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.