Bullying, Disabilities, and The Empathetic Heart

I don’t have children, but this would very much be top of mind if I did. To raise a child to be sensitive to others, to have compassion and empathetic view, is one of the most important traits they could have.

I’ve had the fortune to participate in a training on bullying and harassment recently (though this is a long-time hot topic for me, and one I regularly talk about with the kids in our Martial Arts classes. I myself was bullied and harassed growing up, and with the prevalence of cyber methods, it is even more insidious for children these days.) The training focused on bullying as it pertains to all children within a school setting (primarily public in this case), but also with some particular data regarding bullying and children with disabilities.

It might seem alarming to some of you that children with disabilities are bullied approximately 1.3 times more than their neurotypical (non-disabled) peers. (George G. Bear. et al. Differences in Bullying Victimization Between Students With and Without Disabilities, School Psychology Review. March 2015, Vol. 44, Issue 1 cited in Rose and Gage, Exploring the Involvement of Bullying Among Students.)

Bullying in and of itself is horrifying, but the prospect that it is happening even more to children with disabilities is difficult to grasp. My passion lies in not only empowering others by helping them to discover their own inner strengths, talents, and abilities, but to equip them with the tools necessary to manage challenging situations. Martial Arts is my current vehicle – as  one of the instructors under my Sensei, I am able to impart values and knowledge to the children during class. Naturally it isn’t always easy to keep the attention (by the way, not AGE-dependent so much as child-dependent…and time of day!) It is therefore crucial to be both consistent with messages, and to repeat them with frequency. It’s amazing to hear the kids respond to “what is our goal with a bully?” with “TO CONTROL AND NEGOTIATE!” (We encourage the idea that we aren’t learning Martial Arts to injure anyone else – the key purpose is to know how to protect ourselves and others, should we need to, but also to use our skills only as a last resort.)

For children with disabilities, the concept of bullying can be more difficult. Cognitive or physical limitations may result in the child not fully understanding that he or she is IN a bullying situation, let alone how to manage the situation if it is happening. I believe in teaching – I believe in helping individuals to understand how to recognize danger, violence, harassment, and bullying before it happens or, if that window is missed, when it is happening. It is only with the knowledge of what is taking place that we are able to do something about the situation.

I also believe it is vital that each of set the example – whether our own children, our nieces and nephews, kids we see in classes at school or in sports…we are always on the radar. Children are constantly watching and learning from our actions as much as our words (I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of a little one coming out with a mouthful of something hilarious after having picked it up from an adult – you never know what they’ll say next, only that they are ALWAYS absorbing.)

Children will pick up our mannerisms, our prejudices, our attitudes, and our approach to people / places / things. As such, we must keep in mind that what we say / do, and the methods by which we manage situations are likely to be adopted (depending on how much time we spend with them.) Takeaway —> Children are hugely impressionable.

EXAMPLES…

  1. In Martial Arts class, I ensure that I hold EVERYONE to the same standards (including myself)
  2. I am always impeccably dressed (gi, belt, tabi, hair tied up, no jewelry)
  3. I ALWAYS show a “Zanshin” or “ready stance” when I am demonstrating a technique with my Sensei…both before and after the technique, to show it is vital to always be ready for a potential threat (or a threat’s follow-up)
  4. When I see someone acting out or in a bullying manner, I very quickly address it and make sure involved parties understand what happened, and why their actions were not acceptable
  5. I treat everyone equally
  6. I speak in a firm but respectful tone
  7. I reward great behavior with positive, verbal affirmations
  8. Likewise, I don’t tolerate fooling around – a Martial Arts setting is not the place!

My behavior and approach will be modeled, so it is important that I lead by example. I do the same when volunteering – we have a few children with autism who like to get particularly rowdy. I make clear when something is not acceptable in explicit terms, and I encourage and reward positive behaviors.

