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Catherine McClellan, Ph.D., discusses ways to prevent bullying and promote kindness.

Promoting Kindness Despite Differences

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Evo Terra (Host): Sadly, bullying behavior amongst children is still far too common, and it's probably no surprise to learn that children with disabilities are much more likely to experience bullying. Let's get more information about that with Dr. Catherine McClellan, a clinical psychologist with Shriners Children's Portland.

Welcome to Healing Heroes PDX, the podcast series from the specialists at Shriners Children's Portland. Let's get more information about anti-bullying efforts with Dr. Catherine McClellan, a clinical psychologist with Shriners Children's Portland. Dr. McClellan, thank you very much for joining me to talk about this important topic.

Dr. Catherine McClellan: Well, thank you very much. I'm a clinical psychologist and the Chief of Behavioral Health here at Shriners Children's Portland. I'm fortunate enough to get to work as part of a multidisciplinary team with the goal of improving the quality of life for all of our patients.

Host: Now, as I mentioned at the very start of this episode, Dr. McClellan, children with disabilities are much more likely to experience bullying in school. Do you see this in the children that you treat at Shriner's Children?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: Yes. Unfortunately, I do. In fact, we know that youth with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be the target of bullies. So, this includes youth with disabilities in their physical, developmental, intellectual or sensory functioning. We see the impact of bullying on our patients daily. So, this can include patients who are frightened to attend school or become depressed from the bullying they receive for their differences. We also see youth who choose not to engage in healthcare behaviors, such as wearing a brace to treat their scoliosis due to fears of being different and thereby, more of a target for bullying.

Host: That's an unfortunate side effect I hadn't really considered, is what is this sort of behavior doing to the kids? What is stopping them, preventing them from doing for their healthcare? I mean, I could figure social interaction, but choosing not to do the things that they need to do healthy. That's a real terrible thing, isn't it?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: It sure is. It's really unfortunate because a lot of suffering can be avoided by engaging in some of these more preventative healthcare behaviors.

Host: So, let's talk about some of the-- I mean, I hate to get this specific on things, but what are some of the different types of bullying that parents of children with disabilities should be aware of?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: We know that there's roughly about six common types of bullying. So, that includes some of the obvious ones we know about, the physical bullying, verbal, emotional. But there's also concerns about racial, sexual, and cyberbullying. Children with special needs are targeted by bullies due to factors like physical vulnerabilities, social skills challenges, as well as being in environments that are just intolerant of their differences.

Host: So, how should parents or grandparents or other caregivers of kids with disabilities. They have to know what's happening from the kids. And I know that kids aren't often likely to tell their parents. So,, parents need to start the conversation. How do we start it? How do we have a conversation with our kid about bullying?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: This is a really fantastic question. I think of conversations about bullying sort of two types of conversation. The first one being what occurs from a very early age, and then the second type of conversation occurring when a parent has concerns that there may be bullying going on. So, thinking about sort of the longer term conversations, those really actually start from birth and not necessarily through direct conversation, but engaging your child to show them how they deserve to be treated and establishing an open line of communication early on. So, showing your child respect, unconditional love, and understanding builds them up, makes them less vulnerable to bullying. Additionally, consistently demonstrating kindness and compassion for others shows your child that every person deserves to be treated with respect and kindness. This is another way to inoculate our youth against bullying. Parents can also help by encouraging their child to participate in inclusive social activities, develop healthy friendships, and having social connections, as we know that that's really protective against bullying.

Now on the flip side, when a parent or caregiver does start to have concerns about bullying, they can start the conversation with their child by gently asking about their social relationships who they feel that they get along with and who they're not getting along with. As you mentioned, it's actually not uncommon for children to be afraid to tell their parents that they're being bullied. And some youth with social communication difficulties may even struggle to recognize that they are being bullied.

Paying attention to the signs of being bullied can be important. So, some signs that you might see will include mood changes, a child who no longer wants to go to school or participate in social activities, youth who start to have new sleep disruptions, new physical complaints, especially stomach aches and headaches. Oftentimes we see youth showing a decline in their academic performance, coming home with missing or damaged possessions, and sometimes even showing evidence of physical injury. So, those can be signs in particular to pay attention to if your child, for whatever reason, doesn't seem to feel comfortable or isn't telling you information about what's going on in their social life.

