Bullying can happen to any kid — with or without type 1 diabetes. But a type 1 diagnosis can set kids apart from their classmates, and bullies unfortunately often target those they consider different. A recent survey conducted by Children with Diabetes® in conjunction with JDRF found that more than fifty percent of respondents said their child had experienced bullying due to their medical condition.
The stats are sobering, for sure, but there are things you can do to help. Jeniece Trast, R.N., C.D.E., M.A., a certified diabetes educator in the Division of Pediatric Endocrinology and Diabetes at the Children’s Hospital at Montefiore in New York, says the most important thing is to remember that most kids don’t know what diabetes is. “Remind your child that before diagnosis, he or she had no idea what diabetes was either,” she suggests.
“Uninformed adults and children may say things that are not true, so it’s important that your child is well-educated on how to respond and knows not to take it personally,” Trast adds. She recommends helping your child devise a quick explanation that will help reduce the curiosity, stereotypes, and uncertainty about what diabetes is and how it’s treated. It could be something like, “I have type 1 diabetes, which means my pancreas doesn’t make insulin, so I get insulin from a pump instead. I have to check my blood sugar to know whether I need insulin or a snack.”
To further reduce curiosity, kids can also speak to their classroom or even their whole school about diabetes, recommends Ross Ellis, founder and C.E.O. of STOMP Out Bullying™, a national anti-bullying organization for kids and teens. “Encourage children to educate classmates about their diabetes,” she says. If kids know more about it, they’ll be less likely to tease or ridicule. Trast says school projects are another way to teach classmates about type 1. “Whether it’s a science fair or a paper, diabetes can sometimes be incorporated,” she says.
Despite parents’ best preventive efforts, bullying can still happen. Michele, 13, still remembers the time a group of mean girls called her a “diabetic freak” in the cafeteria and refused to eat lunch next to her because she was “contagious.” Joey, 11, recalls the time two of his classmates hid his diabetes supplies from him while he was in the shower after gym class.
If you suspect bullying is happening, it’s imperative to be supportive of your child. “First, tell him that being bullied is not his fault, because no one deserves to be bullied for any reason,” Ellis says. Then have a talk with your child about exactly what is happening and who is involved.
After finding out about the incident, Michele’s parents alerted the school principal, who then met with the bullies and their parents — and the bullying stopped. Joey’s parents notified school officials as well as the local police, and the culprits were suspended for three days.
If getting the police involved seems extreme, just remember: bullying like this can easily become criminal, especially since hiding Joey’s supplies could have threatened his life. “Don’t be afraid to contact law enforcement in a case like this,” Ellis advises.
Alert school officials, as well, since the harassment happened on their watch. “Tell the teacher right away about the situation,” Ellis advises. “If the bullying or harassment is severe or if the teacher doesn’t fix the problem quickly, contact the principal and ask for a meeting. Put your concerns in writing as well. Explain what happened in detail and ask for the principal’s help.” If you have a 504 Plan, ask for a meeting with the team that crafted it as well. Ellis recommends keeping a written record of all conversations and communications with the school.
Once a plan is in place to deal with the situation, be persistent. Talk regularly with your child and with school staff to see whether the behavior has stopped, and if it hasn’t, don’t give up until it does. Diabetes presents enough challenges on its own — kids shouldn’t have to deal with bullying, too.
Disclaimer: The experiences and suggestions recounted in these articles are not intended as medical advice, and they are not necessarily the “typical” experiences of families with a child who has type 1 diabetes. These situations are unique to the families depicted. Families should check with their healthcare professionals regarding the treatment of type 1 diabetes and the frequency of blood glucose monitoring.
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