Overcoming Bullying: Five Things I Learned From My Son with Cleft

John-&-Cody-at-Final-Mile-2016_8-years-old

A new report about bullying was released this week that really hit home for me. It notes that children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied, and I’ve found this to be nothing short of the truth for my son who was born with a severe cleft lip and cleft palate.

From the moment he was born, my expectations of motherhood went out the window. John needed multiple surgeries, assistance to eat properly, speech therapy, and more. Researchers are calling for schools to teach social and emotional skills to both bullies and victims, in lieu of outdated “zero tolerance” policies that simply kick bullies out of school. Based on my son’s experiences, I couldn’t agree more.

The challenges John has faced have taught him social and emotional maturity well beyond his years. Given everything he’s overcome, I’m so proud that my son has taken it upon himself to help other children in need. In light of this all, I wanted to share five life lessons I’ve learned from my 8-year-old son.

Hardships Teach Compassion and Patience

With each surgery and therapy session, my son encountered and became friends with children with different conditions, from autism and cerebral palsy to other facial deformities. At the same time, at school he was being bullied for his looks and his speech. However, being exposed to children with different needs and situations taught him to accept his own, and recognize that others have even larger obstacles to overcome. I’ve seen my son develop social and emotional skills – acceptance, kindness and tenderness – through his exposure to hardships. His empathy has pushed me to embrace others when facing obstacles in my own life.

Parenting Has a Learning Curve

As we moved through the process of healing my son, I realized that every family faces different obstacles, some worse than ours, and it requires us to adjust our expectations of parenthood. My son saw this firsthand – other mothers struggling with their little ones, and my own worries during his first few surgeries. However, he taught me that it was entirely possible to learn to consider our situation a normal part of life.

Getting Involved Makes You Stronger

It was through Operation Smile, the international medical charity dedicated to providing free cleft lip and cleft palate surgeries for those in need around the world, that we found a larger community. His first fundraiser, Operation Smile’s Final Mile at the annual Shamrock Marathon in Virginia Beach, opened up a whole new world for him. He met other kids his age who also suffered with cleft, and one in particular from Tennessee who became a best friend. Despite their distance, they’ve gotten together, fundraised and run at this event every year since. Now, they speak out to support Operation Smile’s new campaign UNTIL WE HEAL to advocate for children around the world who don’t have access to safe surgery.

You Can Change the Conversation

John-ProctorWhat’s been hardest for me, is that my son has continued to face bullying at school because of how he looks. The first time, he came home crying when someone told him his lip “looked stupid.” It was difficult for him to talk about, but becoming involved made him more confident, and comfortable addressing his own appearance. Now, if he sees someone staring, he’ll tell them he’s raising money for other children like him. If he sees another child with cleft, he’ll let them know “me too!” to break the ice. Having a platform, a positive goal, opens the door to talking about issues we might otherwise still consider taboo.

Own It, Whatever It Is

As a parent, it was easy to be hurt by what John faced, but we have come to “own” our differences. Having cleft isn’t something to hide for my son now, it’s actually made him more outgoing. The best advice I ever received was from Dr. Bill Magee, the facial plastic surgeon who founded Operation Smile with his wife, Kathy. “Get John in front of crowds,” he said, “give him a microphone, because the more he speaks out, the louder his voice will become, and no one will be able to quiet it by making him feel bad about himself.” No matter what your child faces, get them involved, find what makes them feel special, and you will see that voice blossom.

This is a guest post by Ashley Proctor.

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