We all know one. That child at school who calls other kids names. The one that says rude comments. The one that doesn’t play fair during games, or tries to control who gets to play with the group. As a parent seeing your child’s feelings get hurt, this can be heartbreaking, challenging, and downright infuriating.
Hi! I’m the parent of that bully.
But instead of saying “bully,” for now I am going to say “perceived bully.” I believe a bully is someone who intentionally tries to harm, insult, or coerce other people. Many people believe that bullying is the result of poor parenting. A child who is modeled bad behavior, exposed to violent movies or video games, or someone hanging out with the wrong crowd. This can often be the case, but sometimes … sometimes, it can be special needs.
I have multiple children who have special needs. They all have varying degrees of needs, and all exhibit their behaviors in different ways. But two of my kids have been seen as a bully: one at home, and one at school.
My child who struggles at school honestly has the sweetest heart. She relies on medication to assist with some of her behaviors, and when she first wakes up she is WIRED. Within 45 minutes, however, she is my most helpful, sweet, and compliant child of the family. More so than any of my children without special needs. She helps watch the babies; she assists with tidying up, getting lunches, and any other tasks I need help with during the chaotic morning routine. She loves snuggles, hugs and kisses, and adores all of her friends. She is a social butterfly, loves organizing activities, and joining in on group activities with her friends. She loves other people and being accepted into the group.
As the year goes on, however, and her meds work a little less, and she becomes more and more comfortable with her class and surroundings, her negative behaviors start to emerge more and more. Transitions are her weak point and line-ups, recess, and after school are her struggles. She routinely says hurtful comments to her friends, neighbors, and siblings. By the end of the day, her meds have worn off and things get even more challenging.
By the time Christmas is over and the new year is beginning, I usually start to receive e-mails. Some are from teachers. Some are from parents. Some are from neighbors. Sometimes they are even from family members. I am well seasoned in receiving them. The great thing about my community is that they are usually done in a loving way. I have always appreciated knowing when my child has done something wrong or hurtful so that I have the opportunity to discuss it with my child, teach them, give them an opportunity to apologize, and hopefully impress some sort of lesson in all of it.
The problem is, with some types of special needs, learning not to do something is difficult. Some of my kids don’t understand cause and effect. They don’t comprehend that mean comments hurt others. They don’t realize that cheating during a game might cause children to find new players. They don’t understand that if you think something is ugly, you keep that thought to yourself, rather than stating your opinion.
These social norms are beyond many kids’ comprehension and usually result in many hurt feelings. Although my children can hurt others, I can’t think of anyone that they dislike. They don’t seek out to hurt other kids. They don’t intentionally want to cause harm, and they certainly don’t target anyone with the intention of anything sinister. But they continue these behaviors due to their special needs; their permanent brain damage that unfortunately has no cure.
The most challenging aspect of being the parent of a perceived bully is the effect it has on children. Not only is there a child somewhere getting their feelings hurt, but every time I receive an e-mail, or phone call, I am reminded that my child has struggles. While they may have friends and children to play with at school, they might not have close friends or best friends because of these struggles.
Elementary school is not as integral, but as kids continue to age and enter middle and high school, close friends mean a lot. Being invited to birthday parties and play dates are important, and being excluded downright sucks. I know my child does mean things, but I also know her heart. Her intentions. And her love. I know the serious effects that she faces due to decisions before she was born, and the constant price she has to pay because of it. It breaks my heart. Seeing your child as anything but accepted can be excruciating.
So why do I share this? Of course, to shout out solidarity with any other special needs parents out there who might be facing the same challenge, and to let you know you are not alone. But also to the parent of children on the receiving end. To the teacher, and neighbor. I am sorry. My child is sorry. We never want to see another child hurt.
But this is also a reminder to have grace. To see they are only children, and that their behaviors are beyond their control. Know that so many of these kiddos really do mean well, but get stuck in their execution of things.
I want to say it is OK to tell your child that my child has special needs. That sometimes my child does things they shouldn’t, or sometimes needs extra help to understand and play games. To know that my child loves your child, and desperately wants to be friends, but has struggles in how to actually do that. And of course to say I appreciate and want to know when incidents come up … but it does hurt. Not from you. Not even from my child. But from the situation and realization of everything it really means for my child and their future.
And finally, to know that my child is not a bully. Please don’t tell your child to no longer be their friend, or avoid them, or do something hurtful back. But to instead realize that mean behaviors from many children are actually behavioral challenges from an invisible disability. That education and understanding can go a long way, and that as much as a child might be hurting others, they are equally hurting themselves, so we can hopefully all find a way to move forward. Let us not be against bullies, but for kindness.