Real strategies to teach kids so they are less likely to be bullied
Adapted from an article sent to me by Dr. Michele Borba in 2011. Some of the language was modified to shift away from the term “victim” to emphasize a more self-empowered term: “target.” And although this article was originally written for parents, I have included it in resources for educators and for the general population as these strategies are also applicable to situations with aggressive, bullying adults.
I know you’ve heard the dismal statistics or the heartbreaking stories in the news about children who were bullied. By some estimates, one in three American schoolchildren is either a bully or the target of one. Studies also find that 160,000 kids skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated.
Let’s be clear: bullying impedes our children’s learning, boosts their stress, and is disastrous to mental health. Chances are also likely that your child will also be bullied at some time in his or her life.
So have you prepared your child how to handle a tormentor?
While you can’t always be there to step in and protect your child, there are ways to help your son or daughter be less likely to be singled out. Research at the University of Toronto shows that we can now at least predict which kids will be more likely to be targeted. The number one trait: children who appear “more vulnerable.”
We know that bullies look for easier targets or kids who cannot hold their own. Bullying is always intentional and cruel. If the targeted child does not buffer the first torment correctly, chances are the bullying will continue because bullying is almost always repeated.
While you can’t guarantee that your children will not be bullied, you can provide those needed tools so they appear more confident and are less likely to be targeted.
There’s no better time than now to help your children learn a few bully-proofing strategies. I’m providing solutions that I’ve shared with hundreds of parents and teachers. Many of these strategies I’ve culled from children who had been bullied (“This is what finally helped me.”) or from bystanders (“These are the strategies kids less likely to be bullied use.”) So let’s get started.
Tips About “Bully-Proofing”
Bully-proofing can be taught to any child, regardless of “type” or temperament… Yes, some kids have a harder time than others, but all kids can learn a few of these skills. Here is your crash course about bully-proofing.
There is no one bully-proofing solution that works for all kids. Each bullying situation is different.
Your goal is to help your children learn a few beginning strategies, and then add more (or switch them up a notch) as needed in the social setting.
Children learn new habits best when you show—not tell—the skill. So point out what other children are doing on the playground, “Do you see how she holds her head high when she’s talking? Her body looks more confident.” You might also help watch movies such as Mean Girls or Dumbo to help get that discussion going.
The goal in bully-prevention is not just to help kids be aware or even change their perceptions about bullying, but to teach new habits.
Kids need to know what to do in social situations. They also need to practice those new skills or habits enough times so they feel comfortable and can finally use the strategies without you. Practice and rehearsal in safe situations are essential to success.
Being bullied is stressful and traumatizing. In the heat of the moment, a targeted child cannot use a brand new bully-proofing skill with confidence. (Could you??) But with enough rehearsal in enough “safe” social settings kids will finally be able to apply that skill in real life.
Pass on the bully-proofing strategy to other caring adults who can help reinforce the new strategy in your child. Get on board with your children’s teachers, baby-sitters, relatives, friends, coaches, etc. so they too can help your children develop these skills.
A caring teacher shared with me how she used that “pass on strategy” to help a special education student who was repeatedly bullied. The teacher went through all my strategies below and chose the few Joey felt most comfortable with. She next created a small poster reminder of the bully-proofing skills for Joey to carry in his backpack and keep on his desk. She also made an extra copy of “Joey’s bully-proofing strategies” for his speech teacher and mom. Now there were three caring adults practicing the same strategies with Joey.
Three weeks later Joey’s mother was elated. “It worked!” she cried. “We kept that chart on the refrigerator. We practiced and practiced those strategies as a family until Joey could finally use them on the bully. The kid was so blown away by the ‘new kid’ he didn’t bug him again.” YES!
Keep in mind that there is no “perfect” strategy. The trick is to find what works best for your children–or variation of that strategy–and then practice it over and over until your children feel comfortable using it without you.
Choose just one strategy at a time and keep rehearsing it.
Reinforce your children’s efforts. This is hard stuff! Have your children try the skill with a younger or less threatening child. You should slowly see transfer as the child’s confidence increases.