In daily life I also do my best to lead with an empathetic heart. This doesn’t mean I am necessarily more vulnerable to or unaware of realistic dangers, only that I approach my assessments with some level of compassion. (I am not, let’s be clear, referring to a dangerous situation – during such times, we must act without hesitation. This is its own rabbit-hole conversation!) But. . .in regular, day-to-day activities, I do my best to treat others as I want to be treated, and to have compassion for those in need. I am not raising a child of my own, but that doesn’t mean I don’t impact those around me – I want those children to know the beauty of an empathetic heart, and that it is up to us to champion for those who may be unable to do so for themselves. 

There are many bullying situations in which a child may not fully grasp the danger he or she is in (as above.) While there are no definitive statistics, it is clear that many people stand around and do nothing. To me, that is simply unconscionable.

We encourage the children in our classes to – first and foremost – get an adult. That action is doing SOMEthing. If they are in the midst of it, we show them some of the ways they can be involved and stay as safe as possible. But we don’t say “just stand there and stare!” We want them to recognize danger when it occurs, and know that they have safe options to HELP. At the end of the day, those actions can literally save a life. 

Empathy and compassion matter.

Having tools to use in dangerous situations matters.

Let’s do our part to help children to understand what they can do, and to help them grow into compassionate adults – they need never, EVER be helpless.

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Magnify The Strengths

I have the great fortune to work with many individuals with disabilities, and to learn alongside their families and those in special education. I have always lived my life believing that kindness is not only valuable…but crucial. I believe that when we have something nice to say, or we recognize something beautiful in another person, that we should speak up.

Working in this community has extended the importance of this even further. There is nothing more wonderful than seeing the face of a child when they suddenly believe in themselves. When we share a kind word and focus on their strengths (often in spite of great adversity) we have the power to illuminate their world. I take that responsibility very seriously, and frankly…I feel it is an honor to be in such a position. As all human beings, they already know where they struggle…they don’t need to be reminded of where they fall short, but rather to see all the things they do well.

No matter who you are, no matter who someone else is…if you have something kind to say...SAY IT. Don’t hold back because a few supportive words could make all the difference in someone’s day…or in their life. We all remember certain compliments we’ve received over the years, and we remember how those comments made us feel. Share that gift with others that they too may recognize their wonderful contributions to the world.

 

Speak Victory, Not Defeat

I love this sentiment (compliments of one of my favorite Facebook sites, The Empath Universe.) It speaks to the notion that our conversations with ourselves can (rather profoundly) impact whether we are creating, manifesting, and building in our lives OR breaking down and blocking  

I personally believe in the power of…

Positive thought,

Energy…

and words.

As such, I live a very magical life – one I am more in control of than I am not, which is somewhat “divine” in and of itself. Having seen monumental changes – flat-out miracles – in my own life (as defined by me, naturally), I find myself utterly unconcerned with the wailings of naysayers and disbelievers. Their hooting and hollering can’t derail a train on the right track in spite of a ways yet to go.

When we are able to stay in the moment, positively focused on being, we bind ourselves to the very fibers of life’s cloth – a rich, complex, and vital tapestry. We go along for the ride gripping the wheel, helping the threads find their way…as opposed to remaining  detached and in the passenger’s seat. Our thoughts and words (spoken and silent) can fully shape the path in front of us, literally altering the course of life itself. Resigning yourself to a certain doom (notice I said “doom,” not “fate” – negativity begets more of it!) is an injustice to yourself. There is nothing keeping you from every detail of the beautiful life you want.

Zee-Roh!

The catch? It isn’t always easy to don our rose-colored glasses when things aren’t exactly the way we want them to be. Jumping into “happy” can feel as much as an exercise in futility as trying to stop Father Time – can’t do it. But the more we practice, the better we get at nipping our negative self-talk and our downward-to-the-doldrums spirals before either get out of control. And that’s really the magic of maintenance, right? If we start with a clean home and try to do little things each day to keep it that way, it won’t suddenly look like a tornado has come through.

