Over the years, people have asked me how I handle my child being bullied and how to teach a special needs child to respond appropriately and effectively to a bad situation. My response is always the same.
I’m on it like Blue Bonnet. I.DO.NOT.PLAY.
I’m going to share with you how I bully-proof my special needs child in 5 steps and some tips for you to do it too. Regardless if you’re a homeschooler or public-schooler, learning anything starts at home and with you knowing how to handle a bully.
Bullying is a Constant Concern
Bullying is a frequent conversation amongst moms of not-so-average bears. Many people assume my son doesn’t encounter bullies because he’s homeschooled. He does and sadly it began with the people closest to us, i.e., “family.” (Leave me a comment if you can relate).
If you have a child with special needs, then you have most certainly dealt with bullying. If you haven’t, I’m sorry to say, Mama, it’s a matter of time. Sad, I know, but true. Our kids are at risk of not only being bullied by other kids but adults too and at rates far greater than their average bear peers.
Homeschool Kids Get Bullied Too
I didn’t take on homeschooling with the fallacy that it would safeguard my son against bullies. Liam has been bullied by kids who had no idea he was homeschooled and even by fellow homeschool kids. It’s always for the same things – characteristics he portrays because he is different, i.e., the manifestations of his conditions.
Here are the 4 biggest reasons I chose to homeschool.
Although I’ve been shocked at how bullying is approached by [bad] parents and sometimes where it comes from, I’m well aware that assholes can be homeschoolers, church-goers, “family”, and adults who CHOOSE to work with people with special needs.
How I Bully-Proof My Special Needs Child
Let’s be real. It’s easy to make fun of a special needs kid. The ways in which a person can stand out as different seems infinite. People with special needs or disability are treated as inferiors. This notion is part of what gives a bully their perceived power.
When a special needs child is picked on, they don’t always understand what is actually happening and sorta play along with the bully adding to their apparent vulnerability. Contrarily, they may overreact and become part of the problem or the things they say and how they say it is likely to incite mocking. Can you see the situation escalating?
Observing your child is not only the first step in making them bully proof but it’s also the first step in understanding and getting to know your child. Especially if they are non-vocal. Understanding their hand flaps, tone of squeals, and mannerisms is the difference between being able to effectively communicate and not. The ability to communicate is the foundation of any respectful and trusting relationship.
Observing is easy when the child is young and you’re always with them (or if you homeschool). But it’s important to hang back and allow them to be part of a situation without you. The same is true if you have an older kid. If they are eager to get into the mix with other kids, let them. Keep a visual, watch their body language and that of other kids, tune out everything else and listen to their chatter. This is how you’ll see how they do in the wild. If your child is nonvocal stay close enough to translate and encourage interactions.
Knowing when and how to intervene is the trickiest part. When you recognize an offense, do you go for the throat of the kid or the parent? Do you just remove your child from the situation? Or do you let it go because you don’t want your psycho to show? Let’s start with the easier bit – when to intervene. If you establish what offenses require intervention, how to intervene comes more naturally.
If you know your child’s body language and how they typically react in certain situations, then you are already prepared to be proactive. Let me give you an example. When Liam was little and nonvocal (and even when he was vocal) he’d wrestle to the death over a toy that he had first. Although this seems fair, it’s not an effective or appropriate way to handle that situation. I observed this behavior and learned to expect him to react this way each time. This showed me what skills we needed to work on AND allowed me to proactively intervene to encourage Liam to handle the situation effectively and appropriately.
You’ll learn there are times to watch and wait for their reaction and times to be all over it – on it like Blue Bonnet. It goes both ways. If someone is being inappropriate to my son or my son is being inappropriate, I intervene. Here is a quick list of non-negotiables for you to consider. The goal is that with time and effort, a child will be able to handle these situations themselves effectively and appropriately (I keep saying that, I know and I’ll tell you why in a minute) even if that means walking away and notifying an ally.
- intentional physical contact
- intentional exclusion
- name calling or detrimental phrases (you talk like a baby, etc)
- pointing out differences (why don’t you talk, you can’t do that –I can, etc)
- malicious impatience (I want to go first because you take too long, I’m gonna do this because you don’t know how/can’t, etc)
These are all things that if said or done can be traumatizing. They not only elicit negative reactions but anxiety. There are a few points above that seem rather obvious but if you’ve taken the time to observe interactions at every opportunity, you may notice how downright evil some kids really are. I’ve observed kids try to trip Liam, vigourously disrespect and taunt him, tease him with facial expressions and whispers, manipulate him with fake niceness, and test his vulnerabilities.
