Dear Dr. Wes and Julia: My 12-year-old daughter has virtually no friends and seems to be a target for every bully at school. On numerous occasions, I have addressed the issues with the school, but things only get better for a short time and then get worse again. I might add that my daughter is bipolar but does get counseling and is on medication. She is entering junior high this year. Any suggestions for a smoother school year?
Dr. Wes: It sounds like you've got the bipolar situation under control and now want to focus on the school problem. I think most schools in our area struggle in dealing with kids like your daughter from both a social and academic standpoint. On one hand, who can blame them? There's a growing number of special-needs kids being mainstreamed, and we aren't exactly overfunding school budgets or overpaying educators, especially here in River City. This creates a clash between what the school needs to do to stay afloat and what you need to do to get your daughter educated and properly socialized. On the other hand, your child has a federally mandated right to a successful education, and as a parent you are obligated to be sure that happens.
If your child is not on an Individualized Educational Program (IEP), then I suggest you pursue this as a first step. You can discuss this with your therapist, and he or she should know how to help you proceed. An IEP is part of a federal law 94-142, and more recently the 2004 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which require schools to make reasonable accommodations so that your child's learning experience is maximized. An IEP can be used for anything from cognitive handicaps to emotional disturbance. In your case, it is reasonable to assume that your child's disorder is causing her to struggle with her peers, which is also likely to directly impact her education. Additionally, I would argue that socialization is not an incidental part of formal education, so her ability to feel safe in school and learn how to deal with her peers should be a priority.
I doubt anyone at your school has shared this idea with you. In fact, when you ask the school to evaluate your child, they may seem reluctant. Ask your therapist to help you put your request in writing, then file it with the school. The school then has 60 school days (counting only days school is in session) to evaluate your daughter, take her therapist's recommendations into account and determine her eligibility. Once she's on an IEP, you and the therapist can request specific interventions at school that will reduce her distraction from bullying and make her more resistant to it. If the school agrees to those accommodations, they are obligated to follow through. If they don't, then that's a different and more complicated matter.
To be clear, none of this has to be contentious. In fact, it can prevent some conflicts because once the IEP is in place, everyone should know his or her role and it's all down on paper in black and white. I also strongly urge you to buy the book "Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy," second edition. This is the guerrilla handbook for any parent or professional who wants to get the ball rolling in a child's school.
An IEP isn't going to solve every social problem for your child, but it can give you more influence. We'll revisit this issue of bullying in more general terms in a future column. I do not expect it to go away any time soon.
Julia: Being a friendless person is one thing, but having a friendless child can leave a parent feeling helpless and guilty.
My guess is that your child is not totally friendless. As you said, she is going into junior high, and at this time in her school career she will be transitioning away from old friends and making new ones. Of course, one of the best ways to meet new people is to join clubs and groups within the school. If your daughter isn't comfortable with this scenario, there are community sports groups, arts classes and numerous other possibilities. Not only can extracurricular groups expand your daughter's circle of friends, but they also can build her self-confidence in a social setting.
Alas, just as junior high is an excellent opportunity for making friends, it is also the place where bullying - especially among girls - is at its most vicious. Unfortunately, while it is not asking too much for the other kids at school to change, it is definitely expecting too much. Bullying kids, if their behavior is left unchecked, tend to grow into bullying adults. Since your daughter will have to face bullying at school and in the adult world, your best defense is an offense. Teaching her how to either ignore or gracefully handle bullying will put a stop to it much sooner than asking for the school's intervention.
It doesn't sound like your daughter's bipolar disorder is contributing to any of her problems but just inflating your concerns about how it affects her. Just know that junior high is a different experience than grade school, and the more positive and assertive approach taken in handling both current and potential problems, the better off you and your daughter will be.
Next week: Letters we'd like to receive. Dr. Wes and Julia ask for comments on topics ranging from the Internet to drug use in the schools. Warm up your word processors.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Julia Davidson is a Bishop Seabury Academy junior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.