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Confronting a bully can be tricky, and it’s a path that can be riddled with pitfalls. Every bit as important as knowing what to do in confronting a bully is knowing what NOT to do in confronting a bully.

What NOT to do in confronting a bully

Some of the advice adults commonly give children in confronting a bully is flat out wrong, and may even be dangerous. Here are some of the things you should never advocate when helping a child confront a bully:

1. DO NOT tell children to shower a bully with kindness

Never tell a bullied child to be “kind” to their bully. Kind behavior may appear to be weakness from the standpoint of a bully, and thus it may incite even more aggressive behavior. Moreover, you do not need to be rewarding despicable behavior, and telling your child to go out of their way to be nice to their tormentor is like a slap in the face. Some parents even go so far as having their child bring the bully gifts, as if somehow an act of kindness will suddenly make the bully see the light and reform their ways. Bullying doesn’t work like that. It wasn’t your child’s lack of kindness that got them targeted, and so showering a bully with kindness won’t fix it. At most it will open the bully’s eyes to the potential for a nice little extortion racket.

Not being mean in return is not the same thing as being nice. You can and should teach your child to be respectful – meaning they should maintain empathy towards those who may not return the favor while treating every living thing with dignity – but that hardly translates into the bully being coddled or rewarded.

2. DO NOT encourage a child to stand up or fight back against a bully

There are several reasons you shouldn’t advise your child to stand up to a bully or fight back against them. First, it shows you to be altogether clueless about the nature of their problem. Children who are bullied are often picked on precisely because they do not have an aggressive personality. Most are aversive to conflict. This doesn’t mean they are wimps (there are numerous cases of big, physically tough kids being bullied by smaller peers), it just means that they do not relish conflict and confrontation – a trait that is to be commended. Asking them to suddenly change their inherent nature and become aggressive in return is like asking them to be a different person.

It also shows you to be clueless about how bullies operate, since seldom do they fight fair. As a Kidscape survey on bullying notes, “In only a small minority of cases was the bully operating alone. It would seem that the bullies need one another to persist in their hurtful, cowardly behavior.” (Kidscape, 1999) Other research finds that bullies, though engaging in antisocial behavior, seemed to have no problems making friends, and most likely had a group of friends who also condoned/participated in the bullying. It’s rarely a one-on-one confrontation. Fighting back, in most cases, simply isn’t an option. Even if it is a one on one situation, bullies tend to pick fights with people who they think they hold power over. So chances are a child’s bully is pretty sure they hold the power (either physically or in terms of a more aggressive temperament) that gives them an edge to do what they do.

Finally, even if your child manages to whoop up on a bully, there is danger in this, too. Your child may find themselves facing substantial jail time, or you might end up with a nasty civil suit on your hands. As Jonathan Turley, Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University warns: “Unlike the Hollywood formula of bully movies, when the karate kid in real life stands up to bully Jonny Lawrence, he ends up doing one to five years in the county jail.” (Turley, 2008) In some instances, teens have wound up doing decades behind bars for “fighting back,” after a seemingly innocent punch landed in just the right spot to do serious damage.

The only exception to this rule is that if a child is being physically attacked, he or she should know it’s OK to defend themselves. Self-defense, however, is something entirely different from responding to a push with a punch, or picking a fight with a bully, looking for a physical confrontation where one can be avoided.

3. DO NOT tell children to handle it on their own

As Garbarino & deLara (2902, p. 86) point out, “telling kids to handle bullying on their own is dangerous, unfair, and emotionally negligent strategy.” While you can’t fight every battle for them, this doesn’t mean abandoning them to their own devices because you don’t feel like dealing with it. A youth needs direction and comfort in dealing with a problem like this, and the solutions they come up with on their own are likely to be counterproductive at best, dangerous at worst.

Some other things you should not do:

  • Do not try to handle the situation yourself
  • Do not pick on the bully in return
  • Do not impersonate your child online to handle it
  • Do not petition other parents to avoid the bully
  • Do not send out an angry e-mail to everyone you know “warning” others about this horrible kid.

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