  I add that their name goes on the line until they apologize and promise not to repeat the hurtful behavior, and to choose kindness first the next time.  I developed an “I Did My Part To Heal A Heart” certificate that can go with the posters and program which basically just conveys the idea that positive behavior should be rewarded and makes you feel good.  Educators love the program and put their own spin on it even asking kids for ideas they can use in their own classrooms.

Why is it important to validate children’s feelings?


We often forget that we were once children.  When you think of it, we are all just children inside with grown-up bodies. At any age, who doesn’t want to be loved and know our feelings are important?  Fred Rogers said a child’s feelings are just as important as an adult’s.  I couldn’t agree more.

In this unprecedented time, how can we assure the children in our lives that we are there for them and that we will get through this? 


Again, I can’t stress enough the importance of talking to your children about their feelings and let them know whatever they are feeling … scared, anxious, hurt, confused, angry…they are all valid because they are their feelings.  As many have said, model for them.  Get up in the morning, as hard as it is some days.  Get dressed.  As Navy Seal Commander William H. McRaven’s speech says about raising inspired children, “If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”  Take a shower.  Groom yourself.  Show them you value and love yourself, and they will learn to do the same.

Any thoughts about helping them and their parents to adapt to the new educational process they are finding themselves in without either having meltdowns? 


Stay open and honest, take breaks, don’t be afraid to ask for help!  This is not a time or place for pride to replace the human condition of our situation.  We’re not perfect…we didn’t ask for this…it is what it is and how we face this challenge will teach many valuable LIFE LESSONS that can have a far greater impact than a math or English lesson. Show grit, resilience, and PATIENCE whenever possible.  It’s also okay to say that you are having a bit of a sad day too to help them relate and connect letting them know that they are not alone in this.  But make sure and this is VITALLY IMPORTANT that you lean into the JOY of the good moments!  It is critically important to have balance!  This reinforces and builds resilience.  Life can be hard, and you will make mistakes.  Own them, learn from them but realize that every day is an opportunity for a new chance and adventure!

What is the ultimate goal of your work if you could wave a magic wand and make it so? 


I want to send a message to young people.  While the world may not be the same as when you and I grew up (I am 54), it is still a beautiful world.  Yes, it is stressful and full of new pressures.  Yes, it is challenging. Yes, things will not always go your way and not everyone will like you.  Your story is yours and is special and unique and not everyone will have an interest in it.  Always choose kindness, be compassionate, share your talents, always root for the underdog (because it could be you tomorrow), choose your words carefully, and care about your actions.  They could change or save a life.



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