Or, think of it as weeding a garden… Leave things because “I can get to it tomorrow” and you’ll find the flowers / vegetables / whatever are overrun to the point of “I guess next year…??” Little efforts daily can make a massive difference and…practice helps you get there.

A few daily reminders and tips…

 

Take these seriously.

Implement them IMMEDIATELY.

One of my favorite things to do is speak aloud in the car. Do it while you shave, sing these their praises in the shower…whatever it takes. Just DON’T GIVE UP! Don’t decide you have an unhappy fate so well before your time.

Let me help by adding a little to each…

REPEAT:

1. “I AM amazing. I contribute positively in many ways.”

2.  “I CAN do ANYthing I put my mind to. And…*I just DID!”

3. “Positivity is a choice. Happiness is an inside job and I’m in the driver’s seat.”

4. “I celebrate my individuality. I am beautiful inside and out, no matter my flaws. We ALL have flaws, and that’s OKAY.”

5. “I am prepared to succeed. I allow the possibility of me succeeding and having all the wonderful fortune I hope for.”

*The next step is the “AS IF”…and I will get to that shortly… The “AS IF” spin will literally change your life. If you don’t believe in magic already, you will…

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Without The Darkness, And Without The Storms…

Some days are good, many are great, and some feel insurmountably uphill. I really do try my best to see the world as “I’m thankful I have a glass” as opposed to “it’s half empty or half full,” because I actually do harbor that much gratitude – life is a gift on every level.

On the tough days, though, I give myself so hard a time it’s nigh unconscionable. While I have uncovered the part I had to play in some disastrous situations of the past, it is also important to remember that I didn’t deserve bad things…and neither was I the cause. It is important that we ALL remember that – we are nothing more than a bundle of experiences and lenses colored by those experiences. It isn’t always easy to step back – recovery takes a lifetime, not just a handful of years.

It’s also important to be gentle with ourselves for our shortcomings – many of which, I daresay, we are neither proud of nor want! Frankly, I’d love to not have some of the conditioned responses I have. As a person who knows I have a choice in everything surrounding ME (my attitude, my actions, my inactions, my REactions, my responses…) it frustrates me to the hilt that I am unable to “will away” the things I do that I can’t stand. That said, I’m also not less of a person because I struggle…and neither are you.

While I am acutely aware that without a “yang” there is no “yin,” I sometimes need a reminder. A friend today gave me one such virtual hug… Without the storms and darkness, we aren’t able to have or appreciate the calm or the light in life. I really believe that both are necessary, and that product of both is a life that is collectively more (far more!) beautiful than it is not. . .


“Progress, not perfection” as it goes… I don’t have a right to judge myself or anyone else – I know deep down that I try to be better each day, and I know (in advance) that I won’t always be able to make that mark. In spite of human flaws and fragility, I see so much good in the world. Through the words and support of others, I also have the comfort of knowing I am not alone, and that the personal difficulties I have weathered in my own life (or how I have been affected and altered by those experiences) are also not so strange and unusual. In fact, far from it…

Some days I need a spiritual hug. Others, I require room to breathe… Overall, though, patience, positivity, and understanding are always welcome, and I’m thankful to have that in my life. What a joy to know that the journey is one we never have to make alone, and that the darkness will always give way to light.

Don’t Quit

Quitting is actually one of the easier options…and there’s no question we’ve all been on the verge at times. Maybe it’s at school, maybe it’s in our sport, maybe it’s the work we do every day. . . The struggle is a real one, and it can consume every aspect of our being.

But if we push through – insurmountable that may seem at times – often we find a miracle at the end of the tunnel. . . Not only a light, but a full-on, now-I-know-why-I-had-to-experience-that miracle.

Magic is as much a part of life as breathing air is to all living things – it is within our grasp, and within our own power to manifest it.

Don’t lose hope, even on the darkest day, because…much as the sun rises each day…a miracle is ready to unfold. . .

John Greenleaf Whittier

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