Beating the Bully

Trying to figure out how best to help a child who is being bullied is a challenge for many parents. Use our tool kit to help you and your child best manage the situation.
Teach your child how to respond to bullies.

Of all parenthood's trials, perhaps the most vexing is knowing that your child has become the target of a bully. The "target child" is typically small for his or her age, quiet, sensitive, and well-liked by adults—the type of child who "wouldn't hurt a flea." Although not necessarily unpopular with other children, the bully's victim rarely can claim a lot of friends. Consequently, other children aren't likely to come to his or her defense.

Further complicating matters is the fact that a bully's parents often deny the problem. They defend their child or rationalize the behavior. Because the bully is rarely held responsible, the aggressive acts tend to become increasingly outrageous, if not dangerous, over time.

When occasional taunting turns into conscious harassment, it's time for parents to step in. But what can you do? If you complain to school authorities, the bully is likely to find out and become that much more determined to hurt your child. If you complain to the bully's parents, you'll probably run into a brick wall.

There are several important things to keep in mind when deciding how to help your child deal with a bully:

  • Any direct intervention on your part may backfire. Bullies become even more determined when adults get involved.
  • Bullies can't be reasoned with. They tend to be very troubled children with poor self-concepts, poor social skills, and tumultuous family situations. Most of them are starved for affection and acceptance.
  • Bullies do understand force. If all else fails, consider asking law-enforcement authorities to get involved.
  • The bullying should be stopped as quickly as possible. The longer it continues, the longer it will take for the victim's emotional scars to heal. Also, some target children eventually begin expressing their anger toward younger and smaller children, or in more violent ways.

Here are four examples of how parents have successfully handled a situation heading out of control.

1. Remove Yourself

Franklin was 12 when the harassment began. His tormentor would sit behind him on the bus and pull his hair or thump him on his head. At school, the bully intimidated Franklin into letting him copy work. Franklin began to develop stomachaches and headaches. His parents talked to the principal about the problem, but were told there was little the school could do. The bully's parents refused to admit there was a problem. The principal suggested that Franklin transfer to a different school in the district. Despite the inconvenience, Franklin's parents agreed, bringing that chapter in their lives to a close.

Similarly, 14-year-old Aimee was being hassled on a daily basis by another girl in her public school, and there was nothing school officials could or would do to stop the verbal abuse. Aimee's parents chose to transfer her to private school, where she blossomed.

2. Avoidance

Derek's parents tried another approach. They coached him on how to avoid his antagonist, a boy who was two years ahead of Derek in school. Derek took a different route home from school every day, stayed close to teachers on the playground, and came inside the minute the bully appeared in the neighborhood. Eventually, the boy lost interest in Derek.

The very best solution, of course, is for the bully and his parents to begin working with a therapist. In the final analysis, a bully's behavior reflects underlying family problems that aren't going to be resolved by either punishment or counseling alone.

3. Enlist the School's Help

Twelve-year-old Carmen was being taunted continually by one girl and two boys in her sixth-grade class. If taunting is going on at school, whether in the classroom or on the playground, the school has an obligation to get involved. And most schools will. Often a teacher or administrator will want to talk directly with the bully and will lay out steps he or she must take to rectify the situation. But schools usually will want to hear first from the child who is being taunted—not from a parent.

The administrator or a teacher will want to know what has been happening, for how long, and how the injured child feels. Talking about bullying was hard for Carmen; she feared she would be labeled a "tattletale." But her parents explained that standing up for her rights is much different than being a busy-body. A kid who tells on a peer for chewing gum might be considered a tattletale; a kid who lets authorities know she is being taunted or made fun of is simply standing up for her right to be in school without being abused, and she may be protecting others, too.

You should explain that a conversation between a child and a school official will be kept confidential. You also may wish to contact the school to discuss an unpleasant situation, but don't overdo it. Give the school a chance to talk to the children involved first and to take action. Then, if the response does not seem adequate, be more forceful. Of course, if the bullying involves physical actions, take action to protect your child right away.

4. Book 'Em

Ten-year-old Robbie's parents decided to handle the problem the same way they would if another adult assaulted one of them. Having suffered along with Robbie for nearly a year during which he was the frequent target of a much bigger and very troubled classmate, they finally filed a complaint with the police. The bully was arraigned in juvenile court and released to the custody of his parents. At the same time, an attorney informed the bully's parents that if the problem continued, they would be sued for damages. The bully was ultimately placed on probation, and the entire family was ordered to see a court-appointed psychologist. The bully never again even looked in Robbie's direction.


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