What’s the most common advice given to help a child who’s being bullied?
“Go punch the bully in the mouth.”
“Just act like it’s not bothering you.”
You might have said one or both of these two things to a bullied child. Maybe you got this advice yourself when you were a kid.
But times are different now – which we’re all well aware – and this advice has proven disastrous. First of all, attempting physical aggression turns a child into a target whether they win or lose. Additionally, school administrators and resource officers take assault very seriously, and the victim who fights back often receives harsh punishment. Secondly, ignoring the bully (on the surface a peaceful, reasonable solution) often leads victims into depression, anxiety, and worse. Both choices are the two most ineffective strategies for dealing with a bully.
Still, these are the most common suggestions I hear as a bully prevention speaker and school consultant. So if punching the bully or ignoring them isn’t the right answer, how can you help a child being bullied?
How to Help a Child Being Bullied? Tell Them What to Do.
As a bully victim, I didn’t need someone to tell me what bullying was. I knew – I was living it. What I needed, and what I desperately wished for, was for someone to tell me what to do. As I developed reACT to Bullying, my goal was to communicate easy-to-remember research-based action steps.
What I came up with was the acronym A.C.T. – which then became the reACT part of my program name. In my bullying prevention program to schools, these three letters offer a strategy to help bullied students.
A – ACT CALM AND CONFIDENT
The idea here is that good posture, chin up, short sentences with a clear voice will often portray confidence even if the victim doesn’t feel this way. Bullies have an uncanny ability to find the most timid or fearful individuals, which is often communicated through body language. Acting calm and confident may lead a bully to move on. In fact, many experts feel that children should be encouraged to develop the portrayal of “calm confidence” as a life skill.
Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, suggests having the child practice looking at the color of a friend’s eyes. This helps to place the head in an upright position, which indicates confidence. The habit of looking at eye color will help project a confident air, particularly with a bully seeking to make that child a victim. Body language is incredibly powerful when facing a bully.
Please note that acting calm and confident is very different from the standard “act like it’s not bothering you” advice bully victims sometimes receive. Ignoring a bully can sometimes escalate the situation. It’s far better to project calm, confident body language.
C – CALL ON SOMEONE WHO CAN HELP
“I tried to ACT CALM AND CONFIDENT, and the bullying is still going on. She still meets me at the same place and does those same mean things to me.” This is something I hate to hear but is a reality for some. My first response is always that I am so proud of someone who is working on projecting calm confidence. Sometimes, however, body language just isn’t enough. We must then encourage anyone who still receives harmful, repeated actions to CALL on someone in their lives who can help make a difference in their situation. Every time I speak to a group of students, regardless of age, I ask them to acknowledge, verbally, three people in their lives who will help them. I closely follow this by asking any adult in the room to stand and show students whom they can call on. For some students, the sight of so many adults willing to help is an eye-opener. This public show of support is always one of my favorite moments at each school.
T – TELL YOURSELF YOU AREN’T THE PROBLEM
The final idea in reACT is less an action step and more what anyone who is subjected to bullying needs to hear. The “T” stands for TELL — experts share that what is extremely valuable for us to TELL bully victims is that they haven’t caused what has happened to them. The bullied often think that if they could change something about themselves, they wouldn’t have been bullied in the first place. They believe that their physical appearance, socioeconomic status, individual choices or other personal attributes are the cause. In short, they internalize. This internalizing can take the form of depression, anxiety, fear, and/or withdrawal from friends and social situations. From an adult’s perspective, it can be heartbreaking to see bright, often gifted, young people struggle in these ways. For many, it’s a lifelong struggle. This is why it is extremely important to TELL bullied students that the bullying is not their fault. Encourage them to TELL themselves this repeatedly, as well. It can help to change the way they view the situation.
Empower a Child to Shrug Off Bullies
Courage is frequently hard-won, and make no mistake, courage is often what a bullied child must develop in order to stop the bullying. The adults in a child’s life can be a source of support and encouragement, but we must be deliberate in giving them what they need. Teaching them to ACT, CALL, and TELL will give them tools to use the rest of their lives.
In the end, my hope is to help you empower a bullied child with a clear, concise strategy leading them to courage and hope.