How to intervene when your child is being bullied depends a bit on the offense. If it’s a comparatively harmless situation that has been misinterpreted by either child and escalates, approaching with a sweet voice ready to soothe and resolve is the way. Let’s focus on the above offenses. The type of offenses that make you feel all sorts of ready for jail.
On it like Blue Bonnet
I do the same thing I’ve always done. I never address the parent first. If the parent was good and paying attention, they’d know how their child is behaving and correct it. I don’t play around or mince words in these situations. I’m direct and firm.
I intervene with a few things in mind. Making my son aware that the interaction is not friendly. That I’m watching and I have his back, and how to handle unfriendly people or situations. I don’t declare his conditions as a way to explain him or to spread awareness. However, I have mentioned it to a group of preteen homeschool boys so they could at least be aware of the heaps of garbage they were being.
If it’s a situation that you saw or heard the offense clearly, quickly address the bully using short, direct statements. I like to say a scripted phrase so Liam can guess what I’ll say. I call them trigger words or phrases. This monotony triggers the child to repeat what you say in situations that you say it. Remember the effective and appropriate phrase? That’s one of them. Eventually, with consistency, encouragement, and confidence they will start to say it on their own. They may still need you, but getting your child to react simply by speaking up (or notifying an ally if they’re nonvocal) is the most massive win!
Remember, we’re exclusively talking about situations of obscene meanness – the situations that make your kid believe they are stupid, worthless, or inferior. The ones that give them so much anxiety their behavior and mood changes. They no longer want to go to the places they enjoy for fear of being around that person again or in that situation again.
Reassure them of your presence, protection and of their worth – contradict the bully’s words or actions. Immediately after intervening with your trigger word script, focus on your kid. Ask if they are injured and how they feel. If they aren’t able to describe how they feel, place your hand on their chest, feel their heart. If it’s racing, say it and acknowledge feelings their likely having. Take the time to point out their wonderful qualities that do not align with whatever nonsense just happened.
After ensuring their safety and comfort, recap the situation coaching them through effective and appropriate methods. If your child displayed negatively reactive behavior, this is your opportunity to talk about those moments. Recall a part of the situation where your child contributed to the escalation or problem. Explain how they handled it and what they should do or say next time.
If there were multiple ways in which your child contributed to the escalation, pick one behavior. Don’t turn this into drilling them about all the ways they could be better. Eventually, that will translate into feeling like things are their fault. Although you don’t want your child to always feel like a victim, this is about facilitating healthy solutions to conflict.
Role-playing at home with toys is simple. If your child has a favorite show, it’s likely there is conflict in the storyline. It’s a good time to call out a character’s bad behavior. Point out their resolution or talk about ways to handle the situation.
Holy moly! Let’s wrap this up! Your child is calm and you’ve shared your constructive criticism. Remind them of their qualities that you and most people cherish. Remind them that you will always be available to help them through a difficult time.
I usually repeat the same things I said to Liam when I was reassuring him. I also ask him to say these affirmations out loud – “I am smart. I am kind. I am polite. I am brave.” This may seem like an arduous process but it’s not. This whole conversation should only take a few minutes. Afterward, I always encourage Liam to go back to playing. If ever he’s so uncomfortable or I’m gonna eat a child, then we leave for home or another area.
I’ve dealt with bully-type behaviors since Liam was barely 2 years old. It’s ridiculously frustrating and takes a lot of energy to not verbally eat another mom’s face off. Comment below if you can relate to feeling all types of savagery in defense of your not-so-average bear. 😉
Instead, I employ the steps above, approach and say “you are unkind and your words/actions are ugly.” I turn to my son and say “some mommies don’t teach their kids politeness and appropriateness. You are kind, polite, smart and brave but you are not allowed to play or interact with mean kids.” I’ve pissed off a lot of moms because I say this loud enough for people to hear. My priority is my son. PERIOD. I couldn’t care less about another adults feelings or parenting another child – It’s just not my journey.
He Said What I was Thinking
Liam has come a long way in regards to how he reacts to disputes and bullies. One of the biggest things we are still working on his how to identify bullying from a manipulative child. I share our most recent experience with bullying on my podcast in episode 2. I explain how my efforts to handle that bully differently, and ultimately fail, empowered Liam to be bully-proof and handle it himself. Leave me your thoughts or experiences in the comments below. I know I’m not in this boat alone.