Bullying is a big problem for a lot of kids. It’s a problem because it happens so often, and an attack on a child, whether physical or psychological, can cause unfortunate consequences. The “if it doesn’t kill you it makes you stronger” principle is useless here. Bullying doesn’t make most kids stronger. It humiliates the victims, robs them of self-esteem, distracts from a healthy focus on education and other wholesome activities, and can make a kid hate school. An emotionally fragile teen might even consider suicide.
Half the people I’ve talked to about their youth said they were victims of bullying. I remember being attacked by bullies a couple times myself when I was young. I was a small kid, the perfect target. I coped with it by steering clear of these jerks.
One author, Vanessa Van Petten, devotes an entire chapter of her book, Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded? (2011) to this topic. She tells kids to make a habit of hanging out with groups of friends, especially if one of them is physically strong enough to stand up to a bully. She even conducts workshops with teens and parents. She recommends that victims inform authorities and their parents, so these adults can contact the bully’s parents to confront and resolve the issue.
David Walsh, author of Why Do They Act That Way? (2004) recommends that the victim try ignoring verbal harassment. Bullies like getting a reaction, and when they don’t get it they sometimes stop. If not, he agrees that authorities should contact the parents. As a high school counselor, he would call the bullies’ parents, tell them what was happening, and ask them to make it stop so he wouldn’t have to bring it to the principal’s attention – a tactic that worked most of the time.
Bullies experience the same hormone surge, emotional reactions and aggressiveness that other kids do at that age, but they’re maturing physically faster, and they often feel resentment and anger in their personal lives. They think attacking weaker kids will make them feel better about themselves. The tragedy is that repeated behavior gets ingrained, and a kid who bullies could carry that behavior pattern into adult life. It’s a common mistake, but it makes life miserable for the people around them.
Picking on a defenseless victim marks the bully as a coward, says Larry Winget, author of Your Kids Are Your Own Fault (2010). So they don’t get the satisfaction they seek when their victims fight back and will usually back off when kids stand up to them. Of course this tactic might result in some scrapes and bruises. But Winget feels that the adult world has heartless people who push people around, too, and it’s good for kids to learn how handle bullies when they’re young.
One of my best friends told me a story about growing up in a tough part of town. He said his was the only white family in the neighborhood. Plus, when he was young he was the smallest kid in his class. To get to school every day, he had to walk past older kids who didn’t like him and enjoyed beating him up.
He complained to his uncle, a police officer. His uncle sympathized but had bigger crimes to attend to. So he recommended the defend-yourself approach. He showed my friend his night stick and told him how to make one himself. Handy with tools, he fashioned a formidable club, and his uncle showed him how to use it.
The next time he walked the gauntlet of the tough neighborhood, the bullies approached him as usual. But this time my friend was able to inflict his own damage with a fury of well-placed blows.
He was never bothered again.
When my colleague Meredith Bell‘s daughter was 15 she earned a black belt in karate. Fortunately, she never had to use her skills. But I’m sure she would have been able to defend herself if she had to. Martial arts programs can do more than teach fighting skills. Along the way the best ones teach teach self-respect, self-confidence and other personal strengths.
So if you find out your kid is being bullied, do the child a favor. Don’t treat it as an isolated incident, figuring the problem will work itself out. Do something about it.