Teaching your child how to handle a bully?

I know a child who has been picked on within a small group of boys, and I don’t have much experience with adolescent boy interactions. The boy tells me that his instinct is to hit the other kid, but he knows that is not right and that he will probably get in trouble. Someone else suggested that he not actually hit, but use his size to threaten. We joked about having younger siblings go over, including a 5 year old, and tell the kid to lay off. In the end, we helped him to identify a friend who could come along with the group, so at least the dynamic will shift if he feels like he has an ally.

In truth, I’m not sure of the best way to respond. I tend to back down from a fight, I usually think it is just not worth it, and my instinct here is to just get the child removed from the situation. I know that you can’t get switched out of every group, though, so I’d love to hear from others — how do you teach your child to respond to a bully? what do you tell a child who has been told that no one likes them? what do you do when the supervising adults involved are either oblivious or not able to do their jobs? Because you know in your heart that as much as you tell them it isn’t true, even as you give them proof that it isn’t true, you can’t make it unsaid, and those scars of childhood can add up into a hard, defensive heart.

  • Katrina

    MA, I’m sorry that you’re dealing with this issue right now, although I don’t think that you’re alone in your struggle! I have observed that starting around age 10, boys tend to form small groups and single out one boy in the group, complaining to each other about trivial things that he does or says. It seems like the boy who is picked on changes very often, too. I thought that only girls were supposed to behave in this way, but I suppose that a lack of maturity can lead to these issues in both boys and girls!
    I like your idea of having him confront the bully and bringing a friend along. This puts him in a position of feeling some control over the situation, and having an ally while doing it.
    One thing that I have told my children is that “kids change their minds a lot,” helping my children to understand that even if someone says today that they don’t want to be friends anymore, tomorrow they will probably want to be friends again! I try to explain that it’s not okay for friends to be mean to each other, but that sometimes, it’s less about them and more about the person who is being mean and the issues they are trying to work through. I’m trying to teach them to think positively about themselves, while also understanding where others are coming from. I’m hoping that this will diminish some of the hurt feelings and help them to think more objectively.

    • Mary Alice

      I think that “kids change their minds a lot” is great advice, and a good reason not to totally alienate someone. Along with that, there is knowing that when you live in a small community, your own jerky behavior (even in response to a bully) can get around and cause collateral damage. For example, the child involved might have a parent who is a coworker of your parent, etc. Your grandparents might be friends.

  • http://www.buildingcathedrals.com/ Kellie

    Seems this is really situationally specific as I think there are a number of positive and good ways to respond to a bully. First, as a parent, I’d be happy that my child was talking to me and letting me know what was going on. Like it or not, there are lots of mean kids out there, and mean adults, and our kids have to learn to deal with these people sooner or later. While there is a time and place to use your fists, or your physical presence, finding alternatives to that is probably best. Again, it really depends so much on the situation.

    The most important first step in dealing with these sorts of situation is talking to a respected adult. If a child is in real physical danger, obviously the parent should get involved immediately. If not, the parent/adult can teach them to deal with emotional adversity — not everyone will like them and people do say mean things. Sounds like this is all happening in your home ;-)

    While I am usually all for allowing my kids to deal with these things themselves, if I witness a child being mean, I do not hesitate to get involved and correct that child myself. I think kids are much less likely to bully when parents are really involved. So, for example, if your mom is the soccer coach or the ski instructor, or the room mom at school, the chances of a bully picking on your kid go way down.

  • AMDG

    My heart goes out to this young man. To keep my teaching license current, I just took a class on bullying in schools. Although many different factors may be at play in an individual situation, the most common trait that is shared among kids who bully is that they lack empathy; they are unable to understand how their actions make another person feel. Only a few people are actually born with an innate sense of empathy. Most people need to be taught empathy and the best time to start this is when children are very young. Unfortunately, we have little control over the individuals our children encounter or; perhaps, are forced by circumstance to interact with. However, research shows that if a child has at least one friend with them their chances of being bullied significantly drop. And, although we usually don’t have the opportunity to influence another child’s sense of empathy, we do have the option to teach our child empathy for the bully. Perhaps the child who is the bully is weaker academically than his/ her target. Or, sometimes when a new child enters a group, the bully feels like his/ her place within the group is threatened. There are many possibilities. But helping the targeted child understand that it isn’t really about him/ her can sometimes take the sting out of the unkind words/ actions. In some circumstances, you may be able to enlist the help of a teacher so that the two are not forced to be together in small groups. Or, in younger grades, using some techniques from Becky Bailey’s Conscience Discipline can help create a classroom community that promotes empathy. But, as you mention, sometimes teachers are unable or unwilling to do so. I have found reading from the Bible instances where Jesus was treated unkindly by others and how He handled it helped my son see that the Son of God who was truly wonderful, good, and just can still be treated poorly by others. I also like to remind my son that he should ask his gaurdian angel to walk before him into these situations. Finally, the best gift we can give our children to protect them from the ups and downs in the world outside of our home is a strong sense of self; knowing and feeling confident in who they are … a child of God….a member of the _____ family, etc.


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