Bully Busting

by Marti Oldsen Laney, Psy.D.

"He that respects himself is safe from others, he wears a coat of armor that none can pierce." --Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

worried little girlBullies are, without a doubt, the bane of the social world of childhood. Alas, they're everywhere, and not always where you would expect. They may be the stereotypical big, mean kids with short tempers and quick fists, or they may be quiet loners. They can be fat or thin, female or male, smart or not-so-smart. Every one of us has been bullied at one time or another.

In third grade, I was small for my age, and a girl named Audrey -- note that I remember her name -- used to rush up behind me, grab me around the waist, and lift me off the ground. In an attempt to humiliate me, she'd yell out to the kids on the playground, "Look how strong I am!" One time I kicked and screamed and flailed around until she put me down. She had expected me to be a pushover, but I resisted more than she had anticipated. That detracted from her show of strength. She never tried to make me into a human barbell again.

Your child needs to feel safe at home and at school and en route between the two. Introverted children can easily become targets for bullies, since they're more likely to be on their own rather than in a group. In the past, we told children to ignore bullies or to just be nice to them. This is not a good way to handle bullies. It doesn't work. Your introverted child will need help to be bully-wise. Don't sit back -- take action if your child is being bullied.

As a parent, you can do several things to help. First, be a good role model. Children who see violence and aggression at home can become a bully or the victim of one. Never verbally abuse or use sarcasm with your child. Second, explain to your child that she can't solve bullying on her own -- the number-one deterrent is adult authority. If your child feels threatened by a bully, tell her to ask for help from teachers, coaches, aides, or other parents. Third, step in and tell bullies to stop, if you see one in action.

One great concept is an antibullying program called the McGruff Safe Houses. Individuals and stores sign up and let kids stop in if they are bothered traveling to and from home. If there isn't a program like this in your area, consider starting one at your school. Staff and teacher training are also important because many teachers don't know the profile for bullying behavior. Schools need to send a message to students to show respect for everyone and support the children who are being bullied. Students need to be encouraged to speak up for kids who are bullied. Ideally schools would establish clear behavioral expectations and consequences for bullying.

Bullies deplete self-esteem the way vampires suck blood. They feel better about themselves by making others feel bad about themselves. Their tactics are varied. They may hit, punch, kick, tease, push, pull, pester, brag, taunt, harass, play mind games, frighten, heckle, insult, annoy, gossip, hurt, threaten, torment, start insulting rumors, ridicule, trip, pinch, act violent, and/or intimidate. Bullies have short fuses. They interpret others' behavior as hostile and personal when it isn't.

There is scientific evidence today that some children are hardwired to be bullies. They have a high level of aggression and a low level of fear. If children with this particular wiring are treated harshly, they may become bullies. Contrary to popular opinion, bullies are not friendless -- in fact, they are often popular leaders. Other kids find them exciting, fun, and full of great ideas. They usually hold power over groups, often the "cool" group, which increases their influence and makes them even harder to deal with. Nonetheless, there are strategies that your innie can use to avoid being victimized.

Bully-proof Your Innie

  • Teach your child how to spot a bully. Telltale clues: Bullies try to intimidate by standing close, talk in a loud, in-your-face manner, tease, may be nice one day and mean the next.

  • Explain that you understand that some kids are bullies, and that she doesn't need to be friends with everyone.

  • Explain that absolutely no bullying should be tolerated. Always tell an adult.

  • Be sure your child has one or two friends -- bullies sniff out loners.

  • Explain to your child that bullies may feel jealous if you do well at something. Your success means that a bully feels like a loser.

  • Teach your child how good friends behave and that bullies are looking to be top dog, not friends.

  • Teach your child to let the bully's cruel words, looks, or gestures roll off her back and not undermine her self-esteem. Remind her that bullying behavior is immature, and suggest she picture bullies as big babies wearing diapers. Innies don't have to have their feelings hurt. Tell her: Bullies want you to feel bad, so don't give them the satisfaction. She can practice her internal voice: "You can't hurt my feelings. I won't feel little just so you can feel big." Kids appear stronger when their internal voice is an ally.

  • Tell your child to avoid groups of bullies.

  • Teach her to walk to a police station, post office, library, or other place where there are safe adults if a bully is bothering her.

  • Have your child take a karate or other type of self-defense class to gain the confidence they instill. Innies who stand tall, look self-assured, look aggressive kids in the eye, and walk with confidence are less of a target for bullies.

  • Practice dealing with bullies at home with role playing. Teach your child to look a bully in the eye and say firmly, "Stop that!" or "Don't do that. I'll report you if you don't leave me alone." Tell her not to be afraid to yell. Remember, when in doubt, shout.

  • Tell your school principal if your child is being bullied. Many schools have instituted antibully programs.

  • Tell your child that it's good to bring bullying out into the open. It lessens a bully's power.

  • Tell your child that it's okay to be scared and upset but to try not to cry in front of the bully (that's what he wants). Better to stay calm and walk away.

  • Give the kids on your child's route a healthy treat when they are walking home or they get off the bus, and chat with them in a friendly way. Bullies are less likely to torment a child whose parent has been nice to them.

Excerpt from the book The Hidden Gifts of the Introverted Child: Helping Your Child Thrive in an Extroverted World.

Marti Olsen Laney, Psy.D., is a researcher, educator, author, psychotherapist, and much sought-after public speaker. One of America's foremost authorities on introversion, she speaks and leads workshops on the topic in the United States and Canada. She is in private practice in Portland, Oregon.

Copyright © Marti Olsen Laney. Permission to republish granted to Pregnancy.org.