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The Informed Parent

Dealing With Bullies*

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Mar. 03, 2003

In our country, bullying has traditionally been viewed as a common part of children’s behavior. Adults have seen little need to pay much attention to it. The victims of bullies have been blamed for setting themselves up for the ruffian’s aggression. Now bullying is being seen for what it is--abusive behavior. The aim of these agitators is to intimidate their victims. Because they are capable of causing fear to another the victim often does not report to an adult in anticipation of the bully escalating the behavior.

Bullying includes teasing, harassment, and intimidation. When my older daughter was in second grade, she had a pair of Sesame Street sneakers that were her favorite shoes. A girl in her classroom began teasing her about these shoes, saying that only babies wore Sesame Street clothes. When my daughter did not respond to the teasing, this child elicited other girls in the classroom to join in the harassment. One afternoon the teasing became so fierce that my daughter threw those shoes away. She was afraid to go to school for days, fearing that this girl would continue teasing her about her clothes.

Now, 22 years later, I work on a school campus where bullying includes teasing about the clothes children choose to wear as well as character defamation and physical threats if a child refuses to comply with the bully’s demands.

Both boys and girls can be bullies, but the behaviors they exhibit usually are different. Bullying among boys includes intimidation, power and control, threats to one’s safety, and humiliation. Boys engage in name-calling, fighting, extortion, and sexual harassment. Girls who bully engage in social cruelty, lying, rejection and ostracism, and manipulation. They hurt others’ feelings.

Bullies can be considered at-risk for truancy, dropping out of school, violence, and delinquency. Their victims can experience physical and psychological complaints and may become truant to avoid the harassment. While the aggressive child needs help in learning new ways for getting their needs met, in this article we will discuss how the VICTIM can learn to deal with a bully.

If your child tells you that he is being teased or harassed at school, take his words seriously. If he is brave enough to talk to you about being bullied, you can know that the issue is big for him. Set up an appointment to talk to the teacher and principal, and include your child in the conference.

There are a number of skills children can learn to safeguard themselves against a bully. Teach them to:

IGNORE THE BULLY’S BEHAVIOR. Initially the teasing may increase since the bully believes that by increasing his behavior he will get the response from the victim that he wants. If the ignoring is consistent, usually the bullying stops. Your child will need support while practicing ignoring hurtful behaviors. It is not easy.

WALK AWAY. If a child walks away each time he is approached by the bully, eventually another victim will be found because it is not worth the time to taunt someone who does not respond. The process may be slow, but it will work.

JUST SAY “NO”. Teach your child a script such as, “Don’t say/do that anymore.” Role-play situations with him in preparation for what he will say when bullied. Have him practice using a firm voice when telling the bully to cease the behavior. This assertive behavior can be done in conjunction with walking away.

SEEK ADULT ASSISTANCE. If the above strategies do not work, tell your child to seek help from a playground aide, teacher, or other adult.

TEACH SELF-PROTECTION. When out and about, children need to stay in lighted and well-traveled areas. Whether playing on the playground or away from school, it is important to have a buddy. Bullies are more likely to pick on children who are alone than those who are in pairs or in a group. Ignoring, walking away, and saying “no” are also self-protective behaviors.

The above strategies are proactive. They empower the victim. Whereas they teach how to be assertive, at the same time victims need to learn to control their behaviors that encourage bullying. These include:

CRYING. When a child cries, the bully has won. This is precisely the reaction a mean or harassing child wants.

LOSING THEIR TEMPER. Just like crying, when the victim loses his temper, the bully has gotten a positive response in his eyes. He believes he has made his victim respond.

ENGAGING IN THE BULLYING BACK. If a child tries to reason with a bully, or attempts taunting in response to harassment, the situation escalates. Again , what the bully wants is a response from the victim. Any response other than a firm, assertive message that says, “Don’t do that any more,” keeps the aggressor in control.

GETTING OTHERS TO GANG UP ON THE BULLY. This easily causes a situation to grow into a larger conflict, and can result in physical fighting, increased harassment, hurtful name-calling, and ostracism.

ACTING HURT. the bully’s desire is to hurt the victim either physically or psychologically. When a child acts out his hurt by crying, pouting, isolating himself, or moving with a defeated posture, the bully has achieved his goal.

Parents and teachers are the single most effective deterrent to bullying. Teaching children the skills of dealing with bullies and helping them learn to control their behaviors that encourage harassment empowers them so that they don’t become victimized. Without a victim, a bully has no power.

*Much of the information for this article was synthesized from CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT: A CALIFORNIA RESOURCE GUIDE written and published by Los Angeles County Office of Education.

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