Dr. Tyler Sexton, a physician who has cerebral palsy, discusses the link between disabilities and bullying, and explains how parents can strengthen a disabled child before bullying occurs, recognize if their disabled child is being bullied, and respond to the child and others in a healthy and Christ-like way.
While many children face bullying at some point, I learned from an early age that I was going to be targeted more than most kids because of my disability.
I have cerebral palsy (CP). My disability doesn’t affect how my mind works but it does make it difficult to walk and I can get off balance and fall easily. My physical differences set me apart. Although I had friends who were caring, I often heard more hurtful comments than kind ones.
Sadly, my experiences are shared by many kids. It’s not just children with physical handicaps who are beset by bullies. Anything that marks a child as different in any way can cause him to be singled out for bullying, including learning disabilities, cognitive problems such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and special health concerns like epilepsy, diabetes, and even food allergies.
Research shows that about 13 percent of kids in public school receive special education services because of a disability that affects their academic performance.1 When you consider all the other children with special needs who might be affected in ways that don’t require these types of educational services, it becomes apparent that the number of children with disabilities is enormous. (By the way, many children with special health concerns or certain learning disabilities might not think of themselves “disabled” or as having “special needs.” For this article, I include these children under the terms disabled and special needs interchangeably, simply because of the increased likelihood that they will face bullying.)
Singled Out Because of Differences
Some differences can make a child stand out in a good way. Being the best player on the basketball team or the prettiest girl in class are the sorts of distinctions that typically bring admiration from other kids. But things that are different from the norm, even neutral or positive things, can mark a child out for negative attention. For example, having red hair can set a child up for bullying. In some settings getting good grades can mark a kid for rejection (“Hey, check out the math nerd!”).
Disabilities almost always set a child apart for teasing or bullying.
Why All the Bullying?
The simple answer in most cases is that kids want to be part of the “in group.” If they can find a target who is weaker or obviously different, bullying behavior can be diverted to that person. And who appears weaker or more obviously different than a child in a wheelchair, a kid who limps, or someone with an overt developmental delay?
This explains the unfortunate irony that children with learning disabilities are not only bullied more often than typical kids but are more likely to be bullies themselves. Sometimes, too, kids who are picked on regularly may prefer being on the “giving” side of the bullying equation for a change.
Another reason kids with special needs are targeted is that many, due to their specific disability, suffer from diminished social skills. Conditions such as ASD by their nature result in difficulties relating to other children. Other kids with disabilities may have social problems just because their needs prompt other children to reject and isolate them, bringing about loneliness and reduced social skills, resulting in further isolation and bullying. Sometimes the peer rejection and feelings of friendlessness these kids face are more painful and distressing than their disabilities.
When Kids Aren’t Trying to Be Mean … But Children Get Hurt Anyway
Even when other children aren’t purposely trying to be unkind, a child with a disability can feel rejected and isolated. My own form of CP causes me to limp and move slower than others. Some kids did not know how to react to me, so they just ignored me when it came to activities they might invite other friends to.
I remember a girl saying she would have asked me to a school dance but she didn’t because she didn’t want me to feel bad about not being able to dance. Others kids would have invited me to go to the mall or a movie but they didn’t because I couldn’t get around as easily.
Kids might not exclude others these ways out of malice, but it still creates isolation and loneliness. It’s at times like this that a child can feel like he’s on an island all by himself.
It’s Not Just the Kids with Obvious Disabilities
Many children who experience bullying have special needs or health concerns that may not be obvious to the casual observer. Children with food allergies, for example, may be taunted or threatened with foods to which they are allergic. This isn’t just harmless pranking – it can be deadly.
Who is the Bully?
It’s not easy to pick one type of child and say “This is what a bully looks like.” In fact, some kids who engage in bullying behavior would surprise you, and maybe even themselves.
Bullies want to turn negative attention away from themselves and onto others. They feel the need to make themselves feel better or more important by putting others down. As I mentioned above, sometimes the bully is someone who could be the object of bullying himself, such as someone with a learning disability.
Interestingly, some kids who would never dream of bullying a child who uses a wheelchair or has some other obvious physical disability might feel free to antagonize another child with a learning disability, emotional problem, or some other form of non-visible special need. Again, it often comes back to deflecting bullying attention or making oneself feel bigger at another’s expense.
