4 Tips to Help Your Child Respond to Bullying

It can be hard to know how to help a child or teen respond to bullying. That’s why I am super excited to have Signe Whitson, author and national presenter on the subject of bullying, as a guest blogger!

Without further delay, here is Signe’s advice:

The school year is in full swing.  Just when you expect your tween to step off the bus focused on vocabulary tests and long division, it turns out that what truly dominates his or her mind after a full day of class isn’t rigorous academics, but rather rancorous peer relationships.

In the early years of playdates and park trips, you had the bird’s eye opportunity to observe, monitor, and coach your youngster through the delicate waters of friendships.  When the school years begin, however, the majority of your student’s waking hours are spent beyond your protective reach.

What happens when harmless spats over sharing toys are replaced by cruel cyber-rumors about liking boys?  Will your child know what to do when pint-sized pushes evolve into painful tween shoves?

When the simplicity of forming a friendship just by climbing the same jungle gym is replaced by the intricacy of scaling middle-school social ladders, how can you teach your son or daughter to stand up to bullies?

Daniel Olweus, founder of the internationally-recognized Olweus Bullying Prevention Program defines bullying as having three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of unwanted aggressive behavior. Kids who bully can be relentless, acting out against others with no sense of regret, remorse, or mercy.

Bullies often victimize others in order to gain a sense of power and control, carefully choosing targets who are unlikely (or unable) to fight back.  Bully behavior occurs in overt forms, such as hitting, name calling, and teasing as well as through relational aggression, a virulent style of bullying in which relationships are manipulated to settle grudges.

This covert style of rumor spreading and social exclusion is bred by the round-the-clock availability of popular social networking sites, such as Facebook, Ask.fm, Instagram and Twitter.  Even when the final school bells ring, today’s tween is dealing with bullying 24/7.

How can you prepare your child to effectively cope with bullying in all of its forms, at any point in the day?  What follows are four simple, but powerful strategies you can teach your tween to stay strong in the face of bullying.

How to Respond to Bullying


If a bully’s strategy is to make a victim feel alone and powerless, the best counter-strategy for the victim is to stand strong by staying connected.  Encourage your tween to do these two things:

  • Cast a wide net when it comes to making friends.

In the upper elementary and middle school years, young people often tend toward best friend pairings.  The safety and security of a loyal best friend is a beautiful thing—except when it gets ugly.

Sadly, it is not uncommon for friendships to change during the tween years, often abruptly.  Too often, former “besties” find themselves unceremoniously “dumped” and suddenly very alone.

Parents play a critical role in helping their sons and daughters cast a wide net when it comes to making friends.  While there is nothing wrong with your child having close friendships, there is also tremendous value in encouraging them to form positive relationships beyond their BFF.

Sports teams, local theatre group, weekend Art classes, youth groups, and kids from the neighborhood are all good sources of additional friendships and consistent support that your child just may need to draw upon in the next several years.

  •  Tell an adult about incidents of bullying and enlist that adult’s support.

Sometimes kids feel like adults never do anything—so why even bother to tell them?  While there are cases when adults fail to acknowledge the seriousness of a situation, it is more often the case that grown-ups are not aware of what is going on.

Kids who bully typically inflict their aggression in subtle, socially acceptable ways that tend not to register on an adult’s radar.  Make sure they know that it is his or her job to create awareness.  Be clear in teaching your child that telling an adult about bullying is not a mark of cowardice, but rather a bold, powerful move.

If your child fears that the bullying will worsen if he “tattles,” help him to realize that this is exactly what the bully wants him to think!  Isolation is a bully’s method of intimidation.

In fact, it is only by telling an adult that your tween can begin to re-balance the power dynamic.  When a bully realizes that he will not be able to keep a victim isolated—that the victim is indeed strong enough to reach out and connect with others—the bully begins to lose power.


The longer a child who bullies has power over a victim, the stronger the hold becomes.  Oftentimes, bullying begins in a relatively mild form—name-calling, teasing, or minor physical aggression.

After the aggressive child has tested the waters and confirmed that a victim is not going to fight back, the behaviors intensify.  Name calling becomes public humiliation.  Teasing grows into group ostracism.  Pushing and shoving escalates to punches and assault.

Teach your child that when she lets bullying behavior go on unchecked, she lets her power slip away steadily.   Taking action against the bully—and taking it sooner rather than later—is the best way to gain and retain power.


When kids who bully believe that they can pick on a victim without a direct response, they feel emboldened.  That’s why an assertive response is so effective in countering bullying.

Assertiveness is the essential middle ground between aggressive comebacks that up the ante for the next go-round and passive responses that reveal a longing for approval.  In the example below, consider which response would be most effective in neutralizing the bully’s power:

Britney: Why did you even walk up to this lunch table?  There’s no way you can sit here.  No one likes you.

Response 1: I just wanted to sit with you guys.  I sat here yesterday.  I thought we were best friends.

Response 2: I just came to tell you that you are a loser and everyone at this table actually hates you.

Response 3: Knock it off, Brit.

The first response feeds the bully just what she wants—power!  By soliciting Britney’s favor after such an obvious put-down, the target hands herself over, saying, “Reject me again, hurt me some more.  Whatever you say is OK because I am just so desperate to be liked.”

The second response challenges Britney to escalate her aggression.  Snappy, humiliating comebacks invite bullies to keep the conflict going and turn up the heat for the next round.

The third response is assertive, letting Britney know that the victim does not intend to be victimized.  It does not seek forgiveness but does not pose a challenge either.  It is simple and unemotional.

Why should you teach your child to use responses that are “unemotional?” 

Indications that a person can be emotionally impacted signal socially aggressive kids that they will be able to wield power easily.  By encouraging your daughter to respond without anger or fear, you teach her how to portray confidence.  Kids who bully, in turn, detects less potential for wielding control.


When coaching your tween in the skills of assertive communication, it is helpful to practice using body language to reinforce words.  Teach and rehearse these simple, non-verbal strategies that will help your child communicate confidence and personal power:

  • Maintain eye contact
  • Keep your voice calm and even
  • Stand an appropriate distance from the bully
  • Use the bully’s name when speaking to him

Kids should know that emotional non-verbals, such as looking away, raising her voice, or shrinking back are all dead giveaways that the bully has gotten to her.

The school year is in full swing, but even when school is out, bully behavior is everywhere.  When parents teach their tweens the lifelong skills of assertive communication and assure them that timely requests for adult support are a sign of strength, they fortify their kids with the kind of personal power that no bully wants to bully.

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Tips to help your child handle bullying

Signe Whitson is a child and adolescent therapist, author, and national educator on bullying.  She is the author of four books, including two on the subject of helping kids stay strong in the face of bullying:

  • Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Cope with Bullying (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2011).
  • 8 Keys to End Bullying (Norton Publishers, 2014).

For workshop inquiries or additional information, please visit Signe at www.signewhitson.com or email her at signe@signewhitson.com

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