When I was just a wee safety guy, I was picked on my fair share—apparently, wearing a Batman outfit and constantly warning other fourth-graders to be careful on the jungle-gym is grounds for some pretty epic bullying. Back then, I didn’t have any celebs on YouTube telling me it was going to get better. I had my dad, telling me to stop whining and toughen up.
October is National Bullying Prevention Month and awareness of this harmful behavior is on the rise. Parents are beginning to realize that it’s not just child’s play, but a serious problem with serious effects. Not to say that the numbers are down, but campaigns against bullying are up, raising awareness for the 1 in 10 students who report being physically, emotionally, mentally and/or cyber-bullied.
One out of four kids are bullied. 1 in 4—shocking, I know! You know what’s more shocking? Fifty-seven percent of teens with an intellectual disability report being bullied, while about half of students with autism, speech impairments and learning disabilities are victimized (1). Bullying is occurring at a much higher rate in students with isms, and yet they receive less support, even though they are often the students most vulnerable and in need of a voice.
Why Students with Isms?
Bullies often target those who are perceived as “other” or “different,” making children with special needs highly vulnerable to victimization. Because these kids often appear “normal”, their peers may not recognize that their “weirdness” is actually a symptom of an invisible disability. So when they try to fit in, they often get made fun of.
While bullying has negative effects on every victim, bullying may be even worse for victims with isms. Stress, physical illness, negative effect on a student’s ability to focus and learn in the classroom, difficulty adjusting socially and psychologically to their environment – these are issues that many children with isms may already be struggling with, and harassment by a peer could make it much worse.
While it seems that bullying will unfortunately always be an issue in schools, there are some basic steps you and your little scholar can take to prevent and appropriately react to bullying-behavior. Here are my top tips to tackle bullying:
Do NOT physically fight back
This can be dangerous, and may only make things worse if it leads to retaliation or escalation to weapons. Instead, ask the bully to leave you alone (eh…), walk or run away (better…), and try to avoid them (best!) Also, find a group of positive peers—maybe from after-school activities such as art class, music or, my favorite, karate—to hang out with.
Tell a trusted adult
I know bullying can sometimes be embarrassing, or you may be afraid of getting in trouble or losing a “friend,” but it’s always best to ask for help. If you don’t feel comfortable telling a parent, tell another adult you trust, such as an aunt, coach or teacher.
The fear of losing a “friend” is real. Explore more in Sally Loves Her Bully: A Tale of Popularity, Victimization and Social Anxiety.
Talk to your kids daily
Ask them what they did before, during, and after-school that day. If you suspect your child is being bullied, ask the deeper level questions:
“Who did you play with today?”
“What was the best part of your day? The worst?”
Have this talk in a relaxed environment; while the subject is extremely serious, the discussion doesn’t have to be. Make it fun—go grab a bite to eat or do a “fun zone”.
If this is a struggle, check out The Complexity of “How was School Today?”
As parents, our first reaction to hearing our child is being bullied might be to go teach that bully a lesson ourselves. However, retaliation sends the wrong message to your child, and more importantly, the bully’s parents could be bigger than you (ouch). Bullying already leaves its victim feeling powerless, and if you “fix” the problem for your child, it will only dis-empower him or her further. Instead, have your kid brainstorm some solutions and only offer suggestions if they get stuck. Remember, we always want to try to create independence in our children.
More on anti-retaliation found in Strike with Force or Become a Force for Change.
Educate yourself on school policy
Does it reward good behavior and embrace diversity?
Is there an anonymous reporting system?
Do they have a proper rehabilitation program for bullies?
Sit down and go over your school’s (after-school program, place of worship, etc.) bullying policy—including consequences—with your child so they know too.
Warning Signs Your Child May Be Getting Bullied
Bullying—especially in students with various isms—is significantly under-reported and unfortunately not all victims show warning signs. However, the main indicator to watch out for is a change in personality or behavior. If your child is angrier or withdrawn, is asking you to replace “lost” lunch money, or is lashing out at you more than the usual, “Why can’t I eat ice cream for breakfast!?” start in on those deeper-level questions.
Is there a Solution?
No matter what tools you equip your child with or how well-versed you are on school policy—kids are going to be cruel. The best solution is to educate schools, students and parents about various isms. People are scared of the unknown, people are scared of different—so they lash out.
When we become Ism-Ambassadors, we create compassion for people’s differences—whether it’s their habit of stimming, or an eccentric affinity for all-things safety at age nine. When we build understanding, we promote acceptance and unity. Remember, people, it takes a village.
See what one Ism-Ambassador has to say in Special Needs and Ignorance: Please Get to Know Me Before You Judge Me.
Diament, Michelle. “Teens With Disabilities Face High Rates Of Bullying” Disability Scoop. N.p., 04 Sept. 2012. Web. 18 Oct. 2015.