Being bullied is hard.
It’s hard for the children who experience it, it’s hard for the teachers who try to reduce it, and it’s hard for parents who have to watch their children experience the pain that comes from being on the receiving end of hurtful actions and comments.
Not surprisingly, when parents see that their child is being bullied, they want to help. They may offer suggestions about just the right words to say or just the right actions to take to make the bullying stop.
Unfortunately, though, when we’re talking about children who stutter, the situation is more complicated. Children who stutter might not be able to say those just-right words at just the right time or in just the right way, or they may struggle to explain the situation to the teacher while they are emotionally upset due to what another child has said or done to them. All of this can cause children to feel even worse about their stuttering—and about their inability to protect themselves when they are bullied.
Parents Want to Help
When parents observe this difficulty, they may want to get involved themselves, to “put a stop to the bullying once and for all.” They may talk directly to the child who is doing the bullying—or to that child’s teachers or family members.
This is understandable! No parent wants to see their child hurting, especially when they feel that they can intervene and make the problem go away.
Although this may reduce the occurrence of bullying in that particular situation, such well-intentioned actions can actually make the overall situation harder for their child to deal with. When parents step in to “fix” a problem too soon, they may inadvertently send the message that their child can’t handle difficult situations on their own and that they are helpless when in the face of unpleasant experiences.
Of course, sometimes parents need to get involved in a hurry—for example, if their child is experiencing physical or emotional injury. Still, if parents don’t first discuss the situation to identify possible solutions that their child prefers, they may accidentally make things more complicated in the long run. At the very least, they may miss out on an opportunity to help their child develop their own problem-solving skills and learn that they can face and overcome challenging situations themselves.
What’s a Parent to Do?
The first step, before taking any action at all, is to talk about the bullying situation with their child to learn more about what is going on. This helps to reduce the likelihood that the parent may overreact in their attempts to protect their child.
Sometimes, hurtful comments arise simply because other children don’t know enough about stuttering. If this is the case, the parents can help their child learn ways to educate others about stuttering—a valuable lesson in and of itself.
Other times, the situation may be more difficult to navigate, but the parents can brainstorm with their child various solutions that might work. By creating a list of possible alternatives, they can explore the pros and cons of each method of dealing with bullying.
Together, they can identify a plan of action—just like we speech-language pathologists do in therapy all the time—to systematically respond to bullying until we identify a set of responses that actually helps.
Approaching bullying in this way might not be as satisfying for parents as talking to the principal or “having it out” with the other child’s parents, but it does show their own child that problems can be overcome with patience and creativity and that facing problems directly can help us move toward solutions that last.
What’s the SLP’s Role?
We can help parents and children alike learn that it is never acceptable for someone to bully a child about stuttering (or any characteristic, for that matter). We can help them see that they have a right to stand up for themselves, and we can educate them about appropriate ways to respond when someone is bullying them.
We can also highlight the value of using the bullying situation as an opportunity to foster resilience, to teach problem-solving skills, and to create an environment that is more supportive of stuttering. Additionally, we can help parents understand the importance of building their child’s self-esteem through greater acceptance of stuttering. This is what will give the child the strength needed to withstand the negative comments of bullies, both now and in the future.
Bullying is hard—especially for children who stutter. But when clinicians, parents, teachers, and children work together, they can develop a plan of action that will minimize the bullying while simultaneously building confidence and personal power for the child who stutters.
- Murphy, W. P., Quesal, R. W., Reardon-Reeves, N., & Yaruss, J. S. (2013). Minimizing Bullying for Children Who Stutter. McKinney, TX: Stuttering Therapy Resources, Inc. https://www.StutteringTherapyResources.com/minimizing-bullying.
- Yaruss, J. S., Reeves, N., & Herring, C. (2018). How speech–language pathologists can minimize bullying of children who stutter. Seminars in Speech and Language, 39, 342-355.