This summer we are spending a lot of time with a good friend who runs a daycare in her home. She has many children my son’s age; it is a structured and fun setting where he is learning a lot, and I am doing what I love helping the children there and my son with their behaviors and development. I also get to teach them music, which adds meaning and joy to every day.
However, because many of the children in her care come from abusive situations, and struggle with various disabilities there are also bullies. Some of the bullying is overt, hitting, kicking fighting. Other bullying includes name calling, and the most surprising source of bullying comes from the typical children as they get frustrated with my son and angry with him because he doesn’t understand, or his behaviors don’t fit what they expect. It has been a wonderful and hard learning experience, and it has only been two weeks.
I’ve learned that bullies are often mean because they either need attention and love, and that is the only way they know how to obtain it, or because there is a lack of understanding. The lack of understanding is easiest to address. It simply requires an explanation to the bully, and my son and things are done. The other is much harder. Ultimately bullying has become fashionable. My mom was terrified that if people found out my son was autistic he would be bullied. I told her that it really didn’t matter if he was autistic or not, bullying is part of life now. It is popular to be mean, it is “normal” for kids on each other, and it happens to almost every child.
Here is what I am teaching my son. The first is to respond. Often if a bully doesn’t get a response they will escalate. There are simple and complex ways to do so. Mostly we tell him to just either say something along the lines of “stop being mean” or “leave me alone”. My son has struggled to recognize and differentiate bullying from play teasing. I think he’s got it down now. Often children along the ASD spectrum will not understand the bullying or simply not react to it, which can make it worse. Teaching them the difference is important as it also helps them to avoid those who would take advantage of them. My son is sweet tempered and kind. He can lose his temper and hurt you, but will spend a week of remorse after the fact. He is not mean, and doesn’t understand why others are mean.
The second thing we have taught him is to report the bullying, no matter how small it may seem. This gives us the opportunity to teach him methods of dealing with it, and also allows us to intervene if the bullying is severe. His counselor taught him to regard the bully as someone who is hurting inside and hasn’t had the opportunity to talk to someone and fix that, like he has. That helped a lot. Ben knows to tell the kids to leave him alone, and walk away. He knows to come to me or one of the other adults present and report incidents, and he has developed strategies for dealing with the emotional hurt and anxiety that it causes him. I am so proud. I hate that he is bullied, and part of me wants to hurt the child that hurt my child, but that just creates a never ending cycle. Walking away, telling the kid to knock it off, calming yourself afterwards and getting help are all great strategies and I am glad that my son has learned them.
I will continue to work with my son on dealing with those that are mean to him, and recognizing the difference between play and true bullying. I will also continue to work with his bullies to try and develop understanding and compassion. Then there is the component of helping the bully figure out what he needs so he can stop the behaviors and create the true relationships that he craves.
I would love to hear how you have helped your kids with bullies, or if your child is being bullied and you need help, you can e-mail me at email@example.com. I am not an expert, but I know experts, and I know what we have done that has worked. There is no need for children to suffer and struggle with bullies, however, there will always be bullies, so it is our job to teach them how to handle the situation both as it is happening and then emotionally. I am sure that this will not be our only experience with bullies and that it will get harder as he gets older, but for now, he is learning to be strong, happy, and safe despite the efforts of his “bullies” to change him.
Photo: Miss Wetzel’s Art Class/Flickr