Got a Bully? Be a Hero!


One way to help your child deal with bullying is to talk about safe ways for him to be a hero.


Teasing and bullying are part of the rough and tumble competition for attention and status among siblings and peers. Sometimes we get used to it by the time we are 30, sometimes not. But for children just entering the social jungle, it can be quite a shock. Some think that physical bullying is worse than teasing.  But emotional abuse by cruel teasing can be very damaging and the young child does not know what is happening to him emotionally, where as it is easy to explain that Tommy hit me.

A parent can help a child deal with the experience of being bullied by listening and brainstorming together about what to do, understanding the power of shame and fear to shape the child's reaction. Encouraging his or her own problem solving abilities helps to build self confidence.

Children may also experience bullying by witnessing it, which has its own damaging impact.  A child witnessing another child being teased or bullied may experience fear that the attention of the bully could be turned on them, or empathic shame for the victim, or vicarious satisfaction at another's embarrassment.  Identifying with the bully has its own dangers. 

Your children are unlikely on their own to come up with one effective way of countering the effects of bullying behavior, so it is ok to introduce this idea and explore it as part of your brainstorming together. This is the idea of being a hero in the face of  bullying.

Now this does not mean attacking the bully, or throwing your body between the bully and his target. That can be physically and emotionally dangerous and provocative.  Even if you have the strength and ability to overpower a bully, the chances are that you will end up humiliating the bully. Although this may be temporarily satisfying, it results in expanding the game of bullying and makes the bully a greater enemy.

So standing up to bullying is more accurately understood as standing with the victim of bullying. There are a lot of safe ways of doing this. You can tell the victim privately that you think the bully was mean and you want to help. You can tell others, like other friends and maybe teachers or parents that you think the bully was mean and you want them to stand with you and the victim. You can tell the bully privately, if perhaps the bully is a friend of yours, that you think he was being mean. You can agree that you will not turn away or join in the bullying of others in the future, and that is a source of comfort for the victim.

None of these things is easy, because the natural instinct when you see bullying going on is to try to get away so that you don’t become a victim, or to emotionally side with the bully and join in as an audience so that the bully sees you as an ally rather than a threat or potential victim. This doesn’t work, by the way. Even the most faithful ally can become a victim when the bully feels stressed. This happens a lot in sibling relationships.

So standing up with a victim means standing up to your own feelings of wanting to be safe by getting away or siding with the apparently stronger bully. It is easier to stand with the victim if you think of it as a way of being brave or being a hero. And it’s easier if you have thought about it before and even have a plan in mind for how to do it safely if the situation arises. While reading stories to your children, you may find examples of situations where a character is being picked on and their friends either run away or join in the teasing or stand up with their friend. Harry Potter novels are full of this kind of thing. Your child’s natural empathy and imagination will allow them to put themselves in the role of these characters and give you an opportunity to discuss what it might mean to be a hero in standing up with your friend in this kind of dilemma.  Standing up with a victim who is not a friend is even more admirable and deserving of the hero title.

You may even have an opportunity to demonstrate this kind of support for victims in your own family. If one sibling or any family member calls another stupid or fat or the insult du jour, instead of yelling at the offender and using your parental power against the bully, you can simply say to the victim, “I don’t think you are stupid. I think Joey was just feeling mad.” If the bully is your spouse, or your adult sister, or your father, you can privately tell them that you think their comment was hurtful and not helpful and that you will privately reassure the victim that you don’t agree. This avoids humiliating the adult in front of the child, which can cause problems.

The idea of being a hero by being a faithful ally to victims of bullying can be something you bring up from time to time. Your child may remember it and act on it when the situation arises. If so, she and you can be proud.

Brock Hansen, LCSW author of Shame and Anger: the Criticism Connection