Tomorrow is the first day of school. Parents around the country are jumping for joy, and truly, on this day, teachers and schools are probably given the appreciation they deserve. Some parents, however, worry about and dread this day. Will their child be bullied? Who will keep him or her safe? What can be done to protect their child?
If I had the answer, I'd be a famous lecturer or best-selling author, traveling world-wide. I don't. I'm just a mom. However, after reflecting on two events that have occurred in the last week, I've come up with some ideas that I think could help.
Troy is going to be baptized soon. In order to schedule the date, he and I had to attend a class together at the church. They needed to make sure that he understood what the act meant and that he was truly ready.
[Side note: If you are new here, Troy has a variety of special needs. The most notable are autism and ADHD. He does not wear a t-shirt announcing this, and I do not make it a habit of announcing it everywhere we go.]
There was a table that the children were directed to sit around. The parents sat in chairs, circling the table, so we could all listen in to the conversation. There were two adult leaders, and they took turns talking to the children about Jesus, the reason for baptism, and what would happen when they were baptized.
There were probably about twelve or thirteen children there. Troy stood out from every other child there. First, he couldn't sit still. He fidgeted and twisted around in his chair constantly. He also would play with his hands and raise his arms into the air wildly. He seemed like he was paying zero attention. Then, he began to pick his nose. Over and over again.
I was not sitting near him. There were about three parents closer to him than I. I considered getting up and walking over to him to try to get him to stop, but I feared that it would have disrupted the serious conversation at the table. So, I didn't.
However, as I watched him, I couldn't help but notice other parents watch him, too. One mother, in particular, did not even attempt to hide her disgust. She could not take her eyes off of my son. She sat up really tall in her chair, her mouth was pursed, and her eyebrows were raised. She twisted, uncomfortably, in her seat. I kept watching her, hoping she would look at me so I could give her a smile or a nod. She never did. My son had her transfixed. She would turn her attention to her child for a moment, but then, the judgmental body language began again.
You have no idea the relief I had when the table discussion ended, and we were charged with a parent/child assignment. I sanitized Troy's hands and had a quiet discussion with him about not picking his nose. He told me that he just couldn't help it. I explained that it is gross and not polite and that he has to try not to do it. Then, we did our assignment.
As we drove home, I asked him a few questions about the things that had been discussed in the class. He was able to answer every single one. EVERY single one! When I was sure he wasn't paying attention, I was wrong.
Anyway, I was fuming about that woman and the way she had looked at my son. Really, really fuming. I told my family about it. I told my co-workers about it. I was so hurt and angry. I realize that this is not very mature, but I'm being honest. I was judging her for judging my son.
Days passed, and the fuming lessened. It's been in the back of my head, and I've planned about three different blog posts in my head about it over the past week, but as things do, it has sort of faded.
Today, it reentered my mind.
After church, we went to a shoe store for back-to-school shoes. Laura was sitting on the floor, shoes all around her, and a mother and her adorable daughter walked in. They came toward us. The girl was around five-years-old and was disabled. She wore braces on both feet, she was grinding her teeth, and she waved her rubber toy wildly. The mom and I exchanged some pleasantries and small talk about school shoes shopping, and her daughter stood to the side, occupied with her toy. Evidently, the mother decided to try another size, and she walked to the next aisle, about three feet away.
After they walked away, Laura looked at me with a disgusted look and said, "What a silly child!" It was not the fun sort of silly that she meant--she meant it as a very negative thing. I shot her the mom-look. You know the one. It must have been pretty intense because she immediately apologized.
I did not lecture her there in the shoe store because I was hoping and praying that the mother and child did not hear her comment. I did not want to call attention to it and possibly upset them. I saved the lecturing for the car. Trust me--she got a lecture. I hope that she will be more sensitive and polite in the future.
What do these two events have in common? And what on earth do they have to do with bullying?
The adults are the common link in the stories. Do you remember how many children I said were at the baptism meeting? About a dozen. All were there with parents. How many parents showed absolute horror over my son's behavior? ONE. The adults sitting with him at the table didn't bat an eye. 99% of the parents in the room didn't act like they wanted to vomit. And guess how many of the children were mean to him or stared at him. Zero. Not one single child at that table, not even the ones sitting right next to him, paid him any attention.
When I thought about that today, thought about the fact that I was focusing on one person's actions and ignoring the fact that the rest of the room was treating him as he deserved--I felt a bit silly to tell you the truth. However, it also really drove home the power just one cruel person can have.
Today, in the shoe store, when my daughter was insensitive to a child with special needs, I addressed it with her. No, I can't promise you that she will never make a flippant remark again, but I can promise that I will continue to work to make her understand how wrong it is to treat others like that.
Bullying is a difficult issue. Troy was not bullied the other day, and the little girl in the store was not bullied today. They were not treated with respect and understanding though, and I think that those are the underlying issues when it comes to bullying.
