In recognition of Anti-Bullying Week 2023 (November 13–17), and its theme “Make A Noise About Bullying.”
Around one child in six experiences sexual abuse before age 18. About as many are bullied physically, verbally, or digitally. Bullies and abusers count on their actions going unacknowledged; so the best defense is open communication between children and their parents/caretakers.
But what if a victim is nonverbal, or has other communication disabilities?
AAC Can Help
Technology for augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) has come a long way in allowing children to express everyday thoughts without “typical” communication abilities. But in more serious matters, the technology hasn’t always kept up.
One reason: stigma that says people with disabilities never really “grow up,” that they have little hope of ever learning to deal with “tough” situations, that they never experience anything like sexual desire or the opportunity to act on it. From that viewpoint, it’s only logical to protect their innocence and keep their AAC devices free of “dirty words” and sexual terms—which leaves the user in a dangerously weakened position for setting boundaries.
“Having access to, and understanding of, anatomical vocabulary is really important when reporting abuse,” says Daryn Ofczarzak, Speech Language Pathologist at ESGH/BridgingApps. Of course you don’t want to overwhelm a six-year-old—of any ability—with full details of what might happen, but do allow your AAC-using child freedom to learn the full range of vocabulary appropriate to their age and developmental level.
AAC can also be a first line of defense. Many troublemakers will retreat when their initial approach is met with a loud “No!” or “Stop!” Especially when the word is backed up by assertive posture and facial expression.
How to Encourage Open Communication
With any communication method(s), it does little good to tell your child, “Always let me know when you need help,” if your daily actions say otherwise. Trouble is easiest to head off when communication is an everyday thing in your household.
- When your child requests attention, give it, at least long enough to assess the situation. Avoid the traps of “not now, I’m busy” and of multitasking while listening.
- Never interrupt or belittle a child’s concerns. Don’t rush to “fix everything,” either. Unless it’s a clear matter of immediate action or drastic consequences, the best results come from guiding children to do their own problem-solving: “What do you think is really wrong? What could you do about it? What will you do about it?”
- Don’t say things like, “I never want to hear of you doing this or that.” This can make your child afraid to ask for your support when it’s most needed. (Remember that children and abuse victims tend to blame themselves, even for problems that are no fault of their own.)
- Something that’s bothering a child is often something s/he hesitates to come out and say. Stay alert for signs of trouble: unexplained physical symptoms; sudden unwillingness to go to school; trying to avoid certain people; regression in self-care or socializing skills. If you notice any of these signs, voice your concerns: “I’ve noticed you seem quieter than usual lately. Is anything wrong?” If you get little response but still suspect something is wrong, watch for the best moment to raise the subject again. It can take time and patience to root out a problem.
- If you do uncover a serious problem, go to the proper authorities rather than trying to handle intervention yourself. Also, get therapy for your child, yourself, and your family. You’ll need help for long-term healing.
- Always encourage your children to grow into the best adults they’re capable of becoming. Regardless of disabilities or abilities, emphasize that they can learn problem-solving, boundary-setting, and self-advocacy. They can also learn to make friends and build healthy relationships for support—among the best defenses against abuse or bullying.
- Encourage your kids to speak up for others, too. Let’s all be part of the solution!
For More Information
- ADayInOurShoes.com, a special-education support network for parents, families, and professionals.
- Bullying Resource Center (American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry)
- Bullying Statistics by the Numbers (PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center)
- 11 Facts About Bullying (DoSomething.org)
- Fast Facts: Preventing Bullying (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Fast Facts: Preventing Child Sexual Abuse (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
- Understood.org, “the lifelong guide for those who learn and think differently.” Offers multiple anti-bullying resources, including a Bullying Fact Sheet. Creators of the Wunder app for parents.
- YWCA Is on a Mission: Child Sexual Abuse Facts (YWCA.org)