Bullying is hard for any child to deal with but it can be a major concern for those with special needs.
Often bullies will single out any kid who is “different” for some reason, and students dealing with physical disabilities, speech or hearing difficulties, autism, or other conditions can be easy targets.
However, there are ways parents and adults can deal with any situation before it gets out of hand.
Columbia-based catechist and author Jennifer Fitz addresses the issue bluntly.
“There should be no tolerance of mockery, teasing, bullying, or rudeness from any quarter,” Fitz said in a recent interview. “I’ve seen that attitude come from both students and adults, and you as a leader have to have no tolerance for it. You don’t have to be ugly about it, but you make it clear that we’re not going to treat people that way. I know that sounds very simplistic, but that’s how it needs to be.”
Many children who are picking on someone else will stop if they find out their parent, teacher or someone else they respect frowns on the behavior.
“Disdain is very powerful,” Fitz said. “If you show the bully that you don’t like what they are doing, it immediately shuts down their idea of being the person who is ‘better’ or in the ‘inner circle.’”
Adults can help kids with special needs feel comfortable by accepting them on their own terms and treating them with respect. Learn what the young person can and can’t do, she said, and then help them take part in activities with others as much as possible.
“The important thing is to teach kids to respect everyone,” Fitz said. “The fundamental message of Christianity is forgiveness and mercy, and the quest for virtue. You can draw on lessons from the Gospels, teach the Beatitudes, talk about the Christian virtues. If you’re being an authentic Christian, respect comes out naturally.”
Liz List knows the challenges firsthand. She is the mother of a special needs child and also leads the LAMBS program at St. Mary Magdalene Church in Simpsonville. Through LAMBS, she organizes activities and religious instruction for children with a variety of special needs, ranging from autism to learning disabilities and sensory issues.
List said bullying can be avoided if children learn from the beginning how to accept and work with a peer with special needs. She suggests helping them find common ground, such as an activity, TV or movie character, or even a clothing style or color that they all like. Even something that simple can help break the ice.
She said it’s also important to explain the child’s situation to other kids in a way they can understand.
“I equate it to the fact that we all sometimes can’t do what we want to do,” List said. “You need to tell children that they need to accept the special needs child, respect them and remember that they can’t help it if, say, they have a difference in speech or their learning ability.”
List said as a parent, she’s learned to strike a balance when her child had difficulties with other kids. “Try to find a way to empower your child and give them a way to deal with the situation,” she said. “Let them know you’re always there for them. You don’t want to overpower the child. We as parents have always wanted to work as a team with teachers and others to make things right. The most important thing for the child to know, though, is they have a right not to be picked on.”
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