The bullying cycle usually begins with verbal harassment before escalating to more serious behavior. Your child’s reaction to the bully’s very first attempt may determine whether she goes from a one-time target to a long-term victim.
The most common advice bullied kids receive from well-meaning parents is to just “ignore it and they’ll go away.” That’s helpful if the bullying just involves name-calling or teasing, but when it involves physical harm or threats of harm, all bets are off.
Just ignoring the bully usually doesn’t work. After all, if your child is constantly exposed to this person at school or on the bus, the threat of harm is ever-present. Better to tell your child not to positively reinforce the bully’s behavior, which is very different from simply ignoring it.
Positive reinforcement means reacting in any way that’s satisfying to the bully—whether that’s crying, cowering, acquiescing, or getting angry. Your child’s best course of action is to deny bullies what they’re looking for by not giving them the satisfaction they’re hoping to get. When your child reacts like a victim, the bully gains power and may continue to pick on her because he’s “rewarded” when he does.
When your child denies the bully that satisfaction, she becomes less interesting as a victim and the chances that the bully will give up and leave her alone increase. By denying the bully his emotional reward, your child will make it less worthwhile for the bully to pick on her. She’s basically “retraining” the bully to leave her alone.
Teach your child specific things to do and say in response to bullying behavior that will deny the bully his satisfaction, such as:
- Embracing being the butt of the joke. Making jokes about herself based on what the bully says puts your daughter in control of the situation and denies the bully the upset reaction he’s looking for.
- Responding with as little emotion as possible. Wearing a poker face and not giving the bully the satisfaction of provoking an emotional reaction.
- Responding with good humor or positive emotions by acting like she’s thrilled that the bully noticed her, agreeing with the bully, thanking the bully for his interesting perspective, acting with boredom or disinterest, or responding with the same phrase every time (for example, “Thanks for sharing.”). This will suck the oxygen out of the bully’s fire and lead him to give up on his quest to get a reaction from your child.
- Teach your child to be fearless, to accept that she’s being targeted and to not care so much. Help her realize that since it isn’t about her or what she does or doesn’t do, the bully has some power over her. However, she has the power to choose how to react. Tell her to use that power to free herself from worry and fear.
There are a number of other ways your child could respond to a bully, including:
- Avoiding the bully whenever possible. If she must, she can ask for a different locker to avoid bumping into him in the halls.
- Buddying up with a friend to keep from being alone around him.
- Agreeing with the bully (“You’re right, I am a klutz.”) and walking away.
- Rolling with the taunts (“You’re right, my last name does rhyme with ‘butt.’”) and walking away.
- Making a self-deprecating joke (“You’re right. I suck at math!”) and walking away.
- Owning her personality (“You’re totally right, I’m a dork and proud of it!”) and walking away.
- Ignoring him and walking away.
- Telling the bully to stop in a clear, firm voice. AND WALKING AWAY.
You will have noticed the repetition in the examples above. Prefacing her responses to the bully with “You’re right” shows confidence and takes the wind out of his sails. And walking away after responding puts distance between her and the bully.
Practice these responses at home using role play where you and your child take turns acting like the bully and the victim until she feels comfortable saying them in a strong, firm voice. Even have her practice walking away while you try (pretending to be the bully) to get her to react.
Know that when your brave child uses these tactics, the offender might not give up right away and may even escalate his attempts to bully her. Teach her to expect this and tough it out until he gives up. The bully may frantically attempt to reassert control, but if your child continues to deny him a reaction, he’ll eventually give up and leave her alone. But she has to be consistent and not give in! Giving him what he’s looking for will only make the situation worse.
If, on the other hand, the bully acts in a way that’s positive, by being nice for example, advise your child to be sure to reinforce his behavior by being nice in return. Bullies seek attention and giving him positive attention when he behaves is a great way to retrain him to behave appropriately.
It’s just like with an animal you’re trying to train—you give negative reinforcement when they disobey and yummy treats when they do something right. If the bully goes through a period of being good, encourage your child to keep reinforcing it. If he reverts to his old bullying tactics, she should go back to reacting with humor, boredom, or disinterest.
It can take days to months of doing this before the bully stops, depending on how persistent and insecure he is. This is why it’s so important to nip bullying in the bud the moment it starts.
Be the parent your child deserves!
the Badass Grandma
About Badass Parenting
In Badass Parenting: Prepare Your Kids to Deal with Danger without Scaring the Hell out of Them, danger expert CJ Scarlet helps parents teach their children how to avoid and handle themselves in scary situations ranging from bullying and digital dangers to sexual abuse, sex trafficking, and kidnapping.
After reading this book, you’ll feel more knowledgeable and confident in your ability to talk candidly with your child at her age and maturity level without scaring her to death. It’s time to ditch the worry and get some sleep!
Edgy, funny, and irreverent, this unputdownable book (with TONS of downloadable bonus content!) is the new bible for parents looking to raise safe, savvy, confident kids.
“Finally, a book about parenting that doesn’t scare the crap out of you!!!! We live in one of the safest times to be alive, and yet, most of us are terrified. Parents – especially so. It is refreshing to have a book that realistically looks at the real dangers our kids face and help us – (a) not freak out, (b) figure out how to help our kids deal with the risks without traumatizing them, and (c) does so while making us laugh! A trifecta. I honestly wish CJ Scarlet’s book existed when my son was younger. I would have handed it out to every freaked-out parent I met at every mommy and me playdate I went to. Parenting is hard enough; we don’t need to generate extra unnecessary hysteria. This book will help you realistically face the dangers of parenting (real or imagined) with love and humor. Thank you, CJ!”
Jennifer Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine