Bullying in children and teenagers who identify as LGBTQ and those with disabilities and special health needs.

For children and teenagers to thrive in schools and communities, they need to feel socially, emotionally, and physically safe and supported. A positive sense of self, a secure identity, and relationships with others, is the ultimate goal of adolescence. A school climate which fosters personal growth and independence and embraces social inclusion has been associated with decreased depression, suicidal feelings, substance use, and school absences.

Whilst anyone is at risk of being bullied, it seems that children/teenagers who are perceived as ‘different’ such as those with disabilities and special health needs and those who identify as LGBTQ are at an even greater risk of being bullied. Given that repeated bullying puts children and teenagers at increased risk for depression, suicidal thoughts, misuse of drugs/alcohol, risky sexual behaviour and academic problems, in children/teenagers with special health needs and/or identify as LGBTQ, the risk is even higher.

Children and teenagers who identify as LGBTQ

Compared with other students, negative attitudes toward LGBTQ children/teenagers may put these youth at increased risk for experiences with violent behaviors such as bullying, teasing, harassment, and physical assault. The 2017 Youth Risk Behaviour Survey found that across the USA, high school students who identify as LGBTQ reported:

  • 10% were threatened or injured with a weapon on school property
  • 33% were bullied on school property
  • 27.1% were cyberbullied
  • 23% of LGB students who had dated or went out with someone during the 12 months before the survey had experienced sexual dating violence in the prior year
  • 18% of LGB students had experienced physical dating violence
  • 10% skipped school because of safety concern
  • 90% of LGBTQ middle and high school students reported being physically or verbally harassed

According to Radkowsky and Siegel (1997), “adjusting to the physical and emotional changes of puberty, establishing effective social and working relationships with peers, achieving independence, preparing for a vocation and moving toward a sense of values and definable identity” (p.191)* are developmental tasks all teenagers must accomplish for them to lead a productive, psychologically healthy life. The challenge is that we still live in a society where rigid social expectations and misinformation about sexual identity development persists and many LGBTQ kids are attempting to develop their identities without support of family, school, peers, church, etc. Research shows that a child/teenager who believes his/her sexual feelings are unacceptable to peers and is being bullied is at a greater risk of:

  • Suicidal thoughts. Studies show one-third of all gay youth have attempted to die by suicide. In Minnesota, Christian activists forced a measure through the school board forbidding staff from discussing homosexuality. Consequently, in a two-year period, nine students died by suicide, four of whom were gay or perceived as gay
  • Developing a mental disorder. LGBTQ teenagers are twice as likely to experience depression compared to non-LGBTQ students
  • Using drugs and alcohol
  • Engaging in risky sexual behaviours (assault, communicable diseases)
  • Non-suicidal self injury (self harm)
  • Missing school
  • Being the victim of a violent/sexual crime

Strategies that are effective for preventing and intervening in bullying for LGBTQ students:
Non-discrimination and anti-bullying policies that include actual or perceived sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression. Students in schools who adopt these policies report lower levels of harassment, assault and homophobic abuse

Teachers receive training and professional development on appropriate interventions when homophobic teasing occurs. Research indicates students feel safer when a teacher intervenes to stop harassment

Development of school-based support groups e.g. GSAs (gay-straight alliances). Students who attend school with GSAs report perception of safety and lower levels of victimization
Inclusion of LGBTQ role models/issues in school curricula, including programs on bullying prevention, prejudice and discrimination and access to resources and information on cultural awareness, LGBTQ, social programs

Children and teenagers with disabilities and/or special health needs

Having a physical, developmental, intellectual, emotional, sensory disability adds to the challenges children and teenagers face as they learn to navigate social situations in school and in life. Many kids may experience difficulty getting around the school, trouble communicating and navigating social interactions or may show signs of emotional distress and/or cognitive difficulties. Unfortunately, these ‘differences’ puts them at an increased risk of being bullied as the child/teenager is perceived as ‘an easy target’ and unable to fight back. In addition, children/teenagers with special health care needs such as epilepsy, food allergies can also be perceived as different, and more vulnerable, which increases their risk of being bullied. The challenge is that this type of bullying behaviour is especially dangerous as it may result in the child/teenager having a severe medical crisis which may lead to death. It is also important to point out, that bullying of students with disabilities represents a civil rights and public health challenge.

Children with ASD (autism spectrum disorders) are bullied at a very high rate and also intentionally triggered into aggressive outbursts or meltdowns. A study found that 63 percent of children with ASD had been bullied. Other conditions which are perceived as different and increase a child/teenager’s chance of being bullied includes spina bifida, cerebral palsy, ADHD, Tourette’s syndrome, learning disabilities, and hearing impairment. Therefore, special considerations are needed when addressing bullying in children/teenagers with disabilities and/or special health needs. Suggestions include:

  • Fostering peer relationships by providing upfront information about supports and care these kids need
  • Help students develop empathy, compassion and non-judgemental understanding about the perceived ‘differences’
  • Creating a buddy system: peer support has been shown to reduce risk of being bullied significantly
  • Encouraging in-classroom social learning activities
  • Developing high-interest activities where everyone has a role in designing, executing or participating
  • Facilitating teamwork where understanding, cooperation and inclusion are fostered and supported
  • Involving students in adaptive strategies in the classroom so they can participate in assisting and understanding the needs of others. For example, in some schools they have set up wheelchair soccer nights and weekly lunch get togethers where all the students sit together and eat lunch and get to know each other

*Radkowsky, M., & Siegel, LJ. (1997). The gay adolescent: Stressors, adaptions and psychosocial interventions. Clinical Psychology Review, 17, 191-216.

In my next Blog #21, I will talk about PTSD and CPTSD

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