Dealing with bullies is as much art as science, and involves learning through trial and error. No two bullies are alike, and every case of bullying has its own unique set of motivations that drive the behavior. Thus, finding an effective way to deal with bullies can involve testing different things to see what works best. Bullies are seldom conquered, but they can be managed.
To that end, we’ve assembled a list of different things you can try against different types of bullies and different types of bullying.
General Tips for Dealing with Bullies
“The first step in dealing with a bully is to try ignoring them. Bullies often will just move on if they don’t get a rise the first time. If the bully persists, however, the two responses that often make bullying worse are responses that are passive (being a doormat, crying, hiding, etc.) and responses that are aggressive (fighting back, retaliation, bullying back).”
-Malcolm Smith (2010, p. 11)
Dealing with bullies tip #1: Try ignoring them
Ignoring a bully is one of those things that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t. If a child shows no reaction while completely refusing to acknowledge the bully’s existence, many will get bored and move on. The bully wants a reaction, so when you ignore them, it foils their plans. On the other hand, if the bully is specifically targeting a certain child or is determined and persistent, ignoring them may have the opposite effect. Rather than getting bored and moving on, they may instead work twice as hard to get a reaction out of the victim, which will make the bullying worse. The first step should always be to try and ignore a bully and hope they go away, but bullied children and their parents need to be prepared to shift tactics if this doesn’t seem to be working.
Dealing with bullies tip #2: Crack a smile
Smiling or looking amused is one of the best ways to respond to a bully. As psychologist Jerry Weichman points out, “smiling not only makes you feel better, but communicates to the bully that his actions are not getting to you.” (Heller, 2011, p. 86) It may be difficult, but if a bully’s best attempt to upset someone is met with a smile, they may give up.
One technique that can work well with many types of bullies is to confuse them with good cheer. If your child sees their bully corning up with a sly smile and mischievous look on their face, tell him to smile big and then preemptively wave and say, “Hi, John!” as jovially as they can. This is the last thing they’re expecting, and it will often confuse a bully or throw them for a loop. Popular bullies will seem horrified that you’re acting like a friend. Those who bully for thrills will lose interest if you seem happy to see them. And for those who bully because of deep personal pain, such a gesture might slowly break through their tough exterior to soften their heart and turn them into a friend. So it’s definitely worth giving this technique a try.
Dealing with bullies tip #3: Whatever you do, don’t react
Children should be trained to show the least reaction possible. The stronger the reaction, the more powerful the bully feels, and the more emboldened they’ll become to continue the behavior. One of the best ways to accomplish this is through practice; having a child work at keeping their composure while a trusted love one hurls the same insults that their bullies might use. A child should be able to hear those words without shuttering, cringing, or giving a facial expression that acknowledges the insult. This has the added benefit of providing a chance for you to talk over some of these insults with the child and address issues such as how it makes them feel or the logical absurdity of such insults.
In the same way that the use of the word “nigger” among African Americans is said to take away some of the power of the word from white people who might use it as an insult, coming to own the insults a bully uses among a trusted comrade can help take some of the power and sting away, or at least it does in some children. Just be sure to go into this exercise with the sensitivity necessary for such a sensitive topic, and be sure to switch tactics if it appears your rehearsals are hurting rather than helping or if they are making the child feel uncomfortable or even more insecure.
Dealing with bullies tip #4:: Role play & rehearse
Even if you opt against the realistic re-enactment, you absolutely should have a child rehearse their responses. A bully can smell an act from a mile away, and many legitimate responses are rendered ineffective because they come out in a way that sounds awkward or forced. Whatever response you decide to go with, a child should practice it repeatedly – at least several dozen times – so that it appears to come out naturally in real life. It’s best to practice with others, so that they can provide feedback about how they appear.
Dealing with bullies tip #5: Tell a joke or use humor
It’s ridiculous to think that telling a joke will suddenly cause a bully to stop what they’re doing and fall down laughing, yet humor is a time proven trick that has worked for some kids. It’s hard to be aggressive when laughing. Using humor is probably not a viable option for most kids, but if a child has a snarky personality, using it can diffuse the situation and over time may even win over a bully’s heart. If they can make a bully feel good through humor, they may decide they’re better off with this person as a friend rather than a target. Just don’t use humor AGAINST the bully, which will generally escalate the situation and make things worse.
