Social Aggression: It’s something we were all introduced to, at least, by the movie Mean Girls. Other common terms for the behavior are “relational aggression” and “relational bullying.” The concept began in reference to Facebook and other forms of online bullying, but has quickly spread to the real world and amounts to “deliberately hurting someone through the use of gossip, rejection, and other forms of social manipulation.”

Avoid: harmful exclusivity

The most common form of social aggression towards children with special needs is rejection, when a peer group is formed with part of their entire identity centered on the exclusion of certain others. Whether the outsider is mocked and belittled or simply ignored and denied access to the group, the effect on the outsider’s sense of identity is devastating.

This is compounded by the fact that many adults do not understand the impact of rejection on a child with special needs. You’ll hear suggestions like “Just find something else to do” or “If they ignore you, ignore them.” But these suggestions only serve to ‘seal the deal’ and show the child that his attempts to be included are doomed from the start.

The pain of being rejected is very real: it has driven children as young as five to clinical depression and children as young as seven to commit suicide. They quickly internalize the message that they are “losers” and “worthless,” and the traditional adult response of setting limits is not enough to overcome the shock.

Teaching skills to overcome: defense and confidence

Success in addressing rejection, and indeed all forms of social violence, begins with teaching children (and adults!) that they can speak up for themselves (trust) and for others (advocacy). Even if the child is simply acting assertive, the ability to be confident will often inspire others to listen more carefully and feel the child’s position more strongly than they otherwise might. Of particular interest: Children with special needs often feel more capable of standing up for others than for themselves, but as they stand up for a friend, they gain the confidence they need to stand up for their own needs as well.

Teaching Skills to Overcome: Distance Control

Although few people realize it, there is a powerful correlation between emotional distance and physical distance; that’s why the term “intimacy” has two seemingly completely different connotations. One of the easiest ways for a child with special needs to reduce another person’s emotional control is to learn to respond to affection by moving forward and to respond to hostility by moving away. The act of distancing from a bully happens on two levels at once, and many children find that after taking a few steps away from the bully, they feel comfortable simply leaving the situation altogether.

As children with special needs get older, the tendency for exclusivity, rejection, and bullying becomes stronger. By teaching them the skills they need early in life, they can gain a level of familiarity and practice with those skills that will come in handy in their middle and high school years.

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