Bullying: How Should My Child Respond? {Part 3}

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Bullying: Responding to the Bully (Part 3)Bullying is defined as any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) that involve(s) an observed or perceived power imbalance, and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.

As parents, it is devastating to know that your child is the target of bullying; it often leaves us feeling lost in giving them effective advice. Should we encourage them to report it? Or is that tattling? Should they respond physically? Should they challenge the bully to a fight? Or is that going to make it worse? Is ignoring enough?   

Helping a child to stand up for themselves is something we all aim to accomplish as parents. We cannot be by their side 24/7 to ward off all the hardships that come their way. Bullying is a common problem, unfortunately. It is most prevalent in middle school years. Preparing your child for difficult situations, like bullying, is critical for successful management. Starting with open discussions about what they have seen and experienced is a perfect way to let your child know that he/she can talk to you if it happens to them or someone they know.   

The ultimate goal is to de-escalate any interactions with a bully and remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Here are a few ways your child may respond in the moment (if they feel safe) when confronted with mean words or verbal bullying: 

  1. Ignore. Yes, this is still an effective method for reducing a bully’s interest in continuing harassment. Stay calm, ignore and walk away.
  2. “Whatever.” When responding to a bully, always limit visible emotions. Staying calm and unreactive is not easy in situations when you feel threatened or embarrassed. Ignoring bullies is one option. Another is dismissing their comments with a “whatever” and perhaps an aptly placed eye roll or flip of the hair. Turn around, walk away, resume an activity, and/or find friends nearby.  
  3. Act confused. When the bully offers an insult, appear puzzled by what they are saying.  Reply, “I don’t get it. What do you mean?” or “What exactly are you making fun of me for?” It is unexpected. And explaining an insult or joke really takes the zing out of it and can make the bully feel awkward. Perhaps finish it off with “Ok. If you say so.” Then walk away.
  4. Say “Stop!” If it feels safe, tell the individual to “Stop!” in a firm but calm way. Then turn around and exit the scene.  
  5. Defend and alert. Loudly defend yourself while using the individual’s name and action. For example, your child may say to the bully “Stop talking like that, Evan!” In doing so, they have alerted adults and peers around them as to what is happening and who is involved. Bystanders will then be aware of the situation and may monitor more closely.  

Role playing these situations at a time when your child’s emotions are not heightened or raw can be highly beneficial. Encourage your child to come up with their own words or actions during an anti-bully brainstorming session. Preparing for a difficult situation is not a guarantee that your child will effectively respond and all will go smoothly, but it definitely increases the odds.   

Why shouldn’t my child FIGHT BACK?   

This is a tough one on which many will disagree. Some schools of thought preach that if you knock out a bully, then “That’ll show him!” and the problem will be solved. There is a bit of a flaw with that plan, as potential horrendous backlash may occur as a result. Since bullying is known to stem from the need for power and control, we must consider what such a student will do if he/she has been humiliated. How might he/she retaliate? When you put an individual who is desperate to win a power struggle into a state of embarrassment and disgrace, will they give up and walk away? There is a strong possibility that the student will attempt to strike back with an even more vicious and/or dangerous response, which may include weapons, physical injuries, property damage, destruction of reputation, cyberbullying, etc. Additionally, if your child decides to fight back, they are at risk for being punished by the school and/or law enforcement (depending on the level of assault).  

De-escalate the situation and make adults aware of problems or POTENTIAL problems. Let your kids know it is necessary to alert adults in order to diminish bullying. And ALWAYS tell an adult when altercations are physical or beyond your control.  

Click here to read Bullying: Is It Really Bullying? {Part 1} and here to read Bullying: What Does Research Tell Us? {Part 2}.

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Hello! My name is Tricia and I am an associate professor in the Department of Audiology & Speech Pathology at University of Tennessee in Knoxville with specialties in stuttering and early childhood language. I am a mom to 3 girls, including 10 year old twins and a 14 year old, and a stepmom to 2 boys in their twenties. In 2013, my husband, Richard, and I relocated to Knoxville from Delaware. He grew up in NY and I in Pennsylvania. We love the small city feel of Knoxville, the proximity to the mountains and the fantastic community that surrounds us in our Farragut home. We spend our evenings and weekends on the sidelines cheering on our kids in various sporting events. My primary hobby is driving children from one place to another. I have a passion for anti-bullying movements, outdoor education and building support group networks around the world. I host a podcast entitled "Stutter Stories" to help share the voices of people who stutter internationally. I am a huge fan of thinking globally and acting locally. I am glad to be a part of Knoxville Moms and feel inspired when parents connect to take action for the well-being of each other and their children.

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