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Kids Can Be So Cruel: Helping Children Cope With Bullying About Their Medical Conditions

Feb 23, 2008
Jessica is generally a happy kid. But she didn't look very sunny when she got home from school. So, her mom asked, "How was your day at school sweetheart?"

Jessica's answer was slow, with some reluctance: "Well, mom, I don't know.... not so great....

She seemed to need a little encouragement to continue. "So....?"

"Susie and I were standing at my locker when Josh walked up and said, 'Hey Susie. Why are you hanging out with a loser like Jessica? She's just gonna die on ya from cystic fibrosis!' "

Stunned, this mother grabbed the edge of the counter just to contain herself. Kids these days can be so cruel! Fighting to contain her anger, she asked, ""o, what did you do?"

"Well, I didn't do anything but Susie kicked him in the shins!"

There are bullies in abundance. There isn't a kid alive who hasn't experienced a brush with a bully on the playgrounds of life. But, sometimes bullying passes the point of no return. Hearing many variations on this same story over and over again from families of children with cystic fibrosis (CF), I realize such moments are inevitable. Every parent of a child with a serious medical issue or disability lives with the knowledge that their loved ones will face such unexpected and thoughtless remarks. At some point, it is likely that my own two children with CF will face such cruelty at the hands of their peers.

As parents, we carefully construct explanations about our child's diseases and deliver them tactfully and hopefully. But that can all come crashing down in a heap at the hands of a thoughtless and bullying peer. So I, as all parents with children who live with chronic illnesses, must decide: Is it perhaps best for me to purposefully tell my children the hard truth - that yes, they indeed might die young from CF (or diabetes, etc.) - before I leave it up to chance at the hands of a thoughtless bully or even a well-meaning teacher?

Jessica's story brings up a number of related issues:

- When and how do we talk about the possible results of a deadly illness?
- How do we handle bullying?

Unfortunately, the answers are not easy and individual situations vary; thus generalizations may not helpful in all individual cases.

Factors that influence how parents talk about a possible early death with their child include the child's age; the child's maturity; the parents' ability to cope with their own emotions when communicating about the subject; the severity of the illness and the imminence of death.

Factors that influence how parents talk about bullying with their child include many of the very same factors: the child's age, the severity of the bullying or threats, the maturity of the child, and the parents' ability to cope thoughtfully about the subject. For instance, when parents understandably become overwrought, frightened or rageful about their child being bullied, their emotions are contagious and generally not helpful for the child. A better response is to express curiosity, interest, and allow the child to at least have the opportunity to vent, cope, and problem solve. Certainly if the situation makes coping or problem solving impossible, the parents haven't closed the door to stepping in, taking charge, reporting and rescuing if these actions are called for.

In any case, whether we are talking about bullying or communicating about a possibly fatal outcome, if parents can cope with the issue, it is better that their child hears the facts and options from parents than from an uncaring peer or thoughtless remark at school.

Unfortunately, due to limited space here, we can't cover both issues in detail so we'll focus on dealing with bullying. But first we'll give you some basic guidelines to follow when discussing difficult issues in general with your children as taken from the book "Parenting Children with Health Issues:"

1. Before you give answers, ask yourself: whose needs are you addressing ? yours or your child's?

2. Consider whether you are giving more information than the child wants or needs to hear.

3. Be open to your children talking with you about anything and everything.

4. When you are not sure how to give the answer, ask more questions.

5. Recognize that sometimes your child is trying to "protect" you.

6. Show acceptance even when you can't show approval.

7. Every answer dealing with life-and-death issues should leave room for hope.

When our children face bullying, there are two broad paths the parents may follow:

Path One: Protecting the child
Path Two: Helping the child to cope and respond effectively

When a child is simply teased, Path Two is often the best option. If a child is threatened with physical harm, Path One is probably necessary. Certainly such paths are not mutually exclusive. Love and Logic principles emphasize that the more the child is able to respond effectively to the problem him or herself, the more resilient and capable the child becomes.

It is understandable when parents naturally become upset, show sorrow, become indignant and talk about ways of rescuing the child when bullying occurs. The problem is that these responses make it easier for the child to take the reciprocal response of victim. This can sometimes be avoided by discussion of options, problem solving and encouragement.

For instance, concerning teasing by a bully and using the Love and Logic metaphors, a Helicopter Parent might make the following comments:

"How awful."
"I'll phone the school (or the parent, teacher, coach, etc)."
"Something should be done about that kid."

Comments such as these imply:
"You are fragile."
"You can't make it without me."
"You need my protection."
"There's nothing you can do about it, you're helpless."
"Something like this can scar you for a long time."

A Drill Sergeant Parent might come through as follows:

"You need to fight back."
"Stop your whining about this."
"Maybe I'll go down and knock some sense into those kids."
"What you need to do next time is..."

These types of comments imply:
"You can't think so I have to think for you."
"You aren't capable of making it in life."
"You can't handle this without my help."
"You need me to tell you what to do."

A Consultant Parent tends to explore and ask questions:

"Why are they picking on you?"
"Do you have ideas about how they are feeling that makes 'em talk like this?"
"Who do you think you might be able to talk to at school about this?"
"What are the ways you can handle it?"
"When the kids say those things about you, do you believe them or do you think they have their own problems?"
"Would you like to hear how other kids might handle something like this?"
"Do you have some thoughts about how I could be most helpful?"

These types of responses imply:
"If anyone can handle a situation like this, it's you."
"You are capable!"
"You make good decisions and solve your own problems well."
"I'm here for you if you decide that you want my help."

Note that none of the Consultant Parent responses preclude the parent from stepping in and rescuing the child or taking charge of confronting the situation. But if the child can be encouraged to handle the problem, the child's self image and coping skills are increased.

So putting bullying and death together, understanding the truth that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, and taking a child's maturity and knowledge into account, a parent might start a conversation with a first through third grader by wondering:

"As you know, your cystic fibrosis is a very serious disease that leads some people to die earlier than others. How would you handle it, I wonder, if some kid ever was mean and said something like, 'I don't have to listen to you, 'cause you're going to die early anyway?'" Then thoughtfully explore the child's answers, letting the child take the lead.

Kids can be cruel but parents can take advantage of these unfortunate moments to build their child's character, self-esteem and coping skills.
About the Author
The book "Parenting Children with Health Issues" is by Foster W. Cline, M.D., child psychiatrist and co-founder of Love and Logic (Love and Logic) and Lisa Greene, mother of two children with cystic fibrosis. Visit Parenting Children With Health Issues.
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