Playground Bully Immobilization Plan

You’re at a neighborhood park with your kids, enjoying the day, when an apparently unchaperoned 8 or 9 year old hones in and starts making loud comments.  “What’s wrong with him?” “Why is he drooling?” and with gleeful scorn “He’s wearing a diaper!”

Daniel at the park with a friend

Daniel with one of his sweet elementary school friends — just to be clear, she was never a bully or mean!

If you’re like me, your first instinct is to wring the kid’s neck.  Because I’m a civilized and mature human being, I might settle for flipping him the finger and telling him to shut up.  Wonderful advocating moms sometimes will see this as an occasion to educate and advocate, so they’ll give a little informational lecture on their child’s issues in hope that an educated public will translate to a compassionate and welcoming world for people of all abilities.

I’ve been that earnest advocate mom. And I’ve also been the onlooker when other parents of special needs kids take that approach.  I’m now going to suggest another way.  Because, you see, in my experience, explanations won’t help with *that* kid I described above. He’s not all that curious.  He’s old enough to know he’s got something that’s going to upset you and gain him attention, and that’s what he’s out to do. He’s a variant on the classic bully – he’s just using words and body language.  True, his bullying won’t break any bones, but those words do wound.

Even if you don’t think your child is verbal or aware enough to understand, operate on the assumption that he or she does.  So my first move would be to put my energy toward my child.  I’d say loudly enough for our bully to hear, “I’m sorry you had to hear such rude words, Dan.  Sometime kids at the playground haven’t learned yet how to be kind and polite.”  Once I was assured that my own child was ok, I’d turn my energies on the bully himself.

Standard operating procedure – engage and redirect.  Special needs parents are pro at the redirect, so put that skill to use.  First I ask his name. And then I use his name repeatedly.  Let’s call the bully Neil.  “Neil.  How old are you?  Do you have any brothers and sisters, Neil?  What’s your favorite color?  Do you have any pets? What did you have for breakfast, Neil?  Do you know how to ride a bike? Have you ever seen someone go all the way round on a swing?  Do you live around here?”   All totally reasonable, pleasant conversational gambits to take with an elementary school aged kid, but also sure to set off alarms for his mommy, who will hopefully emerge from her smart phone induced unawareness and rush over in Stranger Danger Ranger mode.   Ok — that was cynical of me.

I’ve spent many, many years with my profoundly disabled son (who, yes, does wear diapers, and experience the occasional drool pool even at age 15 due to his CP) and a fully inclusive school setting. Here’s what I’ve learned– that annoying, borderline-bully kid is gold, and you want to cultivate him and turn his talents to the good. He’s one of the rare kids who will not ignore your son. There will be a classroom full of perfectly nice, polite kids who will never bully your child, but who will also treat him as if he did not exist, and there is probably nothing you can do with that group. But the kid who is willing to call attention to himself (even negatively) and who is assertive and pushy and maybe even a bit overbearing and boorish — he has some traits that make him a great advocate.  Believe it or not, he’s good friend material.

So next time you go the playground, sure, put a longer shirt on your son to keep his undergarment situation out of view, and definitely invest in some colorful and fun bandanas for drool control, but also keep an eye out for kids you’ve interacted with before and be proactive. Before your borderline-bully/potential friend gets a word out, you say “Hey! Neil, you’re here again. Let me ask you a question — who’s better — Batman or Superman?” or fill in the question of your choice.  (BTW, I love the superhero conversations with preteens. They can lead so well into brief but useful remarks about how being different is sometimes a great thing, about super-powers, about secret identities and hidden talents.)

So let’s break down the strategy.

  • My first concern is my own child and his feelings, which I will address briefly in the moment, and follow up more at home in a quiet moment.
  • Then I set the limit for both my child and the bully, letting them both see that mean words are not ok.
  • I personalized both kids by using their names.
  • I made the extra effort to turn a potential adversary into an ally.
  • I modeled for my own child some basic ways to deflect, refocus and engage.
  • And maybe more importantly, I modeled a willingness to let go of the initial negative exchange and turn it into a possible friendship.

It won’t work every time.  Some kids are going to persist in being mean, or once challenged at all, they may leave and go on to annoy someone else.  Never mind.  You dealt with it.  You and your extra-unique child came away the winners.  Every time you put a bully-immobilization plan into effect, you get better at it. Because you’ve thought it through in advance and you’re ready with your words and strategies, you can move through that moment of anger and hurt quickly, not letting it define the day or the outing.

Way to use your words!

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