by Leandie Bräsler and Natasha Smit

Some children enjoy poking fun at someone else when that person is “different” from the rest of the children in the school. Any person can be targeted by a bully. Usually, it is not children’s intention to be cruel or nasty towards someone else, but it could be the case or could become the case at a later stage. At a certain stage it stops being harmless. Children with type 1 diabetes sometimes may become the target of bullying because their diabetes makes them “different” from the rest of their classmates – it makes them stand out.

Diabetes-related bullying may affect the way the disease itself is managed. When children are bullied because of their medical condition, it simply causes more stress. This may complicate the way type 1 diabetes is managed. For example, the victims (children with diabetes) may react to the bullying by not taking their medication when they should, or by not following their plans for meals or physical activities as suggested, because they are afraid of being seen and judged by their classmates.

What can learners, parents/guardians and teachers do?

  • Explain to your child/learner that it is not their fault when they are bullied. Also tell them that nobody deserves to be treated in this way. Encourage your child/learner to get help from an adult if he or she is bullied.
  • Try to prevent diabetes-related bullying having an effect on the victim’s self-care. Children/Learners should not stop healthy habits because their classmates make fun of them or bully them – whether when the classmates see them using medication, performing regular blood sugar tests or enjoying nourishing snacks or lunches.
  • Understand the condition and everything accompanying it. Make sure you understand the function of insulin and snacks. Attend to a child’s emotions and behaviour.
  • Try to motivate children to see the good in the situation and to adapt to their circumstances without harming their health. Anything may be good as long as it is done in moderation. Teach your child to make the better choice or to apply portion control rather than being deprived completely of certain social meetings or parties, after which they could experience emotional rejection or feelings of guilt if they do not act precisely according to the book.

Learners with diabetes may experience the following:

  • Provocation by classmates because of behaviour they view as “different” or “strange”, such as when the diabetes sufferer has to conduct blood sugar tests, take medication or cannot eat certain types of food for lunch if it clashes with their planned meals.
  • Physical attacks, online harassment or cyber bullying, and being made fun of or called names. A learner with diabetes may be seen by the bully as a person with a physical weakness. On the other hand, research has shown that some children with a physical defect or special needs may bully other children.
  • Rejection and feelings of guilt. Children with diabetes could easily feel excluded because their meals and snacks often are different from those of their classmates. Some children are physically excluded by their classmates, while others are excluded by parents who want to protect their child from temptation by isolating him or her during social gatherings. When such a child does get an opportunity to attend a social gathering and enjoy an unhealthy snack with friends, they feel guilty, and this may harm their thinking and healthy relation to food.

Teachers may not be trained to deal with situations where learners have special health needs. While the teachers have good intentions, learners with type 1 diabetes then are treated differently from the rest of their classmates. This could have a negative effect where the child with diabetes is separated from the other learners, which potentially increases the chances of the child being viewed as “different”. This may stimulate feelings of envy among other learners because they think the child with diabetes is getting more attention than they themselves are getting.

It is important to understand what children being bullied, i.e. the victims, are experiencing. Bullying may cause stress that can contribute to a feeling of loneliness and anxiety, which in turn can have an impact on their emotional and physical health. A variety of reactions to this situation may delay or harm a child’s social, educational and emotional development.

  • Victims may change the way they manage the diabetes because they do not want to be made fun of. They may also fail to test their blood sugar as regularly as they should, or they may postpone taking medication.
  • Victims may begin to believe the negative remarks and may then show signs of anxiety or depression.
  • Victims may avoid social gatherings, missing out on positive group activities and other positive experiences.
  • Victims may also begin to bully younger children or classmates they view as “weaker”, as an acquired reaction to the treatment received by them.

The long-term effects of diabetes-related bullying

Generally, bullying is not an incident that happens only once; it is something that happens repeatedly. Diabetes-related bullying therefore is a series of minor incidents repeated over an extended period, and it could harm a child’s confidence. It includes making fun of someone, cyber bullying (on the internet) and fighting that does not occur once only but repeatedly. It also is important to know what long-term diabetes-related bullying can do: It can cause physical, mental and emotional damage to the victims that they could carry with them into adulthood.

  • Children may get setbacks in managing their diabetes if they stop doing what has to be done every day.
  • Because children may fall behind with their school work, as well as their social and emotional progress, they could also develop behavioural problems.
  • Being the subject of violence may harm a child’s ability to develop sound relationships with others as they grow older.
  • Children’s risk of depression and social anxiety is higher if they are bullied in a repetitive and continuous way.

On a positive note

Some children may show their strength when experiencing diabetes-related bullying. Support at home, in their community and from the diabetes caring team (doctors and dieticians) is most valuable.

When a child is bullied on only one school day, it is a sign for everyone to act. Bullying should be nipped in the bud before it becomes a major problem. Here are clear actions for parents/guardians to take:

  • Be supportive and encouraging. Ask your child to talk freely about what happens at school. Do this daily. Tell your child he should not blame himself. Explain to your child why diabetes-related bullying may occur. Make sure your child knows you are always there to listen and that you support him. Support your child by maintaining a healthy lifestyle with him or her and still having nourishing meals as a family instead of preparing separate food for your child for every meal that once again looks “different” from the rest of the family.
  • Speak to your child’s teachers to make sure that they are aware of what is happening and also what action may be taken to solve the problem immediately.
  • Write down all your concerns. Contact the head of the school, the governing body or the education department to start a bullying prevention programme or to take similar action. AfriForum’s anti-bullying programme is offered at schools across the country to curb bullying at schools.
  • Talk to the teachers and the school to make sure your child does not start bullying other children. These may be children who are younger or weaker than your child, or it may be a child who is seen as “different” or “strange”. Unfortunately, children learn to bully others if they themselves are bullied. If so, this aggressive behaviour will have to be changed.
  • Make sure your child does not stop looking after his/her own health, g. avoiding blood sugar tests and taking medication. If this happens, try to be supportive and not to blame your child immediately because he/she is scared or acts in self-defence. Emphasise the importance of sticking to the care plan for their condition.

We all are striving for a healthy lifestyle and healthy eating habits. It is important to understand that a child or other person with diabetes is simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle and that everybody will benefit from such a lifestyle.

If your child’s school wants to get involved in AfriForum’s anti-bullying drive, send an email to leandie.brasler@afriforum.co.za.

If your child has problems with diabetes, Natasha Smit may be contacted at nsmitdietitian@gmail.com

This post is also available in: Afrikaans

Leandie Bräsler
Leandie Bräsler
Leandie Bräsler is coordinater of leadership development at AfriForum

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