Bullying is a spectrum of aggressive and intentional behaviors that result in an intimidating imbalance of power. Rarely an isolated event, many victims experience bullying repeatedly. Physical acts of harm, like kicking, punching, and shoving, are just one form of bullying. Name-calling is a form of verbal bullying. Social exclusion of the victim is emotional bullying.
Research shows that children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their peers. Once overlooked as a typical challenge of childhood, professionals have begun to recognize the debilitating effects of bullying. Educators, parents, and advocates have united to develop anti-bullying philosophies and policies aimed to prevent school bullying and promote the positive social inclusion of all children.
Children with Disabilities: Bullies or Victims?
Children with visible and invisible disabilities are significantly more likely than their peers to be the victims of bullying behavior. The type of bullying experienced often differs according to the child’s disability.
Children with visible conditions, like cerebral palsy and spina bifida, are more likely to be called names or aggressively excluded from social activities. Children with learning disabilities report higher rates of teasing and physically abusive victimization. Obesity has also been linked to higher rates of bullying. Overweight girls are especially vulnerable to physical forms of bullying.
Children with special needs are not exclusively victims of bullying. Research suggests that children with ADHD are more likely to demonstrate bullying behavior than their typical peers. Impulsivity and a lower tolerance for frustration are characteristics of this disorder that are also associated with bullying. Peer relationships are often extremely difficult and complex for children with ADHD. They need support and supervision to practice healthy social interactions with others. Whether victim or perpetrator, school bullying impedes learning and stunts the development of a healthy self-esteem.
Bullying at Home
Children with disabilities are not only at a greater risk to endure bullying at school, but many also face victimization at home. Cyberbullying and excessive aggression from siblings have become newly addressed areas of concern for researchers interested in bullying. Cyberbullying is defined as the use of technology, including cell phones and the Internet, to harass, stalk, and humiliate another person. Children with developmental disabilities who spend large amounts of time on the computer are especially at risk to be victimized by online bullies.
Sibling rivalry can also escalate into a more severe form of teasing and intimidation. Approximately 30 percent of children and adolescents report experiencing abuse from siblings that has crossed the line. Because typical sibling rivalry has been associated with positive social gains in negotiating and conflict resolution skills, parents are often rightfully hesitant to intervene.
How can parents differentiate bullying from potentially beneficial sibling rivalry? Bullying differs from rivalry because one child remains in control. Bullying is persistent and the perpetrator intends to do harm. If parents observe signs of bullying behavior from their children, they should intervene immediately.
What Can Parents Do?
• Learn to recognize the signs of bullying. Children who are bullied and those that bully are equally in need of support and guidance from caring adults. Watch children for bruises, changes in moods, eating habits, and sleeping patterns.
• Implement “The Stop Rule” in your home. If one child has had enough of rough verbal or physical play, he or she can say, “Stop!” to immediately end the activity. Children on both sides benefit from this simple act of social skills development and assertiveness training.
• Instill confidence and pride in your child’s abilities and disabilities. Children with special needs who have developed a sense of pride in their differences are less likely to be victimized by bullies and will respond more effectively when faced with social pressures.
• Communicate with all parties involved. If you believe your child may be the victim or the instigator of bullying, contact teachers, principals, and other parents of children who are involved. Put your concerns in writing.
• Review the anti-bullying policy of your child’s school. If there is not one in place, advocate for the adoption of guidelines to address this serious impediment to learning. Ensure the policy considers all forms of bullying.
• Request an Individualized Education Program (IEP) team meeting if you believe bullying of your child is based on his or her disability and is interfering with learning. This form of severe intentional harm is considered “disability harassment” under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. Disability harassment is illegal.
• Seek support. Bullying is a serious and harmful aspect of childhood. Adding shame to the equation, however, only further stigmatizes the children involved. Talk with your children and other parents about bullying. Avoid labeling and model calm, rational, and assertive behavior for your children to observe.