Children with special needs have always been a favorite target for bullying and teasing. It’s easy to see why – they’re different. Being different is generally not seen as a good thing when you’re a child in elementary or middle school. Except for the occasional rebel, most children don’t want to be stand out from the crowd. Certainly, no child wants to be different because they have special needs.
In a small study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting on April 29th, researchers claim that children with special needs who are bullied or shunned by their peers are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression. And surprisingly, it is this, more than any aspect of their disability and its challenges, that was a predictor of depression and anxiety.
The researchers recruited 109 children from ages 8 to 17 during a routine visit to their physician at a children’s hospital. The children and their parents or guardians completed a questionnaire that screens for depression and anxiety, and the children also completed a questionnaire that asked them about bullying and exclusion from their peers.
The patients in the study had one or more conditions such as: attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (39 percent); cystic fibrosis (22 percent); type 1 or 2 diabetes (19 percent); sickle cell disease (11 percent); obesity (11 percent); learning disability (11 percent); autism (9 percent); and short stature (6 percent). Several children had a combination of these conditions.
A couple of years ago I was the unhappy observer of this phenomenon. My son entered first grade a confident, outgoing child who had no trouble making friends. His kindergarten teacher had been wonderful, but his first grade teacher constantly scolded and berated him for his ADHD behaviors. His classmates followed her lead, as children often do, and began to both tease and shun him.
I saw his self-esteem sink lower and lower as the school year went on. He became despondent and started making statements like, “I hate myself.” We weren’t able to get him moved into another teacher’s class, so we just counted the days till school ended.
Fortunately, his second grade teacher was a completely different kettle of fish. She knew of the difficulties he had had in first grade, and made it a point to praise him in front of other children, and when she had to discipline him for any behavioral issues, she didn’t make it personal.
My childhood depression was definitely exacerbated by the bullying and ostracizing that I was the subject of. It’s important for educators and parents to be aware that special needs children may be at a particular risk of depression and anxiety due to their circumstances. While it may not be possible to put a stop to a child being bullied and excluded, intervention and treatment with therapy can diminish the impact and long-term emotional damage.