Even though it happened more than four years ago, I can see that day clearly in my mind. It was a warm May afternoon in our hometown. My oldest son was playing baseball and I was one of the coaches. Because our family is always busy, that day being no different, my 4-year-old son was also with me. I arranged a seat for him in the dugout, on the far right side by the water cooler, while I was on the field coaching.
He kept saying, over and over, “I get to sit with the bigger boys on a real baseball field!” joyfully, as if he was looking at life with a fresh perspective every day. Although he was drug- and alcohol-exposed at birth, he has a spirit that can light up a room and turn any frown into a smile. That’s why I couldn’t believe what I saw from the field.
The “bigger boys” were making fun of him in the dugout — all because he was different, unique, and filled with an authentic joy for life. They made fun of how loud he was when he asked them questions, or shared a thought. We knew then, and know now, that it’s a social cue he’s yet to pick up on. But we always celebrate his enthusiasm and curiosity; his questions are amazing, too. We pray they never come to an end. That day, the “bigger boys” saw their opportunity to make sport out of his precious inquisitiveness.
At just 4 years old, my son understood exactly what was happening to him. He clued into their taunts and belligerent facial expressions. When I reached the dugout his head was lowered in defeat. Tears dripped from his eyes onto his shorts as he tucked himself as tight as possible into the back corner of the dugout. I wanted to wreck that entire place and send all of those entitled, spoiled, suburban punks running for cover. How dare they make fun of a child, my child, I thought, seething through my clinched teeth.
However, I remained calm and restrained myself. It wasn’t easy but that day I learned a better way to respond when my child is bullied.
I wrapped my arms around my son and focused on his broken heart before I did anything else.
The first response to your child, when they’re bullied, must be comfort and reassurance. Make their broken heart your focus. It’s easy, because we’re human, to want to spring into action, call the school, knock on the neighbor’s door, march into the teacher’s classroom, or call the bully out immediately. There’s a time and place for all of that. We’ll get to that in a minute. First things first — comfort your hurting child. Focus everything you’ve got on them.
My son’s special need causes him to have extreme emotion that comes on suddenly. That day in the dugout was no exception. So the first thing I did was wrap my arms around him, comfort him, and reassure him. I looked him in the eye and told him that, “Daddy is here.”
I protected him. This really doesn’t need much explanation because it’s hard-wired into our DNA as parents. We are wired to protect our children, especially when they’ve been hurt by someone else. Do not shy away from doing everything in your power to make sure your child is safe and cared for. That day, I turned my back to the other boys in the dugout and focused on my son, creating a barrier between him and them. Then, I set up a seat for him down the third base line, where I was coaching, so he no longer had to be in the dugout without me.
Now I know we live in a world of overreaction, and parents can be guilty of this more than anyone at times. After all, this is our children we’re talking about. I don’t want to be the unstable parent who jumps at anything and neither do you. Make sure you approach the protection of your child with wisdom and a 360-degree understanding of what is happening before you react.
After comfort and protection (which are both ongoing), comes confrontation. This is when things get real and you knock on that next door neighbor’s door, sit down with the principal, schedule a conference with the teacher, call a meeting with the bully’s parents, and look the bully in the eye and shut the situation down.
Make sure you have a clear path of explanation when it’s time to confront. Stay calm but be firm. It’s critical that you set up clear boundaries as you move forward. Never lose your cool or walk in guns blazin’, especially when you are meeting with teachers, a principal, guidance counselor, or a coach. If you lose your cool over the way your child has been treated, which is understandable, their perspective will shift away from what’s happened to your child, to you. The issue at hand could get lost.
That afternoon on the ball diamond, I politely, but firmly confronted the boys’ parents and explained what had happened. Fortunately, they sprang into action and dealt with their sons in an appropriate and just manner.
If opportunity allows, educate others on your child’s special need. Explain the facts about fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Share the truths about autism or Down syndrome. Paint a clear picture on what life is like with a child who suffers from reactive attachment disorder, or attention deficit hyper-activity disorder.
Be careful not to overshare your child’s information. You never want to give out so many details that they could be used against your child. Follow suit with confrontation and approach teachers, coaches, principals, neighbors, and counselors calmly but firmly. Your goal is to bring change and understanding, both of bullying and special needs.
If your attempt to confront and educate is futile and the bullying continues, it’s time to take action. Only do this if you’ve exhausted other attempts, or in extreme cases. You may need to bring authorities into the situation, or file a report, or charges. As far as it depends on you, work toward resolution before you get to this point, but don’t hesitate to take action if the need arrises.
My son is unique. Actually, two of my sons are unique and have very unique special needs. The majority of the world does not, and probably will not, understand them. That’s why I must do everything in my power to bring understanding but also guidance and protection. I was given this responsibility when I was blessed with the opportunity to be their dad.More On