Bullying is a serious problem in schools and online because it has the potential to cause real and lasting harm to victims. Bullying is considered to be any targeted, aggressive, unwanted, and repeated behavior. As researchers look into who bullies and why, they are beginning to understand who is more likely to be a target and how to prevent and reduce bullying.
One group that is particularly vulnerable is children with special needs or disabilities.
I have been living with a disability for my entire life: cerebral palsy. Although I have adjusted well as an adult, there were times in childhood that I experienced bullying. It’s a terrible feeling to be picked on for being different, but it is a common experience for children who have disabilities.
Parents and other adults need to be aware of the risks and prepared to help their children develop the self-confidence needed to overcome the ridicule of bullies.
Targeting Children who Are Different
Children with disabilities or special needs are at an up to 63 percent greater risk than their peers of being victims of bullying. While any child may be targeted by a bully, it is well documented that those who are perceived as different are at a greater risk. This means that any child with a difference, such as being a minority, being overweight, or being disabled can make them a target.
Another way that bullies choose their victims is by targeting someone who seems powerless or unable to fight back. This adds another element of risk for disabled children. Not only do they appear different from their peers, they may also be physically weaker, they may have lower-self-esteem, or they may have communication or cognitive challenges that make speaking up or resisting more difficult.
The Lasting Consequences of Bullying
Bullying is a terrible, frightening experience, but it can also cause lasting harm, long after the behavior has stopped. in the short-term, bullying can cause missed days of school and poor academic performance, low self-esteem, social isolation, and physical injury.
Over the long-term, bullying makes a child more likely to develop chronic low self-esteem, mental illnesses like depression or anxiety disorders, substance use disorders and addiction, and even suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Parents Need to Encourage Communication
According to statistics about bullying, very few children ever speak up about being victimized. And yet, bullying can be better managed and minimized when there is good communication between children and adults, especially their parents.
The responsibility lies with parents who need to talk to their children, particularly their special needs children, about speaking up about bullying. When children better understand what bullying is and know that they are expected to talk about, they are more likely to ask for help rather than to suffer in silence.
Schools Need Anti-Bullying Programs
Schools must also take some responsibility for bullying, especially since much of the behavior occurs during the school day. Studies have found that when schools have these programs in place, bullying can be reduced. Anti-bullying programs may have several components, but a couple of these are known to have the strongest effects.
These include a focus on bystander interventions. When students are taught how and when to intervene when they see bullying it helps to reduce victimization. Another effective strategy is using a buddy program, which promotes positive friendships, often pairing more vulnerable students, like those with disabilities, with less vulnerable children. Even just one additional friendship can protect a student from bullying.
Bullying is a serious issue for a lot of children, but disabled children are more vulnerable than others. They are more likely to be targeted and less able to fight back when they are. The long-term consequences of being bullied may even be more serious and likely for these children. These are facts that all parents of disabled children need to know so that they can take steps to protect them and to insist that schools take a stronger stance against bullying.
My parents played an important role in protecting me by making sure I felt empowered and able to do things for myself. This helped increase my self-esteem and allowed me to be able to stand up for myself when needed. All vulnerable children can be protected in this way, but it is up to parents to be aware and to take action.