Bullying Focus of Institute Conference

Researchers and counselors noted that patterns and environment can influence behaviors in children.

By Richard Westlund
Special to UM News

CORAL GABLES, Fla. (October 09, 2014) — Strengthening peer relationships, conducting genetic research, limiting access to firearms and developing more effective family-centered interventions are important steps to reducing childhood violence, according to several counseling and clinical professionals at the University of Miami.

Debra J. Pepler, distinguished research professor of psychology at York University, Toronto, Ontario, also provided her insights and recommendations as the keynote speaker for "Preventing Aggression and Bullying in School and Community: Multi-Systemic Approaches," an October 3 conference at the Newman Alumni Center.

The conference was presented by The Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention & Treatment and the University of Miami School of Education and Human Development, which is the new home of the non-profit institute. Etiony Aldarondo, associate dean for research and director of the school's Dunspaugh-Dalton Community and Educational Well-Being Research Center, welcomed attendees and moderated the panel discussion.

In her talk, Pepler outlined the connections between "Childhood Aggression and the Developing Brain." She said that positive or negative relationships leave a chemical signature on a child's genes that can be temporary or permanent.

"If a child has a stressful experience, the brain adapts negatively," she added. "For instance, peer victimization leads to high levels of stress hormones and is linked to depressive symptoms."

Emphasizing the importance of warm, coaching and positive relationships for troubled children, she said, "Aggressive children are not just bad kids. They just have missed important developmental opportunities in relationships. We need to focus on their individual strengths, help them control anger and anxiety, and build a sense of empathy and respect for others."

In his presentation, "Promoting Wellness and Fairness in Schools and the Community,” Isaac Prilleltensky, dean of the School of Education & Human Development, emphasized the importance of justice and fairness in developing healthy children. "Children are very sensitive to injustice and react in a healthy way," he said. "That creates problems if a child feels an injustice has been perpetrated and he or she is the victim."

Prilleltensky also focused on this issue of "mattering," a sense that children are recognized by their parents, teachers and peers and feel they can make a difference in the world. "When children feel invisible, they often react in aggressive ways," he said. "We don't want them to start dominating other children, nor do we want them to feel helpless. We have to find the sweet spot in the middle, focus on their strengths and teach skills to promote positive behaviors, emotions and thoughts."

As associate professor and interim chair of the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Judy Schaechter, M.D., has seen many children who have been critically injured by firearms. "It is our job to ask questions about firearms before these tragic events take place," she said. "Then, we need to use this information to prevent violence."

In her talk, "Family-Centered Screening for Violence and Weapon Injury Risk,”
Schaechter said firearms are involved in half of teenage suicides and in numerous deaths of children of all ages. Since studies show that locking and unloading a gun reduces the risk of a shooting in the home, health professionals need to educate parents on taking steps to safeguard their weapons, she said.

However, the Florida Firearms Owners Privacy Act – which is being challenged in the courts – prohibits providers from recording firearm ownership information in a patient's medical record. "We need the courage to talk to children, adolescents and parents about firearms," she said.

Clinical psychologist and SEHD professor Daniel Santisteban outlined his research on "Intervention Strategies and Prevention Resources for Family Aggression." He focused on the importance of developing and testing family-based interventions, particularly for minority and Hispanic families.

"Early intervention is particularly important with adolescents," he said. "Since aggression, drug use, and risky behaviors are often linked to severe depression, ADHD or other behavior disorders, we need to treat the individual while providing support and education to the other members of the family."

Santisteban also believes that technology, such as online videos, can help make family-centered therapy more convenient and successful. "Our goal is to help parents provide effective guidance, promote attachment, and bring stability and safety to the home environment."

About the Melissa Institute

Melissa Aptman, a young student from Miami who was about to graduate from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, was murdered in 1995. A year after her tragic death, her family, their friends, and internationally known violence prevention experts established the non-profit Melissa Institute to honor her memory and to promote safer communities through education and the application of research-based knowledge. The organization is dedicated to the study and prevention of violence through education, community service, research support, and consultation.

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Isaac Prilleltensky, dean of the School of Education & Human Development, was a presenter at the event.

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