November’s proving to be a busy month, what with Armistice Day (11th), Children in Need (14th), World Prematurity Day (17th) and this week it’s the turn of Anti-bullying week (17th-21st). The aim of the week is to raise awareness of bullying and encourages children, young people, schools, parents and carers to come together and work towards stopping bullying for all. There are no official statistics about the prevalence of bullying across the UK, but recent reports state that almost 45,000 children spoke to ChildLine about bullying during 2013, a worryingly high number and one that’s unlikely to scratch the surface of the problem.
Bullying is defined as “Repeated incidents of physical or mental abuse (teasing, taunting, name calling, threatening, isolating) of a weaker person by a stronger person.” Stronger is not necessarily defined by size, but also includes those who are more confident or more able to pinpoint a weakness in the person they are victimising. The sad reality is that this naturally makes disabled children or those with special educational needs a prime target for bullies and they are more likely to experience bullying in school and in the wider community that other groups. The focus of this year’s campaign is to eradicate bullying for these vulnerable individuals in particular.
This focus has struck a particular chord with me this week as M has been dealing with some bullying over the last few weeks at school. Some of the boys in his class have been teasing him about his allergies by saying that they are allergic to him and then pretending to be physically sick. This has had a knock-on impact in the playground, where the same children have then been avoiding playing with him, leaving him feeling isolated and on his own. He has some good friends, who have stuck by his side and defended him when he’s felt unable to do it himself; and his big sister has lent her support too by watching out for him whenever she can and inviting him, and his friends, to join in games that she’s playing with hers.
Unfortunately, M’s complicated needs – dyspraxia, dyslexia, EGID and food allergies – make him an obvious candidate for attention from bullies, who only need the smallest difference to focus in on and attack. We’ve taught him to stand up for himself without being aggressive or rude, to ignore whenever possible the comments made and to walk away when the going gets tough; but it’s not an easy issue to tackle. Right now, he’s anxious about their response when he finally has his tube fitted and is even worrying about how things will go next year, once G has moved on to secondary school. Don’t get me wrong, his teacher and the school have been proactive in dealing with the bullies, but they can’t take away his fears or his belief that he’s not being heard.
Sadly he’s not on his own. Children with complex medical needs can feel isolated by their illness as they struggle with feeling different and the questions of why they can’t be like their friends or why they are so frequently absent from school. Even those with better known conditions, such as T1D or asthma, may have limited contact with others of the same age who are dealing with the same issues and I can only imagine how much harder it is for those with rare illnesses, who may know no-one else with the same diagnosis in their area. A lack of true understanding about their medical needs and the impact on their everyday life can add to their frustration and the sense of being on their own. Adding bullying to that already tumultuous mix is often a burden too many and these children may head into a downwards spiral that can result in poor self-confidence, depression and even self-harm.
What can we do? I don’t have an easy answer to that difficult question. As a parent I can educate my children to respect the differences of their peers and not to belittle those who don’t conform to society’s notion of “normal”. I can encourage them to enjoy friendships with everyone and not just those who have similar interests or hobbies. I can teach them that sometimes they won’t see eye to eye with their classmates and that those differences of opinion is what will challenge and shape their own beliefs.
And as a parent to children who stand out from the crowd, I can help them find their feet in our world, to stand strong when challenged and to see the value in their very uniqueness.