14 Ways to Help Your Child Defend Herself Against Bullying. Hint: Be Prepared Before it Happens

Family Matters on 06.21.11
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Photo Credit: Katie Morton

I don't consider myself to be a kid who was bullied. Yet, I have a handful of vivid memories of the times it happened to me, of the ways in which I responded, and how I was then punished by adults for my reactions.

I know the thing to say these days is how the world of girls and bullying is often a murky one, the lines blurred between who is the victim and who is the perpetrator, with both sides crying foul. From my own experience, it's slightly more cut and dry than that.

I've learned that the bully started it. When the victim reacts in a way that is less than doormat-like, the bully will gleefully run to the nearest adult and cry about the justice she was served. Of course, what's left out of the story is how the bully provoked the victim into self defense mode.

The precedent has been set that the victim did something bad and now she doesn't have the adults on her side for protection. Conveniently for the bully, the victim is stripped of legitimate power. The bully has a field day, and the victim's best chance of survival is to join the "Lord of the Flies" mentality, where the only way to defend herself is via her own resources and offensive moves, without the oversight or help of adults.

My Awkward Stage

Between the ages of 10 and 12, I was an awkward-looking kid. At an age when most kids are exploring their independence to some extent by gaining control over their personal style, I didn't give a crap about fashion. My mom still had a heavy influence over my hair and clothes, and understandably, Mom didn't share the aesthetic taste of the tween set. And so I was willingly dressed like a 40-something year-old woman.

On my first day of junior high, with my tea-length skirt, chunky jewelry and short, over-styled haircut, all the other kids thought I was a teacher. Once it was established that I was indeed a student, I was an obvious target. Thankfully, most kids are good and generous people, so I wasn't bullied often. There's only a jerk or two whose names I still remember.

Don't Ignore a Bully

I won't bore you with every story, so I selected the ones that illustrate exactly what not to do, and hopefully someone can learn from my mistakes.

There was the girl who, right before my ballet recital, made me cry. She harassed me time and again, but I remained stoic. I figured if I ignored her, she would go away. She didn't go away. Bullies know that you can only ignore them for so long before they find the right button to push. She finally broke me by stealing the parasol I needed as a prop for the dance I would perform.

I panicked, not knowing how I would go on stage without my frilly white umbrella. So I cried. Then it was her turn to panic, and she quickly returned my prop before my tears attracted adult attention. I then proceeded to royally screw up my recital, leaping in one direction while the entire troupe flounced the opposite way. Awesome. Bully: 97 points. Me: 0.

Keep Your Own Behavior in Check

The very next year on the softball field, this same little twit began tormenting me again. This time I knew that ignoring her wasn't going to work. I wasn't going to let her break me this time, and I finally decided to man up and get aggressive, hoping this would make her stop. My brilliant rejoinder? I told her to "F*** off."

In retrospect, I can only shrug at what I said, because that's probably what a lot of adults would have done in my shoes. However, that brat won again. She could hardly contain herself as she skipped over to the coach to tell him what I said.

When she tattled on me, my bully certainly didn't reveal her history of antagonism towards me. When the coach gave me a talking to, I was distraught that this man I looked up to was suddenly looking down on me. I couldn't come close to expressing what brought me to the point of telling another 12-year-old girl to f*** off, even if I had his ear. Of course, I didn't have his ear. He was busy telling me how disappointed he was in me.

So What Should I Have Done?

The short answer is that even as an adult looking back at my kid self, I don't know what I should have done because I wasn't prepared for what happened and so I couldn't think fast enough on my feet. The long answer is that I wish I came back with a powerful retort that avoided profanity or insults, showed I was strong and wasn't going to put up with her crap, and was eloquent and thought provoking enough that the brat would shut her stinky little pie hole. Ahem.

It seems on the surface like the natural fix would be for me to go ahead and tell an adult when this kid was mean to me rather than trying to handle it myself, but I can't say that immediately running and telling an adult is the best thing to do, although I would encourage my own child to do it. There's fear of a more strategic escalation in the bullying if we tattle. I know it's a common problem that kids won't tell on bullies, whether it's because they are embarrassed or don't want to burden their parents, who can't erase what happened anyway. I'm sure the reasons are as varied as the victims and the circumstances.

And so, after these experiences, I think it's vitally important that kids are coached in advance of any potential bullying predicaments so they know what their options are should a problem arise. We have talks with our kids about sex, and we have to talk to them about drugs and alcohol, so why don't we also have a talk with our kids about bullying?

14 Ways to Help Your Child Defend Against Bullying

Unfortunately, we can't bully-proof our kids. But here are some parenting tips that could help our kids if by chance they ever have to deal with bullying:

1.       Talk to your kid about bullying, preferably before it happens. Tell her she doesn't have to accept bad treatment from others, and in fact, she should talk back to bullies and stand up for herself. 

When your child is tempted to behave badly in retaliation, warn her not to give the bully that kind of ammunition against her; encourage her to keep own behavior above reproach. My only exception to this rule is if she needs to physically protect herself from harm, and then all bets are off. You do what you gotta do to keep yourself safe.

Invite her to tell an adult she trusts. Let her know she can always talk to you about it, and you can agree together on how to handle it. Make it clear that if she doesn't want to tell an adult, that she should at least tell somebody so that someone on her side knows what's happening and she doesn't have to go through it alone.

It's critical to discuss strategies for your child to have in her back pocket in case she is confronted by bullying, such as the following pointers.

2.       Don't ignore bullying, take action! Whatever you do, don't just sit there and take it while you "ignore it." Keeping quiet paints you as an easy target who will accept abuse without fighting back. Bullies like it when victims submit. Don't be a cooperative victim.

