There are so many things that make kids great - their innocence, their curiosity, their energy and their laughter, just to name a few. All of those same qualities can make children do things we wouldn't expect, like making fun of others because they are different.Most children are raised within a very contained environment. They see the same people day after day and until they start branching out into the world in school, on sports teams, or in day care, their world can be very small. Along the way, we teach them how to be polite to others, how to share, how to tell us what they need. So, it may come as little surprise, that when kids encounter someone who speaks, looks or acts differently from anything they have seen before, they're not sure how to react.
Also, as kids develop language skills, particularly in preschool, they are constantly adding new words to their vocabulary and they learn pretty quickly that certain words can elicit a reaction (good or bad). Every parent remembers the exact moment their kid said a “bad” word, because you know they probably learned it from someone in your home. And, if someone laughs at them when they say it, oh boy, you know it will get harder to make them stop.
Thus, if they see a child with special needs and call them names, that could be a combination of being unfamiliar with the behavior and being a little confused as well as trying to get a reaction. So they may ask, “why do you talk funny?” or “you’re not a baby, why are you wearing a diaper?” Not out of malice, but simply being curious.
As a parent you recognize that the behavior is not acceptable and can be hurtful, but helping your child understand why, and how to stop, can be challenging.
- Enforce Consequences - First, you have to let your child know that making another person cry or hurting their feelings because they teased them is wrong, won't be tolerated and that there are consequences for their behavior.
- Explain & Embrace Differences - Second, help your child understand that there are many different types of people in the world and that it’s wrong to make fun of someone else’s differences. Think about how you would react if your child made fun of someone because of the color of their skin, their economic status or the way they dressed. That would be equally unacceptable and you would be appalled to learn this was happening.
- Differentiate Empathy From Sympathy - There are many books and videos that can provide guidance and give you support. In young children, you are laying the foundation for helping your child become empathetic. Empathy is different from sympathy. You don’t want them to pity someone who has a medical condition over which they have no control. Rather, you want them to understand that just because someone speaks or acts differently, that is no reason to make fun of them.
- Seek Advice - If the special needs child is in school or in day care with your child, speak with the teacher or day care manager to get some advice as well and to let them know that you have spoken with your child about their behavior. They may have additional guidance they can offer on how to prevent it from happening again.
- Set a Good Example - Finally, kids do what they see, so set a good example. Think about what goes on in your home. Do your kids tease one another? Is this learned behavior at home? This may be the time for a family discussion about teasing and the consequences it can have.
Teasing kids can have lasting effects and just like you wouldn't want your child to be singled out and made fun of, it is equally important to make sure your child learns how to understand and respect others. Being different is a natural part of life and the earlier you teach your child how to accept others for their differences, the easier it will be for them to see beyond what makes them different and focus on what they have in common.
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