Bully-Proofing Kids

by | Jan 23, 2011 | The Big Book of Parenting Solutions

Parenting advice to help your child be less likely to be bullied — what you and your child need to know

REALITY CHECK: By some estimates, one in seven American schoolchildren is either a bully or a victim. Studies find that 160,000 children skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated. And make no mistake: bullying impedes our children’s learning, boosts their stress, and is disastrous to their mental health.

While you can’t always be there to step in and protect your child, there are ways to help your son or daughter be less likely to be victimized. There’s no better time than now to get educated about bullying and help your child learn a few bully-proofing strategies. I’m providing bullying solutions that I’ve shared with hundreds of parents and teachers.

Here are a few important pointers:

1. There is no one bully-proofing solution that works for all kids and each bullying situation is different.

2. Your goal is to help your child learn a few beginning strategies, and then add more (or switch them up a notch) as needed.

3. Remember, that children learn new habits best when you show-not tell-the skill. So point out what other children are doing on the playground, “Do you see how she holds her head high when she’s talking? Her body looks more confident.” You might also help watch movies such as “Mean Girls” or “Dumbo” to help get that discussion going.

4. The goal in bully-prevention is not just to help kids be aware or even change their perceptions about bullying but to teach them new habits. Kids need to know what to do in situations. And they also need to practice those new skills or habits enough times so they feel comfortable and use the strategies without you.

5. New research shows that we can now at least predict which kids will be more likely to be targeted. The number one trait: Victims who appear more vulnerable.

3 Steps That Reduce Kids’ Odds of Being Bullied

Here are three steps to help your child be less likely to be bullied.

Step 1. Get Educated About Bullying Signs

While you can’t guarantee that your child will be bullied, you can provide those needed tools so he appears more confident and less likely to be targeted.

Your first step is to get educated and understand the cruel new bullying scene.

Bullying may be: verbal, physical, electronic (via text, cell, email, photo), sexual, or relational. Bullying is also always an intentional cruel act, usually repeated, and a “power imbalance” (one child cannot hold her own against the other child — the bully).

Bullying is never just teasing.

Chances are if your child is bullied he won’t tell you, so watch for changes in your child’s typical behavior.

Here are warnings that a child may be bullied and needs your support.

Of course, there may be other reasons for these behaviors, so dig further and find the cause.

  • Unexplained physical marks, cuts, bruises and scrapes, or torn clothing
  • Unexplained loss of toys, school supplies, clothing, lunches, or money
  • Afraid to be left alone: doesn’t want to go to school; afraid of riding the school bus; wants you there at dismissal, suddenly clingy.
  • Suddenly sullen, withdrawn, evasive; remarks about feeling lonely
  • Marked changed in typical behavior or personality
  • Physical complaints; headaches, stomachaches, frequent visits the school nurse’s office
  • Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, cries self to sleep, bed wetting
  • Begins bullying siblings or younger kids
  • Waits to get home to use the bathroom
  • Ravenous when he comes home (lunch money or lunch may be stolen)
  • Sudden and significant drop in grades; difficulty focusing and concentrating

Step 2. Teach Tips To Lower Your Child’s Chances of Being Bullied

Stop “early” rescuing

If you want your child to stick up for herself, then don’t be so quick to step in and solve her problems or speak for her. Kids need practice being assertive so when the moment comes when they do need to stand up to a bully, they can.

Start by stepping back. Don’t speak for your child. But be on the sidelines to help him or her know what to say or do better the “next time.”

Teach: “Avoid areas where bullies prey”

Teach the places bullies are most likely to frequent (known as “Hot Spots”) and then tell your child to avoid those areas.

Bullying usually happens in unsupervised adult areas such as hallways, stairwells, playgrounds (under trees and equipment, in far corners), lockers, parks and bathrooms in places such as malls, schools, parks and even libraries.

That also should be a clue to all adults: we need to make ourselves visible in those spots! Adult visibility is one of the simplest ways to reduce bullying.

Find a supportive companion

Tell your child there is sometimes safety in numbers. Help your child identify one kid he can pair up with. If he doesn’t have one, it’s time to boost his friendship circle. He also needs to know a supportive adult he can go to at school and share his concerns.

Kids who have even one friend to confide in can deal with bullying better than those on their own.

Tell your child you’ll take him seriously

Reassure your child that you’ll believe him and encourage him to come to you. Let him know that you know that bullying is a problem, that it’s happening to a lot of kids so if it happens to him you will find a way to keep him safe.

Research finds that 49 percent of kids say they’ve been bullied at least once or twice during the school term but only 32 percent of their parents believed them.