Host: Yeah. And I would assume that, obviously, if a parent or a caregiver of a child that's facing bullying, you need to be very supportive of this. You need to welcome the conversation, even though it may be very uncomfortable for you to do that. So, let's take it to the next step. You're a parent, you found out that your child is the subject of a bully, some sort of bullying is taking place. Or actually, let's think about this from a different direction. Before I ask that question, let's figure this out, what if it's their child that's the bully? What if the parent finds out that their child is expressing these bullying behaviors on kids? What's the best way to handle that situation?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: You have a really excellent point. Children who are bullied often bullies themselves. Honestly, the first thing a parent should do if they learn that their child is being bullied or that their child is bullying others, we actually really encourage parents to take a moment and seek some support for themselves, either talking with a friend to calm down. Some people need a higher level of support. But we want parents to be able to do is to show strength and to be able to regulate themselves to provide a model for their child.

So, the first thing, again, focusing more right now on children who are being bullied, it can be helpful to start by praising your child for having the courage to share that information with you. You definitely want to remind your child that it is not their fault. And ask your child, is there a specific way they want you to help them?

When you have a child who's being bullied, a good place to start is by speaking with teachers and principals. The best approaches for bullying include those that target assertiveness skills in children, but also educate peers around ways to support youth with disabilities and what to do when they observe a peer bullying a student with a disability. So, it's important to know that bullying based on a disability that creates a hostile environment for your child can constitute harassment. And this is something to definitely take up with the school.

With regard to children who are being bullies themselves, many of them actually present with the same concerns as youth who are being bullied. They're lagging in some of their skills development, they may be struggling with depression and low mood. These youth deserve and merit intervention and support just as much as the children who are being bullied.

Host: That's a good point. I think we all need to remember that. I know obviously as a clinical psychologist, you're dealing with the children themselves, but also the family members. So, what kind of conversations do you have with a family who, A, have a child with a disability that is, B, facing bullying from their peers?

Dr. Catherine McClellan: One conversation I like to have with parents is to talk with them about ways that they can support their child through assertiveness training. We really want youth to be able to have a calm and boring response to their bully because we know that that is actually effective. Responses like, "Okay, whatever you say," or "Back off" are neutral enough not to aggravate others, but they demonstrate assertiveness. You can role play this at home or practice what to do in different situations so that if your child does find themself in that situation, they have a road map for what they can do, to help mitigate the bullying.

Additionally, many youth with disabilities have an individualized education plan at school. And with that plan, they can often set up additional supports to help protect them against bullying and have them engage more socially because we know social engagement is protective.

Host: Before I close with you, Dr. McClellan, I do want to mention that Unity Day is this coming October 18th, and the staff at Shriners Children's Portland will be wearing orange that day to show unity for kindness, acceptance, and inclusion, and send a visible message that no child should ever experiencing bullying. The team at Shriners Children's invites you to join them and post on social media using the hashtag #unityeveryday. That's hashtag symbol unity every day, one word.

Dr. McClellan, thank you very much for joining me and for all of your efforts in helping to raise awareness. Once again, that was Dr. Catherine McClellan, a clinical psychologist with Shriners Children's Portland. For more information, please visit our website at And if you found this podcast episode helpful, please share it on your social media channels and check out our full library of past episodes for topics of interest to you.

I'm Evo Terra, and that concludes this episode of Healing Heroes PDX with Shriners Children's Portland. Thanks for listening.

About the Speaker

Catherine B. McClellan

Catherine McClellan, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked extensively in healthcare settings as part of a multidisciplinary team. She graduated from Reed College, earned her doctorate from West Virginia University and completed her internship at Children’s Hospital of Orange County in Orange, California. Dr. McClellan completed her fellowship at University of South Carolina/Richland Children’s Hospital in Columbia, South Carolina.

Learn more about Catherine B. McClellan, Ph.D.

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