“Sticks and stones will break my bones
But words will never hurt me.”
The chant is a lie! It may make for a great retort on the playground. It may comfort the adults who teach their children the rhyme to think that their children have a response to ugly taunts. But it does nothing to soothe the wounds and heal the hurts of verbal abuse and exclusion. How do you help your intellectually disabled child handle bullying and bullies?
Such verbal abuse is what kids with disabilities live with day after day. “Re-tard.” “What are you – retarded?” “That’s a retarded thing to say – do – be.” The R-word has become part of the teen vocabulary. It’s in rap songs. It’s on TV. Search YouTube for “retardation” and most of what you’ll find is people doing idiotic things that result in injury. It’s so prevalent in the culture that kids use it nonchalantly to mean anything they find beneath them. Even adults fail to hear it for what it is – the ultimate putdown, the statement that people with cognitive challenges are somehow less, somehow deserving of disrespect.
In professional circles, the official label has changed in the last few years from “mentally retarded” to “intellectually disabled” (ID). It’s an improvement. It speaks more clearly to what the challenge truly is. But it’s only the latest in centuries of attempts to come up with a neutral term. “Cretin.” “Feeble-minded.” “Idiot.” “Moron.” “Imbecile.” Each began as simply a descriptor and became an insult. Each in turn was used first by adults, then by their children, as a way to say “I’m better than you are.”
Kids with intellectual disability are particularly vulnerable to being victimized. They tend to be gullible and don’t understand when they are being manipulated. They often don’t have the skills they need to avoid ugly confrontations. Because they are in the minority and “different,” they often don’t have allies who will stand up for them.
Can a parent do much to help a child with ID manage meanness when they’re not around to provide protection? Absolutely. Here are 10 ways to help our children who have intellectual disability handle the bullies of the world.
- Recognize what is going on. Don’t fool yourself. If your child is different, he is going to be the butt of taunts, jokes, looks and eye-rolls. The rules of the jungle called the playground or the school hallways make them a mark for bullies. Kids are trying to find their spot in the social world. Those who are insecure often figure out that if they can’t be on the top of the heap, they can at least not be the one on the bottom if they make someone else do the job.
- Build an adult support system. Make sure other adults in your child’s life aren’t in denial about the challenges your child faces every day. Meet regularly with teachers to talk about how to provide an unobtrusive safety net. Make sure there are at least a couple of adults in school who your child can go to for support. The school nurse, guidance counselor, or vice-principal often fulfills this role. Make sure they have the time to develop a relationship with your child and have the training to listen to a child’s hurts without judgment.
- The more a peer group knows and understands a classmate, the more likely there will be someone who will stand up for her. Look for activities where she can be a successful member of the group. Music or art classes can provide new avenues for self-expression and can help other children be more comfortable around a child with a difference. A kid who can’t be successful on a team can help staff the snack bar at the game. Participation in such activities as Scout troops and church youth groups can be another avenue for integrating your child into the peer group, provided the adult leaders are supportive.
- Inoculate your child against meanness. You wouldn’t think of sending your kid to school without vaccines to protect him from disease. You can do the same for putdowns. Inoculation means helping your child understand that he does have a difference but that doesn’t give anyone the right to be nasty. Explain that there are mean people in the world who say and do mean things. It’s not really about him. The mean person has to find someone to pick on to be mean. Teach your child to say to himself something like, “This person is being nasty. It’s not really about me” and to leave as quickly as he safely can. There are many good children’s books on the market that can help you teach your child how to respond to different scenarios without egging the bullies on.
- Work on the skills of resilience. Kids who best handle meanness are kids who just know in their heart of hearts that they are essentially OK. Find your child’s strengths and talents and purposefully build on them. From the time she is very little, help her find things about herself that she likes. Help her develop a sense of humor by finding things to laugh at together. Above all, help her figure out who she can look to for help and teach her how to ask for it.
- Teach avoidance skills. Bullies can be dangerous, especially when they travel in packs. Teach your child how to avoid them. Young children can be taught to stick near an adult on the playground or to sit behind the driver on the bus. Older kids can learn to avoid places where there might not be supervision (like the locker room or multi-stall bathrooms).
- Make room for feelings. When your child is upset because of something that happened in school or in the community, take time to listen. Don’t minimize his feelings. Don’t say, “It’s OK. Ignore them.” Instead, let him know that you understand that it hurts to be singled out, put down, or called names. Sit quietly and offer hugs. Re-emphasize that it is the bully who has the problem, not him. Bullies may seem to have the upper hand but nobody really likes them much.
- Work with school personnel to help your child learn how to help himself. If a child is to become more independent, he needs to learn the skills necessary to speak up, to tell his own story, and to work on problems. When possible, it’s better for an elementary-age child to tell his class that being called “re-tard” hurts than for the teacher to give her best lecture on the subject. If there’s been an incident of bullying, it’s more helpful for her to talk with the principal about what to do about it with you providing loving support instead of taking over.
- See if there is a way to protect your child on the bus. It’s not reasonable to expect that a sole driver who needs to attend to the road should also pay attention to what is happening in the back of the bus. Sometimes a bus company will reserve the seat directly behind the driver for kids with disabilities. Yes, it singles your child out to sit up front but it’s one of those issues of costs and benefits. The cost of sitting in the back may be way too high.
- Tell your child that he should only “ignore the bullies” in the moment he is in danger. Ignoring it completely rarely stops the bullying. Sometimes it even escalates the problem. Teach him to do what he can to get away and then to tell you and other trusted adults what happened. Reassure your child that you won’t ignore it. Neither should he. Instead, go back through tips 1 through 9 together to find ways to make it stop.
Sadly, there will probably always be bullies in the world. Hopefully, the current attention to the topic will help change things some. But as long as there have been people, there seem to have been some who built themselves up by putting others down. By putting emphasis on skill-building and by providing loving support, we can teach our children with ID to value themselves, to look for help when they need it, and not to take it in when verbal sticks and stones are thrown their way.