Children with an intellectual disability may not understand the difference between friendly teasing and malicious bullying, and most parents of a child with special needs dreads that moment. But parents can be prepared to address the issue and even help prevent it.
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Teach — and demonstrate — friendship

"We pay a lot of lip service to anti-bullying policies," writes Galit Breen in "Teaching kindness starts at home." "What if we flipped the focus to teaching kindness and teaching how to be a good friend? News stories would look different — and so would school hallways."

Parents and therapists alike agree modeling positive friendship behaviors is key to helping children understand what friendship really means.

Encourage peer advocacy

Talk with your child, your child's friends, your child's friends' parents and everyone in between about modeling kindness and standing up for others. Talk to your child's teacher about explaining your child's challenges to the class as a way of educating them and fostering empathy and advocacy.

Students are more likely than adults to see what is happening with their peers.

"Peer advocacy works for two reasons: First, students are more likely than adults to see what is happening with their peers and peer influence is powerful," Pacer.org explains. "Second, a student telling someone to stop bullying has much more impact than an adult giving the same advice."

In educating others about the need for peer advocacy, parents can help their child distinguish between friends and acquaintances. "They need to know what behavior is not OK, and the difference between gentle teasing," explains Dr. Kay Seligsohn, pediatric neuropsychologist in the Psychology Assessment Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.

"I'm not an advocate of calling everyone a friend; I think it's detrimental to our kids. They need to learn the difference between a friend and an acquaintance." In helping children with disabilities understand teasing versus bullying, Dr. Seligsohn shares this distinction:

"Teasing is playful and … everyone thinks it's fun," she says. "It crosses a line when it's making fun of who they are as a person: how they look, their ethnicity, their belief system, things they can't change."

Create a community of intolerance

It's so important "that we teach the community how to be intolerant toward bullies," explains Dr. Seligsohn. "Create a community of witnesses, so they bear witness and stand up and say, 'This is not an acceptable behavior.'"

Making victims face their bully is completely inappropriate.

"If a person is a victim of a crime, we don't expect them to stand up to the perpetrator, so why do we have a different expectation toward bullying?" Dr. Seligsohn asks. "Making victims face their bully is completely inappropriate."

Know your child's rights

A way to prevent or address bullying is to incorporate the issue in the child's 504 plan or Individualized Education Plan (IEP). A Pacer Center Action Information Sheet addresses suggested tactics the student can employ, such as: 

  • Determining how school staff will document and report incidents
  • Educating peers about school district policies on bullying behavior
  • Allowing the child to leave class early to avoid hallway incidents

"You could see the pain in his eyes"

Mindi Kiefer and her husband struggled when their son complained of being bullied at school. At first, they encouraged him to talk to his teacher, but the teacher told him to "work it out."

"It was affecting his life, his mood, his grades… everything. At that point, it's bullying," Kiefer says. She discovered her son's classmate had gone beyond picking on her son: "He was in [my son's] face in math class, at lunch and at recess, telling him he can't talk at lunch, that he needs to shut up, nobody wants to hear from him. Telling him he can't play kickball because he doesn't run fast enough, telling him he's not good enough at anything (deep breaths… tears welling up in eyes…)," Kiefer shares. "At that point, I was crying for [my son], because you could see the pain in his eyes."

The school agreed the Kiefers' son should never be anywhere near the bully again. "It immediately showed on his face that first day that he didn't have to deal with [the bully]," Kiefer shares. "He was a totally different child from that point forward."

Talk, talk, talk

Communication is key to anything we teach our children. "Help them to understand that when something doesn't feel good, makes them angry or sad, they need to signal to an adult," emphasizes Dr. Seligsohn. They don't need to stand up to [the bully] themselves or have a comeback, they just need to be able to say, 'I did not like that.' And the adult takes over."

He understood by second grade that he was not going to ever break into this group.

Carol Gray is the creator of Social Stories, which can be used to help a child understand behavior expectations and "describe a situation, skill or concept in terms of relevant social cues, perspectives and common responses in a specifically defined style and format… The goal of a Social Story™ is to share accurate social information in a patient and reassuring manner that is easily understood by its audience," her website, TheGrayCenter.org, explains.

"Finally Jack had some justice"

"Jack instinctively knew the difference [between teasing and bullying]," recalls Bridget Murphy, whose 23-year-old son has Down syndrome. "When he entered kindergarten, there were around a dozen boys his age in our neighborhood. They were evenly divided between the boys who were friends to Jack and the boys who bullied him. He would have nothing to do with the bullies even if they were shooting hoops next door, 10 feet from our driveway.

"The bullying took place only when Jack tried to play with [some neighborhood kids]," explains the veteran mom and Down syndrome advocate. "He understood by second grade that he was not going to ever break into this group. Before he went to kindergarten, Jack took one of them to the ground and pummeled him. This kid would poke at Jack until Jack hit back and then he would go screaming dramatically to his mother who would then want to scold Jack."

"I asked the mother to come outside and observe the behavior. She did and finally Jack had some justice."

Contrasting emotions

Murphy says Jack also experienced plenty of teasing. "The teasing was positive and ongoing. His friends would call him 'the ladies' man' or 'Brad Pitt' or some other honorary title."

Teasing makes you smile and is embarrassing.

The veteran mother and staunch advocate boils down the issue succinctly: "Easiest way to distinguish teasing from bullying for someone with Down syndrome? Teasing makes you smile and is embarrassing. Bullying makes you unhappy, lonely and angry."

Additional resources

More about bullying

Aftermath: How to help bullying victims
How to protect tweens from online bullying
5 Bully busters

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