Brittany grew up in a moderate-sized community that supported two high schools, one on each side of town and aptly named East High School and West High School. Brittany attended West. During her junior year, East High experienced a mass shooting.
The district closed East’s campus for the remainder of the academic year and relocated all the students to West. One afternoon, just weeks after the tragedy, Brittany went home in tears.
“Mom, these two jocks from East were mocking this boy today, and I didn’t know what to do,” Brittany explained to her mom. “Hunter’s in a wheelchair, and he can’t speak for himself. It was awful!”
Hunter was a West student who was intellectually challenged, but his classmates had grown up with him and saw him as one of the group. They accepted him as he was.
“I should have defended him, Mom, but I was afraid of those bullies,” she said.
Brittany’s mom joined her the following day as she reported the incident to the administrators. Fortunately, the administration took immediate action and worked with the counseling staff to address the issue between the athletes and Hunter.
Hunter’s story is not an isolated one. Some disabilities, like Hunter’s, are obvious to their peers while many types of disabilities are not. The National Center for Education Statistics says approximately 13 percent of kids (roughly one in a group of seven or eight) who attend public school have a disability that affects their academic performance, making them eligible for special education services. Add to this the students who have disabilities that don’t affect their academic performance as well as those who attend private schools, and the actual number of students with disabilities of any kind is higher.
Most kids tend to respond more positively to peers who appear normal and are popular. Despite our attempts to instill empathy and compassion in our children, kids tend to make fun of, bully, and isolate kids who have any sort of perceived abnormality. This means that if you have a child with special needs or a disability that identifies him as “abnormal” by his peers, he’s at a higher risk of being teased and bullied. (See our article What to Do When Your Child With Disabilities is Bullied.)
Most kids experience unkind words and isolation from peers at one time or another. But harsh words, bullying, and isolation tend to be regular and recurring themes for kids with special needs or learning disabilities. This can lead your child to feel as if she’ll never fit in anywhere . . . ever.
Why is this a concern? The sting of being isolated or rejected can be devastating. One of the contributing factors to suicidal thoughts and actions among young people is the feeling and perception of not fitting in with their peers. Teens strive to figure out where they belong within their peer group. While this is a part of their normal development as an adolescent, it’s not always an easy stage to navigate.
For many teens, this pain is short-lived because their weakness is obvious only in specific situations that can be fixed by simply avoiding situations altogether or finding an alternate peer group that values and appreciates their strengths. For example, if your son is tone deaf but highly intelligent, he can avoid choir and sign up for the debate club, where his intellect can be on full display.
As a parent, be careful not to place a high value on performance and awards, even though both of these are highly sought after by most teens. When a special need or disability makes it difficult for your child to perform well and be recognized for his gifts and talents, it can leave him with no place to belong. If he can’t find a way for his strengths to shine and compensate for his disability, he can become overtaken with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness; both of which are contributors to suicidal thinking.
If you have a child with special needs or a disability, help him find places where he feels valued, appreciated, and can fit in. In this article, Tyler Sexton writes about finding hope in raising a child with disabilities.
Get It Diagnosed
If you suspect your child may have a disability, or if others suspect something’s amiss with your child, get her evaluated as early as possible. Many times the warning signs are passed over as just a phase she’s in, or a she’ll-grow-out-of-it mentality. There’s nothing more frustrating to your child with a legitimate disability than being told by teachers, coaches, and most of all, you, her parent, that she just needs to try harder.
Talk to your primary care physician, your child’s teacher, or the school counselor to determine the best way to assess your child. Getting an accurate and early diagnosis of a learning disability or special need is critical to your child’s well-being.
Stress Strengths and Acceptance
One of the most basic social needs for all human beings is the need for healthy connection to family—namely parents, grandparents, siblings, and extended family members. Your child needs to know that despite what happens out there, he can return to family who genuinely loves and cares about him. Because of his special needs or disability, he may need more attention to counteract the messages of disapproval he may get at school, church, or in peer groups. As parents and family members, you can communicate acceptance and love by doing the following:
Identify your child’s strengths and abilities and point those out to family members. While we tend to look for intellectual special gifts, and athletic, musical, and other performance-related talents, those are just a few of the many God-given gifts that may be a part of your child’s DNA. Take time to notice and acknowledge your son or daughter for character traits such as patience, kindness, goodness, and perseverance. Be intentional about planning activities that allow your child to shine.
Teach your child to be assertive enough to let people know how she can contribute to a situation or event. Through your child, God can show others that a disability doesn’t have to interfere with having a rich, full life that contributes generously to the lives of others.
Talk with your children about the importance of accepting all people. Discuss and memorize Romans 15:7 (NASB): “Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.” Encourage them to look for opportunities in their daily life to practice truly accepting others.
Talk about the beauty of God’s creation as seen in mankind. Discuss and memorize Psalm 139:14: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.”
If You Know of a Child
When you’re throwing a party or planning an event, be thoughtful about not planning too many activities that would exclude kids with special needs or disabilities. Plan a mixture of events, some that require physical agility and others that don’t. Also—especially at the middle and high school levels—plan events that don’t require kids to pair up as couples. Instead, plan activities that allow kids to participate as small groups.
Provide safe opportunities for kids you know with disabilities to showcase their abilities in service to others, as this will begin to build important relationships with their peers.
Olivia was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a child. Although she had to learn to manage her autism, she developed into a natural and gifted artist. But as she moved into high school, she struggled socially.
Knowing Olivia had an artistic bent, her youth leader asked her to design and make the table centerpieces for a youth-group formal dinner. The centerpieces looked like they were made by a professional florist. Olivia received a lot of recognition from adults and her peers alike.
That single opportunity allowed Olivia’s artistic strengths to shine in a safe and non-awkward way. Peers and church members began including her in their discussions when planning other similar events. Although her social awkwardness didn’t disappear, those who finally got to know her for who she truly was simply put the awkwardness aside. Olivia became a part of the in-crowd. That one intentional act by a sensitive youth leader led to other opportunities for Olivia to connect with her peers.
Don’t underestimate the importance of communicating love, acceptance, and belonging to a young person with a special need or disability. While disapproval and isolation have been known to lead many of these kids to consider or attempt suicide, engagement with them that communicates they’re valuable and appreciated may truly save a life.
- “The Condition of Education: Children and Youth With Disabilities,” National Center for Education Statistics, April 2018, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cgg.asp (accessed August 15, 2018).