There are so many different opinions and voices telling us how to respond to bullying that it is difficult to know what approaches the experts (researchers) recommend. Voices tell us to fight back, walk away, brush it off, tell an adult, and don’t tattle, among other things. What is the right way for children or teens to respond when they are being bullied physically, verbally, or sexually? What options are there to help out the person being bullied? While there isn’t one right answer and no one way to guarantee bullying will stop, there are several options that experts have told us are helpful and effective.
Speak Up and Tell Someone About the Bullying
One of the most important things someone who is being bullied can do is speak up and tell an adult. Parents can be a great comfort and support through the challenging time. They can help talk through possible ways to respond to the person who is acting like a bully. Problem solving can be much easier when working together with someone else, especially someone who has the best interests of the child at heart. Parents can also advocate for their child and speak to the school systems or other community members to get help.
Of course, individuals who are bullied can also talk to friends, coaches, or other people that they have a good relationship with. Friends help each other feel supported and not so alone anymore. A good friend is someone who will make you feel loved and valued no matter how difficult and trying the bullying is.
Oftentimes bullying happens at school. If this is the case, it is helpful to inform teachers, the principal, other administrators or recess monitors. Many schools have anti-bullying policies in place so educators know how to help with the situation. Unfortunately, sometimes one conversation with one school employee doesn’t solve it. Keep trying and keep reporting until the situation is adequately addressed.
Speaking up is also true if it is cyberbullying- meaning it occurs through social media or through texts or emails, etc. Continue to report cyberbullying to both adults as well as social media platforms, if applicable. Bullying violates the policies of many social media sites and many of them have procedures in place about how to respond to it.
If it is unlawful behavior, such as when threats of violence are involved or sexual abuse, report the bullying behavior to the police.
The Bottom Line: Get Help for Bullying
The bottom line of all of this is to get necessary help whether it’s emotionally, mentally, or physically. No one should try to get through bullying by themselves. Seek whatever assistance is needed to stay safe in all aspects of life, including when any suicidal thoughts are present. There are both national and several local suicide crisis hotlines such as 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Telling is Not Tattling
Oftentimes kids or teens can be afraid to speak up because they’re afraid of that it will be seen as tattling or because they’re afraid of the repercussions. First, it is not tattling if true bullying is happening. Tattling occurs when someone is trying to get another in trouble based on an annoyance. Telling someone is important if people are getting hurt.
As far as fear of repercussions go, I understand that it can be hard. It most likely won’t be a simple, quick fix to stop bullying. Indeed, it’s also important to think through the best ways to react based on how the person or people bullying might respond (keep reading for more on that). Stay away from actions that may further provoke the person bullying. However, it’s always important to get help when bullying is ongoing and harmful physically or emotionally. Bullying, by definition, is harmful.
Remember that most adults have children and teen’s best interest at heart and want to help. If one avenue of help does not help that doesn’t mean none will. Keep trying to find advocates and reach out to others until help is finally obtained.
The Bystander Effect
It is so important for everyone, including witnesses (meaning other children or teens or even adults present), to to speak up about bullying. If others stand by and watch the bullying they can unwittingly reinforce the bullying behavior. This is called the bystander effect.
Instead, bystanders intervene if the situation is safe and it won’t cause more harm. Tell an adult or someone in authority. Together we can make a stronger stand to stop bullying when we work together to report it and stop it. The Anti-Defamation League has a great article that breaks down what to do when witnessing bullying.
In the larger picture, treat peers with respect and kindness. We can help and lift others. We should all take an anti-bullying pledge to be kind and respectful to all.
Confidently and Assertively Ask The Bully To Stop
Of course, it’s oftentimes worth a shot for the person being bullied to tell the person bullying to stop. So much more goes into it than just the words “stop it.” The person asking should appear confident and self-assured. His or her head should be held high and his/her voice clear and powerful. Avoid sounding whiney, angry, passive, or unsure. Acting confident and calm can go a long way in sending the right message.
Roleplaying it beforehand can help people understand how to act confident and calm. Practice it with a parent, best friend, or even in front of the mirror. Roleplaying allows people time to brainstorm what the best word choice would be. There are also several articles online that have written potential comeback lines to say when asking the person bullying to stop. When roleplaying, imagine potential responses by the person(s) who are bullying and what to do next.
Remember that each bullying situation is unique. Engaging the person(s) bullying may be too difficult or unsafe, so it’s important to assess the situation first to determine if this is a good strategy to try.
Use Humor to Stop the Bully
Another option is to respond with humor to the person bullying. This can change the whole mood of the interaction between people. The person bullying may be caught off guard. Perhaps humor can even turn into a positive interaction. At the very least, using humor might help hurtful words roll of and not stick to the person being bullied. Whatever the reason, using humor works in some cases.
Of course, a sense of humor and quick thinking to utilize one’s wit is a helpful talent to have. However, just like assertively asking someone to stop, role playing humorous responses can also be helpful.