Teachers and staff at schools care for students, and they do everything in their power to keep every single student safe. However, they can't do it all.
So, I have four requests for you:
1. Talk to the kids in your life. Explain to them the importance of treating other people with kindness and compassion. Encourage them to speak up for those who are unable to stick up for themselves. Ask them not to bully.
2. Model appropriate behavior. When you witness a child in the middle of a meltdown, being pushed in a wheelchair, or even, gasp!, picking his nose in a baptism class, instead of snide remarks or rolled eyes, why don't you offer to help? You could try to distract the child, hold open a door, or offer a tissue.
3. Be willing to discipline bad behavior. If you do find out or witness your child being unkind, please, please, please do not let it go. Act on it immediately, and use it as a teaching opportunity for future behavior.
4. Help your child see beyond the bully. If your child comes home and is sad because someone has been cruel to him or her, sympathize and comfort him or her. Also-try to get the child to see beyond that cruel person. For over a week, I let the anger I had for one woman's actions blind me from the fact that there was a room full of people who were being kind.
Will these requests cure bullying? I know they won't. However, I do believe they can help. We are all in this together, and truly, although it's cliche', it takes a village.
Have a great school year!
A family member reached out to me this morning for some advice. She has a daughter very much like my own. She is about five-years-old (still in pre-school) with a mood/behavior disorder and high functioning autism.
Last night, my family member took her daughter to her first soccer practice. Shortly after arriving, she had a melt-down. It was not as severe as some, but she was quite loud, and she did do some flapping. In the midst of this, my family member heard another parent remark, "Oh, we have one of those on our team." You read that right, one of those. My family member did not react to the hateful words, choosing to just get out of there as quickly as possible.
I was livid! And heartbroken for my family members.
I was at work, and so, I shared the story with some of my co-workers as we were leaving for lunch. I was certain they would all be as furious as I.
Some weren't. Some said they would have probably made the same remark. They said they wouldn't just say something like that if a child was having a meltdown though. They would also say it if a child was exhibiting poor skills on the field or didn't want to get dirty. Or any number of reasons. I questioned them, asking, "You would seriously put down a five-year-old in front of the child and/or his or her parent?"
The answer was yes.
I could feel my eyes fill with tears, and I had to stop talking. The subject was changed, and we carried on with our lunch plans.
But I was hurt. And very, very sad.
After lunch, one of my co-workers asked me if I had been upset by their comments, and I, generally very non-confrontational in nature, said, "Yes, very." We discussed the issues a bit more.
I told her that the conversation at lunch had solidified my resolve to keep fighting for awareness and acceptance of children with special needs. She asked, with genuine curiosity, what awareness and acceptance could do for kids like mine. I told her that I am hopeful that these children will be treated with kindness, compassion, patience, and understanding. I told her that children emulate what their parents do and say, and if a parent feels that it is acceptable to say something negative to or about a child that is different than his or her own, his or her child will grow up doing the same thing.
I don't think our conversation changed her mind on the topic. I do appreciate her willingness to listen to me though. I know that she did not want me to be upset; we just have a difference of opinion.
It's funny though...a couple of days ago, I was sent information about the Dallas Stars having a charity night with free tickets for families with special needs children. I told the girl who sent me the information that I was so grateful that awareness of families like mine has led to companies reaching out and offering special opportunities to experience events that they never would have before. And it is true. Movie theaters often hold special viewings for kids with autism or sensory processing disorders. Museums have special events for kids with autism. A local organization held special Santa visits away from the hustle and bustle of the mall this past Christmas. The list goes on and on.
Awareness is spreading. Acceptance though? I think we have a long way to go. And for that reason, for my children, for the millions of special children and families out there, I will not give up.
Today, I learned that I must keep fighting.
I have a six-year-old, beautiful daughter whom I love immensely. I am extremely proud of her high intelligence, creative spirit, and artistic talent. She has been blessed with many enviable gifts, but she is also mentally ill, and of my three special needs children, by far, the most challenging to raise. Truthfully, I often find myself terrified of what she could be capable of.
My daughter was a drug-exposed baby who was brought to me when she was a day old, and I loved her immediately! She was never an easy baby though. She suffered from severe acid reflux, which caused her to projectile vomit constantly. She struggled with sleep, had some delayed development, and although she was one of the prettiest babies I had ever seen, as she grew, she also became the most difficult to manage.
Of course, I chalked it up to her age. She was just a bit more naughty than most toddlers. I believed/hoped she would grow out of it. Sure, I knew her birth history, but I also felt confident nurture would outweigh nature. I did not have a moment's hesitation in choosing to adopt her and her brother. If I had a crystal ball that could see into the future, I do believe I'd make the same choice. I love her very much.
