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How to Stop Bullies

Our son is being picked on by bullies at school.  We’ve tried all the tools we learned in a parenting class, but none of them has worked.  What do we do now? 


Dear Desperate,
Our daughter is now 17, but when she was only five, she was bullied by a child on the kindergarten bus.  It may sound strange after twelve years, but I’ll never forget the morning we first heard about it because it triggered such strong emotions in me that I was actually frightened by them. 

It began when Molly announced she wasn’t riding the school bus anymore.  When my husband asked her why she said, “Because Mira always hits me.”  Mira always hits you?  Each of those words stung our ears.  Mira?  Mira wasn’t a stranger.  She was Molly’s best friend.  Why would she be hitting Molly?  And the fact that Molly had used the word “always” meant that she’d been hit more than once.  What was going on, and where the hell was the bus driver? 

Molly explained.  She told us that whenever she didn’t do exactly what Mira wanted, Mira slapped her.  When she “used her words”—as we had taught her to do—she was slapped again.  When she threatened to tell the bus driver—another one of our suggestions—Mira went off on her.  First there was more hitting, then pushing, pinching, name calling, and finally she threatened to break Molly’s arm. The harder Molly tried using the tools we had taught her—using her words, avoiding contact, sitting next to someone else, telling an adult—the more abusive Mira got.  And as for the bus driver?  He hadn’t seen a thing.

We acted quickly.  First we called Mira’s mother—our neighbor—to explain what was happening.  We were confident that she’d be just as shocked as we were.  Apparently, she wasn’t.  When I insisted she do something to stop the abuse, she patiently explained that Mira had recently been diagnosed with A.D.H.D. and would “be like this for the next few years.”  She felt there was really nothing she could do.  When I asked her if she would at least drive Mira to school so Molly could ride the bus without fear, she refused, saying that her arthritis was bad in the morning.  She simply wasn’t up for the drive.  After getting nowhere with the bus driver, we spoke to the bus driver’s supervisor, and to the school.  No one did a thing.

At this point, we too were desperate.  Our once lofty goal of “empowering Molly” was abandoned in favor of a more practical goal:  protecting her from that nasty little girl.  Ultimately, we decided to drive her to school ourselves, so we could be sure she was safe.  And we called a moratorium on any contact outside of school with Mira—something both girls thought was unfair. 

The hardest part for us was acknowledging that we had failed to protect our own child from harm—and not once, but repeatedly.  It was understandable (although still painful to accept) that we hadn’t been able to predict or prevent that first slap.  But what was hardest to accept was the knowledge that our naive faith in the power of non-violent communication had placed Molly in harm’s way again and again. 

Like you, we had believed that the strategies we’d learned about how to handle bullies would work for Molly.  They didn’t.  In fact, in the twenty years I’ve worked with kids and their parents, I’d have to say that more often than not, they don’t.  Unless the whole school is on-board with a no-bullying curriculum and a clear policy for handling incidents, parents and teachers are on their own to figure out how to deal with bullies.

So what do you do about your son?  How do you protect him from bullies who mean to do him harm?  What should he do if he has tried the techniques you’ve taught him and they don’t work? 

Here’s a “success story” I recently heard from a couple I work with whose seven-year-old son was being pushed around by an older girl on the playground:

Mom:  Tell Betsy what you told Mikey (which I think is very wrong).

Dad:  First of all, the kid had already tried all the “nicey-nicey” techniques.  What his mom doesn’t understand is that they don’t work with bullies.  So I told him that if the girl called him names again, he should call her names back.  And if that didn’t work, he should deck her.

Mom:  That’s terrible!  Betsy, don’t you think that’s terrible?

Me:  Ah . . . I’m not really sure.  What ended up happening?

Dad:  The next time she called him names, he called her “Little Fatty  Four-Eyes” and she’s never bugged him again.  I call that a success story.

So what am I saying?  I’m not recommending you teach your son to beat up on bullies, but I’m all for self-defense—especially

after experiencing firsthand what can happen when we don’t teach our children what to do when peaceful strategies fail. 

Here’s what one bullying site recommends: “If someone is hurting you or bothering you:

  • Say nice things to yourself.

  • Assert yourself.

  • Look the bully in the eye and say, “STOP DOING THAT.”

  • Walk away.

  • Look the other way and ignore the bully.

  • Join with other friends.

Let me ask you something.  What would you do if some scary guys started taunting you in a public place?  You might be able to walk or run in the other direction—the direction of other people.  But if you’re alone, or escaping doesn’t seem possible, self-defense experts say you should run like hell, scream like hell, act crazy as hell, or bite, kick and punch.  You don’t “Say nice things to yourself,” or waste time saying “STOP DOING THAT.”  Why should we teach our children techniques we know don’t work? 

Betsy Sansby is a licensed marriage & family therapist whose private practice is in her home near Minneapolis. Betsy is the coauthor—with her husband--of seven books, and has just produced an ingenious communication tool for couples called: The OuchKit: A First-Aid Kit for Your Relationship. Clients who have used the kit describe it as: “Couples Therapy in a Box.” For more information go to: Send Betsy an email, with your question.

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