Child Bullying: How to Help Your Child Stand Up for Himself

Child Bullying: How to Help Your Child Stand Up for Himself

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Your emotions are running high: you’ve just discovered that your child is bullied. Anger or fear are rising, and you want to take action right now!

Not so fast. First, find out how you can empower your child to fight back the bully and why you should.

What is bullying?

Bullying describes repeated teasing, insults, rejection or physical violence between a bully and a vulnerable child. To be pragmatic, it’s bullying when your child wants it to stop. 

child bullying
© Meg Wallace Photography/Shutterstock

Bullying is bad, yet it continues

All children know the moral code. So why do many not stop it, or bully themselves?

Young people, when in doubt, go with popularity. There is more social risk to snitching or helping out a peer than to being punished by an authority.

Often, bullied children prefer to suffer than ‘risk’ losing further popularity – particularly if, in their circle, having many “friends” is the ultimate social success proof (“I’d rather be laughed at then excluded from my social circle”).

child bullying
© Stefanolunardi/Shutterstock

Too much parental protection can lead to greater vulnerability

As modern parents, we care about our child’s well-being and endeavor to minimize their pain. We all remember when our children first learned to walk. It was both an exciting and stressful time. They took their first steps by progressively letting go of our hands, taking the risk to fall but also the chance to learn about their own sense of balance and how walking works. We learn more through our failures than we do though our successes.

Parents are equally protective when it comes to relationships. When faced with bullying, alarm bells ring inside us, generating legitimate anger or fear. Similarly, when we see our child cross the street at a red light, we feel this Mama Bear instinct to immediately protect our child and take action ourselves.

Except that in the case of bullying, a form of “interpersonal” attack, there are several problems with this.

The overall Palo Alto problem resolution approach summarised in this article has been extremely well formalised by Emmanuelle Piquet, a French expert on the subject. Her book on the subject provides hands on advice for parents.

child bullying
© Speedkingz/Shutterstock

Why parental intervention can be counter- productive despite your best intentions

By intervening directly, conflicting messages are sent out. As a parent you’re sending two opposing messages to the vulnerable child: one of care and concern, but another one, equally strong but implicitly conveyed – particularly by your body language & actions – that the child is not up to dealing with challenging relationships herself. This also confirms the child’s belief that he is helpless and that bullying will only stop when adults or the bully decide.

It sends out the wrong messages to the bully

Similarly, the bully receives implicitly gratifying messages of power:

  • “You’ve picked the right child, he can’t defend himself”
  • “You’re so powerful that adults need to get involved”

In parallel, disciplinary measures paradoxically encourage the bully to improve her tactics and become less noticeable (e.g. from public teasing to leaving insulting notes in class).

It reinforces the bullied child’s “helpless” image

And last but not least, the bullied child is also conveying two conflicting messages to the bully:

  • An explicit “Stop” communicated through words and
  • An implicit “Continue”, caused by unconvincing tone and body language (little eye contact, cries, loss of composure, avoidance strategy) and most importantly because there is no immediate social consequence to the bully.

Despite bullying, the vulnerable child continues to expect change from the bully and group inclusion, reinforcing his/her socially “needier” and helpless image.

Within this context, the bully is empowered and continues to torment as this establishes or maintains his/her popularity.

This is why to stop bullying, the focus should be on helping the victim, who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.

Child bullying
© Krasimira Nevenova/Shutterstock

If I don’t intervene myself, what can I do?

The solution is to devise a strategy to beat the bully at her own game, reversing the messages the victim is sending and hence readjusting the power struggle.

Case study

Tom is teased for being overweight. Usually, he tries to ignore the teasing, avoids the ringleader or says “shut up”, with no success. He almost always ends up publicly upset.

Luckily, most bullies are predictable. Since Tom can observe how his bully operates when teasing him, he can prepare, with help, a defensive strategy.

Here, it could be approaching the teaser first and saying “Hi there, fatty salutes you. I may be fat but at least I can read without stuttering”. (Find a bully’s vulnerable social spot.) By standing up rather than hiding, Tom modifies the rules of the “game” and his body language and regains some assertiveness.

By owning his label of “fatty”, he outsmarts the bully, reclaims some control (bullies seek power) and makes it harder to criticize him (no fun tripping someone already lying on the floor).

