My son A.J. is 17, and he is special needs. He’s on the Autism spectrum—more Asperger side of things—so his behavior is not what most kids would think of as normal. Even though he has been homeschooled since fifth grade, he still interacts with other kids at church and community, so he’s had instances where kids would tease him because he was either different or slower than they were. Kids who didn’t understand him or understand his behavior would ignore him, shun him, or make fun of him.
He would come home and would either withdraw or would be really upset. It hurt to see him going through that. Sometimes I would feel a little bit powerless to help him. As a child with Asperger’s, he would have outbursts, which would exacerbate everything. So, I would talk with him and teach him about self-control, and also that what they say and what they’re doing is not about him— it’s about them.
I had to remember too that he just wants to be a normal kid like everyone else. So, I need to empower him. He is going to go back to school, a public school. But the students may not always be kind or well behaved, so we had conversations about it. I said, “Sometimes kids aren’t always kind and nice, because you’re not like they are. Sometimes kids want you to be exactly like they are. They may not treat you well, but here are some things that you can do to prepare yourself.” I went into how he can handle himself through any situation that can come up: whether it’s someone teasing him or whether it is someone who is blatantly trying to bully him, intimidate him, or make him feel bad for who he is.
I told him, ‘You have to decide that you can’t be anyone’s punching bag. And, you can’t be just a rug for people to walk all over. If someone tries to intimidate you, or fight you, you do your best to try to walk away. That is your first step. If they insist they want to have a confrontation, then you don’t necessarily throw the first punch. You don’t push anyone. You don’t touch them. But, if they push you, touch you or what have you then you have to decide right then and there if you are going to respond. I don’t want you to cower, I don’t want you to run away, but I want you to stand up to them, and I want you to do what you need to do in that moment.’
His thing was, ‘Mom I don’t want to get in trouble with the principal. I don’t want to get suspended.’ Being a protective mom, I said, ‘Some things you just have to handle—and deal with the consequences later. I’ll be there. I know you will tell me the truth and you will do the best you can.’ I don’t want it to come to that but I need you to know that I’m not going to say, ‘Don’t defend yourself.’
An important part of who he is is controlling himself. But I had to explain to him that you can be self-controlled and still not allow anyone to hurt you. School hasn’t started yet so we’ll see how it unfolds. As a mom, of course, it is scary, but I feel that I was able to have a conversation with him that empowered him to be confident and stand up for himself. And in that process, he may help other kids who may be going through a similar situation, who may not have had that parent to talk with them about how to deal with bullies. Maybe he can be what I call a friendship hero, befriend those kids who have been on the outside of the social circle and do his best to be kind and compassionate towards them.
You have to teach kids that every child doesn’t grow up in a home that is emotionally healthy and supportive. A lot of kids go through a really hard time at home and bring it to school. That doesn’t give them a license to harass anyone, but just understanding where they are coming from will help you know that it’s not about you.
My philosophy about parenthood is that they are your first ministry, and your job is to coach them and launch them out into the world successfully. You have to give them the tools to do that and the self-control so that they will be able to cope with anything that comes in their path.
Samantha Gregory, 46, is an Atlanta, Ga.-based Microsoft SharePoint technical trainer and instructional designer, and the founder of a personal finance and parenting website for single moms, RichSingleMomma.com. She is the mother of Lexi, 21, who overcame bullying when she was younger, and A.J., 17, who will be a high school junior this September.
Reporting by Caroline Waxler