Bullying and Special Needs: Teaching Children to Advocate for Themselves

Kids standing up for themselves or Standing up to bullies

If you’re the parent of child with behavioral, physical and emotional challenges, it’s normal for you to go into mama or papa bear mode when you feel they are being mistreated.

You don’t want to see them overlooked for a birthday party. You don’t want them harassed during recess or the last one to be picked for the team. And what about that teacher that seems to have it out for them? But you fighting all your battles for them? That can go terribly wrong.

According to Dr. Nicole Beurkens, author of Life WILL Get Better: Simple Solutions for Parents of Children with Attention, Anxiety, Mood and Behavior Challenges, protecting our kids too much can do more harm than good. “True bullying behavior is never okay,” says Beurkens. “But with every day conflict, there’s a fine line between over protection and autonomy. We need to teach children appropriate ways to stand up for themselves.”

What is Bullying?

Before you can help your children stand up for themselves, it’s best to know what the true definition of bullying is.

Bullying: Bullying is not the occasional rude remark, tattle telling, once-in-a- while name calling or adolescent quarreling. It is when someone intentionally, and consistently, picks on another person, with the intent to belittle or hurt another them. Unlike a misunderstanding, there is an abuse of power with bullying where one person dominates and the other becomes the victim.

Ways to Help Children Defend Themselves

There are many ways to help your child strengthen their skills to attack bullying head-on. Here are just a few:

* Listen More Than You Talk: As hard as it can be to not react, it’s super important (especially as your kids become tweens and teens) to listen. Yes, you have amazing wisdom. And yes, you might want to kick that play yard punk to Mars (where you hope he’ll set up camp with another bully alien and never return to earth), but it’s imperative that you remain focused on what your child is saying, not on what you are thinking. Listening establishes trust between you and your child. It allows your child to know you’re a safe, calm and non-reactionary person who values them enough to not take over for them.

* Ask Them What They’d Like to Do about It: As parents, we can get so wrapped up in the injustice of bullying that we go straight to the place of, “Here’s what you need to do about this and here’s ten reasons why!” Instead of telling them what you want them to do, find out if they have any ideas. You might be surprised at some of their solutions, and this teaches valuable problem solving skills.

* Scope Out the Severity of the Situation: While any bullying can be damaging, there’s a difference between a child being picked on for his gluten-free sandwich and having that sandwich smashed in his face. The first scenario can be an opportunity for your child to impart some anti-bullying techniques. The second requires swifter action on your part.

* Verbal Bullying: If your child is being verbally bullied there are some things you can do. First, tell them that this is not okay. Second, offer them a 3-part solution that involves: 1) Telling the other child to “Stop it!” under no uncertain terms. 2) Walking away from the other child if the bullying continues and telling an adult. 3) If it still doesn’t stop, going into the school with them to talk to the teacher or principal.

* Get Friends Involved: If your child feels picked on be sure you encourage them to hang out in groups. Set up play dates with friends from their school, as well as those outside of your school, to support them. It’s important that your child sees bullying as something that is happening to them, but not defining them.

NOTE: Giving your child the three steps to take – before you step in – is so important. In doing so, you are giving him or her the confidence to address the situation on their own first. This initial step builds character and problem solving skills. Knowing that you are there to back them up in step #3 will give them the confidence they need to be a bit braver than they might be otherwise.

Bullying Will NOT Define Your Child

Seeing your child go through teasing or bullying is so painful, but it doesn’t have to defeat them (or you!). Talk to your child. Teach skills for resilience and managing difficult situations. Step in when you have to. Always remind them that what the perpetrator is doing is not okay, but that they can handle it because they have you, their community, and most importantly – themselves – to get through it.

What You Should Do Next:

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