Use Strong Body Posture
Though no guarantees, kids less likely to be picked on use assertive body posture. So teach your child to stand tall and hold his head up to appear more confident and look less vulnerable. A simple trick is to teach your child to “Always look at the color of the talker’s eyes.” Switching the rule to “Always look at the bridge of the talker’s nose” is less threatening for some kids. The simple technique helps your child to hold his head higher so he actually appears more confident.
The goal for bully-proofing is to “look assertive” and not to look not “passive or aggressive.” The skill takes much practice, so stick with it! You can start teaching this skill to toddlers.
Bullies love power and knowing they can push other kids’ buttons, so tell your child “Try to not let a bully know he upset you.” Stress to your child to never cry, insult, or threaten a bully. Doing so will only escalate things.
Staying calm is very tough for some kids—especially those who are more sensitive or impulsive. (See my blog Anger Management for Kids for special tips on teaching this skill so your child can succeed.)
It might help to ask your child: “Why do you think certain kids are more likely to be picked on then others?” “What do kids do that makes a bully think he or she has won?”
If your child can understand that the bully is looking for a reaction, he is more likely to strike again. Emphasize that being calm when you’re tormented is tough. So practice how to look or what to do if someone does insult you. Sometimes a “shoulder shrug” and a walk off is the best approach.
A hint: the CDC finds that most bullying begins verbally (with the tease, insult, racial, or sexual slur). How the child responds the first time makes a big difference as to whether the bullying continues. There is a “cruelty escalation” in bullying: it starts with a mean tease…to the insult…to the malicious…to cold-blooded insidious cruelty). Helping your child learn to handle a “lower level” insult can help stop the higher level insults.
Say “No” With Firm Voice
Teach your child that if he needs to respond, simple direct commands work best delivered in a strong determined voice (which must be practiced): “NO!” Other responses include a firmly delivered:
“Cut it out.” “No way.” “Stop.” “Back off.”
Then teach your child to walk away with shoulders held back. The trick is to not look like a victim (and that will take time and practice).
Also, if you want your child to stick up for herself, don’t be so quick to step in and solve her problems or speak for her. Kids need practice being assertive so when the moment comes when they do need to stand up to a bully, they can.
Start by slowly stepping back from rescuing and speaking for your child. You can be on the sidelines to help him or her know what to say or do better the “next time” but your child must learn to be confident in his own skin. It’s the best way for your child to learn how to speak up and stand up for himself.
Bullies rarely just go away, so offer specific ways to handle a bully if your kid must face him. I’ve polled dozens of school-aged kids and I’ve included the most effective comeback strategies that kids say worked for them. What I hear kids say most, “A kid with a good sense of humor can really defuse a bully.” [Many comedians I have met] admit they learned comeback skills to help them stand up to bullies. A sense of humor is hard to develop, but comeback skills can be learned. And delivery is everything!
Most kids can learn to manage verbal incidents if they have a repertoire of strategies to counter the verbal abuse. Your job is to share the strategies with your child, and then have her choose the one she feels most comfortable. What works for one child, won’t for another so keep playing with these strategies until you find a success one. Your child may be able to come up with a far more successful comeback than any of these.
Then you must practice the technique again and again until your child feels comfortable delivering it in the real kid world.
Here’s yet another reason your child should learn comeback skills: The CDC reports that most bullying begins with verbal harassment. If kids can defuse the verbal torment, the bullying is less likely to go up a notch to the next level. Bullying is almost always repeated, so once a bully finds a vulnerable target the bullying continues.
“Why would you say that?” “Why would you want to tell me I am dumb (or fat or whatever…)?”
Send a strong “I Want” message.
“I want you to leave me alone” or “I want you to stop teasing me.” The trick is to say the message firmly so that it doesn’t sound wimpy.
Shrug it off.
Some girls have this one nailed. It’s a shrug of the shoulder with a great “who cares?” look, and then a “walk off.”
Turn it into a compliment
“Hey, thanks. I appreciate that!” “That was really nice of you to notice.” “Thanks for the compliment.”
“You’ve got that right.” “One hundred percent correct!” “Bingo, you win!” “People say that a lot about me.”
Bully: “You’re dumb.” Child: “Yeah, but I’m good at it.”
Bully: “Hey, Raghead.” Child: “You’re right. I’m an Arab and proud of it.”
