Bullying is repeated, forceful behavior meant to cause physical or emotional harm as a way to scare or control others. The behavior can include teasing, insulting, shoving, hitting, or gossiping, and it is often an act of power. This page will talk about bullying and children with disabilities, how children are affected by bullying, signs a child is being bullied, important things to know when watching for bullying, and where to get help.

Bullying and the Child with Disabilities

Bullying can happen to any person in any place. While no one cause puts a child at risk of being bullied, children with disabilities are both at risk and highly affected by being bullied. One study shows 60% of students with disabilities tell someone they are being bullied often, compared with 25% of all students.

How are Children Affected by Bullying?

Children who are bullied may feel upset, afraid, ashamed, embarrassed, and nervous about going to school. Longer-term effects include lower scholastic success and aspirations, greater anxiety, loss of self-esteem, depression and post-traumatic stress, physical health problems, self-harm and suicidal thinking, suicide, feelings of loneliness, more absences from school, and other harmful impacts to a child’s health and education. [Young: 2010]
Children who bully other children also have lasting problems. Sometimes children who have certain emotional or behavioral disorders, or limited social skills act, in a way that is mistaken for bullying. Whether the behavior is meant, or due to disability, it still needs to be addressed.

Signs a Child is Being Bullied

Bullying usually keeps happening unless there is intervention, but knowing when it happens can be difficult. Children will not always tell you they are being bullied. Possible signs are:
  • Changes in behavior
  • Unusual episodes of acting out
  • Sleep problems
  • Bed-wetting
  • Crying or sadness for no known reason
  • Unusual “clinginess” to family and caregivers
  • Fear of leaving home, going to school, or usual daily activities
If you notice any of these with your child or other things that are not normal to his or her behavior, ask your child lots of questions.

Important Things to Know

Children may not necessarily know they are being bullied. Sometimes children may believe they have made new friends when in fact those friends are making fun of them. Children with special needs may be more trusting and at risk in social situations. Ask your children about their day, who they were with or talked to, and who their friends are. Listen carefully for anything that causes you concern.

Getting Help

If your child has let you know that he or she is being bullied, call the school to talk about this with the teacher and principal. If your child has an IEP, involve the team right away create strategies for your child to cope and let adults know if they are being bullied.
Children with disabilities are protected under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Schools are required by law to make sure they are addressing their needs and resolving harassment or bullying issues.
In all cases, bullying is a public health challenge. Awareness and focus is needed with intervention and prevention of bullying of students with disabilities.


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Bullying and Harassment of Students with Disabilities
From Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center.

A Report and Guide on Bullying and the Child with Special Needs (PDF Document 3.7 MB)
Walk a Mile in their Shoes: Bullying and the Child with Special Needs, a report and guide from AbilityPath.org.

Bullying and Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Care Needs
Creating a safe environment for youth with disabilities and for youth with special health needs from StopBullying.gov.

What if Your Child IS the One Showing Bullying Behavior? (PDF Document 88 KB)
Children who bully can be affected as much as those they target; from the Pacer Center.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: May 2016; last update/revision: November 2018
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Authors: Tina Persels
Jennifer Goldman, MD, MRP, FAAP

Page Bibliography

Young J, Ne'eman A, Gelser S.
Bullying and Students with Disabilities.
National Council on Disability; (2010) http://sid.usal.es/idocs/F8/FDO27045/Bullying_and_students_with_disabi....