From Target To Self-Advocate: Coaching Social Empowerment To At Risk Children

Recent headlines echo the anguish and sometimes desperate reactions of those children scarred by belittling, bullying, and other forms of peer harassment. The depth of their pain owes to chronic feelings of victimization, and a consuming sense of powerlessness. Children with physical, learning and/or socio-emotional disabilities are particularly at risk since their struggles attract the opportunistic eyes of today's child bullies. One approach to this inevitable problem is to coach empowerment strategies to at-risk children in an attempt to offset the snaring cycle of victimization.

If you have concerns about children with disabilities targeted by peers who prey upon their vulnerability, read on:

Help them memorize acceptable responses to comments that clarifies intention without the stigma of labels.
Passively ignoring the questions or teasing from peers is unhelpful since it contributes to the role of victim. When behavior elicits attention, a straightforward response that asks for tolerance suffices: “I have trouble stopping these actions sometimes. I want to stop them but can't always succeed. Maybe you can try to understand and be patient.” If they are being targeted with negative comments it can be helpful for them to turn the attention upon the provocateur: “My behavior is not meant to bother you since I can't help it. But your behavior is meant to bully me and you can help it.” Emphasize the importance of making these comments without emotion and ideally, while other onlookers can hear and hopefully support.

Explain that there is a difference between friendly gestures and attempts to gain their trust for hurtful reasons.
Children with disabilities tend to view peer overtures through a narrow lens, and find it hard to detect antagonism disguised as friendliness. When peers ask direct questions about what they suffer from, a direct and truthful answer is often not the best response. Suggest that there are “privacy protective responses” that are the rule-of-thumb when peers ask questions about their problems. “I'm not sure why you are asking me something like that since I don't ask you these kinds of things,” places the boundary in place. Distinguish between “non-friend peers' who they come into periodic contact with via school and activities, and “true friend peers” who they have known for some time and have demonstrated trust and loyalty. Place different names in each category and give them examples of how non-friend peers may try to get them to reveal information.

Guide them in building an “empowerment role” within their family relationships so that they can become more comfortable relating to peers as equals.
Children saddled with various disabilities may become overly approval-seeking, submissive, and too quick to place themselves in the role of follower. Obviously, this contributes to the probability of being targeted by bullies. Look for those opportunities when they unnecessarily acquiesce, review them in private, and give them the language to rise to a more empowering position. For example, encourage them to practice saying, “I don't agree with how you change the channel without asking if I was watching that program, and I want you to turn it back,” while modeling a confident expression, firm tone of voice and direct eye contact.

Keep in close contact with teachers, coaches, and counselors who spend time with your child in group settings.
These adults are often in the most influential positions to use social scenarios to coach “empowerment upgrades.” Privately conference with them about peer victimization, and ask that they attune themselves to these issues. Emphasize how the presence of substitute teachers and low supervision times of the day are ripe “bully zones.” Request preventive interventions are in place to preempt bullying during these times.