“So?…Whatever.” “So?…Who cares?” “So?…And your point is?”
“Thanks.” “Thank you for that comment.” “I appreciate that.” But say it so it sounds sincere and then turn and walk away.
“Like I would care?” “Give me a break.” “Oh, that’s just great.” The “look” has to match: rolling your eyes and walking away can do the trick. This works usually only for older kids who understand sarcasm.
Walk away without even a look at the teaser, pretend the tormentor is invisible, glance at something else and laugh, look completely uninterested or pretend you don’t hear it.
This one works best if your child has a tougher time delivering verbal comebacks. It also works best in places where your child can escape his tormentor such as on a park or playground. It doesn’t work in closed quarters such on a school bus or cafeteria table.
“Really? I didn’t know that.” “Thanks for telling me.” Sounding like you really mean it is the trick to the delivery.
“Cut it out.” Or “I don’t like it.” Stress that your child should just tell what he wants to happen, “Stop it, would ya?” but don’t express feelings (“That makes me mad.” Or “I really get upset when you do that.”) Bullies enjoy the victim being upset so halt the feeling, just name what you expect. (See Dr. Bluestein’s article, “What’s Wrong with ‘I-Messages’?”)
Make fun of the teasing (not the bully).
Fred Frankel, author of Good Friends Are Hard to Find, suggests that victims answer every verbal tease with a reply but not tease back. The verbal harassment often stops, Franekl says, because the kid lets the tormnetor know he’s not going to let the teasing get to him (even if it does). Suppose the teaser says: “You’re stupid.” The child says a rehearsed comeback, such as “You don’t say.” Once again, the delivery is crucial: it must be rehearsed and said with as minimum of emotional heat as possible.
Halt Insults and Pleads
Pleading (“Please stop that”) or delivering feeling-laden messages (“It really makes feel mad when you do that”) rarely work. In fact, those type of comments can increase bullying for a few reasons. Each bully’s motivation is different, but if you can help your child understand what the bully seeks, it may help him tailor his response.
Teach your child that most bullies want a reaction. If you beg or plead, the response gives the bully the power he craves. (Emphasis added.)
Some bullies lack empathy. If a victim delivers a “That makes me sad. I want you to stop picking on me,” [it] only makes the bully feel he won.
The bully may lack impulse control so if your child insults back or is too quick-tempered it may only spiral more bullying.
The key is to help your child understand where the bully is coming from. It doesn’t stop the bullying but it may help your child tailor his response.
Use a Stone-Faced Glare
Help your child use a mean stare that goes straight through the bully so you seem in control and not bothered. Bullies want reactions so if the child doesn’t appear fazed (I know, easier said than done), it may reduce further bullying. The right look will need repeated rehearsal. So practice, practice, practice so the look can be delivered the right way! It often helps a child if you can point out someone using the right “stone-face” glare or “unfazed shoulder shrug.” A movie clip (Mean Girls or Clueless are great) with young actors using the technique can be far more instructional than you trying to describe the look.
Leave the Scene
Emphasize that your child should leave the scene as soon as possible if ever he feels unsafe or his gut says, “Something might happen.” Ideally the child should walk towards other kids or an adult. Tell your child: “Don’t look back.” “Get help if you need to.”
Also say: “Fight only as a very last resort if you must defend yourself.” And then emphasize that you will support them! Beware that your child may be injured or suspended or expelled and the bully could very well get away with the cruelty if the incident was not witnessed.
Keep in mind that most bullies target children who are vulnerable so telling your child to “defend” himself may not only be an impossible feat but also set him up for injury.
Dr. Michele Borba, is an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books. Follow her on twitter @MicheleBorba. These strategies are adapted from her book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions in the chapter on being bullied. Visit Dr. Borba’s Web site at http://www.micheleborba.com. This article appears on her Web site and was reprinted with permission.
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Bullying Checklist for Kids by Naomi Drew
“You Belong” poem by Naomi Drew
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The Dignity Stance by Naomi Drew
The Myth of the Self-Esteem “Myth”
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Book: The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting
Book: High School’s Not Forever
Book: Mentors, Masters and Mrs. MacGregor: Stories of Teachers Making a Difference
© 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein
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