What I am finding, six years in, is that nature is not a force to be reckoned with. My daughter is mentally ill. Nothing I do will ever be able to change that. Nothing. And some days, on really tough days, that truth is hard to face.
Over the years, she has made momentous progress. She was completely out of control for so long, and now, she is able to function relatively well. I try to remember that when the really bad days come. My friends and family members remind me, too, and that helps.
Still, the fear is there.
I struggle with anxiety. I fully understand that my brain leaps to wild conclusions at times. I use self-talk to calm myself when I believe I'm being ridiculous. I also talk to others about my fears to gauge how realistic my concerns are. When it comes to my daughter, it is not often that I am told I am being ridiculous.
My daughter has, among several other diagnoses, Oppositional Defiant Disorder; she is impulsive, defiant, hyperactive, dishonest, aggressive (both physically and verbally), and lacks empathy and the ability to feel remorse. The school's official label for her: ED (Emotionally Disturbed). I'm not bothered by any of these labels or adjectives because they are our truth.
To illustrate what I'm saying, I'll give you one example from about two months ago. She and her brother were arguing. It appeared to be a very minor squabble. They were in the living room; Tom and I were in the kitchen, a mere eight or ten feet away. We didn't even pause our conversation because they weren't even raising their voices. Suddenly, we heard loud screaming and crying. She had bitten his lip! I'm talking almost all the way through. There was blood everywhere, and his lip was severely swollen. She was so calm and appeared to be genuinely shocked when I sent to her room while we examined him. After making sure he was okay and didn't need to go to the hospital, I went to speak to her. I tried explaining to her how severely she had hurt him, telling her that he would have trouble eating, smiling, brushing his teeth, etc. for quite some time. She had no reaction, no remorse, no concern for her brother at all. Trust me when I say she is very intelligent. It is, most definitely, not a question of IQ.
For weeks after the biting incident, I was afraid to let the children out of my sight. I know parents often joke about there being trouble when the kids go quiet in the other room, but I don't think most feel the terror I did in the aftermath of that evening. Luckily, it was an isolated incident, and things continued to go relatively well for quite some time.
This week, she had a rough day at school, a very rough day. She had to write a letter to the cafeteria workers that the teacher and I both had to sign to apologize for her lunchtime behavior. I also had her write a letter to her teacher to apologize for her classroom behavior. Although we went through each and every bad choice she had made that day (it had gotten so bad that she had to be removed from class), she actually did not believe she had done anything wrong. I truly felt hopeless that night.
Once again, friends and family consoled me and told me to remember her progress. I was encouraged to not give up. And I'm not.
She is worth fighting for.
I got on the phone the next morning with the psychiatrist, and we are going to make some medication changes. She also told me that perhaps it is time to move past play therapy and on to cognitive behavioral therapy. I called the play therapist and asked her to help me with the transition. The problem? They currently have a very long waiting list. I'm waiting for a call back before I start searching elsewhere. I am in constant contact with her teacher. I will call for another ARD (Admission Review Dismissal) meeting if necessary to discuss other classroom accommodations for her, like increased time an aide is in the room with her. We started a new evening routine at home to try to help. And, of course, we began a new sticker chart, too.
I will NOT give up on her.
It's hard though. I have moments of hopelessness and despair. It's very exhausting. And sometimes, although I know people have good intentions, they actually hurt my feelings because it feels as though they don't believe or understand the difficulty of our reality. I have to remind myself that very few people I know have experienced anything like what we live all day, every day in this house. Of course, they are doing their best to try to help me through tough moments. Sometimes, though, I think a sympathetic, willing ear is what would be best.
You see, the reality is that no matter the quality of the therapy she has, the number of medications she takes, the strictness of the routines we follow, the number of specialists she has, the support systems in place, the positive reinforcement methods we try, the books we read, the lectures we deliver, the discipline we give, the doctors we visit, the prayers we say, the love we show...she remains mentally ill. We have no idea what the future holds for her. That is a truth that is sometimes difficult to accept.
I'm not looking for advice, though if you want to offer some, of course, I appreciate it! This is just what's on my heart right now, and I felt the need to write about it. If you're in a similar situation, take solace in the fact that you are not alone. Too often mental illness is brushed under the carpet, which can make reaching out so much more difficult.
I also ask that if you are not in a similar situation that you show compassion to parents like me. None of my children look like they are not typical children. If we go to a store, I know that I can look, in the eyes of so many, like a "bad," overly-permissive parent who has no control over her children. If one tantrums on the floor, runs away from me, yells, throws things, or removes a mannequin's arm (don't ask), don't immediately jump on to Facebook to report what a horrible mother I must be who needs to spank my child immediately. Instead, give me an encouraging smile, try to engage my child with a "hello," or say a silent prayer for us. The smallest act of kindness can make all the difference in a moment like that.