Spina Bifida Family Support
"Families Helping Families"
by Tara M. Person, Young Adult Representative, SBA of Wisconsin
Bullying occurs in every school, every day, across the United States. Children with disabilities, like spina bifida, are especially vulnerable to bullying. According to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, "A student is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one ore more students."
The National Education Association (NEA) has found that bullying can be as obvious as teasing, hitting or threatening, or unseen as in exclusion, rumors or manipulation. Bullying occurs in the classroom, on the playground, in hallways, in gyms, in locker rooms and in bathrooms.
During the past decade, bullying has become more harmful and more common. "In the halls I see bullying occur four or five times each hour," said Robert Berthiaume, a teacher at Gilmore Middle School in Racine, Wisconsin.
The cause of bullying is hard to pinpoint because there are so many influences on children today. "The violence in the media is a major cause of bullying," said Berthiaume. "Children see a fight scene or hear about violence on the news and they want to imitate it."
The CSPV reports that many factors can put a child at risk for bullying. Individual risk factors include a cautious, sensitive, insecure personality, trouble being assertive, and physical weakness, especially in boys. "During middle school, children go through self-esteem and ego development and are practicing with these new emotions to see what kind of result they can get," said Juliane Siewart, a licensed psychologist.
A parent's instinct is always to protect his or her child. Many parents of children with spina bifida can be overprotective, which can put their child at risk for bullying. "Once bullying has occurred, a parent should go in and fight," said Sandy Davis, a mother of a child with spina bifida. "Get to the person in the school who will do something about it without making it worse for your child."
Lacking close friends is a main peer risk factor, because children are more likely to pick on someone who is alone. Kevin Davis, a 12-year old with spina bifida, feels that exclusion is another type of bullying. "Children would play in the wood chips on the playground where my wheelchair can't go," said Kevin.
Unfortunately bullying can also come from within your own group of friends. "When returning to school after a weekend, I would hear about activities that all of my friends were invited to except for me," said Brittney Sherman, a teenager with spina bifida.
The school environment has many risk factors. Bullying can occur with the presence of aggressive students, a lack of supervision during breaks, indifferent or accepting teacher or student attitudes toward bullying, and uneven enforcement of the rules.
Many children won't tell anyone when they're being bullied. Therefore, parents must be aware and look for warning signs. The CSPV encourages parents to look for the following signs. Your child may be a victim of bullying if he or she:
Comes home from school with torn, damaged or missing clothing, books and belongings, or has unexplained bruises, injuries, cuts and scratches.
Doesn't bring classmates or other peers home after school and seldom spends time in the homes of classmates.
Appears fearful about being at school or getting to and from school.
Has poor appetite, stomachaches or headaches (especially in the morning).
Chooses a longer, "illogical" route for going to and from school.
Asks for or takes extra money from family (money that may go to a bully).
Appears anxious, distressed, unhappy, depressed or tearful when he or she comes home from school.
Shows unexpected mood changes and problems sleeping.
May lose interest in school work and experience a drop in grades.
Talks about or attempts suicide.
"Watch for changes in daily routine and behavior and talk with your child to see if the problem is getting better or worse," advises a mother of a teenager with spina bifida, who is currently being bullied.
Bullying produces two types of victims: the passive victim and the provocative victim. Passive victims show others through attitudes and behaviors that they are insecure children who will not fight back if bullied. Provocative victims are characterized by having both anxious and aggressive behaviors.
Bullying has long-and short-term effects on the victim. Painful and humiliating experiences can cause young victims to be unhappy. Their self-esteem drops and they become anxious and insecure. Physical injury or threats of physical injury may affect concentration and learning and result in a refusal to attend school. Bullying can make a victim feel stupid, ashamed and unattractive. They may start to view themselves as failures, which can lead to depression and in extreme cases, to suicide. Victims may develop psychosomatic symptoms such as stomachaches and headaches. Former victims are more likely to be depressed and have lower self-esteem as a result of earlier bullying.
Finding a solution to bullying requires participation from three parties: the parent, the victim and the school. If you don't have everyone's cooperation, the problem is likely to reoccur.
There are many things a parent can do if his or her child is being bullied. Encourage your child to talk with you. Praise and encourage your child for accomplishments. Search for your child's talents and positive attributes. Help your child develop friendships. Motivate your child to participate in adapted sports. Most importantly, maintain contact with your child's school to make sure the problem is not continuing.
The NEA recommends that schools start anti-bullying campaigns involving all school faculty, parents and students. A firm policy on bullying needs to be developed. Schools need to become "telling schools" where students are encouraged to report bullying. Teaching social skills should be a part of classroom and school activities. Students who bully others need to be shown other ways to use their energy.
If you are being bullied, the CSPV has some advise for you: tell your parent, a trusted teacher, school counselor or principal. Don't retaliate against the bully or get angry.
Respond evenly and firmly or say nothing and leave. You can prevent being bullied by developing friendships with other children and interests in social and adapted sports and acting confident. There are ways you can avoid bullying situations. Try sitting close to the bus driver. Take a different route to and from school and in the hallways or walk with a teacher to your classes. Avoid unsupervised areas and make sure you aren't alone in the locker room or bathroom.
The NEA acknowledges that most children would say that telling someone is the hardest part. "The most important thing is to talk to someone about the bullying. If it is reported, something can be done to stop it," said Berthiaume. When you are talking about bullying with an adult, be clear about the circumstances: what happened, how often it happened, who was involved, who saw what happened, where it happened and what you have done about it already.
When you are being bullied remember to S.T.O.M.P. Pulling from a variety of therapists, Siewart uses this acronym to help others resolve social conflicts. It stands for:
Stop-Don't overreact to the situation.
Think-Think about what the problem is.
Own-Own the problem by making "I" statements like, I feel....
Moccasins-Put yourself in the other person's shoes
Plan-Come up with a plan for dealing with the bullying.
Kevin's take on bullying, "I have enough troubles to deal with; I don't need any more." Many times children just don't understand what goes on with a child with spina bifida. Life involves more challenges. Kevin's recommendation is to bring in wheelchairs to school to show other children what it's like to be in a wheelchair.
Bullying is a major problem in our schools throughout the country. We need to work as a team and do everything we can to prevent bullying. Advocate in every way you can to support your child with spina bifida and put an end to bullying.
Back to Main