Protect your Special Needs Child from Bullying

Once upon a time, there was a bully. He was rough. He was tough. He was mean. He was obscene. He was large, and in charge. He thought he was cool, and he ruled the school.

Although this is the image that comes to mind when we think of “bullies,” in reality, bullying takes many forms. In most cases, bullies look like any ordinary student at your child’s school. And they often strike in groups, where several kids encourage and feed off each other. A bully doesn’t wear a sign on his chest. And many of them (rather vicious at times) are female, too.

Children with special needs are at greater risk.

Children with special needs have a much greater chance of being bullied, according to research. That’s because they make easy targets. It’s often harder for them to recognize which behaviors are socially appropriate, and which aren’t, so they appear awkward. They can’t always make sense of the current “teen dialect.” And they are often confounded by fashion trends, or the little things that make kids popular. Even typical teenagers struggle with peer acceptance and finding their way to the “in” crowd, so imagine the challenge a disabled teen faces. Plus, her disability gives the bully a sense of power, control, and security in being mean. “That kid is too weak to tell anyone about it,” etc. So what can you do to protect your child? And if your child was being bullied, how would you even know about it?

My own concerns…

Bullying has always been a tremendous concern for me, with respect to my son Kyle. That’s because Kyle’s autism makes him vulnerable and easily swayed. He doesn’t have a very good internal barometer for determining what’s right or wrong. So he accepts nearly whatever he is told, and can be dangerously obedient. In a previous blog I discussed how several students in his mainstream art class once cajoled him into drawing pictures of naked people. As they sat around him, laughing, Kyle looked up, perplexed. Why was it funny? He was only doing what he thought he was supposed to do. And I would never have known about this incident, if it hadn’t been reported to me by the teacher, who had almost sent Kyle to the principal’s office. Later, when I asked Kyle why he’d drawn the pictures, he looked at me, bewildered. “The boys told me to,” he said, matter-of-factly.

Here are some things we can do, as parents, to ward off bullying and protect our kids:

1. Define it. Depending upon what you child can understand, explain what bullying is, and what kind of behaviors are not acceptable. Some disabled children, who are used to stares, comments, and remarks, become accustomed to subtle forms of harassment. They may not be entirely certain that what is happening is bullying, especially if it feels routine. You must explain what bullying is, and that it’s wrong.

For help teaching your child about bullying, visit my blog, “Help Your Child Recognize Bullying.”

2. Arm your child. Not with weapons, but with knowledge! Tell your child exactly what she should do when bullying happens. Be very specific, even giving her the exact words to say, like, “Stop teasing me!” or “Leave me alone.” Or, tell your child to say nothing and simply walk away. Tell her exactly who she should then go and talk to at school if it happens. And let her know that she must tell you right away.

3. Clean & style. Teach your child proper hygiene habits, and outfit him in stylish clothes. Whether or not your child looks “right,” can make a huge difference with how he is treated by peers. Your child is already different, so don’t let his clothes and grooming cause further distinction. Read my blog, “Don’t Let Your Special Needs Teen be a Fashion Reject!” for lots of advice on this issue.

4. Keep tabs. Stay in very close contact with your child’s special education teacher, social worker, school counselor, or anyone who is directly involved with your child’s school placement. Frequently “check in” for reports on how your child is managing amongst her peers. Ask your child how things are going, and look for signs of depression or negative feelings about school. You could also enlist the help of another responsible student at the school (a relative, neighbor, or friend’s child) to keep an eye out on your son or daughter, and let you know if anything seems amiss.

5. Encourage friendships. When friendships start to bloom, teach your son or daughter how to maintain them. Have your child invite friends to come for ice cream, or watch a movie. Your child may need guidance and suggestions on how to be a friend, but don’t be too pushy. Do make careful observations and be sure friendships are authentic and not insincere attempts to take advantage in some way.

6. Get a peer tutor. A peer tutor can be a role model, school assistant, and protector to your child. Talk to the special education director in your school district, or the principal. Almost all schools have peer tutoring programs which could be extremely beneficial. For more information about peer tutors, read my blog, “Encourage your Teen to be a Peer Tutor!” (The blog is encouraging parents of non-disabled teens to get them involved in peer tutoring, but there is general information there, too.)

7. Schedule an IEP meeting to address any problems with bullying that you see. Explain that the current situation is not working, and changes need to be made. Be specific. Perhaps your child would do better in a self-contained classroom. Maybe a peer tutor, classroom change, or schedule adjustment is needed. Get the school “team” working on the issue. Students who are bullying should be reprimanded through the school. I would suggest you work with school officials to address the matter, and not contact the perpetrator’s parents yourself. Bullying could be a symptom of bad parenting, so you might not get the results you’d want, anyway.

8. Take action if needed. If you disagree with any decisions regarding your child’s education, or how things are being handled, you have options. See my blog, “When You Disagree with Decisions Regarding Your Child’s Education: What to do.”

So far, Kyle’s peer tutor seems to be an excellent solution to the subtle bullying he was dealing with. I did have to get a little fierce in his IEP meeting to get the ball rolling. But I’m getting better and better at that. Perhaps I’ve become a bit of a bully, myself?