Dealing with Bullies and How Not to be One 
Carol E. Watkins, M.D.

What is a bully? It is someone who takes advantage of another individual that he or she perceives as more vulnerable. The goal is to gain control over the victim or over the bully’s social group. This type of behavior occurs in all ages and in all social groups. Most adults, if they think about it, have experienced bullying too. 

Bullying behavior harms both the victim and the perpetrator. If a child experiences chronic intimidation, he or she may learn to expect this from others. He may develop a pattern of compliance with the unfair demands of those he perceives as stronger. He may become anxious or depressed. Finally, he may identify with the bully and become a bully himself.


The bully is also harmed. If he or she is allowed to continue the behavior, it becomes habitual. He becomes more likely to surround himself with friends who condone and promote aggressive behavior. He may not develop a mature sense of justice. If he intimidates others to cover up his own insecurities, his own anxiety may increase.


When a child or adolescent is mean to another, it is important to look for patterns and motivations. Bullies are often different from children who fight indiscriminately. Children who are fighters may simply do so as a result of impulsivity or misreading of social cues. A fighter is often unpopular with his peers. He tends use fighting to settle a dispute and will fight anyone, whether or not adults are watching. He tends not to chose a particular victim.


On the other hand, a bully often surrounds himself with a group of peers. He consciously picks weaker, more vulnerable victims, and repeatedly bothers the same people. He tends to do his bullying when authorities are not around. The bullying is not to settle a clear dispute. Instead, the motive is to gain control over others. He may enjoy watching the victim’s reaction.


There are a number of reasons that a child or adolescent becomes a bully. He or she may need to cover his own feelings of inadequacy. He may lack good adult role models. If he sees parents bullying him or each other, he may regard this type of behavior as simply the way one should act. Other children fall in with a peer group that uses bullying. They may learn it from these friends. In some cases, the behavior improves when the child is separated from that peer group, and makes new friends.


Which children are most likely to be the victims of a bully? Children who are isolated, physically or socially; children who are perceived as different; sensitive children; those with poor social skills; and sometimes children who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.


Sometimes parents may not know if their child is being bullied. Some children are intimidated into secrecy. They may also keep quiet because they feel shameful that they have allowed this to happen. They may fear that the parents will either criticize them or that the parents will intervene in a way that will make everything worse. What are the signs that your child is the victim of a bully? One may see non-specific signs of school distress: These might include falling grades, physical complaints on school days, and lack of interest in school work or sports. More specific signs would be unexplained injuries or torn clothes, missing belongings or money, or repeated requests for more money. If someone is taking your child’s lunch, he or she may come home hungry even though he took an adequate lunch to school.


You need to know how to get your child talking about his concerns. It is best to broach the subject at a calm neutral time. Ask general questions about whether something is bothering your child. Get as detailed a narrative as possible. Avoid interrupting or judging. Try to stay calm and do not make outraged statements while your child is telling his tale. Avoid offering premature solutions. You may not get the entire story on the first telling. Be patient and bring up the topic again later. Finally, if you feel that something is going on and suspect that your child is withholding information, call his or her teacher. 


How can you help your child deal with the bullying? First, help teach him to avoid being an easy target. Start with posture, voice and eye contact. These can communicate a lot about whether you are vulnerable. Practice with a mirror or even videotape. Tell your child to avoid isolated places where no one can see or hear him. He should learn to be vigilant for suspicious individuals or for trouble brewing. If bullying starts, he might be able to deflect it with humor or by changing the subject. He should run over a list of positive attributes in his mind. This reminds him that he is worthy of something better than bullying behavior. Teach your child not to obey the commands of the bully. Often it is better to run away than to comply. The parent may help the child make more positive friends. If he or she sticks around with a group, he is less likely to be a target. Finally, if the child sticks up for other children he sees being bullied, people may get the idea that he is not someone who tolerates bullies.


The child must learn to discriminate the difference between social bullying and more dangerous physically threatening situations. If he is in an isolated place and truly feels physically threatened, he should give the bully the item he demands. However, if someone is demanding that he get into the car of a stranger, he should resist with as much force as possible. Once he gets away, he should notify a responsible adult as soon as possible.


