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Is My Son a Bully?

Photograph by Getty Images

When my son Zion was born, in addition to the concerns of all parents, there was this little issue that nagged at me like a small but sharp pebble in my shoe. My nagging worry was that, as a child with special needs, he might be an easy target for bullies. Having been bullied a bit myself in school, I had to learn to take care of myself or suffer the consequences.

The thought of Zion being bullied lived deep within me, that is, until the day his teacher pulled me aside to tell me that he'd been picking on the younger, smaller children. The teacher thought he might be doing it to get attention. "Oh my goodness," I thought, "Is my son a bully?"

This idea created even more anxiety within me than the thought of him being bullied, because the behavior of people with mental delays is often misunderstood. It became imperative that my son learn how to ask for the attention he was seeking. Giving him this language meant that his teacher, his therapist, his father, and I focus first on helping him understand what he was feeling and what he needed. We also began intercepting negative exchanges by offering him appropriate language. (This was and still is a task, as speech is an area where my son is challenged.)

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If he wanted to hug a child, we'd give him the language to request a hug. If he wanted to play a certain game with another child, he was taught how to ask to play. This is a work in progress but my kid is so innovative he has learned to create signs to communicate what he wants. He won't stop trying until he is understood. I love this about him. He is persistent.

His teacher approached me and said, "You needn't worry about your son; he can take care of himself."

One evening I walked into Zion's class to see another, bigger boy hitting him with a soft sword. It was not a friendly, playful exchange, and my son was crying. I stopped to watch what would happen before he caught sight of me and really poured on the waterworks. Then he ran and retrieved another soft sword and headed quickly for the bigger boy, sword above his head and ready to swing. That's when I stepped into his line of vision and called out for him to stop. His teacher approached me and said, "You needn't worry about your son; he can take care of himself." I was happy to hear that, and see it for myself.

RELATED: Is Your Child Being Bullied?

For all children, each new encounter is a chance to learn to navigate his environment. The feedback he receives from those around him gives him information about what is acceptable and what is not. Extra reinforcements might be necessary in teaching a child with special needs to learn appropriate behavior.

Today I am no longer worried that my son will be bullied; I'm more focused on patterning and teaching him the appropriate responses to his feelings and desires. With the sad abundance of bullying our schools, I can't help but wonder if this kind of directed socialization might be helpful for all children today.

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