Block, Avoid, and Walk Away, and Don’t Respond to the Bully
Children and teens can simply walk away from the person who is bullying them. Instead of engaging in a fight whether it be verbally or physically, they can leave the situation and place.
Individuals being bullied can also try to avoid common places that they see the bully, if possible. I’m not advocating that people don’t leave the house or go to recess. Rather, take another route to get to class if it avoids the person bullying and does not add too much time or inconvenience.
When text, email, or other media messages that bully and intimidate are received, don’t respond to them. People can oftentimes block other individuals when cyberbullying is occurring.
Use Smart Strategies to Decrease Bullying Physically and Online
Being smart about who they are near is another tactic to prevent and decrease bullying. Staying near other groups of adults or children increases safety and decreases the chances of being bullied. For example, people are less likely to be bullied if they are playing around other children or the recess monitor instead of an isolated part of the playground. A teen is less likely to be shoved in a locker when several other groups of teens are around.
Sometimes “friends” don’t act as true friends and may be the ones who are bullying each other. In this case, it is wise to set boundaries with friends about what is acceptable and what is not. People should expect to be treated with respect and goodness. If this doesn’t work, kids and teens can seek out friends who treat them as they should be treated.
Several families have rules about staying safe online, such as only befriending people they are acquainted with and participating in only positive, respectful interactions, and blocking inappropriate interactions.
Don’t Fight Back Physically or with Hurtful Words
So often we hear that kids who are bullied should just to punch the other kid back in hopes that they’ll show them who’s boss and that that it won’t be tolerated anymore. While I suppose in certain cases this worked, usually it doesn’t. Often times the person being bullied is smaller, less strong, or less popular than the bully. People who are bullied run a great risk of antagonizing and angering the bully instead of pacifying him or her. And of course, we as a society don’t want to endorse violence as a solution to problems. So no, don’t fight back physically or with hurtful words. Find other options.
Find Your Inner Strength
I wish there was a magic wand that would make bullying disappear, but unfortunately there isn’t. So, it’s important for individuals being bullied to find ways to boost their inner strength.
Interact with Friendly, Respectful Peers and Join Fun Organizations
Kids and teens can participate in activities that they enjoy, such as sports or music or volunteering, to boost their confidence and self-image. In a very simplistic sense, joining in fun activities helps boost the amount of positives in one’s life. Relationships with others who are friendly and supportive is always a benefit during challenging times.
Remember Their Own Worth
People who are bullied can find ways to boost their self-esteem if it is suffering. Perhaps a song with powerful lyrics or a personal mantra helps them let hurtful words and action roll off their backs. There are many Cognitive Therapy exercises to help individuals strengthen self-confidence.
Use Calming, Relaxing or other Skills to Feel More Peaceful
Relaxation skills can also be beneficial. These can be as simple as deep breathing to as deep as learning how to stay present in the moment. By practicing both mindfulness and acceptance, individuals can learn how to not get caught up in remembering hurtful words or interactions and instead let them go. This concept is described in greater detail in our post about depression.
Other people like using their own style to cope with it. Occasionally people love remembering funny jokes ore videos that they watched and that helps them get through the bullying. Some kids like imaging a protective shield around them. Other teens might enjoy journaling, talking with a friend, or doing artwork. Participating in sports or exercise is another great coping strategy. As long as it’s safe, what it is doesn’t matter nearly as much as whether or not it helps
What Bullying Isn’t
Bullying is more than just a disagreement, belittlement, or fight between peers. When children call each other names and shove each other it is definitely not appropriate, but this does not automatically mean it’s bullying. When teens gossip and spread a rumor about someone it isn’t kind to do that, but it does not automatically classify as bullying.
Bullying is repetitive and many definitions include a power differential between the bully and the bullied. We see this all the time in the movies. For example, bullying can be the popular girls spreading rumors about and isolating another, less popular girl so that she feels lonely and hurt. Or, it’s the big, athletic, gangster group of boys beating up on the nerd. When a child calls another names, it needs to be repetitive and not a reciprocal interaction between same-level peers in order to be classified as bullying.
Why is this an important distinction? I have seen many children state that they are being bullied while they themselves are as much responsible for the name calling and unfriendly social tactics. So, bullying should not be a bandwagon to jump on in order to place blame on someone else instead of taking responsibility for one’s actions.
Knowing what is and what isn’t bullying or when someone is getting hurt can also help adolescents know when it is tattling and when it’s important to let an adult know about the situation.
Of course, there are numerous other website that provide additional information about ways to respond to bullying. I won’t go into great detail about finding them, and I’m sure readers can find their own. I’ll list just a couple. Some of these sites include the government sponsored www.antibullying.gov and the Anti-Defamation League. School counselors and mental health agencies in the community can also be a great resource.
*Much of this information has been summarized from www.stopbullying.gov. It’s great information but spread across several pages and cross links, so I have attempted to provide a concise article here.
Disclaimer: This post is not intended to provide therapeutic services or assessment. If bullying is causing significant distress, including thoughts of harm to self or others, please seek the help of a licensed professional.