Some children benefit from a good martial arts class. It is important to select an instructor who talks about alternatives to physical violence and who teaches children how to get out of dangerous situations with the least amount of physical contact. Children who stick with these lessons rarely use their skills in aggressive ways. The discipline often raises their self esteem which makes them less likely to become a target.


What if your child is unable or unwilling to take these measures  (or if the measures are ineffective?)  The parent should privately contact the teacher or guidance counselor. Describe the problem and your concerns. Follow up regularly to make sure that any plan is followed consistently and to make sure that the system is being followed. Sometimes if the bullying is chronic or severe, the parents and teacher may have to take decisive action. They may ask the bully to apologize, verbally or in writing. They may insist that the bully stay a certain distance from the victim. The teacher may make an effort to seat or group the child with more supportive peers. 


These guidelines may need to be modified according to the child’s age or the intensity of the bullying. In general the older the child, the more the parent acts as a coach and the less the parent or teacher intervene directly. However, when there are actual physical or sexual actions, direct adult intervention may be justified at any age.


What if your child is the bully? A child can be a bully for a variety of reasons. Not all bullies are the product of a violent or neglectful home. If your child continually bullies others, he too experiences psychological harm. Patterns of aggression and intimidation can become ingrained. The longer they persist, the more difficult they are to expunge. Find out as much as you can about the problem. Is your child the leader or just one of the group of followers? If your child is a follower, talk to him about the situation. If his behavior persists, you may need to keep him away from the leader or even the entire group. Supervise your child more closely when he plays. You may need to insist that he play where you or another parent can see him. If the bullying occurs on the way to or from school, he should be driven or should go directly to school or home. If he is an adolescent, you may need to put the brakes on certain unsupervised activities.


If your child is the leader in bullying activities, you need to find out as much as you can about the extent and nature of his or her activities. Protect your child by seeing that his victim is protected. If necessary, restrict your child from going near his victim. Cooperate with teachers and other parents in monitoring your child’s activities. Make sure that they know that you are responsible and want to be involved. Ask them to report back to you if your child resumes any form of intimidation. Talk to your child about alternatives to violent or socially intimidating behavior. Make sure that he or she understands the personal impact that the bullying can have on the victim. Make sure that your child apologizes and makes meaningful reparations. If material objects have been stolen or destroyed, your child must pay for them. If he or she cannot do so, you should pay and then insist that he or she work off the payments over time. Finally, you and your child should try to understand why he has the need to intimidate others. You should start an ongoing dialogue. In some cases, your child may have so much anger, impulsivity or depression that you cannot handle it alone. In this case, you should seek professional advice.

Carol E. Watkins, M.D.      

Suggested Reading:

The Safe Zone: A Kid's Guide to Personal Safety by Chaiet and Russell 1998: Beech Tree Publishing, New York

Good Friends are Hard to Find: Help your child find, make and keep friends by Frankel 1996 Perspective Publishing, Los Angeles

Why is Everybody Always Picking on Me? A Guide to Handling Bullies by Webster, 1991 Weatherhill Inc., New York

Bully on the Bus by Bosch, 1988 Parenting Press,, Seattle

See Our Other Articles on Bullying

Bullying Throughout the Life Cycle (Intimidation in school leads to intimidation in the workplace)

Dealing with Bullies (a shorter article aimed at elementary school children)


 Northern County Psychiatric Associates 

Our practice has experience in the treatment of Attention Deficit disorder (ADD or ADHD), Depression, Separation Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and other psychiatric conditions. We are located in Northern Baltimore County and serve the Baltimore County, Carroll County and Harford County areas in Maryland. Since we are near the Pennsylvania border, we also serve the York County area.   Our services include psychotherapy, psychiatric evaluations, medication management, and family therapy. We treat children, adults, and the elderly.


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Northern County Psychiatric Associates
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Baltimore County, Maryland
Phone: 410-329-2028
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Copyright 2000

Carol E. Watkins, M.D.
Glenn Brynes, Ph.D., M.D.
Rita Preller, LCSW-C