This post was previously published by the Washington Post on May 22, 2019.
The moment you find out you’re going to be a parent, the expectations start. You can envision that baby growing into a funny, strong, smart person, one you’ll protect and defend, guide and teach. You think your plans will come to be because if you love hard enough and work hard enough, of course it’
ll work out. Right?
But what happens when life throws you a curveball?
That’s what happened in our family when our son became a victim of bullying at the very place he’s supposed to be safe and secure: school.
Our child, an 11-year-old African American boy with ADHD, has a hard time making friends. He was doing okay until he was a fifth grader in 2017, and things started to fall apart. Quite honestly, it wasn’t a surprise. Making new friends didn’t come naturally to him.
When he started at this new school in August of 2017, things were tough, but we just thought he needed to get used to the school and their higher expectations than in his previous environment. Don’t get me wrong his previous school was fine, but we wanted him to be exposed to more diverse learning opportunities. The teasing began almost right away, and he was having a hard time connecting. My husband and I learned what was happening, and started to meet with my son’s teachers for regular conferences, emailing almost daily to check on his progress. They suggested that my husband and I have him tested for a true ADHD diagnosis. We agreed.
After we received an official diagnosis, the hard part was all but over. We attempted to modify his behavior by going to regular therapy appointments with him and getting accommodations by way of a 504 plan, but his social troubles didn’t get any better.
I won’t get into the details of my son’s situation, but parents know bullying when they see it. We saw it. He was broken down and had no self-confidence. He was trying so desperately to fit in and it wasn’t working. He blamed himself daily for being overly sensitive or not being “normal” like the other kids. It was tough. We are still trying every day to bring him to a point of having self-confidence again and celebrating his differences.
As we’ve tried to help our son navigate through this part of his life, we’ve discovered that this situation is all too common.
Many people don’t know that children with ADHD don’t see the world the way other kids without it do. One of the first telltale signs of ADHD is impulsivity and a tendency to become overwhelmed very quickly. My son reacts impulsively when pushed to his limit. This is typical for children with ADHD.
So the cards were already stacked against him. But add to his diagnosis the fact that he is black, and things get worse. When it comes to bullying, we all need to understand the danger of racial bias. There’s a difference in the level of seriousness given to the accuser if they are black versus if they were white.
Just like my son’s case, a black or brown boy is more likely to be characterized as a threat than children of other ethnicities. (Meanwhile, black girls are seen as less innocent than white girls.) This can lead to so many negative outcomes, including bullying.
And, horribly, that bullying can lead to suicide, the second leading cause of death in today’s youth.
A few months ago, a 9-year-old black girl from Alabama died by suicide. Her family said she was called ugly and taunted for socializing with a white family.
Unfortunately, there are countless stories of minorities and non-minorities alike who are killing themselves due to bullying in our schools.
Through my work with Nationwide Children’s Hospital On Our Sleeves Program, my mission is to be a voice against bullies — not just childhood bullies, but political systems and school boards who refuse to protect the children they have vowed to serve. No matter the color, gender, social or economic status, all kids matter. They have voices that deserve to be heard. Through my family’s strife, we have been able to push through and become stronger. Here are some things I’ve learned along the way that may help you.
1. One size does not fit all.
Simply put, every child is different. In our family’s situation, we moved our son out of his school and put him in homeschool, just to finish the year and regain his confidence. This may be an option for you, but if not, there are still a few things you can do for the well-being of your kids. No matter your situation, it’s time to up the ante and get involved. Talk to the teachers, other parents and administration. Be veryvocal. Change starts with conversation. You could even start an anti-bullying or wellness initiative. The more involved you are, the better. Do not let yourself feel like you’re a burden to the school if you sense something is awry. You need to be in touch with them and work together to make sure your child is safe.
2. Listen to your child.
Your kids may or may not want to talk, but be persistent. Stay curious. Ask questions. Although it may be tempting to give them advice or suggestions, focus on listening to them more than you speak. In my home, we speak very openly about the highs and lows of our day. I’ve been very honest with my children about my own anxiety and depression, so even when my son doesn’t want to open up, I sometimes go into his room to just hang out. I’ve told him he could tell me anything, and that I’m always here for him. At some point in the evening (typically right before bed), he’ll come talk to me about what’s been bothering him.
3. Actions speak louder than words.
Once your child opens up, support them by talking to the school’s administration, it’s time to advocate and show up for them. They need to know that you’ve got their back. This builds their trust in you and lets them feel safer.
4. Get connected.
If your child is having a hard time connecting with others, help them find a group that meets up after school or on weekends. What’s great about outside groups is that they can find kids who have the same interests. For our son, we focused on finding activities that he enjoyed. So, we signed him up for a new basketball team and looked to our family friends to connect him with new peers outside of school. You may also speak to a school counselor or a favorite teacher for ideas. Plus, your child is choosing to spend time with these kids, as opposed to being stuck with peers in the classroom they may not click with.
5. Lastly, trust that your child will be fine.
I wish this never would have happened to my son, or to any child. For us, I believe early intervention was key. We could tell he wasn’t happy, that he was having problems, and we spoke to the school as soon as we could. It took me a bit of time to realize that our son would be fine, and I’d say please trust that yourself. Why should you believe it? Because you, the parent, will be there to help.
For now, I’m happy to report we are all on the mend. We all have the power to make this right for our kids, and I believe we will.