It went on for months, and her parents never knew.
Then, one day the bullying turned physically violent. Kelly was sitting quietly at her desk, her mom Lynn Miland described, when a student began repeatedly hitting her in the head. A teacher had to remove the student.
“I felt helpless to protect my daughter,” Miland said.
While Kelly had been bullied previously for months and months, it escalated when she moved to high school, Miland said. Transitioning from one school to another is a common time for kids to be bullied. And Kelly, on the autism spectrum, was an easy target.
“It can be hard to be different in any way especially during the early teen years,” said Dr. Michael Troy, Medical Director of Behavioral Health Services at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.
While anyone can be bullied, targets of bullying have some common traits, including being different in behavior. Children who act differently due to developmental problems, psychological conditions, behavior disorders or aggressive medical treatment can be targets.
During early adolescence, anything that makes a child different from most of his or her peers is potentially problematic, even positive differences like being tall or smart, or having a musical talent, Troy said.
But, it’s especially hard for children with physical or mental differences who can’t modify them, he said.
As an adolescent, learning to negotiate the social world is a key developmental task. Something like autism spectrum disorder can make social communication difficult, Troy said. Consequently, since this is a time when the demand is greatest to learn and use social skills, it can also be a time that kids on this spectrum can be especially vulnerable to bullying.
Additionally, other kids who may be feeling insecure about their own social status, may resort to teasing or bullying peers they see as more vulnerable in an attempt to protect their own fragile self-esteem, Troy said.
When Kelly was initially bullied, her teacher told her to ignore it, Miland said. Kelly took this suggestion quite literally and didn’t say anything to anyone, even as the bullying continued to escalate.
“Never should a student who is being bullied be left to resolve a bullying situation. It’s really about an imbalance of power. If the adults don’t step in, it can really escalate,” Miland said.
After the incident and talking with school authorities, she reassured her daughter she wouldn’t be bullied again. But, when Kelly’s bus arrived near their home, it carried the same student who had been bullying Kelly for months.
That was a red flag, Miland said.
Miland turned to the PACER Center for help. The Minneapolis-based nonprofit had recently launched its National Bullying Prevention Center (PACER.org/bullying), which offers a variety of web-based resources for parents, students, and educators to deal with bullying situations.
“I was very grateful for the help I received because at that point, I didn’t know want to do,” she said of PACER, which she later joined as a parent advocate.
She then requested a meeting with school leaders to determine ways to keep her daughter safe.
“Fortunately, the school responded in a very positive way,” she said.
School leaders and Miland made sure Kelly wasn’t alone and established positive relationships with peers and school staff she could go to and trust if she felt unsafe. They also looked out for her.
To help Kelly adjust to returning to school, Miland gave her a note card with something positive written on it every day. The card also included names of people she could talk to in times of need.
Years have passed since the incident, but Kelly still remembers what she wore the day it happened.
When there’s an upsetting and unhappy memory, the more a child’s life is filled with rewarding social experiences, the less central the painful memory becomes by comparison, Troy said.
“It’s something that’s etched in her mind always,” Miland said. “It’s something she won’t forget, but it’s something she has overcome.”
Miland’s advice for other parents:
- If you notice a change in behavior, talk to your child. Kelly stopped wanting to go to school and wouldn’t say why she became isolated. That was a red flag.
- Talk to your child about what bullying is and, if it’s happening to them, give them strategies so they can talk to parents, teachers and other adults.
- Parents should report bullying to the proper authorities and put it in writing so there’s an investigation and follow-up. The report should include the name of the bully, when and where the incident occurred and any bystanders who may have been present. If cyber bullying occurred, include the information in the report.
- Work with the proper authorities so there’s a plan for the child to feel safe.
Check out Children’s newly released report on bullying, which includes a guide for parents. For more tips on bullying prevention, visit PACER.org/bullying.