As a martial arts instructor, I have a different perspective on it than many others. If you google “Anti-bullying,” most of the articles will talk about the school's responsibility to prevent bullying. This is important, but I believe that it's my job as a martial arts instructor, and your job as a parent is to empower your child to not be a target, and to be able to prevent them from being hurt. To empower your child with confidence is one of the most important ingredients to them being happy and successful in the rest of their life.
Learning how to deal with bullies when they're young will help them deal with bullies when they're older, so these are important life skills.
Strategies for Dealing with Bullies
If another child or children are being physical with your child, there are several things that may consider doing:
1. Work on Your Child's Body Language
Body language could be defined as all the ways you present yourself and communicate to others that are nonverbal. A bully is in some ways similar to an adult predator (a sexual predator or a criminal looking to rob someone). Predators aren't looking for a fight. They're looking for control. They're going to choose a target that looks like an easy victory.
The signs that bullies are looking for in a target are a person who:
- looks down and avoids eye contact
- isn't aware of their surroundings
- their shoulders are slumped forward
- has a quiet tone of voice
I read a study that was conducted years ago where researchers showed a video of women walking through a mall and asked felons convicted of violent crimes to tell them who they would choose as a victim. Over 95% of the attackers chose the same women. Women who were carrying big bags, wore high heels, had long hair, weren’t aware of their environment, and expressed passive body language. Some predators are excellent at reading even minute facial cues that tell them if someone will be passive when attacked. How your child presents themselves lets bullies know whether they are a good target or not.
If your child exhibits body language that lacks confidence, the first thing to do is to talk to them about the importance of confident body language. Don't do it in a lecturing tone. You don't want them to feel that you are criticizing them, and if you have this conversation more than once, don't nag them. The tone of the conversation should be very relaxed and natural.
Depending on the age of the child you may need to alter this, but here’s one way that I have shared with parents that they have had success with:
“I’ve been reading about body language recently and the experts say that it affects how other people treat you, and how you feel. I think we could both improve on this, so let’s help each other. If you see me slumping my shoulders, not making eye contact when someone is talking to me, not being aware of my surroundings, or generally looking not confident, I want you to point it out to me. And I can do the same for you. Let’s just tell each other quietly when see the other person with poor body language.”
If you notice your child’s shoulders slumping forward, you can gently push their shoulders back and their hips forward. Don't do this in front of anyone that would make them embarrassed. Be subtle about it.
You can make a game out of this. You could be in a mall and sit down and start people watching. Tell them that you're both going to start looking for the most confident person in the mall, and the most unconfident person in the mall. When you find someone, they have to tell the other person why they think they're confident or not confident. Of course it cannot be mean spirited and making fun of others. Do it in a detached, unemotional way.
2. Avoid Places Where Bullying is Likely to Happen
Talk to them about how to prevent these situations from happening. For example, if the situations happen when your child is alone, or only in certain places (such as the playground, bus stop, walking home from school), then figure out a strategy to prevent it from happening. For example, if the bullying happens on the playground, have your child stay in sight of adults who are supervising the playground.
3. Guidelines for Dealing with Physical Aggression
Every parent has to decide what to teach their kids about violence. I believe that it's appropriate to defend yourself if someone gets physical with you, and that may result in an attacker getting hurt. I also believe that:
- prevention is better than a cure- you shouldn't put yourself in situations where there's a high chance of getting attacked
- if someone becomes aggressive, you should do whatever you can to prevent the situation from escalating
- if someone physically attacks you, you should do what you can to prevent yourself from being injured
- when defending yourself, use the minimum amount of force to stop a situation
At Kaizen, we teach a technique used by an author, ex-bouncer, and security consultant named Marc MacYoung called the fence. This stance is executed by spreading your feet apart as though you're getting into a boxing stance. Put both of your arms out in front of you, almost straight, high enough that if someone tried to punch you, your arms are already in the way. This posture is great because you don't have to block, your arms are preventing them from hitting you. While you have the fence, bring your chest out and make eye contact to show confidence.
My first martial arts instructor was a very peaceful person. He spoke highly about Gandhi's nonviolence movement, and he was a spiritual person, so I was surprised when I heard him talk about how to deal with bullies. He said that sometimes the best thing to happen to a bully is for them to get a black eye, and that you can't preach nonviolence to a tiger. Sometimes fear of being hurt is the only thing that will stop someone from bullying someone else.
4. Dealing with Verbal Assaults
It used to be common to hear someone say that if someone bullies you, tell them a joke. I think this is terrible advice! Neither the bully nor the person being assaulted is in the mood for a joke. Few people are naturally funny and able to come up with something funny on the spot.
The first thing bullies do is to choose a target that they think won't hurt them. It's a predator mentality that animals in the wild use. A lion won't go after the strongest and fastest gazelle. They'll choose the young, the old, or the weak to have the best chance of success. If your child has been targeted, it's most likely by a child that is older, larger, stronger, or part of a group.
The next stage of an attack is often referred to as an interview. Among adults, a person who is going to attack another will often engage them in conversation to learn more about their chances of success. A bully may use an insult to see how their target reacts. If their target shows fear and passivity, they will often continue with verbal assaults or escalate to being physical. So this stage is extremely important.
There isn't one thing a person can say or do that will prevent all attacks from bullies. But the response from the target will more likely be successful if they display confidence. This could take a lot of forms. I'm not necessarily recommending this, but I have heard from several people who used to be targets of bullies that if the bully starts insulting, insulting them back is effective in stopping the situation from becoming physical. It makes sense that a bully is looking for confirmation of weakness, so showing a willingness to defend yourself verbally would discourage them.
5. Teach Them to be Self-Reliant
It would be great if there were no bullies at school, but the reality is that there are bullies in life. The skills children learn in school help prepare them for the rest of their lives. If your child is hoping or expecting that someone at school or you will save them, I believe it's important that they understand that they have to learn how to solve problems with people. Give them your support by helping them find a way to prevent and deal with bullies.
6. Get Them Training
If they get involved in a good martial arts program that teaches realistic self-defense, it should raise their confidence which will show in their body language, which makes them less likely to be a target. Ideally, involve them in a program that is combat based such as Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, wrestling, boxing, Muay Thai, or any martial art where they do realistic sparring against a resisting partner.
Another benefit of training is that if the word gets out that your child is training, other children may be less likely to attack because the're afraid that they could be hurt.
If your child is being bullied, chances are that they won't tell you. The younger the child, the more likely they will tell you.
They will make excuses to not have to go to school, such as pretending to be sick. You can directly ask them if they're being bullied, but you may not get an honest answer. But body language doesn’t lie. If they look down, look depressed, or their movements slow down, you may have hit a nerve.
Another thing to notice is their tone of voice. If it drops when you ask about bullying, you might have found something. There are no methods of reading body language that are 100% certain, but body language experts recommend that you notice the change from their normal behavior and demeanor (their baseline).
If you think there may be a chance that they are being bullied, start asking around. Ask your their friends, ask their teachers and any other school authorities that may know.
Strategies to Get Them to Talk About Bullying
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, and they won’t talk about it, you can try to get them to open up by asking them if there are any bullies at school. You can ask if anyone ever says anything mean to them, or if any of their friends have ever been bullied.
To remove any sense that you would judge them, or that they should be embarrassed, you can tell them about a time that you were bullied, or when someone made you feel bad when you were younger. If you don’t have any stories, use an example of someone who you know.
Having conversations with your child should not be awkward or strange. If it's strange to talk to them about their life and share things from your life, that's a problem. If you already have trust, getting information from them shouldn’t be too difficult. If you don't have rapport with them, it’s going to be very difficult to get them to open up to you.