3.       Report electronic bullying immediately and shut it down. Report it to site owners, school authorities, legal authorities, and anyone else who will listen. If one outlet is shut down and another pops up, keep going. Think of it like a game of whack-a-mole.

4.       Use humor or silly sayings to deflect in-person insults. The point is to keep the interaction playful, and at the same time, to deflect attention away from yourself. "I know you are, but what am I?" and "I'm rubber, you're glue. Whatever you say bounces off of me and sticks to you," are good ones for the younger set.

Older kids can obviously get more creative. "Your momma" jokes might be inappropriate, so while I don't endorse them officially, they might be an effective shift of focus for some. With the use of age-appropriate humor, "playing" with the bully and finding ways to laugh will help thwart a bully's intentions.

5.       Walk away and join another group of kids. If the bully follows, enlist the other kids to help join in the "fun."

6.       Act in mysterious ways to confuse the heck out of the bully. Say and do things that are confounding and unpredictable. I once watched a friend of mine pretend that he didn't speak English very well when confronted with a group of aggressors. He remained in a Borat-like character and talked them in circles until they left the scene wondering what on earth just happened.

Do the opposite of what's expected: take over the scene and enjoy it. Drown him out: laugh hysterically, slap your knee and yell, "That's a good one! Do it again, do it again!" loudly and repeatedly whenever the bully tries to say something. Speak in tongues, do a Barney impression, break dance and then point at the bully like it's his turn. Do whatever it takes to keep him guessing. If one action doesn't work, try something else.

7.       Get help for the bully. Stand up straight and maintain eye contact.Calmly tell the bully you know that he's hurting inside and you are going to tell an adult he needs help with his issues. Then follow through. By focusing on getting help for the bully, everybody wins.

8.       Repeat "The Talk" about bullying often. As kids go through different stages in life, the nature of bullying changes and strategies for fighting back can change as well. Adjust "The Talk" accordingly and repeat it as necessary.

9.       Be an advocate for your child. In issues of bullying, and everything else in life, make sure your child knows you are on her side. This means that if an authority figure, whether that's a teacher or a coach, comes to you with a problem he has with your kid, make sure you take plenty of time to hear what your child has to say about the issue.

Teachers are only human, and it's possible for a teacher to unfairly pick on a kid, or to fall for a bully's accusations. Don't automatically believe that because an authority figure takes issue with your kid that the authority figure is always right. Let your child know you've got her back, even those times when you do ultimately have to reprimand her.

10.   Make sure your kid isn't a screen junky. From an early age, put parameters around computer and phone use. Part of the problem with today's bullying is that it frequently happens electronically, whether that's via web sites, social media or email. If your child keeps her computer and phone in her room, she may feel like she can't escape the aggression.

Keep computers in common areas of the home and out of children's rooms. Remember that even game consoles like Xbox have a means for outside communication, so it certainly can't hurt to keep TVs and game consoles in the living room rather than in kids' rooms. Put a phone basket on the kitchen table and establish a phone curfew. An hour before bedtime, all phones go in the basket. Lock the basket up overnight if you have to.

11.   Give your child the perspective of time.  If you sense something is wrong and whether your child will talk to you about it or not, whether you even know what troubles your child or it remains a secret, remind her that whatever is bothering her now is temporary. Be careful not to minimize or discount her feelings in the process, but sometimes it helps to be reminded that childhood is fleeting. Soon your child will graduate the current stage and be offered a change of scenery.

If the Situation Looks Serious...

12.   If your kid gets in trouble, ask A LOT of questions. Don't assume your kid is simply a bad kid. There are a lot of issues that can cause trouble, especially for teens. Sleep is a big one, and there is evidence that bullies have sleep issues. If you suspect your child is having trouble fitting in, may be depressed, or could be having trouble with drugs or alcohol, keep asking questions.

If your kid doesn't want to talk, and many won't, push the issue and become an investigator. Speak with teachers, school administrators and other parents. Find out everything there is to learn about your child, where she goes, what she likes to do and who she is spending time with. Stay involved, don't jump to any conclusions, and don't forget to continually make sure she knows you are still on her side, even when she's in trouble. Remind her often.

13.   Know when to seek professional help. If your plan of action failed, you are simply mystified or not getting through to your child, enlist the help of a professional. This could mean a counselor for your child -- and for you -- if you could use the advice of how to cope and help your child cope.

Hiring a professional could also mean seeking the help of a lawyer if all the other adults involved are failing to help you control the situation, or it could mean law enforcement if the bullying involves physical violence. Document everything. If down the road you require evidence to help your fight, life will be easier if you have a written record of what happened.

14.   Offer a way out NOW. If you ever think there is something very wrong and there could be any chance whatsoever your child is despairing, offer an immediate escape, whatever that means considering the circumstances. It could mean something as simple as trading one after-school activity for another or changing classes. It might mean taking a leave of absence and going on vacation to get some distance while you think through your options together. Or it could be an action as drastic as changing schools, withdrawing from high school to get a GED, homeschooling or tutors.

Let your kid know she has options and make clear what those options could be. Let her know that you are open to hearing her ideas as well. She doesn't have to act on them, but knowing she has a getaway plan readily available might make everything a little easier.

Hopefully, your child will never need to use these tips, but being prepared could help give your child the confidence she needs to stop a bully from becoming a problem.

Katie Morton is the founder of The Monarch Company. Get a FREE copy of her eBook, 10 Steps to a Blissful You, to get started on developing extraordinary willpower for life.

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