Dealing with Bullies

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



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.


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)