Step 3. Teach Bully-Proofing Strategies

The final step is to teach your child new habits so he learns to assert himself safely and be less likely to be targeted in the future.

Keep in mind that there is no “perfect” strategy. The trick is to find what works best for your child – or a variation of that strategy – and then practice it over and over until your child feels comfortable using it without you. Choose just one strategy at a time and keep rehearsing it over an over and over.

Here are bully-proofing strategies every child should know.

Use strong body posture

Kids less likely to be picked on use assertive posture. Teach your child to stand tall and hold his head up to appear more confident and less vulnerable. A simple trick is to teach your child to “Always look at the color of the talker’s eyes.” (Or the bridge of the child’s nose–less threatening). The technique helps your child to hold his head higher so he appears more confident. The goal is to look and be assertive…(not passive or aggressive). The skill takes much practice, so stick with it!

Stay calm

Bullies love power and knowing they can push other kids’ buttons, so tell your child “Try to not let a bully know he upset you.” Stress to your child to never cry, insult, or threaten a bully. Doing so will only escalate things.

It might help to ask your child: “Why do you think certain kids are more likely to be picked on then others?” “What do kids do that makes a bully think he or she has ‘won?”

If your child can understand that the bully is looking for a reaction, he is more likely to strike again. Stress that be calm is tough. So practice how to look or what to do if someone does insult you. Sometimes a “Shoulder shrug” and a walk off is the best approach.

A hint: the CDC finds that most bullying begins verbally (with the tease…or the insult…). So how the child responds the first time makes a big difference as to whether the child will be targeted again. There is a “cruelty escalation” in bullying…(starting with the tease…to the insult…to the malicious..to the cold-blooded insidious cruelty). Helping your child learn to handle a “lower level” insult can help stop the higher level insults.

Say ‘No’ using a firm voice

Teach your child that if he needs to respond, simple direct commands work best delivered in a strong determined voice (which must be practiced): “No.” Other responses:

“Cut it out.”

“No way.”


“Back off.”

Then teach your child to walk away with shoulders held back.

Pleading (“Please stop that”) or delivering feeling-laden messages (“It really makes feel mad when you do that”) rarely work. In fact, can increase bullying. Remember, bullies want a reaction and usually lack empathy. If a victim delivers a “That makes me sad. I want you to stop picking on me”…only makes the bully feel he or she won.

Use a stone-faced glare

Practice using a mean stare that goes straight through the bully so you seem in control and not bothered. But practice, practice, practice so the look can be delivered the right way!

Leave the scene

Stress that your child should leave the scene as soon as possible. Ideally he should walk towards other kids or an adult. Tell your child: “Don’t look back.” “Get help if you need to.” “Fight only as a very last resort if you must defend yourself.” (And then tell your child you will support them!)

Boost self-confidence

Research finds that arming your child with confidence is one of the best defenses against bullying. Kids who lack confidence are more likely to be victimized.

A few self-confidence boosters include learning martial arts, boxing, or weight-lifting, finding an avenue—such as a hobby, interest, sport, or talent–that she enjoys and can excel, giving her opportunities to solve her problems and speak up for herself.

The trick is to find the confidence booster that works for your child.

Tell an adult

Stress to your child: “If you ever do not feel safe, walk to an adult.”And then make sure you and your child identify specific caring adults to turn to.

Review school handbook and policy on bullying

This is also a great time to review your school’s handbook and website.

Do they have a bully prevention program in place?

What are the steps they suggest a parent take if their child is a target?

Review those rules and procedures with your child now can help reduce a problem later.

If your school does not have a program, why not?  It may be time to start chatting with the principal and other parents about the need for one.

A strong, bully-prevention program is not a slogan (“It’s not cool to be cruel”), a one-time assembly, a poster on a wall, or a worksheet approach (“We will not bully!”) It must: take place in a caring school culture, involve all stakeholders (parents, staff, students), be organic to the school’s evidence and culture, address bullies, the bullied, and  bystanders, teach new skills, mobilize student compassion, and be systemic.

Bullying is preventable. It’s up to adults to get educated and create caring cultures where all children feel safe to learn.

Dr. Michele Borba, Parenting Expert

I am an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books.

You can also refer to my daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check for ongoing parenting solutions and late-breaking news about child development.

Follow me on twitter @MicheleBorba

You can also find dozens more research-based and practical tips in my latest book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more tips about bullying in the chapters on Bullying, Bullied, Dependent, Angry, Insensitive, Friends

Related posts in this special Bullying Series include: