Research suggests that children with developmental or medical special needs are more likely to be bullied or “left out” compared with typical children.

Bullying results from an imbalance in power between the bully and the victim. Because children with disabilities are at a physical or psychological disadvantage, they can be easy targets.

These children are 1.5 to 2 times more likely to be victims of bullying, according to 2006 study in the journal Pediatrics, published by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Bullying has negative effects on all its victims, but kids with special needs are especially vulnerable, according to Nancy A. Murphy, M.D., FAAP, chair of the AAP Council on Children with Disabilities executive committee. Since these children already struggle more with self-esteem, she said, bullying has a greater impact. And because these kids desire to fit in, they are less likely to stand up for themselves.

Dr. Murphy stressed that children with special needs also can become bullies.

“The bully is a child equally in trouble,” she said. “Both of those kids are victims in their own way.”

Dr. Murphy suggested teaching social skills and identifying inappropriate behaviors to help with both problems. She also provided advice to parents of these at-risk children.

  • Regularly ask the child questions about his school day. Some children with special needs are very trusting and might not recognize when they are being bullied, so a high degree of vigilance is important.

  • Empower the child with strategies to deal with bullying. This eliminates dependency on the parent as the problem-solver.

  • Alert teachers. This provides a heightened level of surveillance and a safety net for the child.

  • Talk to classmates about the child’s disability. Explaining that strange behaviors or appearances are due to a disability can go a long way toward stopping the bullying.

  • Set a positive example. Often bullies are modeling bad behaviors that they see at home.

  • Work on impulse control. Teach strategies like counting to three or taking a step back. Also, teach the child how to show remorse.

The AAP is a partner in the federal Stop Bullying Now campaign. For a tip sheet on bullying prevention and children with special needs, visit

©2010 American Academy of Pediatrics. This information may be freely copied and distributed with proper attribution.