Dealing with bullies tip #6: Be patient, and understand that it’s not a zero-elimination strategy
Most of all, you should understand that none of these things work miracles, and it’s unlikely that any will get the bullying to instantly stop. As we said in the opening, bullies aren’t conquered, they are managed. What you’re trying to do is reduce the bullying over time and establish your child as someone who isn’t an easy target. A bully may not stop just because your child appears unmoved. But if they appear unmoved 10 times or 20 times in a row, a month later it might reduce the bullying by 80%. Instead of chomping at the bit to go after your child every opportunity they get, it may be reduced to a snide comment once a week, until it eventually dissipates altogether. The only way to truly reduce bullying is to change the pattern of social victimization, reducing a child’s viability and/or usefulness as a target. Like all patterns, they only take hold through practice and repetition.
Dealing with Bullies: Responding to Verbal Aggression
Tip #1: Brush it off
One of the most effective gestures to use when a child is being teased is simply to give the hand gesture of brushing it off their shoulder. Without saying a word or responding to (and thus acknowledging) the aggressor’s remark, it sends a clear message that you don’t care what they say and that their insults aren’t having the desired effect. It may not work the first time, but if a child keeps a cool demeanor while giving this gesture, a bully will soon realize (whether true or not) that their target is not easily perturbed and will be a tougher cookie to crack and get a desirable response from, which is generally the whole point of bullying. Most will lose interest, either cutting back on the taunting or ceasing it entirely. In some cases, it may cause the bully to escalate their tactics as a means of better getting underneath your child’s skin. In this case, you have a more serious dynamic that needs other forms of intervention.
Tip #2: Call the bully out on their antics
Without being mean, vindictive, or escalating the situation by calling the bully names in return, there are ways you can respond that aren’t openly antagonistic but which nonetheless put the spotlight on the bully’s own character. Here are some examples:
- It must suck to be so angry and offended all the time.
- For as pathetic as you say I am you sure seem to spend an awful lot of your time obsessing about what I do.
- It’s funny, you always struck me as someone who had their OWN life to worry about.
- Rather than getting your thrills by taunting people, you might want to find a few hobbies and learn some better ways of getting yourself off.
- Don’t you ever have anything positive to say?
- Do you know what psychological projection means? You might want to look it up.
These responses show the victim to be calm, composed, and mature, while also reflecting the bullies’ aggression back on themselves. You’re not attacking them directly, but you’re responding in a way that lets them know there could be a price to pay for going after you. You’re signaling that you can see right through their shallow behavior, and most bullies don’t want to spend time messing with someone who has them figured out.
- Do NOT respond with a put down yourself, which only aggravates the bully and can escalate the situation.
Tips for Dealing with Gossip Bullying
Tip #1: Expose the truth
Can you disprove the rumor? If so, it might discredit the person(s) doing the gossiping and turn their own lies against them.
Tip #2: Respond incredulously
If asked about the rumor, instruct a child to just roll their eyes and say “that’s absurd.” Follow it up with a statement such as: “Boy, some people will believe anything they hear.” Without being hostile, you want the person to feel gullible for believing the rumor or putting faith in unsubstantiated gossip. It puts the other person on the defensive.
Tip #3: Spread ‘truth-rumors’
Without making up things or engaging in hostile behavior yourself, get the word out that “so and so has nothing better to do with her time so she’s been spreading lies about other people.” Then refute the rumor.
Dealing with Physical Bullying
Tip #1: Get loud
When a child is being physically harassed, getting loud is often the best option. Not only can it draw attention to the bullying, but it’s an assertive response. So tell a child to shout “No, go away!” as loudly as possible. Responses that make a bully feel self-conscious, such as “stop touching me like that!” or “Don’t you understand that no means no!” can sometimes work even better. Without being openly hostile or responding with violence in-kind, shouting let’s a bully understand there is potential risk and a price to pay in trying to harass this person. The worst thing a child could do is be a silent victim.
Tip #2: Hang out in groups
Simply having one or two other friends with you can lessen the likelihood of an attack. Not everyone is aligned with the bully; find those who are in a similar situation and band up together.
Tip #3: Contact the school
Physical bullying is assault. It is a criminal activity. The school is in charge of preventing criminal activity and assault against its students. So if a child is being assaulted at school, you should contact the school and ask them to monitor the situation. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting the bully in trouble if a child thinks that this will make their problems worse, simply pressing the school for a better job of monitoring for violence that is occurring. They should at least know where and when this violence is taking place.