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First Five Things to Do When Your Child Is Bullied

A thoughtful approach for an emotional situation

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There are some instances of bullying that are so cruel and violent they demand a swift and strong response. Much more often, though, bullying is an ongoing process that benefits from a thoughtful and constructive response, if you can contain your hurt and rage enough to do it. Before you go all Mama or Papa Bear and move to protect your cub, follow these five steps and see if there's not a better way to do things.

1. Remain calm.

Yeah, that's probably not going to be possible. But if you're going to lose it, do it where your child can't see, particularly if he becomes unsettled by strong displays of emotion. You know that you're angry and upset by the bully's actions; your child may just see that something she's talked about has made you unhappy, and resolve not to share such information in the future. Absolutely, you want your child to know that bullying is serious, that you take his safety and security seriously, and that it's okay to be angry about what's happening. Your child will be able to process those emotions better if you're in control of your own, and you'll be able to think more clearly about ways to help.

2. Keep an open mind.

We'd all love to see bullying as a black and white issue, with an absolute villain and victim. As parents of children with special needs, though, we know all about shades of gray. Perhaps we've seen how our children's innocent behavior can sometimes appear aggressive to others, and how misinterpretation of social cues can cause our child to draw the wrong conclusion about other children's behavior, for better or worse. We know how sensory and language and motor issues can leave our kids both vulnerable to bullying and vulnerable to charges of being bullies. Zero Tolerance, though appealing for its apparent toughness on wrongdoers, often catches a lot of kids with special needs in its net who could benefit from more compassionate and educated interventions. None of this is meant to blame victims or excuse attackers -- just to point out that you'll want to learn a little more about the bully and the bullying before going ballistic.

3. Listen to your child.

That's hard to do if your child is nonverbal or otherwise has trouble communicating. But to the extent possible, be the one doing the listening instead of the one doing the talking. What does your child want you to do about the bullying? How does it make her feel? Why does he think the bully is picking on him? It's tempting to take over and define the experience for your child based on your own history of bullying and what you've read and heard. But this is your child's experience to own and define and process, and the more you can put her in charge of that, gently guiding the conversation but not taking it over, the more you empower her to advocate for herself. Don't forget that behavior is also a form of communication, and use your knowlege of your child to interpret those clues as well.

4. Consider alternatives.

This is where having good relationships with teachers, case managers, and other school personnel comes in handy. Start by approaching the issue in a collaborative way, not a "Fix this right now or else!" Ask the people actually on the scene what they've noticed about the bullying. Brainstorm ways to protect your child, to strengthen your child's ability to speak out and fight back, to build alliances between your child and other students, to handle the situation in a way that won't make it worse. Make sure the solution the school implements does not make your child look weak and in need of protection, or cause other students to blame your child for the consequences. If you can talk to the parent of the bully in a nonconfrontational way, you may be able to work together to handle the bullying in a way that benefits everybody.

5. Put your child in charge.

Though we've moved on from the days when kids were supposed to handle bullying themselves, generally by either ignoring the abuse or decking the bully, it's still true that solutions that empower children against bullies will be more helpful in the long run than solutions that involve adults stepping in and providing protection. Your child may be seen, and perceive herself, as vulnerable when without grown-up supervision, and that can be dangerous. Turn a bad experience into a good opportunity to strengthen self-advocacy skills by encouraging your child to talk to school personnel himself (you can speak to them privately first to prepare the way) and work with teachers and therapists to learn and practice appropriate responses to bullying behavior. Chances are there are other kids who could benefit from those strategies, too, and provide support for one another.
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