Sometimes, hurtful behavior can come not from kids but teachers, coaches, or other adults. When I was in elementary school my gym class had a substitute teacher one day. He decided to make the class do jumping jacks. With my CP I looked clumsy and awkward. The teacher decided to make an example out of me in front of the whole class. “Come on kid,” he said. “You’re in 4th grade. Is that the best you can do?” In fact, it was the best I could do. I went home sobbing that day.
While this isn’t a classic example of bullying (the teacher wasn’t even aware that I had a disability and he didn’t keep it up when he finally found out) it still hurt me to the core. It could have even given kids in my class a green light to start their own taunting. Sadly, some adults do engage in persistent harassing and belittling behavior toward children.
Bullying, Depression, and Suicide
Some times in life are just plain tough. Middle school, for instance, is a period of emotional turbulence for just about all children as they struggle to determine who they are at the same time as their bodies are starting to change. For some children, their bodies aren’t changing quite as fast as those of their peers, which can produce its own turmoil. Throw a disability into the mix and you can imagine how much more fragile the heart of a child with special needs can be.
It’s no wonder that studies show that children with learning disabilities are more prone to depression than other kids,2 or that depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems are common among others with special needs.3 These children are often socially isolated and made to feel different as it is. When this is combined with bullying the likelihood of depression increases.
Research suggests that children with certain chronic health conditions are at an increased risk for self-harm, suicidal thinking, and suicide attempts.4 We also know that children with anxiety or depression (problems associated both with disabilities and with being bullied) are more likely to think about or attempt suicide than other children.5
If your child has a disability and is being bullied it doesn’t mean he is going to try to harm himself, but it does mean you should take the situation very seriously and provide the help and support he needs.
How to Brace Your Child Against Bullying
Depending on your child’s disability he or she might not easily be able to ward off bullying, but there are things you can do to help.
- Build your child’s confidence and self-worth. The Bible tells us that “we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works …” (Ephesians 2:10). Your child was created to do good, but it’s worth discovering what your child can do well.
Even though your child has a disability, chances are good that he can excel at certain things. My body was affected by my CP but my mind wasn’t. I was able to do well academically. Perhaps your child has more profound disabilities. Still, that doesn’t mean your child can’t do anything. Find out what he can do and work to help him achieve a personal sense of accomplishment.
And while I’m not a big fan of the idea of every child getting an award just for participating (in fact, research indicates that this devalues their actual achievements), that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t appreciate and celebrate hard work and attaining one’s personal best. Recognize real effort and encourage your child to do and be her best.
Children with confidence in themselves are less likely to be bullied.
- Get your child involved. A sense of social connection is also protective against bullying. Where can your child get plugged in? Your local church’s children’s or youth group is a great place to start.
Does your child have musical talent? Steer him toward the school choir or band, or your church’s youth band or worship team. Look to see what clubs are available at school or in the community, places where your child can feel a part of the group. Try to give your child as many opportunities as possible to exercise his strengths, experience acceptance, and build friendships and social skills.
- Teach your child that his identity is found in Christ. I often tell people that if you live for other people’s approval you’ll die by their rejection. Rejection hurts, no matter who you are, but you can help your child understand that his real value isn’t determined by kids at school or even you as a parent. His real worth is assigned by the God who gave His only Son for your child (John 3:16 isn’t just about “the world” – His love is so great that He died for your child, not just all the “typical” people).
My parents helped me understand early on that God had a purpose and plan for me. Do you believe that about your child? Even if your child has severe limitations and needs, know that your child was created in the image of God, with a purpose. Remind your child of that as often as you can. You might talk with her about the message of Jeremiah 29:11 (“For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord …”) and how it might apply to her. Look for aspects of her life and personality that reflect God’s nature – love, kindness, creativity, compassion, and so on. Remind her that these are important parts of who God is, and talk about how those shine through in her. Note that part of God’s plan and call for us is to serve Him and others. Consider getting involved with her in a service project. Additionally, let your child know the truth of 2 Corinthians 12:9. In a world obsessed with flawlessness, God’s grace is sufficient for her in any weakness she may have.
Finally, help your child understand that no matter what challenges he faces, God knows everything about him including when and how he was made (Psalm 139:13-15). When kids are going through tough times it’s easy for them to feel like they are mistakes. That goes even more so for children with disabilities. But while we don’t know God’s plans, your child can find confidence from God’s Word that he’s not a mistake or an afterthought, and that God is watching over him.