By delivering the last piece, he makes it socially riskier for the bully to continue (“What else is Tom going to tell me next time I annoy him?”) There’s a good chance the bully will think twice before targeting Tom again for fear of being ridiculed himself.

Getting a dose of your own medicine can be educational.

Interestingly, many children who devise a defense strategy never actually implement it. However, just having prepared a retaliation plan modifies enough their posture and behavior for a bully to perceive a change, back off and lose interest.

If you would like to attend one of Alexia’s workshops on how to help your child stop bullying, consult her website.

Have an opinion or a question?

Have an experience you’d like to share? Or a question for Alexia? We invite you to leave a comment in the box below this article.

Alexia Van Schaardenburg
Alexia Van Schaardenburg is a professional coach, mentor and trainer, specializing in problem resolution and getting people unstuck. Located in Paris, she works with English and French speaking employees or entrepreneurs who need to resolve a work situation that’s making them miserable. She helps them address difficult emotions, complicated, conflicting or damaging relationships, regain business clarity and overcome specific barriers, to enable them to be free and reach their full potential and performance. To top it off, Alexia is a true European. Born in Brussels, to a Franco-Dutch family, she attended its European School before moving to England for 7 years. She arrived in Paris in 1999 for work and ended up having 2 kids with a Frenchman born in Africa.

6 COMMENTS

  1. This article is very interesting and practical. All of this starts in the early childhood when the toddler builds ontological security and self-esteem. If bullying is not treated at school, it is likely to become a recurrent pattern over a lifespan.
    Parents can help at each stage of life by helping the kid building her own identity regardless of external image and narcissism (Which is not so easy with social networks).
    They can also help kids overcome their fear and develop assertiveness and even aggressiveness.
    Adulthood will prove them that life is not always a calm flowing river…

  2. Interesting approach. Let’s not forget that the bully also may well have need of positive attention. Often they don’t have any adult in their lives that does not judge or dominate them. Therefore out of unconscious jealousy, they will single out kids whom they sense have a kind of parental attention that they lack. Thus, we found a different solution when my son was being bullied by an older child. One day my husband accompanied a group of village kids to the town swimming pool. This boy was part of the group. My husband took him aside and gave a private swimming lesson. There were no more recurrences of bullying. This child had seen that he, too, could be treated with care and respect by adults and he need not be jealous. It helped that as we had been active in the school from the beginning, we knew all the students and their families, so knew the bully’s circumstances.

    • Christine,
      I love your approach!
      Some children who bully have indeed not had enough positive social experiences. So they ressort to violent behaviour because that’s the best they’ve got and it has worked to some extent (even if at a cost). So showing them alternative situations can work and I’m happy it has worked in your situation.
      Unfortunately, the amount of positive attention a bully receives is not always enough or effective. Some children also bully because in their family, being popular is paramount and they struggle to achieve this by other means and are expected to do well..
      What is clear is that, from a bully’s viewpoint, they’ve learnt that bullying achieves what they want (with a cost, like punishment, potential guilt) and until they are stopped and shown that other ways are possible, they will continue. And not all bullies are willing to change, there is obviously a risk of losing power…

  3. This sounds exactly like Emmanuelle Piquet, I’m surprised you didn’t link it to her work.
    So, here’s a Tedx video from 2013, where she explains how she’s been helping bullied kids for over a decade in France with this technic (you can choose english subtitles) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iMGLy-juSxw
    Thank you for this article, and for spreading this amazing way to help so many children !

    • Hi
      Emmanuelle Piquet has indeed formalised in her 2014 book (which I reference on my website) this particular approach. The Palo Alo systemic & strategic approach is used by many other practionners (inc me) and is applied to both school bullying but also work harassement, as the mechanics are the same (even if the look & feel is different).

      As I mentioned to someone on FB, direct intervention or changing school CAN work and in which case, great. But in many cases, it escalates the situation, the child being percevied as a snitch, weaker and even less socially considered.
      It’s a complex topic and a passionate one for all parents, whether your child is bullied or is the bully.

      • Palo Alto is used by many, yes, this approach for this particular problem comes from Emmanuelle Piquet. Your sentences are exactly her work. It’s amazing that we’re more and more using it, but we can still have the elegance to mention her name. Just saying.

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