“He’s so weird”
“What’s wrong with that kid?”
“Why is he doing that?”
“Is she dumb or something?”
Sticks and stones may break bones but words can be just as painful if you are the parent of a child with special needs. Those insults may come from other kids, other parents, or random people in the community who don’t know a thing about kids.
The fact of the matter is, we as humans tend to make fun of that which we don’t understand. And we tend to judge others based on our own narrow views of the world. That means, our precious little ones who have special needs are going to get insulted. They’re going to get teased. And they may even get bullied.
As a parent, you want to protect your child from any harm and it can be hard to know what to do in a situation such as this. Do you ignore it? Do you say something? Do you punch the guy in the face? (Ok, don’t do that one…legal disclaimer…)
I am a parent, but so far my child does not have any delays, so I’m not going to pretend to know what you’re going through. But I am a speech therapist and I have spent a lot of time with kids who look, sound, and act different than everyone else. I’ve also been around when those children have been picked on, teased, or asked very uncomfortable questions.
My advice on dealing with bullying, teasing, and questions is based on my own experiences. It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s a plan. Take from it what will help you and your child and leave what doesn’t match up with your beliefs. But I truly hope this helps you deal with those difficult situations:
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Your Child is Watching for Your Reaction
When someone says something negative about your child in front of you, your child probably won’t know how to respond. In that moment, he will be watching your response. And how you respond to the situation will tell him a lot. It will tell him what you think of him (even if he’s wrong). It will also tell him what he should do if that situation arises when you aren’t around.
Let’s pretend that someone says to you “Your kid sounds funny”. Your child will look at you and watch your reaction. If you ignore the comment and don’t say anything about it, your child may think that means that you also think he sounds funny and that you’re ashamed of him. This can create guilt in your child which can weigh quite heavily on him.
Whatever you decide, you must do something! If you decide to ignore the stranger’s remarks, that is completely fine. However, if you don’t respond to the stranger, then you have to respond to your child. You can wait to do this until you’re alone, but you must explain to him why you didn’t say anything. You can tell him that those sorts of comments don’t deserve a response because they are disrespectful, or whatever other reason you had for ignoring the comment.
But then, make sure to follow up by talking to your child about what was said and how you feel about it. Be honest with your child. If he does sound funny, you can say “I know some speech sounds are hard for you to get out and that’s not your fault. But you’ve been working really hard in speech therapy and I am so proud of the progress you’ve made! Plus, you’re really good at basketball and there are tons of people who have trouble with that.”
Not only does your reaction tell your child what you think of him, it also shows him what to do in similar situations. If you think it’s best for your child to ignore comments like that, then show him how to ignore (instead of getting mad). If you think it’s best for your child to address comments like that, then you should show your child how to do that as well. There’s no right or wrong here. Each child will need a different approach so decide what will work for your child.
What You Should Say in Response to Something Negative
As I mentioned before, you don’t have to say anything to the speaker if you don’t want to. You can tastefully ignore the rudeness and reassure your child that you don’t think any less of him because of it. However, you may also want to say something back. This should not be just so you can retaliate and feel better. Think about it as a way to show your child how he can respond in the future. Make sure you are polite and respectful in your response. If you are nothing but kind to them, they will surely feel bad about making their remark in the first place!
1. Try a Little Education
Let’s go back for a moment to my comment about making fun of things that we don’t understand. Most likely, the rude comments or questions are probably happening because they don’t understand. Think about it, if a mom of a child with autism walked by another autistic child, she wouldn’t say “what’s wrong with that child?”. No, she’d be more likely to give that parent a high five of solidarity or a sympathetic look if the child was in the middle of a meltdown.
If someone says something negative, try educating them about what’s going on with your child. If it is another child, use simple language that can help him/her understand why your child sounds, looks, or acts different. If it’s an adult, talk to them just like you would talk to a friend about what’s going on.
2. Explain that your Child Does Things Differently
When you are educating the other person on what’s going on, you don’t have to say that there’s something wrong with your child. You can describe the way your child does things differently. If your child is in a wheelchair, you can say “you move around using your feet, but his feet don’t work like yours. He moves around using these wheels”. If you have a child with autism who is stimming by staring at his fingers, you can say “He has autism. That means he learns things differently and he sees things differently. To him, his fingers look really cool when he looks at them like that”.
You can also explain that your child is still learning a certain skill. If a child asks why he keeps hugging her, you can say “Johnny is still learning how to talk to kids. Since he doesn’t always know what to say, he hugs people instead. That’s his way of saying hello”. That way, you are explaining what your child does differently but without making it sound to your child like you think he’s messed up.
3. Highlight Something that your Child Does Well
Since you’ve now spent time talking about what’s different or abnormal about your child, you should make sure to follow up by talking about something that your child does well. If your child only hears you talk about the negative, that’s all he’ll think about himself. I recommend having at least a few different positive things that you can say about your child ready to go at all times, just in case. Think of these ahead of time so you’re not fumbling for a thought.
Creating Widespread Understanding
I talked before about how education can be all it takes to stop someone’s comments, questions, or teasing. Once people understand what’s going on and get to know your child as a person, they are much less likely to pick on him. Of course, there are always those people who will continue to be rude, and that’s a great time to teach your child the power of ignoring. However, most people will change their tune with a little education. This is especially true of children. Many kids will stand up for their friend with special needs if others pick on him, but only if they are given the chance to understand and love him first.
That is why I am a big proponent of educating people who will be around your child ahead of time, so there will be fewer comments and teasing. You may be able to prevent your child from being bullied at school by educating his classmates before it happens.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Think about the places that your child will spend time. School? Church? Daycare? Family? Playgroups?
- Offer to teach the people at each location about your child’s disability or delay and provide some education. You can offer to do this at your child’s school by talking to your child’s teacher or the principal.
- If you get the chance to speak to the group, let them know what’s going on with your child, including what the diagnosis is, what caused it (if you know), what it looks like, and what kinds of things they may notice your child doing. You may also want to tell them that they can’t catch it if it’s something that looks like it could be contagious, or if you’re talking to young children.
- Tell them all of the positive things about your child as well! Tell them what he’s good at and what he loves to do.
- Give them a few ways that they can interact with him in an appropriate manner. Maybe they just don’t know what to say! Tell them some questions they can ask him that he knows the answers to, or tell them how to say hello and offer him a toy. You can also tell them how they can respond if he does certain things. For example, if your child hits to get attention, instruct your listeners to tell him “Safe hands. You can say ‘hi’” when he hits (or whatever you guys say at home).
- Thank them for listening and accepting your child into their community.
You can also record a video of yourself saying these things and share it on your Facebook or social media pages if you have certain friends or family members who don’t understand your child and are creating negative situations.
For most people, once they understand what’s going on and how they can help, they are all on board! They just need a little education first.
Get Some Examples:
If you’d like some examples of what these things may sound like, I’ve created a PDF guide full of scripts for how to deal with teasing. Click the button below to download the scripts that you can use around your child.