- Be there for your child. The Bible tells us the Lord is a Rock and a Fortress for us (Psalm 18:2). Even at a very young age, I knew Jesus was my Rock. While He was my biggest source of strength and protection, my parents were an awesome second. Without their encouragement and support it would have been easy to give up hope and believe all the bad things that others said about me (and I heard plenty of discouraging things). Let your child know that you are always in her corner.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to lift your child up in prayer. Your child is fighting a battle every day, and some days are definitely harder than others. Your prayers can help your child fight the good fight. Pray, like Paul, that your child would be strengthened in his spirit and filled with the knowledge of God’s love (Ephesians 3:14-19).
You can’t ensure that your child will never be bullied, but these tips can reduce the chances of him being singled out for this sort of treatment and give him resiliency in times of trouble.
How to Tell if Your Child is Being Bullied
There are a number of clues that might suggest your child is being bullied.
- A drop in grades or not wanting to go to school
- Frequent complaints of stomachache or being sick in order to avoid school
- Trouble sleeping or nightmares
- Unexplained injuries
- Decreased appetite (or eating more than normal)
- Other signs of depression
There are numerous other indicators, and the ones listed here don’t appear in all children. If you notice any of them in your child, talk with him. Keeping lines of communication open will make it easier for your child to share his thoughts and experiences with you.
What Should You Do If You Discover Your Child is Being Bullied?
- Let your child know she is not alone in being bullied, and that it’s a problem that’s been going on since Cain and Abel. Your child should know she’s not the only person going through this.
- Teach your child to resist bullying with appropriate language. “Stop it,” “That’s enough,” and “No” are empowering words she should learn to use.
- While your child should resist bullies, help him understand that fighting back is not the answer, even if his disability doesn’t impose any physical limits. Fighting can escalate problems and make them worse, and schools with zero-tolerance policies will probably not care who acted first or what provoked the confrontation.
- Encourage your child to report bullying, and talk with an adult he can trust.
Children are the ones who suffer directly from being bullied, but it shouldn’t be up to them to put an end to it. Adults need to take an active role in preventing and stopping bullying. When children who are particularly vulnerable (such as those with special needs) are involved, adults really need to step up and help.
Talk with your child’s teachers, a school counselor, a coach, or school administrator about the situation. Your first impulse might be to approach the school with a flaring temper. That’s usually not the best way to handle the matter. Anger and wrath aren’t helpful and may not even be completely warranted. The information you provide may be the first that school personnel have heard about the problem. Explain the circumstances and ask what they plan to do to stop the bullying.
If things do not get better soon, continue to advocate for your child and keep in touch with teachers and administrators. Be aware that federal law requires that your child’s disability be accommodated, and that includes an educational environment free from harassment.6
A Word to Parents of Bullies
As mentioned above, some children with certain special needs (such as learning disabilities) are more likely to be bullied and to bully others. It may be tempting to wave it away (“My son gets picked on all the time so it’s okay if he gives some of it back”).
Don’t minimize the problem. Your child won’t benefit from shifting his misery to someone else. It just creates another layer of pain and heartache.
Discuss his own experiences with being picked on and ask how it made him feel. Remind him that other kids just want to be accepted the way he wants to be accepted. Challenge him to encourage others.
Work to teach your child empathy. A great way to do this involves serving others. Whether that’s spending time volunteering together at a homeless shelter or taking a plate of cookies to a shut-in neighbor, doing good for others helps children learn the values of compassion and understanding.
Check yourself. What example are you setting? Are you patient and empathetic, or are you harsh with your child? Do you treat others with kindness or do you treat them as objects or obstacles? Show your child the right way to treat others. Use your example to set the bar for his attitudes and behavior.
Being a mom or dad can be difficult in the best of circumstances. Parenting a child with special needs, or dealing with bullying, adds another level of challenge. If you would like to talk with someone about your family’s problems or concerns, please call our staff counselors here at Focus on the Family. Our licensed professional counselors can offer a one-time consultation, and can also provide referrals to licensed Christian counselors in your area. There’s no cost to you for this service; it’s our way of showing that we care.
© 2019 Dr. Tyler Sexton. All rights reserved.